The coronavirus pandemic has turned Atiqa Odho into a night owl. To be fair, it has done the same to me, upending timings and schedules.
The virus is also responsible for choking the country’s highways with a stream of traffic, with people opting to traverse the country by car rather than risk infection in a badly ventilated plane. Atiqa, for instance, prefers to city-hop by car and she is planning to take a road trip from Islamabad to Karachi over the next two days. We decide to talk before she’s on the road, probably zipping through areas with bad mobile signals.
So this is how it comes to be that we sit late at night, facing each other through our respective laptop screens, sliding easily into conversation in a Zoom interview; an ordinary, everyday part of the new normal in these Covid-19 times.
However, unlike many recent conversations that I have had with celebrities, my interview with the veteran actress doesn’t dwell for too long on the travesties wreaked by the detestable virus. Economies may have slowed down and Pakistani cinema may be gathering mothballs, but Atiqa seems not to have slowed down.
From doe-eyed leading lady to villainess matriarch, from television to film, from heading a cosmetics brand to chairing a community collective for actors’ interests, Atiqa Odho seems to be a juggernaut of inexhaustible energy. How does she manage to keep going?
It doesn’t hurt that her particular playing field has blazed in its full glory. While the world was in lockdown, Pakistan’s TV viewership multiplied manifold, with dramas becoming even more popular than usual, being the primary source of entertainment for a mass audience. Atiqa is a popular lynchpin in some of these dramas.
“Of course, people have been watching a lot more TV than they used to,” she says. “During the Covid-19 lockdown, the artist community actually became frontline workers. We had to go out there, unmask ourselves and work, so that we could provide psychological and emotional relief to our audience.”
Sometime later, during the course of our conversation, she muses, “You know what’s wonderful? The fact that you and I are having this conversation, analysing dramas and talking about how they can be improved.
“There was a time when many journalists weren’t interested in our work. I remember being a guest at a film function at the Karachi Arts Council in the late ’90s, and the audience comprised people from the film fraternity and journalists. I came on stage and said that I was there because I didn’t want Pakistani films to die because, if they did, so would so much of the work that we did and so would the pens with which the journalists wrote.
“This new-age interest in TV dramas, similarly, is a positive indication of how they will become better in the future.”
Such worldly wise observations and anecdotes, as it turns out, form the crux of my interaction with Atiqa. “I have always felt that it is important to evolve with time,” she says. “They say that at least 10 percent of an actor’s work should be successful. But when I look back at my 30-year-long career, I think that most of my work — about 70 percent — has been a hit.”
Playing mother-in-law — but with a ‘twist’
Is this because she is picky about the roles she signs on to? She has often professed to do limited work, usually about two dramas a year. “I pick roles that have something exciting to offer to me as an actor and, also, to the audience,” she agrees.
“When a script comes to me, I ask them if the role I’m playing is of a mother or a mother-in-law?” she grins. “Then I ask them, what does my character do? Sometimes I’m told, ‘Apa’ — I’m referred to as Apa now — ‘she’s just a mother’. I point out that still, this mother must do something!
“There is no perfect role and every story has been told a thousand times before. There are interesting scripts and then there are those where my character appears to be lacklustre on paper. It’s my job to add little twists to the character, marking moments that I think will particularly excite the audience. My good friend Marina Khan nicknamed me ‘the tap’ a long time ago — I don’t need glycerine to begin crying on set. I look for roles that allow me to bring some of these emotions on screen.”
Isn’t it tiring that while, at one time, she would take centre-stage as the female lead, she now has to work on developing nuances to predominantly maternal roles?
“Of course it was easier playing the romantic lead when I was younger,” Atiqa concedes, “but then I hit mid-life and, inevitably, began getting offers to play the mother or the mother-in-law. I thought that I could either struggle with the fact that I was ageing or I could own this change in my career and fight for better characters to be developed for my age group. There was definitely a long period when the mother or the aunt were just figureheads in the main storyline, but I particularly handpicked characters that had something to say.”
