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The Agrarian Thespian

Shahrezad Samiuddin profiles farmer and actor Samiya Mumtaz.
Updated 10 May, 2024 05:40pm

Samiya Mumtaz’s characters are often quiet, although her on-screen presence is anything but subdued. Known for her exceptional acting abilities, she captivates audiences with nuanced performances, whether portraying powerful characters like Saba Kareem in Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan or subtly drawing attention as Udaari’s Sajo.

Beyond the realm of acting, Samiya Mumtaz’s true passion lies in sustainable farming.

Raised in an environment where creativity and social consciousness were valued, Mumtaz was drawn to the arts from a young age.

’’I did a lot of acting because my school encouraged it,“ she recalls. ’’And at home, my phuppo would write plays and we were the guinea pigs who would act them out.“

’‘I found theatre extremely inspiring. I pestered the late Madiha Gauhar (of Ajoka Theatre) to let me act. She resisted, saying acting wasn’t my thing. But then, when a voice trainer came from abroad and not enough women enrolled in his training sessions, Madiha asked me to step in and that was my foot in the door. And as they say, there was no looking back after that.“

These early forays into acting ignited a spark and kicked off her acting career with the Ajoka Theatre, the voice of revolt against the establishment in Lahore. She also held a day job working with a research organisation. However, while acting provided an avenue for creative expression and her research work gave her profound satisfaction, a deeper yearning for a connection to nature and a desire to make an impact on society led her down the path of sustainable farming.

“I grew up with a romanticised vision of living on a farm,” she smiles. “At 14, I daydreamed about going to fetch water and chirping with the birds. It was a pipe dream, but I held onto it, even as I pursued other endeavours.”

While working at the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, she found herself surrounded by voices urging her to turn her dreams into reality. “Why do you think this is just a dream? Why don’t you make it happen?” her friends queried. She sought guidance from a friend with a business background who helped her write out a feasibility study for an organic farm. Next, she immersed herself in learning traditional farming methods from farmers in her community.

“I did not have an agricultural background and learnt along the way about techniques such as intercropping, composting, and green manuring.” As she navigated the complexities of farming on less-than-ideal land, her passion for nurturing the earth grew stronger. “The land I had was very saline and it was a challenge,” she admits.

But she did turn the land around and then started an organic food business called Daali Earth.

For Mumtaz, the decision to pursue acting alongside farming was a deliberate choice born out of financial necessity and a desire to balance her responsibilities. “My day job was satisfying, but I was not able to save much from what I earned,” she acknowledges. As a single mother with two children, she needed another source of income.

“My decision to act on TV was a purely financial decision.” However, despite the commercial nature of her acting career, she was determined not to compromise her integrity. “To do it commercially felt like I was selling my soul to earn,” she reflects, “but I put myself out there.”

In the end, she found solace in the balance, viewing each endeavour as a complementary expression of her creativity and commitment to making an impact.

Reflecting on her experience in the local film industry, she remarks that “films barely have any existence in this country,” but acknowledges the challenges. “Pakistani films are made from the money people have in their pockets.” In a market dominated by international giants, Pakistani cinema struggles to compete, hindered by unaffordable ticket prices and limited accessibility.

Mumtaz’s heart remains tethered to the stage, where the presence of a live audience breathes life into her performances. “My preferred medium is the stage with a live audience, any day,” she asserts while talking about a recent stage performance called The Story of Malika Pukhraj on the life of the legendary singer.

“On TV, the same formula is being regurgitated again and again, yet audiences are very receptive to new ideas, but channels have become very risk-averse.”

Speaking about her venture into sustainable farming, she dwells on her dedication to organic practices and refusal to compromise on quality. From tilling the soil by hand to nurturing heirloom seeds, she is committed to organic practices, eschewing chemical inputs in favour of holistic, sustainable methods. However, despite her best efforts, the business faced several hurdles, including a limited market and financial constraints. As the challenges mounted and profitability remained elusive, she made the difficult decision to sell Daali Earth, recognising that scaling up would necessitate compromises she was unwilling to make.

Although she may have exited the business world, Mumtaz’s passion for sustainable living remains. Today, she finds joy in tending to her farm, cultivating organic crops, and embracing the agrarian life. “There is great pleasure in picking your own vegetables and cooking them in your own oil.”

Her days remain filled with purpose and productivity. Her mornings begin around six, and it is during these tranquil hours that she tends to the farm and engages in tasks like churning butter, fermenting vegetables, and making jams. “And if there is a TV shoot, I usually go there after my farm work is done.”

Samiya Mumtaz’s journey is an inspiration for those who dare to pursue their passions against the odds. Through her dedication to both acting and sustainable farming, she exemplifies the power of resilience, creativity, and a commitment to living authentically.

Shahrezad Samiuddin works in communications and is an agony aunt.

Photos by Arif Ali at Whitestar.