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Saba Ahmed meets artist Laila Rahman

Laila Rahman lives and works in a home that exudes artistic splendour. Massive coffee table books on art and architecture meet my eye along with artefacts that would make the most well-stocked galleries look threadbare. “I have a passion for collecting nice things,”  says Laila. Nice? More like exquisite.

‘I think small is really small and big is really big, this in-between size just annoyed the hell out of me!’


Gardener porcelain

The artist’s spectacular selection of Gardner porcelain finds its place in the centre of her home in a special, purpose-built wall—a nook of sorts, designed by Laila herself. “In every Pathan household, you’ll probably grow up around a Gardner or two,” she says. Francis Gardner was an English entrepreneur who teamed up with Johann Miller, an expert porcelain workman, to set up the first Gardner Factory in 1766 located in a small village outside Moscow. The Gardner Factory manufactured porcelain for everyday use along with rarer and more exquisite commissioned pieces. Gardner porcelain was particularly coveted by European and Russian nobility. It has travelled eastward and westward and has now attained the status of antiquity. “I like to collect the rarer pieces, and to my displeasure, they mostly end up shipped off to wealthy collectors in Dubai!” laughs Laila.



At heart a printmaker, Laila has over the years pursued different styles and sources of inspiration. With an academic background that spans literature to fine art, Laila is alumnus to an illustrious list of schools including Slade School of Fine Arts and St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, both in London. Her most recent venture is a group show called Origins featuring her and ten other printmakers. The show features prints that speak to their cultural identities. Laila tells me how she had reached an impasse with her submission while the deadline loomed. She was annoyed too by the stipulated size of the works. “A miserable 11″ x 15″,” she adds, “I think small is really small and big is really big, this in-between size just annoyed the hell out of me!” It was a chance meeting with her cousin and literary institution Shaista Sirajuddin at a bookstore in Lahore that Laila encountered Vikram Seth’s “A Rivered Earth.”At the end of the book were poems about the seven elements. Finally, Laila had found her inspiration! “These liberté just made prints in my mind.”

 ‘The marigold is a little-regarded flower but how
happy everyone is to see it’

Raja Rasalu

Known for her work with literature and art, Laila was approached by Simurgh Publications in 2006 to illustrate a book. When Laila read the stories in the book, she says, “I was quite enchanted by them because they had completely slipped me by.” The book is a collection of stories about Raja Rasalu, a fictional hero in a string of folk tales. Rasalu is an exiled prince of Sialkot who, subsequent to his exile, wanders all over Punjab and has various adventures as a young man. An Englishwoman called Flora Annie Steele first printed the tales around the time of Kipling. Since then, there has been this edition. “So,” she says, “I am justly quite proud to be a part of it”. As what happens mostly with myths, they can become elaborate. “There is a maina and a tota and a hedgehog and a ghora, all sorts of animals that are speaking and giving direction, almost like a Greek chorus!” The text features Urdu and Punjabi couplets along with the English translations. Laila developed a series of tiny drawings to help tell the story. “They intersperse the stories, like exclamations marks,” says Laila. She explains how this is similar to the miniature tradition of painting.




About the paintings in the book, Laila says, “It was a real love affair of coming back to colour.” Prior to this, as a printmaker, Laila had been mostly using blue, black and sepia. “Even my painting was becoming monochromatic.” she says, “The content was melancholy and didn’t lend itself to a brighter palette.” But for Raja Rasalu, her palette brightened up. The marigold in the book for example, embodies the Punjab: “Because it is gaudy and riotous and it grows anywhere. It’s so bold and unabashed; it’s a little-regarded flower but how happy everyone is to see it,” she says. How beautifully and aptly put, I think.

‘There is a maina and a tota and a hedgehog and a ghora, all sorts of animals that are speaking and giving direction, almost like in a Greek chorus!’





Laila’s studio is purpose built. Beams of light flow in from the ceiling into the nook in which stand massive canvases, Laila’s works-in-progress. It’s earthy and bohemian, where re-appropriated household objects and quaint furniture mingle. The rest of Laila’s home, is meticulously-arranged from wondrous objects from all over the world. It’s the thrill of hunting down something rare that gets Laila going. “I love chancing upon somebody who wants to part with something or picking it up at some flea market,” she says. “I can associate the cup of tea I had while negotiating for a particular object and, for me, those memories become embedded in the object itself.”

As I leave her home, I am struck by Laila’s appreciation of all things refined and beautiful. But the objects that adorn her home are beautiful precisely because they are sources of inspiration. The paintings and artefacts are, then, living, breathing history.

