An actor’s life is ironic. You love them for one project; you hate them for their next riskier one. You probably remember Ushna Shah as easily the most hated, atrocious and sinful character on television after her commendable performance in last year’s drama serial Balaa. This brave chameleon, a gorgeous Balaa soon had people siding with her innocent and moralistic character as Nayaab in Cheekh. Being someone like Ushna Shah is not easy. Bull headed, dauntless and fiery – Shah is someone who doesn’t take long to get bored. As strange as it may sound (I’ll be honest, I found it ridiculous) but it’s true that the actress has never binge-watched any of her dramas, and has absolutely no clue what’s happening in the currently trending drama ‘Cheekh’. Wait, if that was not interesting enough; allow me to give you a low-down on how this supremely talented actress follows no other Pakistani celebrity on Instagram… at least from her account that’s known to the public. Hmm…! Now that’s what I absolutely adore about Ushna. Her cutting honesty makes her stay close to herself. This woman, though admits has now become self-aware and more conscious before speaking up publicly in front of media, has never believed in ‘letting go’! “I am sick of being made to feel uncomfortable for being a woman”, she says during the long chat we had. Full of chutzpah, there’s no way on God’s earth you will miss her piece of mind. Without further ado, Ushna Shah is here, and she is here to stay.
After giving hits after hits on television’s most talked about drama serials like Bashar Momin, Alif Allah Aur Insan, Lashkara, Balaa, and these days heavily trending Cheekh, what kind of work is attracting you these days and tell me what you’re currently up to.
I am currently shooting for a drama called Bewafa. It’s a story of a second wife which is me. It’s pretty interesting and without giving away too much, I’ll be sharing screens with Ali Rehman and Navin Waqar.
So I am someone who doesn’t take long to get bored. That goes with anything in life. Generally, as an artist you want something that triggers your creativity and stimulates it in any way possible. Let’s be honest, in the Pakistani television industry, an actress can get quite stagnant. There are not many situations an actress would be given, it’s more or less the same story being constantly recycled. Fortunately enough, we have steered away from the usual saas-bahu dramas and have started to cover important social issues. I have played a role in dramas that touched domestic abuse (Cheekh), acid attacks (Lashkara), as well as prostitution and exploitation of women (Alif Allah Aur Insan). Again, everything comes down to a woman and a woman’s honor or marriage. Characters or scripts generally don’t go beyond these subjects. So what sparks my interest is if the content is even slightly different and something that hasn’t been done before, I take it up. Also, the character needs to have that kind of a margin for me to make it even more interesting. The drama Balaa was written beautifully! But it gave me a lot of margin to make my character what I wanted to make her. If I’m asked to play with the character, I might be interested in it; otherwise if a character is painstakingly flat, I would never do it.
Your character from last year’s Balaa as Nigar was a massive hit. You were perhaps the most hated character on television those days and that was the character’s biggest achievement! Tell me how easy or challenging was the character, and did you have to consciously detach yourself from that particular negative character for future projects?
Not everyone is capable of doing the same thing again and again, and I hate to be boxed like that. I like to consider myself as an actor who is inspired by people like Meryl Streep, Daniel D Lewis and Al Pacino who are known for their versatility. I want to be a chameleon. For the longest time in my career, I was so upset because I used to get type casted as this bichari, innocent girl and now suddenly these negative characters started coming in so after Balaa I did Cheekh to rectify that, and that made a huge difference! I am honestly having more fun playing negative roles than the positive ones. As far as detaching myself from a negative character like Nigar is concerned, yes I have to balance it out by playing a positive character in my next drama.
We would like to know a little more about your personality now. You are seen as quite a vocal and opinionated woman of today. I remember you spoke about security checks at the Pakistani airport being extra and uncomfortable. You spoke out against harassment at the time Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy sued a doctor. Once a random guy made the mistake of following your car at night, and later it was you stopping his car and scaring him to bits. Have you always been like this?
(Laughs) You have been keeping a good eye on me! In retrospect, the last one was an extremely stupid thing on my part to do. That could have been very dangerous. My outspokenness sometimes gets me into trouble. I have always been a vocal, headstrong and a highly opinionated person. Sometimes, maybe I don’t think before I say things. This is a women’s magazine so I would like to use this opportunity to share the fact about women that they go through a huge change in the way they perceive the world. Therefore, the shift from my early to mid-20s has been a learning experience. I have realized that as important it is to be vocal and opinionated, it is equally important to choose what to be vocal about. Because if you are vocal about everything, then your voice gets lost. So now, when I do speak up, it’s about things I genuinely am passionate about. I have realized that I have a voice that’s heard. I now feel I have to be a little reserved in the way I say things. However, I would never change for anybody. I’m sick of living in this world where women feel uncomfortable. This movement of feminism is very important to me because I’m sick of being a woman who’s uncomfortable. Every woman I know including myself, has been harassed, and everyone I know especially in Pakistan has been taught “Janay do” (Let it go). I am sick and tired of being in the position where I’m being made to feel uncomfortable for being a woman! So when people stare at me, I stare back. I don’t want my daughters to grow up in an environment where they are made to feel ashamed or scared just because they are women. It’s not fair and it kills me inside!
You started your acting career in 2014. There are all kinds of myths attached to the media industry anywhere in the world. After gaining immense popularity in the past 6 or 7 years, how would you describe our television industry? Also, I would like you to shed some light on gender roles because I know you’ll tell us how it is. Are male and female actors paid equally? Has there been any gender discrimination you faced or observed?
