She is wild, she is frantic, she is spontaneous, but in her own words she is indifferent, driven and badass – Ushna Shah has the makings of a true superstar. She has been in the spotlight for many reasons, but nothing has stopped her from being who she truly is. In this up front conversation with MAG, Ushna talks candidly about her work and all that has revolved in media over the last year. Excerpts:
We wrap up the shoot and reach Xanders for a late lunch, but its evening already, so supper it is, she corrects me as we settle down and order food. A day earlier, she had told me she’d be late for the photoshoot because she had been up all night for a TVC. She says she has barely slept, and yet, after 14 hours of non-stop work, Ush is still oozing with energy.
She is dressed simply in an orange tank top, jeans and sandals – her dark brown hair held together in a bun – a veneer of a girl-next-door image, perfect porcelain skin and that flawless flashy smile with dimples. But it’s the way she talks, that really makes her the actress she is.
“I’m a tenacious work-in-progress,” she describes herself when I ask her the same question I had asked six months ago. Quite a mouthful for an average listener, but still better than two random nouns that any television actress would have said.
Ushna is not new to the industry per se, her mother Ismat Tahira is an industry veteran who worked for PTV and Radio Pakistan as an actor and newscaster, her sister too is an actor, while her brother is a prominent figure in the theatre circuit. In short, Ushna has been brought up in a world of performing arts. When I ask if she is burdened by expectations because of her lineage, she shrugs it off.
“It works in my benefit because people decide to give me a chance instead of doubting me, because they assume that I’ll have something to offer. So I’m not worried about expectations, it has just worked in my benefit, if anything,” she says.
Ushna is not the average desi lass who happened to stumble across showbiz, she seems to be someone who always knew what she wanted to do.
“I have known that this is what I wanted to do since I was born. When I was four or five I used to wrap myself in my mother’s dupatta pretending it’s a sari, wearing her lipsticks and reciting fake news and putting up shows,” she reminisces with a glint in her eyes.
“I have always spoken publicly and been on the stage, I’m more comfortable performing and entertaining than anything else.”
Ushna hasn’t proactively worked in local theatre yet. She wants to desperately, but laments how the television industry is too time consuming for one to do anything else at all.
“I’ve grown up in theatre, I’ve directed plays in school and college since I was 9, and I’ve practically lived backstage in Alhamra,” she says, adding “I love the smell of theatre and once I put together a few projects and take some time off, I will definitely direct a play.”
She forayed into television with the drama serial Mere Khawabon Ka Diya and then Rukhsar, but it was Bashar Momin that marked her as an actor to watch out for. However, she has had her share of bad projects too.
“My first serial, Aag aired on Play Max and thankfully no one watched it, but I signed it when I was in Canada and we made it with a good heart, it just didn’t come out the way we wanted it to,” she admits. But her performance as Mahrukh– the conniving anatagonist in Rukhsar – got her noticed.
“Mahrukh’s character was very evil and provocative, I didn’t care about how I was being portrayed and it was more about being sincere to my work,” she notes.
“I worked very hard and people absolutely hated me after that drama came out, and right after Bashar Momin, in which I played the quintessential nice girl, the same audience thought I was the most innocent creature on the planet. The truth is – I’m neither Rudaba nor Mahrukh – if I was able to convince people of my so-called ‘innocence’ and ‘manipulative skills’ then I think I did my job alright.”
Only a few days back, we got into a serious argument on WhatsApp, a conversation we laughed off later over food. But the war of words could have been a treat for any average reader. As much as she is expressive on screen, she is as articulate when choosing words, with a profuse vocabulary at her disposal. Citing that instance, I ask her why she doesn’t try writing and she tells me that after acting, writing is her second passion.
“I love writing, but I don’t get time to write, although I’m working on telefilm scripts these days,” she discloses, quickly adding that since English is her first language, she thinks and writes in English and later translates it into Urdu.
“It’s only been a year and a half that I learnt to read Urdu so that I could work in dramas.”
None of this come as a surprise when she told me that she had studied English and Professional Writing from York University.
“I still have a semester left and I’m thinking of going back and completing my degree because I am bored here.”
Not many know this, but Ushna has tried her hand in radio too, in fact she was merely six years old when she hosted her first ever radio show.
“I was an RJ when I was six, I had my own show Bache Sab Se Achay in Radio Punjab. My mother created a show for me in which she herself, Irfan Khoosat sahib, Azmul Haq sahib and many others would voice different characters of children from humble backgrounds, and I was just a little girl who’d speak to them. It was a kid’s show meant to educate society about the hardships faced by poor children and their families.
“It was good fun and I had no idea what I was talking about because I was six years old of course, but I would get all this fan mail, which I would answer on air with a little lisp in my high-pitched voice,” she recalls.
Talking about her experience as an RJ in Canada, Ushna reveals she worked for Radio Punjab when she was in Vancouver too.
