Who doesn’t know Meesha Shafi? The woman who brought back Arif Lohar and red mohawks; gave local women the confidence to wear wife-beaters and showed young mothers everywhere that getting married and having children does not render one’s career inutile—that it is only if you go chasing after your dreams that you’ll be able to realize them.
Meesha’s super-star status in Pakistan might not be more than a couple of years old, but it is certainly a well-merited one. Not only has she helped broaden Pakistan’s traditional conceptions of what is beautiful, she has brought immense diversity to the table, proving her own mettle and prowess each step of the way with everything she has put her mind to, whether it be walking the ramp, representing an international cosmetics brand, acting in sitcoms, singing ‘Jugni’ with Arif Lohar on Coke Studio, being the Pakistan Day cover girl of Xpozé (August 2009), and now, landing a role in the legendary Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 bestselling novel: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist.’
Here, this young fireball of talent, good looks and energy tells me how she landed the gig that’ll surely up her celebrity a few notches soon; her experience of working with and befriending Golden Globe & Filmfare champs that she grew up admiring; her mother’s critical analysis of her work, and everything that falls in between including Delhi, a strong family support system and much much more…
First modeling, then music, television, brand association with L’Oréal Paris as their spokesperson in Pakistan, and now a larger-than-life movie star. Just how do you do it?
I take my career a day at a time. I’ve always followed my belief of doing quality work and I never pressurize myself for quantity of work or publicity. I see my projects as individual chapters or experiences and try to pick offers that are challenging and new as well as interesting. These transitions from one side of showbiz to another and back are not conscious. I find following the natural direction that my career path is paving for me a rewarding way of progressing so far. I plan to stick to it.
Tell me the story of how you landed the movie gig.
I’ve always been a big fan of Mira Nair. She brings our culture and issues to life so expertly and with ease. Mira’s vision is truly gifted and she really knows how to translate it for the big screen in the most beautiful of ways. Her movies are like paintings. So when I heard she was in Pakistan, I went for an informal screen-test while she was looking to cast actors for this film. My purpose was solely to meet her. That alone was an exciting notion in itself. I hadn’t expected much from this meeting professionally to be honest. When I got a call back confirming my casting, it was a fantastic surprise.
Had you met Mohsin Hamid before? How well read-up on his works (especially The Reluctant Fundamentalist) were you before you took on the project?
I had met him a few times. But we were only acquainted. I had read the book a while back but went back to it once I was on board. Mohsin was involved in the screenplay the whole way. Some characters have been introduced, others further developed. All with a great deal of sensitivity and a lot of analysis of course.
Tell me a bit about your character in the movie.
The role is one of an extremely spirited character who goes from being a spritely young thing to growing up and facing the realities that her family (more directly her brother Changez) is facing in the wake of very current affairs. Based on Mohsin Hamid’s book, this film is a big achievement for him and our nation. The book lends an interesting perspective to the times we live in and the realities we are facing. It talks so honestly of the changes in attitude and equal opportunities that young Pakistanis are facing in ‘The land of dreams: America,’ as well as at home.
How easy was it for you to be able to relate with her?
Extremely easy actually. My family in the film is so similar to mine that it is uncanny. They are a literary, progressive, extremely cultured family. Despite trying times, they are elegant and graceful, very close knit and supportive of each other. Even under some unusual circumstances. In real life, I am one of two siblings, just like in the movie. That made the nuances of a brother-sister relationship easy to communicate.
A lot of actors I’ve spoken to say they actually resist trying to find common-grounds with the characters they portray because actors aren’t supposed to be who they play at all. Do you agree with that?
Not really. I might agree with it depending on a particular role, but to always apply this unconditionally would be a bit unwise. Artists are sensitive people. They hold on to their experiences and emotions more than others. To tap into those dimensions and use them as references can be a valuable acting tool. After all, the best acting is when it doesn’t look like you’re acting.
Working with accomplished actors like Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi has got to be an overwhelming experience for anyone. What was your first reaction when you got the final list of the movie’s star-studded cast?