Ali Xeeshan envisions designs complete with backdrops, props, the whole nine yards


Sitting in what Ali Xeeshan calls his “zen” garden, we are chatting about all things un-zen: the high-powered world of art and Pakistani fashion. Ali is a designer with a penchant for audacious statements.

A graduate of the Pakistan school of Fashion Design, Ali thought long and hard about how he would distinguish himself in the rigmarole of Pakistani fashion. “It is a cut-throat market that gives no second chances,” he says. His inspiration comes from his culture embedded in his DNA. “I come from a Punjabi family and we love our colours.”


‘I always wanted to be an actor. You know, I’m always so excited to see a poster of Aamir Khan!’

Ali attributes his success partly to the schools where he studied. PIFD is noted for its ability to consistently churn out designers who go on to make a mark in Pakistani fashion. But Ali also has praise for Mrs. Sehyr Saigol, the Chairperson of the Executive Committee of PFDC, who was astonishingly cool about his scattered debut collection. A green parrot perched on one of Ali’s mannequin’s caught her eye, and that became the deal clincher for Ali’s career. He says, “It was very encouraging for me at that fragile time. I was terrified of failure at every turn.”

So, what does it take to make it in the competitive industry of fashion? Imagination, to begin with, followed by tremendous stamina. Ali envisions designs complete with backdrops, props, the whole nine years. In other words, the designer must create drama in his collections. “I always wanted to be an actor. You know, I’m always so excited to see a poster of Aamir Khan!” laughs Ali. Under the umbrella of Ali Xeeshan’s Theatre Studio—where he is also quietly undertaking event management—he practices complete artistic freedom. “I love making areas and creating ambiences, with light, furniture, cut pieces, heights and shapes.”


A green parrot perched on one of Ali’s mannequin’s caught
Mrs. Saigol’s eye

The Ather Shahzad shoot at the Lahore Fort was a particularly memorable styling extravaganza for Pakistani fashionistas. The models, crew and extras amounted to a whopping 70. This kind of creative excess has become synonymous with Ali Xeeshan whose signature style is one that turns heads. So much so that Ali is particularly well known for his runway show at PFW in 2010 where Nadia Hussain walked onto the stage cuddling a furry white cat. His shows have included dramatic jewelry that covers the face, oversized turbans, nurses hats, and much more. His dream as a fashion designer is to do a solo show, consisting of characters for whom special clothes are designed. The show would have props, lights and music to match. “With Fashion weeks,” he says, “there are certain lines drawn already. I try to break them all, but, realistically, there are only a few that one can breach. You can’t just do anything you want.”

The most consistent request Ali gets from his clients is, “I want to look like a princess.” “Now,” he says, smiling, “I can guess it before they even say it!” But it’s clear that a client doesn’t always know what’s best for them. “One client wanted me to make her veil long enough so that five of her friends could carry it,” he says, “But it turned out being so heavily embellished that it wouldn’t even stay on her head!”



Every model wants to be a showstopper

The modelling pool has some ways to go. Ali reports on occasions where models have interfered with art direction and asked to be favoured. Every model wants to be a showstopper, he says, “One show where the model was going third-last made a fuss that she wanted to walk out with me onto the ramp; in the meantime, she missed her turn!” The unprofessionalism, he says, is the result of a lack of education in the industry. In the West, many models have a working knowledge of art history and fashion genres, or a sense of how to carry the ball gown or whatever it is they are modelling. But in Pakistan, raw talent and raw beauty dominate. In a developing industry, is that really a bad thing? Ali agrees that Pakistan is bursting with talent. A number of models, he says, are extremely professional: Mehreen Syed, his muse, is on top of the list; Zara Peerzada and Cybil, he says, are also great models to work with.

As I leave his “zen” garden, I think back to Ali’s quote about fashion shows: “There are certain lines drawn already. You can’t just do anything you want.” If anyone has defied the rules, it is Ali Xeeshan. And he has done it with blazing creativity.

Sahira and Rahat Kazmi’s handsome son, Ali Kazmi, is all set to conquer Hollywood with the upcoming release of his first major feature film, director Sidney J. Furie’s “Pride of Lions.” In an exclusive conversation with Ally Adnan, he talks about his upcoming film, his life, and his experiences as an actor in both Pakistan and Canada


Do you enjoy being in front of the camera?

I am very comfortable in front of the camera, having had an early start at the age of two, when my mother directed and featured me in the video of Nayyara Noor’s patriotic song, Wattan Ki Matti Gawah Rehna. I have never looked back since. I have worked in a large number of commercials, television serials, plays, independent films, experimental features and tele-films, but, even today, I get excited when I face the camera. This is what I like and what I enjoy. I was born to face the camera.


