Pakistan’s entertainment industry welcomes new talent with open arms; some have an easy entry while others have to strive hard for it. Nepotism does exist but it only opens doors, after which you’re on your own. It’s the talent/potential that it all comes down to; Sajal Aly, Yumna Zaidi, Bilal Abbas, Zahid Ahmed, Saba Qamar and Mehwish Hayat are prime examples, to name a few, of artists that made it on their own. Contrary to popular belief, some artistes who enter the industry with a strong lineage in hand, have to carry the burden of that pressure throughout their careers.
TV and film actress Zara Noor Abbas, daughter of Asma Abbas and Bushra Ansari’s niece, is one case in point. She has some impressive performances to her name (Khamoshi, Paret Hut Love, Chhalawa, Ehd e Wafa) but she will always be lumped with her kin rather than her craft; the word ‘nepotism’ is always going to be hard to shake off. Her most recent drama serial, Zebaish, that went on air last week, is also attracting criticism for these very same reasons, given that it is penned by Bushra Ansari and features almost Zara’s entire family, mother, aunt and husband included.
“You are only as good as your last serial,” Zara says, in this exclusive telephonic interview with Instep, referring to how people only focus on their latest work or even their latest “tweet”. She observes that they tend to forget an artist’s work profile and all that they have brought to the table in the past.
Zara Noor Abbas has been around for five years and, as she admits, she has been fortunate to have had a smooth journey in the industry so far. She debuted with drama serial Dharkan in 2016, followed by Khamoshi which was a huge hit. However, Lamhe and Qaid, that aired in the following years, didn’t work well for her and she decided to experiment with something different.
Her film debut with Parey Hut Love, followed by Chhalawa (which released first) portrayed her as a lively and cheerful young woman, as opposed to the woman shrouded in misery that she had been playing on television. The recently concluded drama serial, Ehd e Wafa saw her essaying a similar happy-go-lucky role and it was received well by viewers though critics did point out the risk she ran for being pigeonholed.
Coming back to her latest project Zebaish, that is currently on-air, Zara is essaying the role of Naushaba, a layered and completely different character than her past work. Two episodes into the serial, it is generating mixed reviews; one feels it is too early to comment on the narrative just yet. However, Zara claims that it is very promising and her character goes through several transitions.
“It is something that I have never done before; it’s tailor-made for me. Khala (Bushra Ansari) called me and said that she wanted to write something for me and this is it,” Zara admits, crediting Ansari and director Iqbal Hussain for her character and dialogues. The drama features an ensemble cast including Bushra Ansari, Shabbir Jan, Babar Ali, Asma Abbas, Asad Siddiqui and Zoya Nasir aside from Zara.
The shooting for Zebaish wrapped up prior to the lockdown but it was the most difficult project for Zara, till date. The actress revealed that she shot it during some of the toughest days of her life; a cousin passed away, leaving her feeling lost.
“I was learning new things about myself, about my mind. The character of Naushaba resembled my actual state at that time. There were days when I used to just cry all the time on set. I didn’t know how the shoot would progress and I still can’t believe it happened. The cast and crew were amazed to see how I even did it,” she explained. “Naushaba is a very religious, home-making girl from a small town and is very happy in the environment she lives in. Suddenly, she experiences a major shift to a city of dreams that has a lot to offer, but at a heavy price. She has to compromise on a lot and give away so much, including her peace of mind as well the love of her life. She does all of that to attain something that she is obsessed about. She destroys everything and everyone who comes in her way, including herself.”
Zara went on to share that she was not very mentally stable in the last of couple of years and very recently, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. She revealed, “Lockdown gave me a lot of anxiety; it didn’t go very well. I have had severe anxiety issues for some time but I hadn’t addressed them. I thought it’s because of my hectic work routine that I feel stressed and tired. It kept creeping up and taking over the best of me. Then I realized that I should get it checked and I found out it is borderline clinical depression. Doctors recommended medicines and therapy, which I went for.”
“With quarantine, initially it was very tough for me to stay home; given my condition, it was very important for me to keep myself busy,” Zara continued. “Since I wasn’t active, I had many relapses. I could not go out or meet my friends due to Covid-19. I started cycling because I dreaded staying home. But nothing really helped as my routine was totally off. Fortunately, with my family’s support I came to terms with it gradually and the medicines also started kicking in. I am literally loving quarantine now. I am very relaxed; I have started to paint, read, I’ve put money plants around the house and everything that I used to do during my early 20s. I have started to reinvent that part of me and it is very peaceful.”
She may have found inner peace but Zara is very disappointed and disturbed at how people in Pakistan are spreading hate even during these tough times. When the world is emphasizing on promoting positivity and paying attention to mental health, people here are busy pulling each other’s leg and passing judgements.
Referring to how every celebrity is trolled on social media for one reason or another, Zara maintained, “Yes, we are public property and everyone has a right to comment on our lives but I think they ‘should’ not. It doesn’t affect our work, our brand endorsements, our personal lives or anything. It only tells the importance of the entertainment industry in the eyes of public in Pakistan and paints a very bad image of the country in front of the world. Worldwide, media is not bigger than the actor – be it Hollywood or be it India. We have always given freedom of speech to our media but they shouldn’t exploit it. They cannot enter our houses so they enter our profiles, bully us, assassinate our characters, slut-shame us. This is getting out of control and I can’t stay quiet anymore,” she said, referring to recent controversies that erupted around her and that she was not at liberty to speak about.
“I am so disgusted by the thought and mentality of this country and the people who want to touch every celebrity, want to go to all promotional events but they say that they don’t want their daughters to be a part of the industry. They follow us, they want to see our dramas and see us on the big screen but they don’t respect us. They don’t realize that behind the glamour, we have this huge dark side to our lives too; we are also sensitive and this is very upsetting.”
Zara went on to say that sometimes she felt like going off social media altogether. She urged publications and blogs to stop promoting hate and giving space to trolls since that is not what news reporting is. The actress stressed that it’s about time artists started speaking up for themselves. In tough times like these, people resort to artists yet they deprive them of basic respect in society.
Moving on, Zara informed that she has two upcoming projects lined up. Earlier this year, she signed on for Haseeb Hasan’s upcoming film Aan alongside Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed, in which she will be playing a strong character. The film revolves around the Pakistan Navy. She has also begun shooting for her next drama serial by Syed Ahmed Kamran. Tentatively titled Badzaat, it will tackle a social issue but the actress didn’t reveal much about it at the moment.
Understanding the need to diversify, Zara claims that Zebaish as well as her upcoming projects have something different to offer. “All three characters are different from one another; I want to do characters in which women are not just passive aggressive but are intelligent, smart and stand up for themselves,” she stressed.
Staying indoors at present and relieved to learn that she is not corona positive, Zara is unsure if she will resume shooting anytime soon. Given the severity with which the virus is spreading and uncertainty around partial to strict lockdowns across the country, she is hesitant to go back to sets yet.