Sometimes hilariously, others, seriously, but always fabulously ours, the grand dame of Pakistani comedy has never sat still or rested on her laurels. Mag4you.com speaks to a living legend.
Bushra Ansari is Saima Chaudhary. It is hard nowadays to think about Bushra, one of TV’s most versatile actors, without also recalling her current bawdy, hysterically funny, bumbling TV avatar. It is rare that a TV character becomes a household name but that is precisely what has happened with the incorrigible Saima, who also won Bushra the LSA award for ‘Best Actress’ last year. Saima is one of those gaudy loud aunties that we’re all familiar with. She dances badly but with abandon and with a pointed cock of her made-up eyebrow, spews a distorted mix of English, Punjabi and Urdu. Dressed in tightly fitted, oft-garish clothes, she professes to be a world famous fashion designer, nudging her way in front of the cameras at fashion week and giving out tips to a flabbergasted Nomi Ansari, who made a guest appearance in one of the dramas.
Saima and the ridiculous situations that she keeps getting embroiled into are quite the highlight of Geo TV’s long-running Kis Ki Aayegi Baraat series. In reality, such women are usually painful to be with. The hopeless Saima though, left in the capable hands of Bushra Ansari is a loveable, sidesplitting, unforgettable character.
Then again, this is Bushra Ansari’s forte. Over her 30 odd years long career, she has enacted parodies, impersonations and, when it strikes her fancy, serious roles - each and every one impactful, unforgettable.
I remember watching Bushra Ansari in reruns of Anwar Maqsood’s riot act from the ‘80’s, Show Sha.
Characterizing Maqsood’s jibes on load shedding, she was Bijli. In a glistening golden sari, with white and orange globes dangling down her ears and wires strewn across her head, she tilted her head and haughtily said, “Mujhey bulb bohot buray lagtay hain … mujh say jaltay hain sab.” It was a hilarious witticism that was quickly followed up by other regaling comic roles, most of them with Anwar Maqsood.
As Maqsood opines, ““Bushra is an extremely adept performer. She excels at whatever she does, may it be a comic role or a serious one. She just looks at the script and knows exactly how to bring the character to life.” Close on the heels of the electrifying Bijli came Jehan Ara Begum of Maqsood’s Anghan Terha where bespectacled with greying hair, she bullied her husband, sparred with her classical dancer turned servant and made caustic remarks. And then there was Showtime where she created a furor with her parodies of Salma Agha, Mussarat Nazir, Madame Nur Jehan and Tahira Syed, among others. The impersonations were spot-on; Bushra managed to look and sound exactly like the singers. But the lyrics she sang were, of course, different - Salma Agha’s ‘Ik Baar Millo Hum Say’ became a tirade on cricket and Tahira Syed and Malka Pukhraj’s ‘Abhi Tou Mein Jawan Hoon’ was turned into ‘Hai Meri Angoothiyan’!
Although she is famous especially for her comic acts, Bushra has been just as effective in serious roles. In the ‘90’s she penned the script of her first episodic drama, Neeli Dhoop, where she played the realistic role of a widow who remarries and faces the disapproval of her family. In Zara Si Aurat, directed by Sultana Siddiqi, she enacted a woman dealing with the unfair pressures placed on her by her husband. Even now, surf away from the hapless Saima Chaudhary, and you find Bushra in other dramas; the cantankerous mother-in-law, the helpless woman, the tongue-in-cheek conservative Punjaban.
Similarly, the drama scripts that she writes have also varied. Most recently, a drama that she has written and is acting in, Geo TV’s Aadha Din Aur Puri Raat, focuses on the plight of musicians and how they are looked down upon in our society. It’s a pertinent topic and the drama has its fair share of tears, melodrama and serious dialogues. On a complete tangent is the script of Dolly Ki Aayegi Baraat, which she co-wrote with Vasay Chaudry - a rollicking, laugh-a-minute comedy. In a business where it is far too easy to fall into a rut and keep repeating popular roles and stories, Bushra Ansari has been chameleon-like in her choices. Hysterical when she decides to be funny and heart wrenching when she opts for a serious topic, she has never stayed on in one genre of acting or writing for too long.
It is armed with the memories of the many, many characters she has enacted, the scripts she has written and the songs she has sung, that I set out to meet Bushra Ansari. In her ‘50’s now, she looks decades younger and has the work schedule and stamina of a 20-year old. “I was very skinny in my youth and while I have gained now, it is probably less than many other women my age. Perhaps that’s why people think that I look young,” she ponders. “I recently hosted a show that paid tribute to Alamgir and people kept asking me if I had gotten plastic surgery done on my face. I told them that not yet but perhaps I will as times goes on. As it is, I am young at heart but I don’t think I look young at all - I am the grandmother of three children!
The many sides to Bushra Ansari
On the day we meet, it is her real-life role as grandmother that is keeping Bushra busy. Her daughter has just had a baby and Bushra is exhausted by the odd hours and extra care required by newborns. “I have barely slept,” she says. “I haven’t taken on any work assignment in the past three weeks. I just can’t manage it at the moment.”
This is a side to Bushra Ansari that I wasn’t expecting to see. I’d imagined her to be flitting from one acting role to the other, the intense, committed, bona fide actress. She is all this but, as I discover, there’s also a domestic side to her. “I have always made sure that there is an equal balance between my home and my work,” she tells me. “I take my grandchildren swimming and drop them off to school, like any other grandmother. And when my daughters were young, there was a time when I barely worked. I didn’t want to keep any male servants in the house since my girls were growing up. Instead, I’d be cooking, managing the house, picking and dropping them and squeezing in work somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I’d restrict my work to summer holidays, taking my children along with me wherever I went.”