How was the experience of being raised by two well-known actors?

My parents were two of Pakistan’s first thespians—actors who devoted their entire lives to the craft. Everything in our home revolved around acting. My home was a veritable institution for learning how to act. In addition to providing education, instruction and guidance, my parents inspired me to seek satisfaction and pride for performing a role well. Even today, I say, “It does not matter what part you play as long as you play it well.”

‘At the age of seven, I acted in the highly successful TV series, Dhoop Kinaray, directed by my mother’

Why did you move to Canada?

My wife and I decided to move to Toronto, Canada, shortly after we got married. The prospect was terrifying because we were both doing well in Pakistan but it was something that had to be done. I needed to broaden my horizons.  I attended the Toronto Film School and graduated with honors in Film History, Direction and Cinematography. Toronto has treated me well. I have found success, peace, happiness and friendships in the city.

Ali Kazmi with Lou Gossett Jr. during the shooting of Pride of Lions


When did you get your first big break?

I got my first break in Toronto with the 2009 Toronto Fringe Festival ( This is an annual theatre festival which features un-juried plays by artists from all over the world, mounted in various theatres all over the city. Quite by accident, I saw an audition notice from the Fringe Festival for Israel Horowitz’s one act play, The Indian Wants the Bronx. I knew the play well. It was the play that had made Al Pacino, the Al Pacino. The play is set in the sixties and tells the story of the fifty year old Gupta who arrives in New York from India to visit his son. The man barely speaks any English and is confronted by two hoodlums at a bus stop. A war of words follows and degenerates into tragic acts of rage and violence. The dark and gritty play was one that I had always wanted to be a part of. This was my chance.

‘It was too late to sign up for the audition, but my desire to act in the play was too great to be controlled’

I was too young for the role, did not have an agent at the time and it was too late to sign up for the audition, but my desire to act in the play was too great to be controlled. I showed up for the audition where I found the lobby full of fifty-year-old actors sitting to read from the play. Once they were all done, I raised my hand and sheepishly asked if I could audition. I was allowed to read from the script. I must have done well because I got a standing ovation from the producer and the director at the end. They were, however, concerned about my age and let me leave their offices somewhat flattered but decidedly disappointed. It wasn’t until two days later that they called to tell me that, after reviewing all audition tapes, they had decided to give me the role. After six weeks of grueling rehearsals, the play was mounted at Toronto’s famous landmark, Honest Ed’s where it played to sold out audiences and magnificent reviews.

Glickman Talent Management’s agent, Craig Alexander, saw my performance of Gupta and called me the next day to say that he wanted to represent me. He is my agent even today.


Do you have good memories of Pakistan?

I have great memories of working in Pakistan. At the age of seven, I acted in the highly successful TV series, Dhoop Kinaray, directed by my mother. Mom was worried about my ability to get the scene right and prepared to over-direct me when I surprised her by getting it right on the first and only take. I enjoyed working under my mother’s direction in Enver Sajjad’s play, Zikar Hai Kai Saal Ka, where my father and the beautiful Atiaqh Odho were my costars. My first drama serial, Phir Youn Love Hua, was directed by the immensely talented Rubina Ashraf in which I played the role of a young man named Sameer who falls hopelessly in love with a girl called Imaney played by the gorgeous Nadia Hussain. I worked on many other plays, tele-films and sitcoms, including Kaisa Yeh Junoon, Tere Ishq Main, Meethi Meethi Bathein, U-Turn, Kaisay Kahoon, Aurat Aur Mard, Urban Desi, Socha Na Tha and Haseena, in Pakistan. It is remarkable how Pakistan is able to produce high quality work with extremely limited resources and a socio-political environment that is rarely conducive to artistic expression.

Tell us about “Pride of Lions.”

My big break into Hollywood—the Promised Land—comes with the veteran director Sidney J. Furie action-adventure feature film, “Pride of Lions.” The ensemble cast includes legendary actors including Bo Svenson, Margot Kidder, Louis Gossett Jr., and Seymour Cassel. The movie tells the story of five individuals who decide to embark on a daring rescue mission to save a group of young U.S. soldiers who are held captive in northern Afghanistan.


Sidney is a great director and working with him has been both fun and a learning experience. He really is an eighty-year-old kid! Full of energy, vigor and spontaneity, he brings an intense vitality to the set. The first one to arrive on the sets, and the last one to leave, he is the captain of ship where the entire crew works together as a family. The action-adventure script, written by Furie himself, treads into areas reserved for more serious genres exploring the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren and finding humor in difference of views held by people of different generations.

