By Sonya Rehman
Seated in an Afghani two-seater, I looked around Shahnaz’s living room. The mantle place just above the fire had pictures of Shahnaz in her younger days, with her family, her two sons and on the set of certain plays. Her face had not changed. She smiled broadly, unaffected. Her deep eyes shone with good humor and a certain type of ‘liveliness’ that felt terribly infectious. Dramatic oil paintings of trees and landscapes covered the two walls and as I wrapped my shawl tightly around my shoulders I smelt the scent of nargis as it drifted into the room.
My eye caught a little green object that constantly shifted in a half-closed drawer where the television was placed. Suddenly it gave a shrill little squawk. Flinching back in surprise, I heard Shahnaz chuckle as she entered the living room and inform me that the ‘object’ was infact Yago, her pet parrot. ‘Oh’ I said giving her a sheepish grin.
She plonked down on a chair across me and smiled. The same smile that was framed in the pictures just above her on the mantle place. Looking down at my notepad full of questions, I thought it would be appropriate to ask her the ‘typical’ question – how her career had started. She tilted her head back and touched her face exclaiming that it had all begun about twenty years ago. “I wasn’t really ‘discovered”, she stated contemplating, “As most actors and actresses are. Someone had actually referred me to Haseena Moin the playwright for ‘Ajnabi’. Haseena and Shoaib Mansoor approached me one day and invited me to try out for one of their roles.”
Her major acting breakthrough had been achieved through her role in ‘Ankahi’. After which she had been offered similar parts due to the popularity of her role in the play, but she stated that she had always been extremely selective and choosy with regard to the projects she decided to take up at that time. “I just didn’t want to restrict myself to characters which depicted the exact same personality you know? I wanted to branch out into something more diverse…more challenging”, she said thoughtfully. I nodded understanding perfectly well what she meant. Art simply cannot burgeon and thrive under conformity – it’s like putty that needs to be re-shaped over and over again.
Branching out into whether she faced any adversities in the course of her acting-career, she believed that in her time things were much more easier and uncomplicated. “You know, I was very lucky in that way”, she said between sips of hot tea, “it’s always better to work with an actor much more experienced than yourself because you get to learn so much more!” she said enthusiastically. What about starting out as an amateur, did she ever feel she was being pushed around and/or imposed on, I asked, between quick glimpses at Yago who looked like she was going to start squawking any minute. Shahnaz smiled, obviously amused by the fact that I found a four and half inch parrot intimidating. “Oh don’t worry about Yago, seriously, she’s just insecure about visitors that’s all”, looking over at Yago I relaxed a little and then turned my attention back to Shahnaz who went on to answer my question, “see when I first got into the field, no one ever tried to discourage me – I was treated exceptionally well, thank goodness I was never a victim of demoralization because that can break an amateur actor’s self-confidence and morale to bits.”
What were her views regarding the actors and their performances of the present day? She replied that the felt acting-wise, an actor’s own input was very mercenary. “Mercenary”? I repeated, “Yes, bland and contrived…there is hardly any emotion injected into the roles. Also, the sponsors control what should and what shouldn’t be these days”, and after a few seconds she added, “however I do believe that our actors today are better groomed than we really were back then” she said chortling. Yes who could forget the bouffant hairstyles and the technicolour colour coordination? Fashion is something I’ve never understood and don’t think I ever will. Right at that moment a plump golden Labrador came bounding into the room and started wagging it’s tail furiously at Shahnaz. “Meet Sweetie – my darling, she’s all keyed up because it’s time for her walk”. I smiled, reached down and ruffled the overgrown puppy’s head telling Shahnaz how I had read somewhere that dogs were excellent therapy for us humans. “Oh they are!” she exclaimed, “I don’t think my existence would be all that complete without any of them”, them being her thirty pigeons, two peacocks, Yago and Sweetie.
Reverting back to the topic at hand, I asked her if acting on stage and on TV was any different from the other to which she said that both were two entirely dissimilar mediums, like watercolours and oils for instance. “On stage just about anything can go wrong because it’s live. But television is easier because you can always re-take a particular scene over and over”, adding that stage had always been a nightmare for her which is why she always made sure she stuck to directing stage plays rather than acting in them herself. Shahnaz teaches and directs children’s plays in Aitchison and finds it much more fulfilling and enjoyable, “I thrive on the environment in which I work in”, to which I intercepted if it was easier to work with children rather than adults, “with adults I feel one always has to be delivering. It’s always ‘oh God what’s it going to be this time’? You’re more on your guard with adults. With children, it’s more natural. They take you for what you really are; you don’t have to pretend to be anything”.
When a woman gets married, her career usually comes to a halt, I asked Shahnaz if this had any bearing on her career to which she agreed wholeheartedly; “My life revolves around my marriage and my children. Most things that I want to do, I often have to think twice before I do. Marriage keeps you grounded, it changes your perspective towards the world and how the world perceives you. I’m not saying I didn’t welcome this change, I did very much…it’s just that a woman has be to aware of drastic changes that will change the course of her life and the role she plays. She has to start thinking about not just herself but also her entire family”. But being social animals means adapting to change and therefore not conforming ourselves to solely one thing I had said, “yes and having my two boys has led me towards that very break from conformity. It’s almost like you keep learning new things about yourself through the eyes of your children”. What she said at that moment made so much sense – the fact that a woman ‘discovers’ herself through her children held so very true.
And right then I noticed Sweetie who was sitting beside Shahnaz’s feet patiently was now whining anxiously and looking wistfully at the front door, “I think her walk is long overdue”, I said smiling at Shahnaz who nodded and grinned back. She attached the leash to Sweetie’s rainbow-coloured collar and as we walked out onto the lane I asked her what her philosophy of life was. “To be able to find and realize what makes you content and then have the valor, spirit and courage to achieve it,” she replied. We walked a few blocks till the mist had begun to descend and the hushed whispers of the winter wind could be heard through the subdued rustle of the trees. It had been a beautiful day.