I am not a feminist; I believe in gender balance and encourage women to realise their status in a religious and social framework. I am now at a stage where I can redo my own scripts if they contain dialogues that might send the wrong subliminal message. Language is important in maintaining gender balance, and slight innuendos can have huge implications,’ says Simi Raheal
Common perception has it that celebrities take great pains to maintain carefully constructed public images for themselves. A pleasant exception to this stereotype is Simi Raheal.
Simi is supremely confident about herself. When she speaks, her eyes and smile radiate an unmistakable warmth and meeting her, it is hard not to remain impressed by the various facets of her dynamic personality. Of late, the veteran TV actress has again become a face of familiar reckoning on television, thanks to a diverse repertoire of advertisements, music videos and dramas in which she has been featuring frequently. But she has carefully refrained from being overexposured.
I meet her at her home in Lahore where she has just returned from an intensive ad shoot in Karachi. Prior to this, she was away for a long spell of shooting in Mauritius for a drama serial. Dressed in faded jeans and an overcoat, she holds back her dogs while I make my way into her cosy, artfully done up lounge. A centre table displays beautiful sea shells that she as collected “from every shore of the world” that she has been to.
Simi has been associated with showbusiness since the past three decades, while she was still studying in the textile design programme at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1976. She made her debut with Ashfaq Ahmed’s magnum opus, Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsaanay, two years after which she got married and her husband’s army job postings took her travelling to various military stations across the country.
She talks about her marriage and motherhood (her daughter, Mehreen Raheal, is a successful fashion model today). “Thanks to my husband’s job, I got to see so much of Pakistan that I would not have otherwise. Mehreen was born in Kharian during Zia’s regime. Being an army man’s wife, I needed an NOC to work for television (read PTV). I therefore decided to take a break from acting and pay full attention to raising my kids.”
Simi returned to the tube with her serial Khwahish, in which she played a gypsy woman, wherein she delivered the gypsy vernacular and lifestyle to perfection. The attempt proved to be hugely successful and since then, there was no looking back as acting projects came forth steadily one after another.
But Simi soon realised that “there was more to life than just being a face on the camera. I am a hermit; I do not attend parties or award ceremonies and yet I love to travel. I love connecting with people through my work; it helps me know myself. I believe in what Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do’. During my mid career, I was lucky to have met Muneeza Hashmi, who is my husband’s aunt, and she put me on track in life and gave me a new bearing.”
Joining her NGO, Simi got interested in gender studies and became a reproductive health and human rights activist. She is a fellow of the Harvard School of Public Health and the International Institute of Education, USA. Part of her work entails conducting workshops and representing Pakistan at national and international forums.
“I am not a feminist,” she elaborates, “I believe in gender balance and encourage women to realise their status in a religious and social framework.” She tells me that her field of interest is developmental communication which integrates social, economic and industrial channels to help mainstream communicators deal with gender issues in the development construct. She also teaches gender and media at Kinniard College where she encourages young minds to dwell on how women should be projected through media to maintain gender balance.
She likes to follow through this philosophy of hers in her acting career as well. For instance she refuses to do scripts that have discriminatory overtones. “Thank God I am now at a stage where I can redo my own scripts if they contain dialogues that might send the wrong subliminal message to the masses. I would never say a dialogue to the tune of ‘betiyaan bojh hoti hain’ (daughters are a burden). Language is important in maintaining gender balance, and slight innuendos can have huge implications.”
A recently televised talk show by the name of Hot Seat was notable for its candid approach to social issues, with Simi being its host. She comments: “I scripted and researched the 38 programmes on taboo issues myself and got them aired specially from ATV as the channel is viewed by mainstream audiences. The programmes were well appreciated for they aimed to speak about issues like incest, rape and discrimination rather than sensationalising them.”
Simi is proud of the fact that her values have naturally permeated through to her children as well: “Mehreen is a very successful model. Her colleagues often tell me that she is very professional and committed to her work and she has perhaps featured in the widest variety of ads ranging from cellular services to shampoos and cooking oils. Yet she has never compromised her principles. For instance she decided on her own never to wear revealing clothes or do ramps.”
She ruminates further: “How we lead our lives and speak through our work is very important. TV has indeed taught me more than any college could have had. While on projects, you get to live with people of all classes in perfect harmony; you share your food and even the bathroom at times with the boom operators, the camera boys.
You learn the simple realities of life with people around you. Being a communicator, I do not judge people on the basis of their social status or any orientation they have as long as they are good human beings.”So what are her thoughts on the over glamorised affair that drama has become today? “Acting is not about painting yourself up like a mannequin.
I do my roles with minimum required makeup. In my recent role of a Christian housekeeper, I had to wear a uniform throughout the serial and I thought it was very interesting. Unfortunately, we have made a mess of drama with soaps. I refuse point blank to do any soaps for they have no story, no direction and the acting is terrible. The lifestyle shown creates frustration among the majority who cannot afford it and the stories are full of intrigue and malice.”
She feels that through these soaps, our media is perpetuating an ideology that is widening the gulf between the classes. “What these quick buck makers don’t realise is that they are shaping the norms of society by their ventures. If you show obscenity, it gradually becomes the norm. If you show intrigue and conspiracy repeatedly, people start accepting it as part of their lives.”
On a more positive note, she talks about what she feels lies in store for the future. “I think youngsters like Jami, Saquib and Sarmad are talented and realising that their survival lies in being original. They are the future; I see this in a lot of youngsters today. My own son, Daniyal for instance, is into filmmaking. He left Canada to work here rather than for goras.”
She gives the example of Shoaib Mansoor’s film, Khuda Ke Liyay where she played the role of a mother to the two heroes. “It was a fantastic experience. Shoaib sahib comes up with one project and gets the whole nation thinking.
“Time is like a window and sometimes in that window, only one person can appear and project a needed change.
We only had one Iqbal and one Faiz who got millions of people thinking. Change is brought on by only a few minds,” concludes Simi Raheal.