I honestly don’t know how much my male counterparts are paid. For some reason or the other when the casting is happening, there are a lot more options for girls than there are for boys. So I’m guessing men are paid more only because they are less in number in the industry. As far as the myths related to the industry are concerned, I would say that the industry is different for everyone. I came into the industry through my family as a lot of other people do. Later on, it was my work speaking for itself but my entry was very lucky and nepotistic for sure. So the way people approached me was very different than an upcoming new girl who came from far away and doesn’t know enough people from before, has to earn for her family, who might be a bit more desperate for work. The way people from the industry would approach her would naturally be different from the way they would approach me. I won’t say that I have never been exploited. I have been exploited too! But there’s an uglier version of the industry that I have seen for others which I didn’t see for myself. So yes, there is truth to it. There are all kinds of people in the media industry like in any other field of work. There’s a lot of dirt in the corporate world as well! It’s just that there’s more competition and vanity in the entertainment industry so you have to develop a thick skin and really look out for yourself. I learned to do that the hard way much later on. Another thing, which helped me, was the decision to keep my social circle outside the industry. This industry can build you up as a brand and can pull you down as well. So eventually, you need your family and friends you grew up with by your side – no one else!
Speaking on the subject of feminism, it has somewhat become fashionable to be identified as a feminist. But social media and political force needs more substance, than groupism or just award-ceremony speeches to refocus the spotlight. Your views?
Agreed! I think as important as social media speeches are, I am so happy to see the kind of feminism I’m seeing because it raises conversations and that is making a huge difference in the way women are carrying themselves. At the same time, like you said, the substance needs to be there. For me, feminism starts at home! It starts within you. If you are vocal on social media, power to you! If you’re participating in a march, more power to you! But then, that should not end there. I really think that women need to understand that being a feminist means not tolerating any disrespect for any woman at any time! Your morals or your feministic approach should not vary with different groups of people or moods. Feminism starts at home! If you see your mother being mistreated by your father, and you are not being vocal about it at home then you’re not a feminist! Change the little things. Give your daughters equal opportunities as your sons. Then come on social media and talk. I totally support feminists but I truly hope that the feminists I see are as vocal in their personal lives as they are on the internet.
Apart from all this, we understand being a public figure is very demanding. There’s so much of social media awareness, excessive access to all kinds of information, so many people, so many eyes, and so many mouths! Online trolling is another serious issue. It would be a silly question to ask you if you ever got trolled by someone on the internet. We want to know how you deal with it. Do you ignore trolls or answer back? How is this pathetic trend of online trolling supposed to end?
Honestly, I pity the trolls, because it takes a specific kind of a sad person to go out of their way to try to bring someone else down. They have to be that miserable with their own lives. We need to understand that every other person has access to a smart phone but not everyone is morally aware and not everyone transcends the dirt they are surrounded by. People are living miserable lives; there are girls living in far away villages who are not permitted to step outside their homes, and there are men who are sexually frustrated and rejected by women. These people take their frustration out online. So trolling, I would say, is a sad catharsis for them. What I have realized is that they are not aware of how their words can affect others until they go through it themselves. I truly believe in karma. It’s a lack of education, lack of understanding. I don’t know how the trend of trolling is supposed to be stopped. I guess we should limit what we expose. I am a public figure, this is my bread and butter and to an extent I have to expose certain parts of my life. After that, I completely ignore the trolls. Don’t let negative comments get to you nor have a war with those people. Having said that, as far as serious cyber bullying is concerned which targets young minds, teenagers etc – I feel the law needs to get involved and we need certain advancements in our technology that can prevent online trolling.
What’s a day without work in the life of Ushna Shah? Be honest, have you ever binge-watched your own dramas?
(Laughs) No! I have never binge-watched my own dramas. In fact, I have only skimmed through some of them like Bashar Momin. But I have never fully sat down and watched a complete episode of any of my own dramas. I get extremely uncomfortable watching myself on screen. I have no idea what is happening in ‘Cheekh’.
A day without work would be me all day Netflixing and chilling in my pajamas. I usually get Sundays off so I would go for a spa treat or go to the beach with my friends. However, mostly, if it’s a day off in the middle of the week, you’ll find me either running some errands or just at home in my Pjs binge-watching mindless stuff on Netflix.
Lastly, how do you feel about our little chat here? Anything you want to say to anybody who’s reading you right now?
This was fantastic. I loved working with the team of Women’s Own and am super excited for the cover shoot we did. I haven’t done anything like it before. To the cool readers of Women’s Own Magazine, I would like to say that if you see anything wrong happening and feel bad for it, do something about it. Our society really needs to stop being a passerby. Do something to stop the wrong from happening. It is everyone’s moral duty to fix something or attempt to make a change when they see something wrong happening.
Candid with Ushna Shah
Nayaab or Nigaar? Who’d you rather be in real life?
Nayaab, because she had a lot of integrity.
3 qualities in a man every feminist should look for?
3 qualities of yours that got you where you are today?
A. My principles
C. Hard work
A job you would do for free?
Maybe I would direct for free.
The Pakistani drama you are currently watching?
The only drama I have watched from the beginning till the end is Humsafar.
Advice to the woman with a broken heart?
The greatest love of your life is your very own lonely, broken, joyful, empathetic, passionate, red raw heart. Make friends with it! Then you can fully love – & be loved by – another, with humor, independence and passion, & without clinging or co-dependence.
By Waylon Lewis.
Advice to the woman who lost her job?
Chill out for a bit. Figure out what you want to do.
Oh, and the world hasn’t ended. Tomorrow is another day! Don’t make the biggest deal out of losing a job. Chill out.
Whose Instagram do you check daily?
I don’t follow anyone in the industry. I only follow close family and friends. I consciously stay away from media gossip and discussions. I follow a lot nature and animal accounts. Also funny meme pages.
What would you do on Mars for fun?
I’ll live in my big space castle with Elon Musk.
What would you do with your last 15 minutes of fame?
I would probably make a strong political statement about animal abuse that would leave a lasting impact.