It is such an exciting project, to say the least. This is a big opportunity. Working with all the legendary names on board will be a great learning experience for me. Sharing the screen with such a stellar cast and being directed by none other than Mira Nair is a dream come true. For me, she was definitely the biggest star on set.
Who were you the biggest fan of? Have your perceptions changed about anyone after meeting them personally and then spending time working with them?
Oh yes! I was already a big fan of Riz Ahmed and Om Puri. But after working with them, I realized that they are such naturals. I’ve seen excellent performances by both previously, but to see them on set while in the middle of a riveting scene is an amazing experience.
I am also a huge fan of Mr. Declan Quinn who was the director of photography, (he shot some iconic ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’ and ‘U2’ videos in the 90s, the breathtakingly beautiful ‘Kama Sutra’, ‘Monsoon Wedding’, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and a personal favourite ‘In America’ amongst countless other movies). On second camera, Sanjay Sami, who amongst a vast and overwhelming portfolio, shot ‘The Fall’. That one I really can’t get over. It is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen! The list goes on, but I can’t not mention what an honor it was to work with Kris Evans, who was the head of make-up and has got movies like ‘Con Air’, all the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, all the ‘X-Men’, the new ‘Spider-Man’, ‘House of Sand and Fog’ under her belt. The list goes on!
Who’s been the most fun to work with so far? And who’s the most difficult?
It sounds too good to be true, but it was one of those rare experiences when you are truly surrounded by professionals who, despite being brilliant at what they do and being the best in the business, were so hardworking, so organized and still so encouraging and warm, they were inspirational! The most fun were Om Puri (he has killer wit and timing, remember ‘East is East?’), Riz, who is like a ball of endless energy and talent and Mira herself. She is so young at heart, positive and loving. And her vision and aesthetics are phenomenal. To watch them unfold onto the camera was awe-inspiring. And how can I forget Shabana Azmi. Her poise and elegance are really something to look up to.
Of all the people working with you on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who were you most apprehensive about sharing screen-space with?
Nobody really. I’m an extremely secure person. I believe in myself and look forward to working with new people rather than wasting time feeling apprehensive. If anything, I was looking forward to scenes with each and every one of my co-stars. They are all names to behold in global cinema.
So tell me about the Mira Nair experience…
She is just the most amazing lady. So classy; so particular about each and every detail about her projects. She has a sharp eye for aesthetics and she’s hopelessly in love with all things beautiful. This of course, is highly evident in her work.
I think Mira exudes this warmth that touches all those she works with. The fact that most of her team has been with her for the last twenty years is testimony of this very fact. After a harrowing all night shoot, a day before I was coming back, she took out half an hour out of her extremely valuable time (I mean, really, she’s in the middle of shooting a major movie, with days that begin at 5:00am and ended late night) and left a parcel of presents in my trailer for baby J! No matter what the stress levels, no matter what the situation, I never once saw her lose her cool or her focus. She is truly one of a kind!
Was it unnerving being directed by a woman who in the past has directed actors like Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah, Reese Witherspoon, Richard Gere, Hilary Swank, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman (the list literally goes on!)?
Yes it was, but only till before I started shooting. Once we began, I knew that she had believed in me, when she could have picked anyone from Hollywood, Bollywood or Pakistan. That meant that it was time to focus on the job at hand: Performing. That’s all I bothered myself with from that point on. I’m not the sort to waste my emotional energy on hang ups, comparisons or inhibitions. When it’s time to get into character and prove yourself in the midst of such a golden team, you get to work.
How many sittings did you have with Mohsin and Mira to understand their perceptions about the story over all as well as your character?
The three of us only got to sit together once unfortunately, as Mohsin wasn’t present once we started rehearsing and going over the scenes. But with Mira, there were many meetings and talks.
Were there any conflicts of viewpoints between you, the author and the director?
Not even once. We did however go over many details as far as the art department; costume department and language were concerned. I was one of the only two people on board actually from Lahore (the city where the movie is set), and Mira wanted absolutely no compromise on authenticity.
Walk me through a normal shooting day on a Mira Nair film set.
