Sohai Ali Abro - Unshackling Stereotypes

  • 14 Apr - 20 Apr, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

The moments leading up to one meeting are spent ill at ease. My interviewee finally appears, with a cup of coffee in her hand. Sohai's energy is contagious and her apology heartfelt for the slight delay, as she bends to shake my hand. Her excited grin instantly pulls me out of my unease. Sohai is surprisingly agile in a pair of stilettos, as the actress stands tall telling me how she's been ‘super’ occupied since the morning. Well, I’d be rather surprised if she wasn’t, with her film drawing to its release in the current month, her days and nights are consumed with promotions.

Sohai Ali Abro is no stranger to the big screen. After a string of appearances in many television dramas, she has three films to her credit, namely Anjuman, Wrong No. and Jawani Phir Nahi Aani, the latter two being big commercial hits. With a new film all geared to hit the Pakistani screens, Abro is the talk of the town. In the biopic Motorcycle Girl, she is seen essaying the role of Zenith Irfan; the first Pakistani woman who travelled solo across the country on a motorcycle.

Seated across, after an exchange of pleasantries, Sohai gives me her beautiful high-school girl grin and asks if I liked the movie’s trailer. Of course, I did! The clip is rather soul-stirring; it has thrilling, goose bumps-raising visuals of Sohai mounted on a motorcycle, defying all odds as she journeys across the northern areas of Pakistan. I ask if she had ever ridden a motorcycle before she was offered the film. “Never!” she makes it known. “Born in Karachi, I wasn’t even allowed to go [out] and play. I never got to try my hand at it. I didn’t even know how to pedal, or drive a car, let alone a motorcycle!” Amused, I ask her how difficult and new it must be for her to learn to ride a two-wheeler. “Oh, it was quiet difficult at the start. I started by learning how to cycle. Then, finally I acquainted myself with riding the motorcycle. It has been a rather interesting process.”

So, how was the experience, I pose my question as I feel compelled to ask. “Exhilarating,” she articulates, almost serenely. “It has to be the most soul-awakening and liberating thing I have done in my life. To feel the wind playing with your hair and brushing your face, as you speed across the roads, is very refreshing.”

I ask Sohai if there was some semblance of fear mingling with the excitement. “Yes, there was!” she releases the words with a gentle gasp. “It was really scary in the start. We were shooting in the northern areas, and the roads there are crazy! And then there were these steep ravines. I used to wonder, if a truck happens to speed by and hits from the back, I’d instantly succumb to death,” she shares with her eyes wide, encouraging me to indulge in the sobriety of such an event. “And the next day, there will be a breaking news: ‘Ubharti huwi sitara Sohai Ali Abro, film ki shooting kay dauran, ek khaufnaak haadsey mein wafaat pagayein’,” she jokes.

Sohai talks at length about her meeting with Zenith Irfan in flesh and washing herself in her boundary-breaking story. “She is an inspiration and a symbol of strength. I was eager to meet her to get some insights into her character. We hung out a couple of time. And then I followed her extensively on social media. Basically I did my best to drench myself in everything that made Zenith Irfan, who she is.”

haring her overall experience in filming a stereotype-shattering film, Sohai discloses, “This film is like our baby. I want the world to see it, experience it like the way we created it,” and adds, “In the past years, a film [about] or the filming of a young woman motorcycling solo across Pakistan would have been out of question. Forget filming, could you ever imagine a woman motorcycling solo across the city?” she challenges. She further remarks that times have changed dramatically and women empowerment has risen from a deep comatose. Its a great time for a film like hers to set the stage, shatter further stereotypes, be accepted and appreciated.

The actress surmises her two-year hiatus in a single line that sinks instantly in the heart, “I think I was waiting for the role of Zenith all this time.” she says with a mischievous smile.

Looking at Sohai, I feel a wave of nostalgia wash over me. Visions of her innocent, gullible face from her television dramas from 2013, Tanhai and Khoya Khoya Chand play in my mental theatre. Looking at her now, clad in striped blue cold-shoulder top and pale blue jeans, talking about a big film in her bag, I remark how the actress has come a long way. Her role as Zenith is poles apart from the conventional roles she has taken up in the past. A role like this would help prove Sohai’s mettle as a daring actor and might be a beginning of the actress taking up more eccentric roles in the future.

After filming and being an integral part of two major cinematic releases like Wrong No. and Jawani Phir Nahi Aani in 2015, this will be the first time we will see her back on-screen. “I kept turning down scripts because I wanted to escape the conventional,” she candidly explains. “I wanted to take up more eccentric and bolder roles, not the usual patakha larki roles I have delivered in the past. I wanted to break out of those and not restrict myself.”

Often, when an actor delivers similar roles over and over on the celluloid, it tends to set a template around them. According to Sohai, it is a death of an actor when he or she is considered bound or fit to play only a particular role at all times. She has a penchant for exploring, being experimental and evolving herself as an actor.