Do you have a good life?

I am a very lucky individual. I make my living doing what I enjoy. One cannot ask for more.

Writer Muhammad Ahmed is that rare thing—a gentleman from another era


The world of screenwriting is unique: the writer labours away crafting beautiful dialogue for the actors, while he remains largely anonymous to audiences. Muhammad Ahmed has successfully merged the two professions. Mainly a screenwriter, he has also starred in several Pakistani drama serials including the much-lauded Coke Kahani and Durr-e-Shahwar. Simultaneously, he has penned the dialogue of blockbusters such as “Tere Bin Laden.” With a command of Urdu that would make old Allama proud, Ahmed is a jewel in the crown of Pakistani television. Through out, he has wielded humour in the service of a humane social agenda.

Of all the roles he has played, he says the character of Durr-e-Shahwar’s father is one of his favourites. He played the part of a caring advisor who gave his daughter (played by Samina Peerzada) little wisdoms that helped her confront her demons. He laughs, “At this point in drama serials, you basically get to only play the father.” The leading roles are reserved for the innocent or evil-as-the-devil female protagonist. But some roles allow for creativity. In Coke Kahani, for example, Ahmed was allowed to play around with a wig. “I’ve always hated wigs, if you’re bald, then you’re bald!”



‘We are told to keep the ending particularly tragic, to begin dousing the female lead in sorrow within the first 3-4 minutes!’

“I’ve taken a break from writing for dramas, because,” he says with his signature wit, “the only thing the industry is interested in is making women cry.” Seasonal trends, he says, dictate TV content. “In one spell, for example, you will only find dramas about extramarital affairs on all four major channels. The heads get together and see what subject the show with the highest ratings is featuring; then they feel a burning need to cash in on the same story!” Ahmed is making me laugh very hard at this point. He continues. “We are told to keep the ending particularly tragic, to begin dousing the female lead in sorrow within the first 3-4 minutes!”

Ahmed has mostly written light-hearted plays. A little-known fact: he wrote “Azar Ki Ayegi Baraat” (2009), the first in the comedy line-up that would eventually include the phenomenally popular “Dolly Ki Ayegi Baraat” and “Takkay ki Ayegi Baraat.” “Azar” starred some of the biggest names in Pakistani television, including Javed Sheikh, Saba Hameed, and the irrepressible Bushra Ansari.

Ever the modest poet, however, Ahmed says, “To clarify, I don’t write comedy—­that is Anwar Maqsood’s job and there has been no one to match his skill yet in Pakistan.”

Dolly Ki Ayegi Baraat
Dolly Ki Ayegi Baraat
Ahmed starring in Coke Kahani
Ahmed starring in Coke Kahani


But “Tere Bin Laden” was noted, especially, for its humorous script. Nikhat Kazmi of The Times of India gave it a 4 out of 5 rating, adding, “compared with recent laugh riots at box offices, Tere Bin Laden has both: a smart script and some smart acting.” Pankaj Sabnani of Bollywood Trade News Network said, “Tere Bin Laden is ‘laden’ with many humorous moments. It is by far the funniest film in recent times. A must watch.” Asked about his style, Ahmed says, “I’m not that good with punchlines, I don’t think my writing makes people laugh out loud, but it does make them smile.” Ahmed was selected after extensive testing and hired to train some of the non-Punjabi speaking cast members who found the Punjabi humour in the dialogue very fun. Citing an example, he says, “Woh bacchi bari tight hai,” something that no one in Pakistan would laugh at, since we have heard it so many times, but spoken by a Sikh in India it had everyone in stitches.

‘The beautiful things that Haseena Moeen has written will be lost to the world’

Ahmed has approached serious subjects too. When he wrote a play about incest, “Khamoshi,” it was banned from being aired a second time. “My reasons for writing about this particular subject was, first, that it was based on a true story and secondly, I wanted to prove that it is possible to write a story about something so vile without sounding vulgar and without the production seeming tacky.” The result was a beautifully directed, sensitive play.




With a career spanning three decades, Ahmed has, with immense grace, divided his talents into acting and writing. An old-fashioned gentleman at heart, he misses the days of yore, when script-writing was mesmerizing, designed to please the heart, not producers hungry for ratings. “No one will ever give television the same high status as literature. The beautiful things that Haseena Moeen has written, Tanhaiyan, Dhoop Kinaray, these all will be lost to the world as great writing.” 

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