We would arrive at base camp, which would be set up from scratch every night near the given location, for breakfast and then into our trailers for makeup and costume. Once shooting began, time just flew, flew, flew! As far as the details of the shoot are concerned, I am not at liberty to divulge many details at this point. I guess you’ll just have to wait for the movie to come out!
Do you feel there are any major work-ethic differences in the way Mira goes about her business and the way things are usually done in Pakistan?
Are you kidding me??? Or is this a serious question?
Would you ever consider doing a Pakistani movie after The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
I would never say no unconditionally to a local movie. But sadly, so far, most scripts here are weak. And a script is the backbone of a movie. But given a quality script and project, why not?
What’s the one thing you’ve learned from your Hollywood counterparts?
It’s all about working hard, and that too, consistently. There are no short cuts to being brilliant. We have the talent, but we don’t have the training or the knowledge and experience that working in a healthy, booming movie industry gives you. There’s a world of fine work and amazing opportunities out there. It’s sad that we have very limited ways of getting to it.
And what have your colleagues from Bollywood taught you?
Again, because of how booming their movie industry is, they know what it means to be true professionals. Even though they are such senior actors, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi would be on set at the crack of dawn: punctual, hardworking, well-rehearsed and ready to go!
What’s your family’s take on you becoming a Holly/Bolly star with The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
They are extremely proud and very excited for me. As a working mother now, their support and help is crucial for me. This opportunity would have passed me by if either my family or my in laws were not so supportive of my work. I thank them and God for blessing me with such a strong support system every day.
Your mom (Saba Hamid) is known as the woman who hands out free advice to young actors in the industry. How helpful have her acting expertise been for you? How often do you turn to her for acting advice?
Her tips and advice are simple yet extremely helpful. She has oodles of knowledge and experience on top of being a natural. I haven’t acted much till now, but whenever I do, I always do turn to her. She’s very critical, but that’s what helps the most. She doesn’t believe in mincing her words or sugarcoat her feedback. No one better than your own mother to review you, right!?
Rafina, the movie your mom has done with internationally acclaimed director Sabiha Sumar is also due to come out shortly. How does that make you feel?
I’m so proud of my mother. She has always shone on Pakistan’s TV screens as well as in the hearts of so many. Her career has been acknowledged and honored this year when her ‘Pride of Performance’ award was announced on the 14th of August this year. She will be receiving it on the 23rd of March next year when the ceremony is due to be held. Her father, my grandfather Hamid Akhtar (veteran progressive writer, free thinker and intellectual) received his Pride of Performance last year. I wish I was accomplished enough by next year. We would have had a three generation family hat-trick!!! I can’t wait to be there for her with a proud smile. Mama is one of the very few remaining actors still working from PTV’s glory days. The golden era of our TV dramas. Her experience and talent is undeniable. It’s sad that the silver screen has been dwindling at best in the past few decades. Otherwise, our great actors would have painted that medium with their magic as well. But things are slowly moving in the right direction. She will shine on any screen she appears on.
And how supportive has your husband been throughout the process?
Mahmood’s support is an integral part of all my achievements. He doesn’t just support me, he is a huge help. His musical advice and expertise makes us an amazing in-house team. I can see how proud he is of me being cast for TRF. It is a rare phenomenon in our country for a husband to support his wife in showbiz. His best qualities are that he is a secure, content, talented and hardworking person. To not be insecure or feel threatened of being with a woman who is always in front of the camera is easier said than done. He sets a fine example and I hope other young men can learn from this and give their women a chance to realize their true potential in whatever they choose to do.
Your daughter’s obviously not traveling with you to India. Do you ever feel guilty about leaving her behind for such a long period of time?
I have an 8 month old beautiful daughter. Leaving her when I’m working is definitely the hardest part for me as a working woman. But she has a house full of grandparents, aunts and uncles who love her and spoil her rotten in my absence. A certain degree of guilt is ingrained in every mother, in me even more than usual. But if a parent didn’t feel guilty at the notion of leaving a child, children all over would be neglected and scarred. This feeling of guilt is what makes you count the days you are away and makes you come running back to have your baby in your arms again; where she belongs. Having said that, I myself was raised by a working mother, for which I have never blamed her or held this against her. In fact, I am proud of how she managed raising two children while working full time. After becoming a mother, I understand even more that it is heartbreaking for the parent to be away as well. But to quote my dear friend Juggun Kazim (who is also a working mother): “Give your child a mother who she can be proud of, not someone who sat at home and grew fat!”