Didn’t she ever worry that her career would dwindle into nonexistence? “I did, but I couldn’t neglect my children either. This was the only way I could work things out,” she says.
Her present sabbatical at home with her newborn grandchild has given her the opportunity to surf through the local channels, leaving her aghast at the quality of programs being aired. “There are some very good dramas and programs and then there are some that are just pathetic,” she comments. “I believe that TV should be used to educate the masses, to entertain them while simultaneously make them conscientious about their moral obligations to society. Instead, channels are promoting dramas that have senseless scripts, inferior acting and ridiculous jokes. Even mornings shows have become intolerable. If they’re not dancing to perpetual weddings, they’re calling in ghosts, having singing competitions and making inane jokes. Instead of educating audiences, TV is now promoting mediocrity. The few good efforts that are being made get lost in the milieu of substandard shows.”
But while she may berate TV channels, Bushra is still seen in morning shows every now and then. “I only do it because they keep asking me to come, again and again. Sometimes I end up relenting, especially when I am asked by friends.”
The hapless Saima
Although TV in general may be trundling into the depths of mediocrity, Bushra Ansari’s work is certainly a touch above it all. The infamous Saima Chaudhary character, for instance, is hilarious and yet never resorts to cheap humor. “I think audiences like Saima because she is a caricature of people that we see in real-life. She’s a bossy, loud, self-declared ‘fashion designer’ who is married to a rich Chaudhary sahab from Faisalabad. We’ve all seen such characters in real-life - Saima is a droll exaggeration of them.”
Aside from the comical dilemmas that Saima faces in her life - a husband who secretly goes off to marry a stage dancer and an England-returned sister-in-law who gives her headaches with her mixed British-Punjabi - her Punjabi-Urdu oft-sarcastic dialogues and her pathetic attempts at English draw laughs from audiences. ‘Franchise’ is mistakenly pronounced as ‘french fries’ and the English word ‘psycho’ is simply spoken as ‘p-sy-co’ because, as Saima reasons, why else did they put a ‘p’ there? An expert at imitation, it was not difficult for Bushra to speak the Faisalabadi Saima’s lingo. “My imitations have always been based on observation. I just have a knack for catching on to tones and expressions that I see around me.”
With the Kis Ki Aayegi Baraat omnibus now in its third year, Saima Chaudhary has become something of a regular feature on TV. Nevertheless, according to Bushra, the makers of the dramas have no intention of continuing on with the series once its currently airing episodic drama Annie Ki Aayegi Baraat ends. Bushra Ansari may be a pro at comedy but when it comes to figuring out her career, she’s dead serious. “In my career, it has been my habit to do something well and then immediately cut myself off from it, going on to something else. It’s a personal fear I have that audiences may get bored. I’d never want that,” she says. “When we started this drama, the storyline was completely original, as was Saima’s character. Now, I see pitiful copies of Saima Chaudhary in almost every second drama on TV. The novelty has worn off and viewers will probably soon lose interest. I think this series has continued on for long enough and it’s time to move on.”
And what is the next thing that Bushra would like to do - a serious role or another comic one? “I choose characters that I know I’ll enjoy enacting. It’s true that comic roles are noticed more maybe because people prefer lighthearted stories to serious one. That being said, I’ll never work in a sitcom with a laugh track in the background - I think they’re just too over the top. And working in serious, meaningful dramas is also very important to me. Every now and then, when a topic really grips me, I take to script writing. And my other passion is, of course, singing. I recently sang the title song for the drama, Dil Tou Bhatkay Ga. Singing is something that gives me immense pleasure. I would have taken it further professionally if I had formally been trained in it. Without training, there is only a certain extent to which I can stretch my singing abilities.”
Her work with Anwar Maqsood, especially in the ‘80’s, included a fair amount of comic acting as well as singing, as in the form of parodies. I ask her why she hasn’t worked with the writer extraordinaire in recent times? “I have always enjoyed working with Anwar Maqsood simply because his scripts are very intelligent and inimitable,” she says. “For some time during my career, I refrained from comic roles completely. I didn’t want to get categorized as just a comedienne and wanted to try out serious acting. Every now and then, though, I have worked with Anwar. I did a few episodes of Loose Talk while Moin Akhtar was alive. Then, after Moin’s death, I also appeared in Loose Talk as a tribute to him but it broke my heart to sit in Moin’s seat. I’d love to work with Anwar Maqsood again and again; perhaps I will. But it always has to be something new, something unique.”
With her years of experience as a TV actress, I ask her if acting is a lucrative career in Pakistan? “It can be, especially nowadays,” she replies. “In the past, one used to lament over the unimportance given to senior actors - as they aged, there weren’t enough acting roles offered to them and the one channel, PTV, couldn’t support them financially. Even now, there are production teams that don’t realize the quality that a senior actor’s performance can lend to their project. They prefer to hire a secondary, amateur actor at a quarter of the senior actor‘s salary instead. Still, now, there are also people who are dedicated to their productions and give the due importance to seniors. With so many channels, there are acting opportunities for anybody who is talented and is willing to make the effort, may it be a veteran actor or an amateur.”
Strangely, while Bushra and her husband, director Iqbal Ansari, are both involved in television, their two daughters haven’t followed in their footsteps. “This has been their personal choice. I would have never stopped them if they had wanted to enter the acting field. Like all careers, it has its ups and downs. For myself, I couldn’t have chosen a better profession,” she smiles.