In conversation with Zainab Ahmed

“Theatre taught me how to act. Television taught me how to deal with people”

You have seen her in Love Life Aur Lahore, Samjhota Express, Abro, Dil Mohallay ki Haveli, Maa Sadqay, Dua, Anaya Tumhari Hui and many more serials. She has made you cry with her good-girl roles and made you hate her in her spoilt-brat avatar – but time and again, she has proven her mettle by giving performances that you fell for. The theatre and television actress with a smile that will melt you, Zainab Ahmed sits down for a candid chat with MAG. Excerpts:

It is hard to believe that someone with an angelic face such as hers could ever be a menace, even as a child. Which is why I am shocked to hear her say, “My mom describes me as a terror! [As a child, I was] very stubborn, bratty and absolutely crazy. I was also the youngest in the family, so I got away with a lot.” During that time, among the many things that caught her fancy was, this comes as no surprise, performing arts. Zainab reminisces, “I loved singing and dancing and would make everyone sit around the drawing room and hold performances. I was a part of the choir in school and took classical dance lessons, but I never thought of it as something I wanted to do professionally.

In life, we cross paths with many people who change us, some for the good, some for the bad. Fortunately, Zainab’s life took an exciting turn in her O levels. “My literature teacher, Fiza Hassan is the reason I’m an actor today. She conducted a creative writing workshop at the Alliance where they wrote a play, and then decided to stage it. That was the beginning of my love for acting and the stage.” And like love makes each of us feel, it gave her the butterflies, too. But in Zainab’s case, the feeling was accompanied by lots of stage fright and nervousness as well. The actress recalls her first day on sets and shares, “It was a surreal haze. I had been called in for a small role with two scenes. Being used to theatre and having month-long rehearsals to memorise and block [the scenes], I was a nervous wreck and just stuck to my script. Luckily, I had wonderful co-actors and an awesome director, and I did the scene in one take. Even the director appreciated me and told me I was talented.” But she insists it got better once she got the hang of things.

Zainab is one of the few artistes who started off from theatre and then turned to television, and so, naturally, I ask her which of the mediums she likes the most. “Theatre,” she answers without thinking, and explains why. “First and foremost, rehearsals; the time to actually build the character, get into the nitty gritties and create an entire world. It’s also done in an organic sequence from beginning to end, so there is a very natural arc that we get to explore, where as in television you pick up scenes from different points depending on the availability of the actors, locations, etc,” she continues, “Then of course, the adrenaline rush and instant gratification you get from a live performance when you know it’s just that one take and one shot. That is just priceless.” Among the biggest differences she has encountered between the two worlds, there is one she quite eloquently puts as, “Theatre taught me how to act. Television taught me how to deal with people.”

But I wonder if there might be another reason why she would have this preference. I’m sure she has been fighting with one of the actors’ worst enemies; typecasting. I have often caught Zainab playing a mother to an actress her own age. And while it is commendable that she would take on roles that most of her contemporaries wouldn’t consider, I ask her if she thinks she is a victim of typecasting? “Yes, our industry does tend to typecast quite a bit. At first I’d always gotten typecast into the westernised, spoilt-brat [roles]. Then I got stuck in the young-to-old roles. Now, I’m stuck in the shalwar kameez-wearing, doe-eyed good girl,” she clarifies earnestly, but never losing her sense of optimism, the 28 year old says, “But hey, at least they change every few serials, so let’s see what happens next!” And even though typecasting might limit her choices to a certain extent, she likes to focus on “the story and character” while selecting her projects, “especially the trajectory of her journey, and those character-defining moments”, while playing an antagonist is also something she likes, as, in her words, “it’s fun being the bad guy”. I ask her, even if just to suppose, what kind of roles she would pick for herself given all the choices in the world, and out comes the answer, “A beggar, a prostitute, an actress, a blind woman, a serial killer, a witch… the list goes on!” I note that Zainab embodies the true Aquarian spirit; she is eccentric and free-spirited and has a unique sense of humour. What feeds the artiste in her? “Books, movies, music, people I meet and the places I go – you can find inspiration anywhere.” Osman Khalid Butt, Ali Rehman Khan, Mariam Saleem, Uzair Jaswal and Usman Mukhtar are some names that come to her mind when I ask of her friends in the industry. These days she is shooting with Noor Hassan and the two frequently post funny videos together that are doing rounds. “Noor is awesome! He’s a lot of fun, great energy and very professional. And we bounce off each other really well, which I think comes through even when we act together, be it in a serial or a silly funny video,” Zainab says of her chemistry between the two. Currently, she is working on two projects, Beti and a yet untitled drama. “Both are very different scripts, and characters, but both appeal to the feminist in me and speak volumes on women empowerment and social issues.” The Tabeer star wishes to work with Mehreen Jabbar and Sakina Sammo as directors one day, as she “absolutely love[s] their work”. But with high levels of excitement in her voice she reveals to me, “There is a director in me that is dying to come out.” And with a twinkle in her eyes, she discloses her real dream, “Directing my feature film that will premier at Cannes.”