Truly, Madly, Amna!

A few short years ago, Amna Ilyas was un-waxed tomboy with crazy eyebrows; today she is one of Pakistani fashion’s hottest models who’s known especially for her dark, striking feline features and a portfolio of works that reads like the who’s who of the industry. She’s funny, charming and surprisingly self-possessed and positive, which is admirable for it is indeed a rare quality to be found in model her age… and it is this positivity that’s landed her the lead in Sabiha Sumar’s impending magnum opus ‘Rafina’, one of the most talked about films of the year.
Here, Saad Zuberi talks to Amna about her career in the spotlight; how she went to meet a director who turned out to be Sabiha Sumar; sexual discrimination between siblings; and how Rafina has changed her for the better…
Amna was scouted by Akef Ilyas, who’s a family friend of hers. He just randomly took her to his studio one day when she was 16 years old and photographed her. Amna had no idea what was going on and much to her surprise, the shoot turned out to be rather amazing and she looked very glamorous in it. Akef was convinced there was a model in there somewhere, and that prompted him to build Amna a proper portfolio which eventually led to real work. Amna didn’t start doing runway modeling until much later, and she’s still amused at how quickly she made a name for herself because it modeling was quite an unexpected turn of events for her. When she started modeling, she had no idea she’d make it this far… but ultimately when she began taking it seriously, she knew right away that this was her kind of work. Amna has been modeling for four years now and couldn’t be more self-satisfied for it’s been a very fun and fulfilling journey for her so far.

Amna holds Akef in the same regard as her brother. She’s most comfortable working with him because she feels that they both understand each other well, which is why they’ve done tons of shoots together. Other than him, one of the first photographers that she remembers working with is Ayaz Anis, who was also starting out at the time Amna stepped into professional modeling. Amna is working with just about everyone in Karachi and Lahore now, however, and feels that Pakistani photographers are doing a great job; they all have a different eye, which she really respects and admires. Prolific photographers Rizwan Ul Haq and Khawar Riaz also make the top of Amna’s favourite people to work with list!
As far as designers are concerned, Amna really likes the work of Zaheer Abbas and Fahad Husain. She’s also a big fan of Ayesha Hashwani’s clothes, and says she just can’t resist them! She’s shot for Ayesha twice so far and absolutely loved the experience each time. Amna is peeved by our designer’s fixation with bridal wear though. She just don’t understand how people can differentiate between an Aeisha Varsey lehnga and an Umar Saeed lehnga “because, well, they all really do look the same to me!”

One of Amna’s all-time favourite shoots was a multiple model shoot she did with supermodel Iraj, Ayaz and Rana for an Ayesha Hashwani collection. She recalls it was being a very high fashion shoot, and holds it close to her heart is because she got to work with Iraj, who she’s always looked up to. “Iraj didn’t let me feel for a minute that I was working with a very senior and experienced model,” She recalls, “And I love that about her… She’s so comfortable in her own skin. She doesn’t have any insecurities or hang-ups whatsoever. I really admire that!”
For Amna, being comfortable in one’s own skin is perhaps the most important thing for models and actors. She feels it is only when you are comfortable with yourself that you can gain and maintain your self-confidence. “Everything falls apart if you’re not happy with yourself, you know.” She explains,”If I have issues with my wardrobe, how will I ever concentrate on being a good model? For me at least, I need to be very self-satisfied with myself to work properly, because I know I won’t be able to give it my hundred percent if I feel that my shirt is too loose or my butt is sticking out!” Indeed, these little things matter a lot for all models and actors alike, but Amna considers modeling to be much easier because it’s not that cut-throat. “If my shirt is too loose, I can always pit it up to make it work… and then there’s Photoshop! Actors don’t even get that!”

Amna doesn’t have any issues with the little stuff that goes on at shoots as long as she’s comfortable and doesn’t have any major concerns over her wardrobe. She believes in taking it all in stride, and believes in being extremely professional when it comes to work. She’s open to experimentation and is game to whatever ideas a designer or photographer might have for a particular shoot. “I wouldn’t even mind if they turn me into a clown—as long as it’s relative to the concept of the shoot.” She states matter-of-factly, “But if they’re bullshitting with me, then I won’t take that!”

Just like any other profession, the world of modeling is brimming with unethical people who’re out to make a quick buck and are forever ready and willing to exploit anyone in their way. According to Amna, however, the worst thing about the profession is the time factor. She hates it when she goes in to do a two hour shoot and ends up spending six hours in the studio. Pre planning shoots is very important to get things done in time, and Amna feels that people don’t pay much attention to that. “People abuse models and the girls have to put up with crap all the time!” She fumes, “Just recently I was doing a bridal shoot and things were falling apart, it was a mess… and the organizer came up to me and said that it would take the whole day just to shoot one outfit! I mean, some people seriously think models are stupid and they don’t know what they’re doing!”