In retrospect, some of these characters have turned out to be her most memorable. She may have been launched as a doe-eyed beauty in the hit drama from the early ’90s, Sitara aur Mehrunnissa, but she was equally iconic as the steely, villainous Farida, who ravaged her daughter-in-law’s life in Humsafar.
She was a very young Shahtaj, enduring the consequences of tribal rivalry in the ’90s’ drama Dasht but, more recently, she epitomised the older woman torn between her scheming young husband and helpless son in Hum Network’s Pyaar Ke Sadqay.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, the artist community actually became frontline workers. We had to go out there, unmask ourselves and work, so that we could provide psychological and emotional relief to our audience.”
“My contract states that I will not be compelled to do something that I’m not comfortable with, and that I will be allowed to develop my character the way I want to,” says Atiqa.
“Even if we are midway through filming a drama and I feel that something about my character isn’t making sense, I have a meeting with the director and the scriptwriter and try to figure things out. I’m lucky that they respect me enough to know that I’m a team player and would want whatever is best for the entire project.
“And I have very strong instincts about what will work and what won’t. For instance, I don’t mind playing a villainous role. In fact, if, as an actor, I have made the audience hate me, then I take that as a compliment.”
But does this sometimes take a toll on her, I ask. In Humsafar — a drama that has been one of Pakistan’s biggest hits in recent times — she was particularly diabolical as Mahira Khan’s mother-in-law. Did she get a lot of hate following the drama?
Her eyes twinkle. “Actually, after the drama, women would sometimes come and sympathise with me that their sons had also been whisked away by their daughters-in-law. I had women tell me that they had seen the drama three times and, every time it ended, they would cry for my character.
“It’s just that, in Pakistani society, a lot of women are extremely territorial about their sons and they just sided with my character, regardless of how evil she had been. But because I didn’t agree with them, I’d just smile, not knowing what to say!”
“There’s talent in our blood”
We shift focus to the present day: does she feel that dramas today have deteriorated, fixated as they are with ratings and churning out quantity rather than quality? Quite in contrast to most disgruntled veterans in Pakistan’s entertainment industry, Atiqa doesn’t think so.
“I think that a very large volume of work is being created and, while some may be mediocre, there are also some very good dramas airing on TV,” she says. “We have moved into a new era, where TV is finally being recognised as an industry, business investments are being made, heavy taxes are being paid and associations are coming up.
“We simply cannot compare the scale of today’s TV with the PTV and STN era. Maybe Tanhaiyaan or Sitara aur Mehrunnissa wouldn’t have been such huge successes had there been other channels at the time, with other dramas airing in the same time slot.”
She continues: “The one thing that I do think needs improvement is the lack of commitment that most young actors have towards their craft. I’m so surprised that some of them come on set without even having read the script. They read the script of the scene that’s about to be shot there and, then, the camera just rolls. So many of them are more concerned about how they’re looking, who is sponsoring their clothes for the drama or how many likes they are getting on Instagram.
“A lot of them are very talented — there’s something in our blood, in our water! But the thing is, talent can only get them so far. If they don’t focus on building their versatility and developing characters, eventually the audience will get bored and they will stagnate. In acting, you have to continue to work, work, work. Sometimes the role you play may go unnoticed — there are no guarantees and not everything can be a huge success — but you have to give it your all.”
I point out that a lot of today’s actors shy away from the repetitive storylines that dominate TV dramas, taking on less work so that they don’t get stereotyped into playing typical characters. They prefer to wait for the right kind of roles.
“That’s just lazy and they are making excuses,” says Atiqa. “How do they know that this so-called right role will be perfect for them? When they get a script, it’s their job as actors to develop interesting aspects to the characters that they will be playing.
“When actors don’t work because they are waiting for better roles, they are giving up on this very short window of opportunity that they have. They will only be offered roles of young characters for a certain period, and if they don’t avail this time, then they won’t be left with many choices later. If Fawad Khan, for example, chooses not to act in dramas, then he’s just wasting his own time and the time of the audience that is longing to see him.”