But still, you’ve clearly proven yourself to be a model for working moms the world over. Do you have advice for other working moms?
Children are very intelligent, sensitive and understanding. As long as the time you spend with them is good quality, and you make sure they understand the nature and pattern of your work, they do adjust. Giving up your own life, your hopes and dreams is not the way to earn their respect. Besides, they should get a chance to grow independent and confident, but always under your watchful eye. You can and should love and nurture them instead of smothering them.
What has your overall experience working on The Reluctant Fundamentalist been like so far?
The experience has very intense. Working on a major movie day in and day out, with the same people while you’re away from home is like living with a new family. You can also compare it to being at camp. It takes a while to snap out of it and get back to real life.
The film shoots in New York, Lahore and Delhi? Which of the three places did you personally enjoy most?
Yeah, shooting was quite exciting because we got to do it in three iconic cities. I have a soft spot for Delhi as it is very similar to Lahore. And New York is just so full of its own unique energy, which is hard not to like. My work is mostly in Delhi. I wish more scenes for the movie could have been shot in my beautiful city of Lahore as originally planned. But alas!
How well did you enjoy the Delhi experience? What did you and the rest of the cast & crew spend your free time doing?
There is very little free time, but that which we got, we spent it going out to experience the city and its many flavours.
Pakistanis love shopping in Delhi. What markets did you raid and what all have you brought home?
Khan Market is by far my pick! I have shopped for the baby and the house more than anything else.
Some people call you a style chameleon. What’s your personal favourite hair & makeup look for yourself?
My staple is a pair of fantastic jeans (something one should invest in and never compromise on), a wifebeater (I have them in every colour imaginable), a clean washed face, au natural hair and sneakers! But then I do like drastic changes from time to time. Just last year I chopped my hair off and went around with a pregnant belly and a red Mohawk. Being a L’Oréal Paris Spokesperson in Pakistan, I consider clothes and styling a very important form of self-expression.
You’re hardly a conventional Pakistani girl; you have a very distinct style sense. How well have you been able to channel that in your role? What’s your styling like in the movie?
A lot of my personal wardrobe has been used by the costume department and mixed and matched with what they came up with for the character. I did have a lot of input in what I wore. I wanted it to be real, convincing and unique at the same time, and hope it shows in the movie!
What’s your workout & skin care regime while shooting for the movie?
The work and schedule itself is a workout! But I never take any shortcuts with my skin care. With all the makeup and heat from lights and outdoor shoots, your skin can really suffer. I cleanse tone and moisturize religiously. I also drink lots of water and never skip my multivitamins like a good girl.
I think now’s the perfect time to ask you this: What do you enjoy doing more: modeling, singing or acting?
I only do what I enjoy. Forcing yourself always shows, and it ends up affecting the final product. As long as I’m doing all of the above, you can know for certain that I’m getting some kind of creative gratification from all three.
What kind of books and movies do you usually enjoy most?
If I started listing names, the list would never end. I’m a sucker for beauty. I love both fiction and nonfiction. I think there are some fantastic books being written by South Asian writers. As for specifics, some of my favourite movies include ‘Old Boy,’ ‘Four Lions,’ ‘The Fall,’ ‘In America,’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’
In books, I’m particularly fond of ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang, ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov, ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy, ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett and ‘Kal Kothari’ by Swadesh Deepak.
Lastly, had you not come to be an integral part of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, would you have gone to see the movie?
I look at it this way: even if I had absolutely nothing to do with this movie, the fact that Mohsin Hamid wrote a book set in my Lahore and none other than Mira Nair made a movie out of it is unbelievable! The thought of sitting in a cinema, watching a Mira Nair movie which starts with the words ‘Lahore, Pakistan 2001-2011’ gives me goose bumps. It will be surreal!