One morning in June last year, Amna got a phone call from Fahad Hussain of Citrus. He told her that there’s a movie in the talks and that the director has asked to see her. Amna didn’t take it seriously because she automatically assumed it was some typical Lollywood filmmaker who’d taken a fancy to her. Fahad, who’s also a good friend of Amna, didn’t tell her any details either, but asked her to go meet the director anyway that evening, which Amna reluctantly did. And boy was she in for a surprise. “You won’t believe this, but it wasn’t until after I had reached her house for our meeting that I found out that I was in Sabiha Sumar’s house!” She recalls with a hearty laugh. “Thankfully I’d put in a little effort to dress up properly and was looking presentable… I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise!”
Anyway, Sabiha and Amna talked well into the night and Amna recalls getting a good vibe about her right away and thinking what a humble and down to earth woman she was. “I remember that I was very comfortable in her company despite the fact that she asked me a lot of questions, which was a great sign!” She says. The meeting went very well obviously, for by the end of the night, Sabiha came right out with the offer and told Amna that she definitely wanted her to be Rafina—the lead character of her next film… And that was that, just like that!

Amna was literally dumbfounded! Never in a million years had she imagined that she would ever come face to face with an opportunity to do a feature film! We all know Sabiha Sumar and what an amazing director she is, so Amna was naturally on a high and couldn’t believe her luck. “Once the absurdity sunk in, I started getting very excited. Of course I was still surprised and a little scared because, well, a film is a huge responsibility!” The biggest apprehension Amna had, though, was all the hard work Sabiha had warned that she’d be expected to do! She was very clear up front that if Amna took on the project, she’d have to take a hiatus from modeling for four months and that was obviously a difficult choice to make for a girl doing an average of one shoot a week! But then, someone as prolific as Sabiha telling her that’s she’s “IT” probably helped a lot with the decision making for it merely took Amna a day and a half to say yes!


Initially, Amna was only told that Rafina would be a girl who wants to achieve something great in life yet she can’t because she’s bogged down by her family’s restrictions. She goes out into the real world and faces all kinds of things, situations and people that she’s never faced before… and yet she’s courageous enough to stand up to them and make her own choices. And according to Amna, that’s what the film is about—the choices we make and how they irreversibly affect us, whether in a good way or bad.
“Rafina is definitely a woman oriented film and I one of the main reasons I enjoyed doing it was because I love projects where women are the focal point of the story.” She declares. Amna admits she was a little apprehensive about the storyline initially after reading the script because she thought it was really controversial and that maybe I shouldn’t take any chances, but then thought better of it and decided to go ahead with it. “I was like: what the hell! It’s not every day you get an offer to do a Sabiha Sumar film!”

“Though I agree Pakistanis have a lot of respect for women—I mean, if my car breaks down in the middle of the road, I know a lot of people will come in to help out—but there are still a lot of instances in which women are sidelined and asked to shut-up.” Amna explains, “And Rafina has somewhat touched the issue of sexual discrimination within families, and how sons and daughters are treated differently.” And indeed they are; girls are still forced into early marriages; they’re not allowed to go out with friends and some are not even allowed to go to school, which is just wrong. “Maybe it doesn’t happen in your and my house, but it does still happen in a lot of Pakistani homes… in fact, it’s happened to me as well!” She adds, telling me a little story from her own life to prove her point. “When I was a kid, I used to love riding a bike, but there was only one bike in the house and it belonged to my brother. My parents didn’t buy me a bike even though I used to ask them for one incessantly! There came a time when I went to my mom with my savings, gave them to her and asked her to buy me a bicycle…which she did. A few days later though, my brother came up to me and told me that my cycle had been stolen, when he had actually hid it away because he didn’t like me, his sister, going around riding bicycle in our neighbourhood! I know that’s not as serious as not being allowed an education or being forced into an early marriage, but it’s still discrimination!”

