Beautiful, witty and never afraid to speak her mind, actress Ushna Shah has won a
devoted fan following through her powerful performances and forthright demeanor.
Born to a family of artists, her love for artistic expression is deep-rooted, but what
makes her truly special is her admirable aplomb and integrity. Mehek Raza Rizvi
meets her on a chilly afternoon in Lahore for an exclusive tête-à-tête

Rani, Bubbly, Nigaar… the recent roles you’ve portrayed have been of multi-layered strong women. Is this a conscious decision?

Yes. The status quo for a lead heroine is to play the docile girl in need of a man to save her and I have to admit I’ve accepted such roles many times. However, I now feel like I’ve paid my dues and can choose the characters I want to portray. With AAAI (Alif, Allah aur Insaan) I also think I set a precedent for myself. My audience wants to see me portray real women. Women are complex creatures with many layers. To box them in as one- dimensional characters is unfair to our gender. I’m glad the screen is changing and I’m humbled to be chosen to play such characters.

With the conversation on gender equality and feminism on the rise, how important is it for female actors to choose their roles carefully and avoid playing the damsel in distress?

We can’t completely avoid playing the damsel in distress because she is the quintessential fantasy heroine. It’s a treat for audiences to see their favourite faces play the fairytale princess they’ve grown up admiring. I think it is okay to indulge in that fantasy every now and then but the over-all ideology must change. We must never glorify abuse, which is what we did in my drama serial Bashar Momin. As much as I love that project of mine, I do feel guilty sometimes because that’s not the message I want to give young women. In Lashkara, my character is that of a beautiful daydreamer who is very much in love with her prince but when tragedy hits, it’s her own strength that perseveres, not that of a man. Drama serials, such as Lashkara, have been my way of rectifying the messages my submissive roles have sent.

As actors we have a lot of power over the message we send out and in today’s age, women have a responsibility to further the feminist movement. Female actors are certainly not exempt from that. It’s not my job to tell other actors which roles to select but, as I grow older, this responsibility becomes clearer to me.

“EVERY NOW AND THEN, ANOTHER ACTRESS IS
FAVOURED FOR A ROLE MEANT FOR YOU BECAUSE
SHE IS WILLING TO GIVE IN TO A MISOGYNIST
PRODUCER/DIRECTOR’S WHIMS”

How hard is it to detach yourself from the intense and complex characters you play? Does some part of them stay with you?

When on set, the traits of my on-screen characters definitely seep into my own personality. I became versions of myself I didn’t recognize during Rukhsaar and Piya Mann Bhaye. I found myself behaving very timidly during Bheegi Palkein, Shehre-Yaraan and Bashar Momin. Alif Allah took me through many emotional stages off and on camera, which certainly helped the evolution of Rani to Reena Begum but made me behave almost bi-polar. Lashkara was dark and I often found myself depressed and with Nigaar in Balaa, I would be very difficult sometimes (quickly realized my fault and apologized though).

Hence, you could say I’m definitely somewhat an unintentional method actor during shoot. Once camera packs, a quick getaway vacation is mandatory to get the character out of my system and become Ushna again.

Out of all the characters you’ve portrayed, which one do you relate to most and why?

My characters are an extension of myself and my experiences, so in a way they’re always a part of me. However, there isn’t any one character that’s completely like me. I’d feel too exposed to play something like that. There’s security and protection in playing something that’s not you. You can then bring yourself in that character without feeling vulnerable. That’s the beauty of expression through acting.

“IT IS NOT MY JOB TO TELL OTHER ACTORS WHICH ROLES TO
SELECT BUT AS I GROW OLDER, THIS RESPONSIBILITY
BECOMES CLEARER TO ME”

The fame and influence celebrities enjoy, puts immense responsibility on them to use it wisely. Do you ever feel burdened by the constant spotlight?

I always feel a responsibility to speak up for what I believe in and that almost always gets me in trouble. The platform celebrities have for their voice is a huge responsibility and it would be ungrateful not to use it. The spotlight is rather overwhelming, which is why I’ve backed away from a lot of the PR related social media posts and focused on acting and performance centric roles.

