With her trademark mass of black curls casually clasped at the nape of her neck, Sania Saeed, Pakistan's generation-X actress, fascinates viewers with her chameleon-like character transformations on both television and the stage.
Her face scrubbed clean of traces of make-up, she prances around, apologetic about being late and attributing it to her late night out devouring pizza and hanging out with friends. After a career spanning 14 years as the quintessential television actress, it's hard to swallow that Saeed is ready to face the world with refreshed vigor. Right now, she's somewhere between doing the perfect improvisation and landing her greatest role.
"A challenging script rarely surfaces. When I read a script, I look at it from the point of view of a story. These days producers say I need to shoot for 20 days and then my portion is over because production houses are churning out plays by the dozen with actors in demand. It used to be seven plays per week on Pakistan television but now there are seven plays per day," Saeed admits.
"I look forward to being cast in all kinds of roles but am slotted to do specifics. It's only Mehreen Jabbar who casts us into experimental slots." And she hits the nail on the head at a time when old-time television producers incessantly fit actors into iron-cast molds. "I lament that they give me characters to do that I am or they think I am. That's hardly a compliment."
Saeed cannot sit still while she talks, as her voice becomes high-pitched. She is rearranging the statuettes in her room, jumping backwards to recheck their position and shifting them again with dissatisfaction. She might as well be doing takes on the set of a play.
For Saeed, it all began when she was literally dumped on stage by her father, Manzoor Saeed and his theater group comprising doctors and writers, all part of Dastak, formed in the '80s. Saeed found herself dabbling with theater and was simultaneously involved with Sathi Barla Sangat, a children's organization in Sindh. "We set up a book bank for them and arranged cultural evenings. I saw activity around me at the age of ten, which drew me further into street theater. In the beginning, it was involuntary participation."
Does street theater contribute to social change?
"Community theater is a conscious-raising exercise for the underprivileged who are entertained and provided with solutions to probable issues," she says as she talks about Katha, formed with her writer-director husband Shahid Shafaat and five founding members with the aim to perform issue-related theater.
Saeed was headhunted for the mini-screen in 1989 after a longish stint with theater. Written by Haseena Moin and directed by Saira Kazmi, "Ahat" featured an eighteen-year old Saeed giving a sensitive portrayal of Rabia, a middle-class wife trying to conform to her husband's wishes of producing a son."
It was in 1991 where Saeed, who had a role in "Sitara Aur Mehrunissa" -- a love story written by Anwar Maqsood where Saeed was cast alongside Atiqa Odho -- came into her own. She asserts that her viewers must look at her inherently feminist characters as strong, decision-makers with wisdom. With her switch to television, does she crave for the stage? "I enjoy working with a team because it gives me a feeling of strength. Theater creates chemistry between the audience and the actor where genuine appreciation can be read off faces. You can tell when it ain't working," and she giggles.
"I miss the excitement in television. When I did the stage play "Prem Kahani" about sectarian violence, there's a romantic scene that begins with sniper firing at a bus stop. Then it's pitch dark and I was supposed to come on stage. But I missed the cue and was still in the changing room!"
Television also has its moments, quips Saeed. "But television has now become my profession. It gives me a little more money, though my needs are few, and more opportunity to forge a relationship with my audience."
Does she live within her character when she's performing? She hesitates, then says "no" vehemently. "I don't believe in becoming a character. I question the emotions of my characters and develop a relationship with them."
She does not want her audience to leave with their heads empty. "I did a talk show where we traveled across the country looking up mothers and paid tribute to their perseverance. My focus was not on how they had sacrificed but on their strength and wisdom to pull through the worst times. It revived my hope in people. I met strong women who needed education about their rights."
And (finally) how does her writer-director husband fit into her grueling schedule?
"We've been through disasters together but our bond has become stronger. I've known him 12 years. We've been married only two and still fight but can criticize and appreciate. We've had one of the best love stories in the world. It's not about romance and how much we love each other but watching each other work as part of a process to become good writers and actors," her face lights up with a smile. She moves to talk about the future where they have plans to use Katha's issue-based platform to go into television reaching a wider audience.
"The media needs to reach out to the rural population watching television. Advertisers just want to make money wanting their viewership to be consumer-based. Producers want glamor not content. Media policies do not support human right issues and policymakers do not want to portray negative aspects.
PTV has no permanent policy. Every time we shoot, there's a debate whether short-sleeved shirts will be allowed or whether we can touch a male shoulder."Saeed's 1999 award for best actress was in no way a showstopper. In fact, she is dabbling in just about everything: theater, television, radio and she's been cast in Mehreen Jabbar's film "Beauty Parlour."
For her, all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.