“I learnt the Sikh dialect of Punjabi there, I had no idea how to speak Punjabi my entire life, my mother would speak and I understood it, but I learned Punjabi on that show and now I can proudly say that I speak the true Amritsar dialect of Punjabi to a tee.”
Ushna has had her share of challenges, just like any other newcomer, but it has been a learning curve for her. She admits she was a terrible actor in her first drama, barely knew much about make-up and would often let the make-up artist cake her face with foundation.
“I don’t do that now!” she laughs. But on a serious note, she says she didn’t know how the industry worked.
“I didn’t know how to handle producers and I wasn’t guided into that by my family, I sort of rebelled and joined, and there was nobody to hold my hand and walk me through, but I was given a lot of respect and chances, and I learned on the job.”
“As an actor, I’m just sincere to my work, sincere to things that excite me, so if it’s a character I can resonate with, I will give it my hundred percent,” she says as she takes a dainty bite at the honey mustard chicken sandwich.
She has an element of spontaneity to whatever she does and has no qualms being vocal about the ideas in her head. For her acting is a stepping stone right now, and she sees herself directing and producing in future.
“When I’m writing a script, I’m automatically directing it in my head and when I’m acting, I’m the first person to go behind the camera and see what frames they are making.”
When I ask her about Bollywood – a question every actor or singer in Pakistan is asked – Ushna is disarmingly forthright.
“Definitely! If I get a good role, then why not! And whoever says they don’t want to, is lying!” she quips, taking a jibe at actors who shun across-the-border productions, but jump the bandwagon the first chance they get.
We talk about cars, Lamborghini Reventon in particular – the one thing she wished she could buy, but can’t afford; the Game of Thrones’ season finale and Al Pacino’s films before moving on to a sensitive topic.
Ushna faced the brunt of yellow journalism when a fabricated news about her was propagated on social media, aimed at tarnishing her reputation, but she has repelled it all with astounding confidence. She has been silent all along on the matter, but when I probe her side of the story, she opens up.
“Somebody blew it out of proportion and turned it into a scandal, only to offer damage control later, which in turn had nothing to do with their guilt of getting an innocent victim of collateral damage caught up in a personal feud,” she puts it adequately.
“And I don’t want to give anybody that power where they can say something malicious about me, and I have to go around clearing myself because in all honesty, if I start clearing one rumour then there will be another, and this won’t stop.
“For me, my ego and self-respect is what’s keeping me from clearing out these rumours” she says with a pert tone admitting that the scandal hurt her and her family, but she was strong enough to have lived through it.
“I am above gossip, if I do my job right, I’ll face plenty of scandals, just like what Drake says, ‘they’re telling lies about me, oh yeah, I must have made it!’” she rebuffs confidently.
We talk more about the subsequent turn of events in detail and it’s obvious that Ushna is too blunt for her own self. She may have gotten herself embroiled in the feud due to her forthrightness, but despite all that has happened, she refuses to be pretentious.
“I’m not diplomatic, and I’m often told I’m not made for this industry, I can’t sugarcoat or chummy up to get ahead and that lands me into a lot of trouble,” she says, adding, “maybe I’m just wired that way!”
“What I really want to touch down upon is that a lot of respectable media outlets published a rumour without citing sources, doing their background checks or confirming it, which was extremely irresponsible, and if it was someone else other than me, she could’ve hurt herself.
“So all those behind it should at least have a modicum of conscientiousness because it was very irresponsible to put someone’s life on the line like that just for the sake of ratings and few hits because it’s not funny!” she says, a lividness shadowing her tone.
Since that time, Ushna has chosen to distance herself from the media and certain quarters in general.
“I go to selected parties and I have distanced myself from a lot of people because I was really put off by everything, but it was a learning experience and I have learned that its best to stick to a few you trust.”
I try to change the topic and bring her to a more pertinent question from a typical Pakistani perspective – about her plans to settle down. She is seeing someone, and it is evident from her Facebook status updated last December, but she doesn’t disclose who that lucky guy is.
“I’ll settle down when my career is at a certain point and when I, and my significant other are ready for it.” Aptly put, but Ushna is a veteran in the love department.
“I have been in love too many times and it’s a problem, to be honest,” she chuckles, also disclosing that she has had some nasty, ugly breakups. But she is a guy’s gal, her knowledge of gadgets and cars will put one to shame, and she jokes that she prefers gadgets over make-up. Sounds like a tomboy? No, she isn’t, she is a tough chick.
“I have my girly moments, I dress like a girl and I act like a girl!”
As we round up the conversation, Ush wishes she could tone down her bluntness and be a little politically correct.
“But then that wouldn’t be me, would it? I am a bit too honest with everything, I just cannot be fake – perhaps I need a filter.” •
Coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Designer: Rizwan Beyg @ Ghazo
Photography: Rohail Khalid