Apart from your strong screen presence, you’re also known for being very outspoken on social media. When a public figure sparks debate, backlash is inevitable. How do you deal with the difference of opinion and hostile voices in particular?

I’ve developed a fairly thick skin so I do what my contemporaries do, which is to ignore. Hostile voices are usually anonymous ones belonging to keyboard warriors who are extremely unsatisfied with their lives and feel the need to attack famous people for their own gratification; those voices aren’t worth responding to. Every now and then, however, I’ll respond, but that’s usually due to boredom or maybe a bad mood.

“WOMEN ARE COMPLEX CREATURES WITH MANY LAYERS. TO BOX THEM IN AS ONE-DIMENSIONAL CHARACTERS IS UNFAIR TO OUR GENDER”

As a woman, have you experienced any inherent prejudices in your line of work?

Absolutely! Ageism for one. The blatant sexism and objectification we are subjected to are a close second. Every now and then, another actress is favoured for a role meant for you because she is willing to give in to a misogynist producer/director’s whims.

When a male actor/ producer/director is firm, it is because he is professional and he is the boss, but when a woman behaves in a similar  way, she is called an entitled diva.  Women are expected to always have a smile on their faces and not show any signs of authority.

I’m glad to see this trend finally change but I’ve gone through a lot because of it in the past. It bothers me greatly.

As the ambassador of Todd’s Welfare Society (TWS), animal well-being and safety is a cause close to your heart. How do you wish to contribute to this objective?

“HOSTILE VOICES ARE USUALLY ANONYMOUS ONES BELONGING TO KEYBOARD WARRIORS WHO ARE EXTREMELY UNSATISFIED WITH THEIR LIVES AND FEEL THE NEED TO ATTACK FAMOUS PEOPLE FOR THEIR OWN GRATIFICATION”

I do my best to raise my voice wherever I can. I believe there needs to be a movement in Pakistan in favour of animals, both domestic and wild.

Firstly, strict laws need to be passed and implemented against animal abuse. The hunting of wild animals, especially endangered bucks and snow leopards in the north, should be strictly banned. For domestic animals, there ought to be licenses and health checks to ensure they’re not overworked and are well fed. ACF (Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation) has come out with “humane harnesses” for donkeys, which I think should be mandatory for anyone using these animals for transport.

Culling of any kind should be strictly banned and instead a spaying and neutering campaign should be made to control the stray population in Pakistan. Animals meant for slaughter (such as chickens) should be kept in healthy environments.

Most importantly, the public should be educated on the importance of treating animals with compassion. To this end, public service ads should be issued and school curriculums should include courses on the importance of empathy towards animals.

We have a long way to go.

What is Ushna Shah like at home? Tell us about your childhood and family?

I grew up as the youngest of six children. My elder siblings and I have a huge age gap so it was more like having five extra parents instead of brothers and sisters. I guess in that way I was a bit spoiled but also very disciplined. My family is full of artists and performers and I am essentially an extension of them.

Theater, film or TV?

Theater

What irks you most about social media?

People getting insecure by the fake lives created by others.

Biggest pet peeve?

Slow drivers/walkers/ATM users, etc.

 Your biggest strength?

My uncompromisable integrity

 And biggest weakness?

Fries

 Favourite ‘90s jam?

Everybody by Backstreet Boys What was the last photo you took?

A selfie with my niece

 Your personal style in three

words?

Comfort Costume Swag

 Last impulsive buy?

A plane ticket

 Most prized possession?

Possessions shouldn’t be prized, people should be.

 What was the last lie you told?

“I’ll definitely try to make it!”

 One habit you have that annoys your family?

Taking ages in the shower (I just asked my sister).

 Do you have a nickname?

Several: Ush, Ushi, Ushners, Uch, Uchi, Tush, Ushi-Baby and many other variations of Ushna. The rest are very personal and only for family so won’t share those.

 What’s one choice you really regret?

Any choice I’ve made that may have hurt someone else.

 What’s your favourite movie quote?

“Don’t tell me you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.”

—The Godfather

 

Interview: Mehek Raza Rizvi
Photography: Mohsin Khawar
Hair & Makeup: Zara Gul
Location: Marina Home

Good Times

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