The Odho Affair

The first thing I notice about Atiqa Odho as I walk into her small yet refreshingly precise office is her captivating beauty. Then comes her brilliant smile followed by a quick apology for having made me wait all of five minutes in the eventful reception area because she is, as always, “going mad with deadlines.”
And these initial five seconds virtually define the pretty woman of Pakistani television, film, theatre and modeling for me.

I’m asked to take a seat while she quickly overlooks a few files and hands them to a gentleman who actually looks happy working. There’s a sureness and an urbane confidence about Atiqa that renders her utterly charismatic. She smiles, she charms, and her very presence is rather uplifting too, I soon realize, listening to hear speak of passion and principles and politics among other things. Suddenly it’s easy to imagine why this multi-tasking matriarch has been known to sway Pakistani hearts the world over for two fairly entertaining decades, recently also establishing herself as a lacquered businesswoman and people’s person. “I feel the need to work with new people constantly because I thrive on knowing that I’m learning something new from them.” She declares matter-of-factly “I’m in the habit of taking up challenges and get bored if things get too easy or dull.”

Even though business is only starting up, her cast-iron belief in herself and her vision is extraordinary what with her children faithfully by her side—the daughter, who is now 24 and working with mum in production; the son, who’s in Canada doing a degree in Sound and Music Engineering; and the youngest, who is in elementary school—the Odho banner is sure to live to a ripe old age.
The next hour and a half is spent comfortably chatting about everything from her acclaimed debut in Anwar Maqsood’s Sitara Aur Mehrunnissa back in 1990 and her career in entertainment thus, her ongoing journey into superstardom and the glitches and rewards of running a full-fledged production house alongside Pakistan’s first and only celebrity owned cosmetics brand.

What’s your take on your children choosing the same line of work as you?

My kids have always been very involved with whatever I do because they practically grew up on the sets with me. Now they’ve ended up in the same business and I’m very proud of it, yes!

The one thing I find rather odd is the number of television serials you’ve done so far. It doesn’t compare to the amount of work some of the other actors who started out at the same time as you have done. Why?

I don’t believe in quantity. I try to keep things short and sweet. I have to be very motivated to get involved with something because I get very emotionally attached to whatever I do.

Incidentally, what has been your most memorable project?

They have all been memorable in their own ways. Once I decide to do something it becomes very special to me. It takes me a long time to say yes to something because of that. I usually hate to make a commitment because I know that once I’ve made it, I’ll be completely stuck in it and be compelled to give it a 110 percent!

You have done three films in Lollywood, and even though two of them turned out to be major hits, I just have to ask you what it was that compelled you to put your hard-earned status as one of television’s most lovable heroine on the line? How was the experience for you in general?

It was a great experience. I mean, if you’re an entertainer, than that’s how you should view it. You shouldn’t take yourself too seriously and say this is not good enough for me or that’s not good enough for me. I think film is another medium and I wanted to try it out, and I absolutely love everything I’ve experimented in! Sure, Jo Darr Gya Wo Marr Gya and Mujhay Chand Chahiyay were a little more successful than Mummy, but that’s a part of life, right? I love modeling, theatre, films and television equally.

You took a short hiatus a while ago. Tell me about that.

It wasn’t exactly a hiatus because I was still working. Only my commute between Karachi and New York was a little longer during the 6-7 years I was abroad. I went to film school, theatre workshops and also did a bit of voice training there. I think it’s very important to keep growing; education should be a lifelong process. You learn something new every day and that’s the right attitude. Even now I’m constantly trying to find the right books and courses that teach me something new. Otherwise you stagnate and start to lose touch of all the new techniques out there, and since the kids today are already technically much sharper than our generation, it becomes almost pointless to try to compete with them.

What’s the philosophy behind Odho Productions? What kind of projects does the production house pursue?

We do a mix of things. We do films, tele-films, lifestyle programming, talk shows etc. We’re not unique or specific to one particular area. When a channel approaches us with their needs they know we’re not limited by content, they can come to us for anything, be it a drama, talk show or sitcom, and we design something for them.
The house is four years old now and I try to give opportunity to the younger kids who have a lot of talent in this market. Odho productions starts up directors and some of them have done tremendously well. It makes me very proud.

So promoting young talent is one of your major objectives?

