Uncategorized 14.11.2019

Oh Sanam

BY Asif

Rewind to 2003. I am twenty something, sitting on the edge of the sofa in my living room, the remote control gripped tightly in my hand, my eyes glued to the TV screen. I am watching Sanam Saeed and Anisa Shaikh bent over in a laughing fit on their Indus Music TV show, Café Current. In a league above every other presenter at the time, they held sway over an entire generation of youngsters just coming of age, who loyally tuned in week after week. They were everything we wanted to be. Young, beautiful, confident, tough and witty – and they were brave enough to live life on their own terms.

Forward to 2013. It’s a strange business, growing up. Your teen idols grow up too. When I finally meet Sanam a decade later, she casually saunters into the room for the interview and reaffirms exactly why I (and every adolescent in town) was so damn addicted.

Dressed in her signature t-shirt, jeans, and flats, Sanam enters the Deevees studio without an ounce of makeup on her face. Tall, dark and radiant, with thick, beautiful hair, she is self-assured and oozes confidence. When Munazza complements her on her hair she jokes, “ If I don’t get a shampoo ad soon I am chopping it all off.”

As the shoot starts, Sanam poses in front of the camera effortlessly and is mesmerising in her splendor. She is a natural. Midway, she stops, starts giggling and confesses, “I haven’t done this in so long. I actually hate being in front of the camera.” I look at her baffled (honey, you sure had me fooled) as she continues, “You see I’m really not a fashionista. Fashion doesn’t really get me going.” Judging by her poise in front of the camera, I would never have been able to tell. “The whole fashion thing was fun while it lasted but the reason I quit modelling was because for the first time in my life, I became very conscious about my looks. I wanted to be skinny, I was contemplating getting my hairline lasered because everyone criticised my small forehead, and so on. I realised it wasn’t for me,” she says. In that moment I see Sanam as the true professional that she is, pushing her own feelings aside and giving her all to everything she does.

“With these na shakal na surat wali larki roles, I fit right in because I’m dark.”

She laughs as she recalls how her VJ’ing stint began. “I was only accompanying Anisa to the audition. She was shy, so I stood with her and they did a pilot shot of us. Before we knew it, they had aired the audition on TV and we had a job. We were 17 and being paid 30,000 rupees a month, which was amazing. We felt like jetsetters!” There’s no denying the fact that Sanam and Anisa started a revolution in Pakistan when it came to TV and young VJ’s. “We were really cheeky – people either loved us or hated us,” she tells me.

Sanam and Anisa decided to move to Lahore from Karachi to study at Beaconhouse National University where “the pioneers of television and theatre were teaching.” They lived together in the upstairs portion of a rented house and always felt well taken care of. “If we were sick, the family downstairs would send us yakhni. We lived walking distance from BNU. It was a really fun time. I learnt how to speak Urdu in Lahore. Everyone here speaks Urdu! So, I would correct their v’s and w’s and they would correct my muzakar maunnus,” she recalls. Was it safe? “Any place is unsafe,” she replies. “Even London and New York. Now if you want to get into the whole reputation bit, kal meri shaadi nahin ho gi kyun keh kissi koh pata chal jaye ga keh mein akeli rehti hoon, well, that’s a different story and obviously I don’t need to marry into that family.”

The Café Current promo showed Sanam and Anisa taking a rickshaw to work. “I still take a rickshaw if I don’t have a car. I’m not going to wait around. When friends of mine watch my show [Zindagi Gulzar Hai] they say, ‘Uff bechari, that’s tough, rikshay mein ja rahi hai school.’ I tell them I still do it! That’s real life. I ask the chowkidaar to get me a rikshaw, wrap a chadaar, and get in. What’s the big deal? Women across South Asia do so. I don’t think it’s unsafe. They’re much safer, in fact. You can jump out or call for help. It’s definitely safer than a taxi or a random driver dropping you. My sisters always ask me if I’m embarrassed, that I’m on TV and people will think I’m such a fakir, but it’s no skin off my back.” You can’t help but admire her.