This issue seems certainly to have touched a chord in her. “I remember that I started working in Pakistani films at a time when the film industry was on the verge of collapse. All my friends said that film was the pits and that I shouldn’t do it. But I loved cinema. I had grown up watching Nadeem Baig and Shabnam at the drive-in cinema.
“I told my friends that I had to do my bit and maybe help however I can. And even if the movies I acted in didn’t work out, I would know that I had at least tried. Similarly, it’s very easy to pass judgement on the calibre of TV dramas today, but if actors want to make a change, they have to dive into the deep end and try to make an impact.”
I tell her that she’s extremely optimistic, hoping that actors can transform mediocre, generic stories to something more cerebral. “I do it myself,” she reiterates. “I work very hard on trying to make every role I play matter.”
If Atiqa is disgruntled at all with the TV industry, it is at the practice of providing actors with half-finished scripts. “Till about four years ago, every member of the cast would get the complete script. In the past, we even had dress rehearsals before we began shooting. Now, though, a lot of production houses start shooting a drama while the script isn’t even complete.
“As an actor, you’ve read half the script and you’ve developed this character in your mind accordingly. And then, you get the remaining half and the character’s tone has changed entirely. Also, you find out that while you may have set aside a certain number of days for shooting, now you have to be around for a lot longer or a lot less. It’s a huge issue.
“Recently, I was part of a production where the drama started airing while only four episodes were being edited and some of the episodes still hadn’t been shot. Unfortunately, Covid-19 hit the set, four people got sick and all of us had to go into quarantine. Somehow, we still managed to get back in time and scramble through the remaining episodes.
“But if we hadn’t been able to do so, the channel would have had to air repeats. The business of TV dramas has grown. There’s more money and more work, but there’s a dire need for better organisation.”
Acting for a better future
As Chairperson of the Actors’ Collective Trust (ACT), Atiqa’s also trying to do her best to look out for the interests of the acting community. The need for complete scripts is one concern, but there are also other, more grave concerns.
“My main objective right now is to secure actors’ health, life, disability and old-age benefits. In my 30-year-long career as a practical working woman and a mother of three, I have often felt that actors need to feel more secure. There is no multinational umbrella looking out for them if they get ill and no retirement policy ensuring a steady income when they get old. Who is going to look after their families when they die?”
There has been a lot of talk recently about artists getting paid royalties for their past work. Does she think that is a realistic goal? “Nothing’s impossible but, sometimes, it takes time and commitment to reach a solution. The work I may do in my lifetime could set the tone for something that will be achieved after me, for the next generation.
“Establishing systems that pay royalties is a long-haul project that will require time and agreements between all the different stakeholders involved. You have to remember that actors are quite low on the food chain, where royalties are concerned. Payments have first to be made to the producers, directors and the writers.”
Being Chairperson of ACT must be an unenviable job, I venture, with constant complaints coming her way. Is it difficult, especially since the work that she does is all pro bono?
“I don’t mind,” she says. “This industry has given me so much and helped me through countless professional and personal lows. When I was elected, I did ask the actors whether they were complimenting me or punishing me!” she laughs. “But luckily, I have a fabulous board from all across the country, and they appreciate that I’m very community-driven.
“We address complaints that actors have, but we also help out producers, channels and directors if they make a legitimate complaint against an actor. It’s important to build a professional atmosphere so that the industry grows.”
Also part of the Atiqa juggernaut is the Atiqa Odho brand, comprising a range of cosmetics. She’s always been the face of the label, so extraordinarily beautiful that I’m guessing that it makes customers make a beeline for that one particular lipstick or blush-on!
“Sometimes we get online orders from small cities that I haven’t even heard of, and it makes me so happy that perhaps a girl who doesn’t have access to malls and large shopping areas, can purchase make-up from my range,” she smiles. “It’s a lot of hard work but I’m very passionate about it.”
Then again, Atiqa is nothing if not passionate and hardworking. You don’t make a stellar three-decade-long career without these attributes.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 29th, 2021