What I’m trying to do if facilitate young talent and experiment at the same time. Let’s say someone comes in with a portfolio that they’ve put together out of their own pocket and I see potential, I’ll give them the opportunity. I’ll give them the money and team and backup and ask them to go do it! Every year I’ve had 2 or 3 directors who’ve come up and done a good job and then stayed with us, so it’s really fulfilling to watch them constantly improve and succeed. We need to learn to invest in human resources. We have to realize that Pakistan is an incredible country because it’s evolving in so many sectors. We have the margin to experiment and if you stay at it and try to do a better job than the next guy, then you’ve potential for success.

Anything by Odho Productions currently showing on TV? Do you work in your own productions?

One of our projects is Karishma which has been running on PTV for two and a half years now. It’s the only mobile makeover show for working women that’s traveled all over Pakistan. We’ve already covered cities like Rawalpindi, Multan, and Lahore but now we’re thinking about taking it to more challenging cities like Peshawar etc.
We’ve got a respectable following. We’ve had women write to us from Australia, Africa and England who want to come on the show as guests or stylists.
Kolachi say Karachi tak is a telefilm series about Karachi that’s also running on PTV. Every week there’s a different story about a different house in Karachi. The idea was to kind of narrow down the divide so we can understand each other better.
I’ve done a few telefilms here and there as well… I don’t want people to think that the only thing my production house does is produce stuff for me. We do a lot of stuff that doesn’t involve me specifically.

Have you any favorites to work with?

We don’t work that way. We just work with professional people. The casting is also done strictly to the role requirement and not marketability. I don’t cast people because they’re sellable. I cast them because they’re good actors who can do justice to the role at hand. So our requirements are very different. We overview a project and the entire focus on entertainment or product developed for large audience is based on the fact that the entire product must speak for itself.
Overall I think we’ve got good relationships with everyone in the market. In the last 3-4 years we’ve managed to create some very solid relations with our clients. They like what we do and how we do it and they come back for more!

You launched your makeup brand around the same time as the production house, which I think was a very brave move. What has the public’s response to Odho Cosmetics been like?

It wasn’t brave, it was insane! Are we well received? Well, I think it’s still a constant struggle because I think doing business in Pakistan is very challenging. But then again, I think we’re definitely at a stage where I can say that we’ve established ourselves. I mean if you talk about success or failure, I think you have to keep evolving and growing all your life, and if look at all the bigger brands all over the world, they’re now competing with middle scale brands that are more volume driven. So I guess I have a niche market that I realized existed and my challenge is to constantly find a way to supply good quality products at a cost effective price. I want the women to be able to use the best and not pay too much.

So there has been that required amount of growth?

There is growth, but for some reason I feel that the environment is such that more energy goes into troubleshooting than productivity. When I launched my makeup brand I did my market research and found out that every body’s selling a brown shade, so I took out a lot of pink shades. People discouraged me and told me that it won’t work but I proved them wrong! People are actually very brave…they love to try new things. We just don’t give them the choice and option. At the same time I have to remember that a woman might buy a product for me once, but the second time she picks it up is because she likes what she’s using. My name alone cannot sell the product, there has to be quality. That’s what I’m striving for.

You also carry out makeup workshops. What are those all about?

I realized early on that women here were very limited in terms of application skills, so I tried to teach them how to use makeup first. There are so many thing I’d like to do with the brand right now but can’t because I know the consumer isn’t at that stage in the country right now. I’m focused on the middle-class working consumers who’re going to be using my products on a daily basis, and still offer workshops in different cities for them.

You just turned 40. How do you view the world and life in general now?

It’s a very good age to be at! I’m a lot more in control of my life now than when I was younger. I’m independent and I know my faults and weaknesses and strengths better than I did when I was in my 20s. I’m at a stage where I find humor in everything. The only way I can live through this life is if I’m laughing through every day because it’s such a stressful world!
So women who’re worried about turning 40, please don’t!

And what are you working on these days?

I’ve got my own sitcom coming out. It’s an experiment but I think somebody needed to do it because we never had I Love Lucy kind of an idea in our country. We take ourselves so seriously, and I thought its time someone went out there and made fun of themselves! What makes it more interesting is that some of it is drive out of my own real life experiences!

What’s your take on the newfound “freedom of media” in Pakistan?