When I probe Anisa about Sanam, she e-mails me the following:

1) She will take a bullet to the head before she lets you give her a shot in the arm. 2) She studied Psychology in high school. 3) She has a cat called Billi and when Billi is on heat you can often hear Sanam saying, ‘Uff. Billi.’ 4) Her Mumma and Baba have a lot to do with the comedian in her. 5) On almost all the birthdays we spent together, she would buy me a small and very carefully thought out present. 6) She believes in true love. 7) When we lived in Lahore, every morning before we left for college we would rummage like mad through our closet full of thrifty clothes and give up. We would put on jeans, a cotton kurti with rubber chapals, the odd zit or two glaring back at us in the mirror, look at each other and say, ‘I don’t know how these girls do it!’  8) Mathematics terrifies her. 9) She is the best friend a girl could hope for. Five minutes later she writes: “ P.S Love the cover. Miss my Sanam.”

Sanam wears sequinned jacket by PINKO, white shirt by EQUIPMENT leather pants by BURBERRY BRIT earrings by BUTLER & WILSON Ring by Lei van kash.

I was understandably devastated when the duo called it quits after two amazing years. Why? Why? Why? In her brutally honest fashion, Sanam explains, “We should have been making 60,000 rupees. Our salary was being split into two. We saw the ads playing in the breaks between our show and realised we were been taken for a ride. So we quit while we were at the peak. I guess I have a habit of doing that.”

Sanam is totally unfiltered, relentlessly productive, and living a mile-a-minute life. She has a successful modelling and acting career under her belt and sang back-up vocals for Coke Studio, but her true passion is theatre. “Rahat Kazmi was my Literature teacher in school, so we did a lot of plays with him. At the time, I was a member of Black Fish, one of the first improvisational comedy troupes in Pakistan. It was standup comedy, a bit like Who’s Line is it Anyway? There were seven of us and I was the youngest. It really taught me to let go of my inhibitions. I learnt how to look, listen and react. One becomes a better conversationalist, a quick thinker, wittier, smarter, more alert, and that really helped me deal and manage pretty much everything in life. The British Council once sponsored us to attend a festival in Manchester and that was pretty cool,” she tells me.

She landed a role as Roxy Hart in Made for Stage Production’s Chicago in 2009. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says with a smile that lights up the room. “Roxy was amazing. She was this blonde, leggy, cheeky dancer, singer and murderess. She was fun to play. The whole point of acting is to not be who you are, to hide behind the character and the stage does that – the lights, the costume, the makeup. On stage with a live audience, I feel so happy. I don’t think anything makes me happier than being on stage. I’m confident and secure with what I’m doing.” She enthralled the audience and the musical was the most talked about thing in town for months. She went on to play Rosie in Mamma Mia, alongside Kiran Chaudhry and Zoe Viccaji.

Theatre may be her passion, but in Pakistan, television is where all the action is and the addictions are forged. It’s where careers and fortunes are made and lost. Sanam’s first play Saath was a sitcom much like F.R.I.E.N.D.S – Written by Mashal Peerzada and produced by Adil Sher and Nasir Khan (of Talking Filmain). Next she acted in Daam, her first serious TV play by superstar filmmaker, director and producer, Mehreen Jabbar. “It was a great experience, but I get so shy in front of the camera. I love what I’m doing but oh my God, still or moving, a camera is a camera.” She winces. “I had been doing theatre so my gestures were very exaggerated. Mehreen was like, ‘what are you doing? Use your eyes, not your arms and hands.’ I remember thinking I couldn’t do it! I felt so restricted – like someone had put me in a straightjacket. It was very difficult and scary at first.” Next Sanam starred in Mera Naseeb and Mata-e-Jaan. Sanam tries to give back to society in her own way. “After Mera Naseeb aired, a woman came up to me and said the show had really given her strength and opened her eyes on how to deal with her own marriage.” She has made a conscious decision to take roles that draw public awareness to social issues such as domestic violence, female empowerment and education. 