It seems Pakistani filmmakers have taken a fancy to making artsy, controversial movies that aren’t as high on entertainment value as they are on story and acting, which is often met with criticism, but Amna couldn’t disagree more. She strongly believes movies with an actual story and good acting supersede dumb movies with unnecessary sequences of song and dance and item numbers any day. “I personally think they’re a waste of time and I’d rather go to the cinema and watch a good Hollywood movie instead!” She declares.
I believe entertainment is a very essential part of our lives, yes, but at least these commercial films are a start. Amna found Sabiha’s previous film Khamosh Pani to be quite an eye opener for privileged people, and even though she recalls spending a few days sulking after watching it, she thinks she enjoyed watching it more than the last Salman Khan movie she saw!
Commercial films spread awareness which is very important for a country like Pakistan and Amna backs that notion a hundred percent, urging people to be happy that at least filmmakers have started making movies again and being patient for maybe someday someone from Pakistan will make a good commercial film too…

Even though Amna doesn’t think herself qualified to pass verdict on Sabiha, she’s quick to praise the woman’s directorial prowess and self-effacing personality. She believes Sabiha is an amazing woman with an even better vision; that she is very good with her actors for she gives them a lot of room to do their own thing. Sabiha has worked really very hard on each one of her actors, especially Amna, putting in hours of work just to teach the budding actress how to feel each and every dialogue before delivering it. “Sabiha believes that an actor can only act well when he or she really feels what the character is supposed to feel… so she worked really hard on making us feel! Everything about you changes when you’re sensitive to your character’s happiness or pain. Your eyes, your body language… and then comes a point when you don’t even have to say anything, people will just look at you and know what you’re feeling. That’s good acting and that’s what Sabiha taught us!”
Sabiha has prepared a few weeks of pre-shoot workshops for the cast of Rafina, a technique alien to local filmmakers. The workshops were supposed to prepare the actors for actual filming of the movie, and would usually go on from 6 in the morning to late in the evening. Amna is all praise for the hard work put in by Sabiha, and feels she wouldn’t have lasted long if it weren’t for these workshops. “They helped me a lot in terms of dialogue delivery, facing the camera, containing my feelings and staying the moment etc.” She explains.
During the workshops, Sabiha would make the actors engage in mental and emotional exercises; all the actors were asked to meet up individually and get to know each other and just talk and get to know the people they would be working with for the next few months, and also to rid them of the hesitation that two strangers have between them. Other than that, the workshops included a daily session of breathing exercises and rehearsals, where the actors were all required to sit down, discuss and try to relate to each of their dialogue. Amna remembers them as being an insanely beautiful experience as the workshops prepared them all so well that by the first day of shooting, they all knew each other’s lines by heart!

The one thing Amna absolutely hated about the whole experience was that she wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone on the sets! “I mean, I could talk to whoever I wanted when I was on a break, sure, but during filming, Sabiha made sure I didn’t mingle with anyone at all! You see, technically I’m the lead actor and I’m in all the scenes. She was very strict because she didn’t want to risk me slipping out of character!” But that didn’t stop her from sneaking around and stealing a few chats here and there when the director wasn’t looking though.

A lot of people have been prematurely comparing Rafina to Fashion, but Amna is adamant there are no similarities between the two films except maybe the small element that the heroines of both the movies go on to become models. She insists Rafina has a very different, very realistic storyline, which is primarily about a very simple yet driven girl from Pakistan Chawk, who goes on to become a fashion model.

The one person who Amna think deserves special mention is Beo Rana Zafar, who is the main supporting character in Rafina. She plays Rafina’s Rosie Khala, and Amna thinks she’s an extraordinary woman to know and work with! Beo’s comic nature and positivity kept the whole cast and crew in high spirits throughout the four months they were working together. Amna worked 10-14 hour shifts and was required to be there on each and every day because she had to do scenes daily; she used to eat her breakfast, lunch and dinner on the sets, so it was quite difficult for her, but Beo was always around to help the young actress out. “She used to keep me entertained all the time, and for that I’ll always love her!”
Other than Beo, prominent cast members include Saba Parvaiz who plays the role of Rafina’s mother. Working with Saba was just like working with my own mother, Amna tells me, because she is very motherly and helpful on the sets. “She used to help me out with the little tips and tricks every actor should know!” Amna also had a great time working with Farhan Ali Agha Shaheen Khan and Yasir Aqeel, who’re both new but have important roles in the movie. Then there’s Atta Yaqoob, who’s done a few Hollywood films as well. His latest film is a German production called Fernes Land, which has recently been released.
There’s a fashion show in the movie which features some of Pakistan’s leading fashion models in it as well, and Amna thinks it was really nice of them to do the part and show their support.

Amna is all praise for the Dutch crew that worked on the film, and thinks they were all just “awesome!” “You cannot imagine the level of professionalism that these people have, and I’m not just saying that because they treated me like the star of the film!” She laughs. “They’d be there on time and were so organized it wasn’t even funny. Totally unlike what we have here…” According to Amna, Sabiha and the whole crew were totally amped up! They had everything in order and we didn’t have to worry about a thing, which is why they finished shooting the whole film in record time of less than two months.