At this moment, Sohai mechanically reaches for the chips on the table leaving me slightly taken aback. Aren’t celebrities supposed to be conscious about eating healthy and staying prim? Our next conversation clears it for me.

“I do not want to be a celebrity,” Sohai makes it known; “I want the audiences to appreciate my skills as a good actor, I don’t want to box it in as being a celeb. People ask me to be more active on social media to build my fandom. But I do not follow that staunchly, I have my acting skills to earn me any honours.”

In her previous films, one always found Sohai in the wake of glamour. A spectacular dancer that she is, all her on-screen performances have been alluring and scene-stealing. I ask her if she believes that a film without any glamour quotient can do wonders at box office.

“Yes it can,” she affirms. “We have scores of films that are testament to this. Films that had no masala, no glamour and no item numbers, nothing! Yet they performed wonderfully at the box offices and with the masses. Content is king. As long as you are giving something entertaining to the audiences, which justifies the 600 rupees or more they spend on the ticket to watch you perform, you are doing great.” In a rather resigned tone, she adds, “We have many films that cater to the glamour genre. We have commercials for that. I don’t believe glamour is a prerequisite for a film to fare well at the box office.”

What if you have to set the dimensions of your career as an actor or a dancer? I question Sohai, about the dilemma. “Now that, I really can’t decide. I want the best of both worlds,” she tells me.

Given the fact that Adnan Sarwar’s first film Shah did not fare well at the box office, I ask the actress about her expectations from his second directorial venture. He has brought so much into this film. So has Jami. So have I. We have big guns like Samina Peerzada, Ali Kazmi and Sarmad Khoosat. We have delivered our best. Honestly, I am not too, much moved by a box office win. I want the film to fare well with the masses and shatter stereotypes. I define that as my success.”

When I ask who the young actress attributes her success to, Sohai takes her time to answer. “It would be my father. I was very young when I lost him,” she replies, gently. I could see a susceptible shine in her eyes and didn’t press the question any further. This is a sad circumstance, which Sohai shares with Zenith, who too lost her father when she was young. “Then there were people who told me I won’t succeed in my goals,” she spills. “Their lack of faith in me perhaps pushed me to my success in life.”

I ask Sohai, the one thing that she likes about being an actor apart from the fiery fame and money, to which she responds intelligently, “Fame and money never tempted me much. For me, delivering the best as an actor was always the first priority,” She pauses briefly and continues, “I feel that if you are doing a good job and are doing justice to your roles; fame and money, both follow suit. If [they] mattered as much, I wouldn’t have taken a two-year hiatus, like I did. I had the choice of signing up for many scripts, but I held my horses, waiting for the right role which will not tether me to the conventional.”

peaking about her inspirations, Sohai shares, “There are a lot of actors who inspired me. I was a film buff since a child and watched a lot of Hollywood and Bollywood. But now that I am an actor myself, I feel it is crucial to be original,” she stresses. “I will not want to be the second version of someone or something. I don’t want to follow someone’s legacy, I want to become my own. My individuality as an actor is key to me.”

I ask her about her favourite costars, and she was all praises for her director. “Adnan is a great person to work with!” she interjects. “I have already told him to cast me in his next film,” Sohai jokes. The actress also greatly lauds the work of Saba Qamar.

A contemporary leading actress like Sohai ought to have some serious competition. I inquire, who she considers her real competitors in the industry. She draws in a heavy breath and responds, “Ah, I have a very clichéd answer to that. But it’s true,” she promises. “There are scores of outstanding actors out there that do wonders with their performances. It is often good to have competition, I feel it improves you as a person, but honestly, I never felt the need to compete with anyone in the industry. I made sure I was getting my work done and doing it great. Yes, I am pretty self obsessed that way!” she concludes with a guffaw.

It is believed that a film like Motorcycle Girl could prove to be a trailblazer for more films on unshackling gender stereotypes in Pakistan. What impact do you think the film may relay on the viewers and the society as a whole? I ask her. “This will be game changing,” Sohai relays. “The goal of the film is beyond it being a box office grosser. The change we have tried to foster is the thought process. We expect women to be spotted on the roads with their motorbikes. Nobody would find anything peculiar about women being on bikes on their own, nobody would catcall at them, or harass them, or take pictures of them to mock them. Nobody would go like, ‘Oh look! A woman riding a bike!’ This is the change we have worked so hard for.”

Sohai highlights the role of men supporting women as pivotal. “Do you know that it was Zenith Irfan’s brother who taught her how to ride a motorbike?” she asks, enchanted. “And when you look at how beautifully Adnan’s script has described the nuances of a girl biking across the country, you could never tell that a man wrote it. So this is what we need, men supporting women. It’s important, if not absolutely necessary.”

My last question about her future projects had Sohai shaking her head. “Gah!,” she fakes a shiver. “Probably a vacation to Maldives or Srilanka. I am going to take a long awaited break from work!”