This is true of her role in the current TV show, Zindagi Gulzar Hai, which is already a huge success. Written by Umera Ahmed and produced by Momina Duraid, Sanam plays lead opposite heartthrob Fawad Khan and has stunned fans and critics alike with her acting. Her expressions are so spot on and her acting so intense that when she cries, so do we. When I ask Sultana Siddiqui (the president of HUM TV, who is directing a play after a hiatus of over a decade) why she casted Sanam she says, “ I was viewing plays for the HUM TV awards for the category of new directors years ago when I first noticed Sanam in Saath. The play wasn’t great but Sanam mujhay bohat achi lagi. She stayed in my mind and when Umera Ahmed insisted I direct Zindagi Gulzar Hai I knew Sanam would be perfect for the role.” Sultana speaks of Sanam with great affection. She says, “She is a very good human being and is an excellent actress. Bus kabhi kabhi bohat taiz bol jati hai,” she says as she laughs out loud. Then continues, “Sanam is extremely professional and helpful with new comers. Mujhay bohat acha lagta hai jab koi kaam to kaam samjhay. If everyone in the industry was as punctual and professional it would make work much easier and better.”

“I quit modelling because, for the first time in my life, I became very conscious about my looks.”

In a country where its Colonial complex about fair skin has never faded, I ask her what it’s like to be dark-skinned in the industry. “Sometimes I read a script and I love a role, but the director wants a Mahirah or an Aiza who’s pretty and fair skinned and I’m just like, ‘Goddammit! If I was fair, I would have this role right now!’ So I guess with these na shakal na surat wali larki roles, I fit right in because I’m dark,” she laughs. Sanam has no problem laying it all out there and you just have to love her for that.

The thing about Sanam is that just when you think you have figured her out, -– just when you think you can put her in that liberal-independent-woman box, she surprises you. “I want to be a mom,” she says. “Who doesn’t when they’re hitting thirty? I want a baby. I love babies.” She says her prayers five times a day and fasts during Ramzaan. She has a little pocket janamaz and dupatta that she keeps with her on set or on the go. “To each their own. I’d never impose my religion on someone else,” she firmly tells me. “I love Ramzaan. I love the feeling in the air in Ramzaan. I love the solidarity, that most of us are doing the same thing for the same reason. I like waking up for sehri and breaking my fast in the evening.” She tells me her Islamiyat teacher played a big role in shaping her views on religion. “I had the best Islamiyat teacher in the whole world,” Sanam recalls. “She had red hair, wore green nail polish, smoked her cigs, drank her coffee and was just a really cool woman. She didn’t make religion into rituals I had to do and if I didn’t, I was a bad person. She just highlighted the positive, progressive and beneficial aspects of religion. I remember the way she taught me the number of rakaat’s for each namaaz. She’d say, ‘You have a direct number to God – just dial 24434.’ It really makes a difference how somebody teaches you. That’s why I got into teaching.”

Sanam wears gold sequinned dress by Sania Maskatiya. Shoes by Charlotte Olympia.

Sanam tells me her dream is to start a teacher training resource centre, where she can train and certify teachers in all subjects. “I am slightly dyslexic when it comes to numbers. I would always get into trouble in my Math class. I wouldn’t understand anything and when I raised my hand to ask a question, my teacher would complain I was driving her crazy and would send me to the Principal’s office. So I recognise the need of having a good teacher and especially one who can recognise the special needs of children who have learning disabilities like  Attention deficit disorder (ADD), dyslexia, autism, etc,” she says. “When I saw Taaray Zameen Par, it really opened my eyes. It exposed a lot of faults in the education system and I realised that’s what I wanted to do.” Sanam wants to do her Masters in child development and education.

As the interview comes to an end I realise that half the juicy questions I had jotted down (mostly about her love life) I never asked, because when it comes to Sanam I don’t need sensationalist material. She is so charming and intelligent that her ideas and achievements are strong enough on their own.

Sanam Saeed is beyond labels. She’s just a refreshingly rare example of a woman comfortable in her own skin- passionate but unassuming, fiery but humble, down to earth but unapologetic, liberal and religious. She has so many exceptional qualities, but the best thing about her is that she’s not stopping any time soon.

As I write this piece, my conversation with Sultana Siddiqui resonates in my mind. I wish more women in Pakistan were like Sanam Saeed.