It’s fantastic! It’s only difficult for people who’re trying to hide something, but for people who are honest with their work and really trying to make a difference, it’s an incredible change. We are a very democratic and colorful nation, you know. Just look at how diverse we are and how we challenge each other. I’ve actually spent more time in media than I’ve done at home with my parents and kids, so when you talk about media, you talk about my family. I don’t look at it as an aggressor because I’ve been very much a part of the change you see on television. We encourage people to make risky products so the content on television changes and becomes closer to reality. I think we need to stop fooling people. The media was dreadfully limited in the 80s and 90s. The only thing people wanted when they sat down after a hard day’s work was entertainment. Today the challenge of entertaining someone is much more difficult because there are a lot of options out there, people are more aware. The whole environment has done a flip. I think its tremendous how we’ve survived not only from the financial perspective but also from the creative perspective because we have to maintain a certain type of quality to manage to get our audience focused when they’re watching Star Plus and the likes that obviously have bigger pockets.

And your relationship with the press? Surely there must have been times when you felt your privacy was being invaded or the media was being indecent or unreasonably harsh to you?

I think I’ve been very privileged in that sense. I’ve met some tremendous people in the business and the field itself has given me a lot of respect. I’ve made lifelong friends in media. I understand that I’m a very fortunate woman who ended up in such a diverse industry. The press has also been very good to me. I’ve never had a major issue to deal with. I remember once someone had said something nasty about me and a lot of people from the fraternity stood up to fight for me, which was great, but then I realized that this person is making me thing harder about the areas I’m weak in. You can’t always expect people to keep telling you how great you are, you need a reality check also!

You recently interviewed the President, and despite the unusual theme and timing for the interview, what with the political turmoil that’s prevalent in the country right now, your move to jog people’s memories for all the good he’s done for us was very appreciable. What made you openly applaud his efforts in a time and environment when everybody’s distancing themselves from him?

I think President Musharraf a nice person who’s taken on a great challenge and I just wanted to show my respect and support for him. We need to give a certain amount of respect to a person who’s given 36-37 years of his life to his army and his country. I think he’s a wonderful person and it’s tremendously disrespectful what they’re doing to him…and that bothered me so I decided to interview him. He was very kind to actually find time and give me an interview. I’ve been interviewing people on and off since 2006 and I basically try to get people who’ve contributed to the country because I think it’s important to give due respect to people who deserve it. In my 20 years in television, I’ve seen many presidents and prime ministers come and go, but I never wanted to interview any of them until now. I think President Musharraf has tried tremendously hard to help Pakistan and it’s really sad how we’ve forgotten all that he’s done for us. Why do we have such short memories? He’s honest, hardworking and a humble human being. I think it’s up to the people to take a stand for him and let him know that he is appreciated.

Style icon?
Not one particular person. I’m attracted to different things in different people.
Local designer?
I’ve never been very brand driven. It’s all about mix and match for me, really. If I absolutely have to name someone, I have to say I wear Rizwan Beyg often.
Favorite cosmetics brand besides your own?
I just love makeup. I use everything from all the big brands because I need to know how good or bad my job is. The quality of the product is very important.
Favorite book?
I think my favorite has to be Memoirs of a Geisha. I don’t get to read as much as I’d like because of lack of time though. Basically I’m a collector. I buy and read everything from fiction to autobiographies and biographies to books on herbal remedies and beauty and health and lifestyle because they help a lot with my programming.
Favorite movie?
As a child my favorite was the classic Doctor Zhivago. I remember how I used to watch it once a year at least. Now there are so many I can’t possibly choose. Depends on the mood and the moment.
Favorite costars?
Tons! Like I said before, I’ve been very lucky because I’ve made lots of good friends in the film fraternity and television. I try to keep away from messy situations so I’ve never really been involved in any politics either. I get along with everybody.
Three things you consider yourself incomplete without?
I would feel very incomplete without a family. I’d also feel incomplete without any ambition or focus in life because I know I want to do something interesting with my time here. And thirdly I think I’d feel very incomplete without my lipstick! I never leave the house without my mascara and lipstick!
What keeps you going through the day?
Responsibility. From the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I’ve someone at my door demanding something to be done. When your work expands a lot of responsibility comes with it. It’s a whole big juggling act that you’re doing…you don’t have time to stop and think.
Describe YOURSELF in a nutshell?
I love to experiment with ideas and concepts that nobody else is willing to take on as a challenge yet. I’m always looking for that window of opportunity.