Amna doesn’t remember having any major issues with anyone at all. She thinks the fact that she was friends with almost everyone there helped a lot. Of course there were days when she’d be on the verge of having a fight with Rana, her makeup artist, or Mariam Azmi who was doing her wardrobe, but it was all short lived and non-serious.

This being her first major acting project, Amna obviously has a lot of expectations form Rafina. She hopes the film isn’t banned in Pakistan like Khamosh Pani and Slackistan, “because that would be really absurd!” She declares. “I’ve worked really hard on this film and I’m really nervous right now as the D-Day approaches! I really hope that people like it!”

One of the biggest changes she’s noticed in herself is that she’s learned to face the camera with confidence. “When you work with such a big director, you find out a lot about yourself. You learn things about yourself that you never knew or imagined to be true, so the whole Rafina episode has also been a self-awakening experience of sorts for me.” Rafina has also taught Amna to use her everyday experiences to her own benefit… “I don’t know if that makes much sense, but it’s definitely the grown-up me talking!”

All of Amna’s friends have been mocking and forcing me to start acting like a star already, but she’s playing it smart and waiting till after the movie comes out! This might come as a surprise to many because it certainly surprised Amna, but once the word was out that she was doing a film, everyone from the industry was actually very happy for her. All her colleagues were quite excited and always made a point to ask her questions about the movie and how it was coming along without sounding envious. “Whenever we’d meet they’d come up to me and ask me how everything was coming along or if I needed any help… so you see, there haven’t been any professional rivalries yet. I can’t say about the future, but right now I’m blessed to be surrounded by really nice friends and colleagues!”

Rafina was initially supposed to be released in September, but because of some post production issues, the film is now scheduled to come out in January next year. With editing in Amsterdam and Sabiha having to fly there every few days, some logistical delays were expected and forgivable. “I think the final cut is done now though, which means you’ll all finally get to see it soon! I know I can’t wait! “

There’s no denying there are a few striking similarities between Bol and Rafina. Both are about young women trying to break out of the system; both are controversial. Bol was Humaima’s first movie, Rafina is Amna’s first movie. But according to Amna, while Zainab took a long time to change and kill her father; Rafina is much quicker on her feet! “No, that’s not a spoiler,” she teases, “It’s just something for you to think about!” Amna really liked Bol a lot, though, and thinks Shoaib Mansoor is a very good director. Having worked on a film recently herself however, she felt there were a few technical weak points here and there, which she feels could have been avoided. “Over all it was still a very good film and everyone acted their hearts out in it, and I’m glad their hard work has paid off.”

If Amna had to choose between modeling and acting, she’d go with acting, hands down! She’s quick to admit she doesn’t see herself acting as vigorously as she is right now three-four years from now. “Don’t tell anyone though, because then they’d stop giving me work and that’d be a bummer!” She jokingly requests me. When it comes to different types of modeling, Amna enjoy doing shoots more than runway, which she’s not ever fond of despite the fact that most people find it to be more glamorous. She’s especially not fond of the backstage part where in her opinion “all the models go evil on you!”
She enjoys acting because it allows her to be the center of attention and just do her own thing without worrying about anyone else.

Although Amna has done a serial for A-Plus called Nail Polish, and has some work left on another production that will start airing soon, she really doesn’t see herself signing up for any more dramas anytime soon. She thinks television work is all about close-ups and bland dialogue delivery, and that doesn’t excite her at all. According to her there’s no concept of rehearsals and she dreads working with an unorganized team that doesn’t believe in giving actors their script beforehand. “Seriously, the work ethic is totally different; they make you work like a dog and pay you peanuts! I don’t know about the big stars, but I wasn’t happy with the money I made on my television projects… maybe they’ll start treating me better after Rafina!?”
She might think about doing more television work if a good director approaches her with a good script, but so far, the whole television experience hasn’t exactly given her anything to brag about!

September 2011 issue is Amna’s third cover for Xpozé. “I just love Xpozé and what you guys do in that little office of yours! Whenever I’ve worked with you, it has always been a great experience, and this one is extra special because this marks my hattrick with you guys!”
Amna wasn’t familiar with Bilal Khan’s work at all, and it was after she got a call from us that she listened to his songs and became his fan instantly! “Bilal was such a sweetheart to shoot with. It was his first major magazine shoot and he was absolutely clueless, and that was really adorable! I had a great time once again!”