“I plan to be acting even when I am in my seventies”

Aamina Sheikh talks to Ally Adnan about life, love and the pervasive class system in the world of Pakistani showbusiness

“I plan to be acting even when I am in my seventies”
Aamina Sheikh is one of Pakistan’s biggest stars today, one of the few female actors who is known as much for her looks as she is for her talent. The young actor has made a name for herself by successfully portraying complex women with complicated personalities, both on television and in film. A highly regarded fashion model, Aamina is sought after by some of the best designers, photographers and stylists in the industry. She won the Best Emerging Talent award at the Lux Style Awards in 2009 and became the Regional Face of Emirates Airlines in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 she became the spokesperson for L’Oréal Paris in Pakistan. Aamina’s performance in the feature film Seedlings won her the New York Film Festival Award for Best Actress and the SAARC Film Festival Award for Best Actress. She has since appeared in a number of successful films, including Josh, Armaan, and Good Morning Karachi, and popular television plays that include Mera Saaien, Silvatain, Miraat Ul Uroos, and Jackson Heights.


How has Pakistan’s television industry changed during the last couple of decades?

We had only two channels, PTV and STN, up until about the year 2000. Now there are more than one hundred. As a result the field has become highly competitive. This has significantly increased opportunities and prospects for both consumers and creators. The quality of programming has also gone up due to increased competition between the channels.

Television is now a proper business that makes good money and is able to pay well. Careers in television have become both viable and desirable. A meritocracy exists in the industry and talent is the one guarantee of success in the field. This is not true for many other industries in Pakistan. As a result television is able to attract intelligent, educated and ambitious people who want to have successful careers in show business.

In the past, education and career choices for young Pakistanis used to be limited to engineering, medicine and government services. This has changed. A number of very talented Pakistanis now study acting, direction, and production both in Pakistan and overseas. The quality and quantity of people available to work in televisions has, therefore, gone up.
We are able to produce world-class television nowadays.

Television in Pakistan has always had good writers. Anwar Maqsood, Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia and several others used to write intellectually stimulating plays for television. This has not changed and the quality of writing on television continues to be good. Most of the improvement has been on the technical front. Our productions, today, are more polished and refined than they ever were in the past. We are able to produce world-class television nowadays.

Mirat Ul Uroos - Poster
Mirat Ul Uroos - Poster

When I moved to Pakistan I was able to stand out because of my American education and experience

You majored in film video and production at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. Did your American education help you in the field of show business in Pakistan?

I used to intern in production houses in the United States during my education. Once I had my degree I moved to New York to work for Curious Pictures, an animation studio and multi-media company. While working those jobs, I realized that the industry was full of people like me. There were many people who had a similar education and resume. I was one of many talented and educated people. The opportunities to stand out and get on the fast track were almost non-existent. It seemed that I was destined to have the same career as hundreds of others in the field. When I moved to Pakistan I was able to stand out because of my American education and experience. I had an edge over other who did not have that education. I found a lot of opportunities to prove myself and to make a unique success out of my career.

Did your US work experience help you in Pakistan?

Yes, it did.

I was able to experiment with and apply the theoretical knowledge and practical experience I had gained in the States. At Hampshire College I studied with a very diverse and interesting set of people. The students came from all walks of life and from all over the world. As a result my thinking no longer remained limited to Pakistani sensibilities and my horizons grew wider. I was exposed to some great cinema and television in the United States. I had studied techniques, practices and methods employed in cinema all over the world. This knowledge was of immense use to me in Pakistan. Some of what I knew was already being applied in Pakistan, albeit sporadically and without proper discipline. Since I had a proper education and practical experience in cinema I found myself more adept at applying modern approaches and techniques to my work in Pakistan. The truth is that good, solid experience always helps, not just in film and television but in all industries. When I returned to Pakistan we did not have many people with international experience in the industry. I had the experience, a little more knowledge, if you will, and consequently more confidence. This helped me get considerable attention and respect in Pakistan. It also helped me secure projects that would have otherwise not been available to me.

Mera Saaien - Poster
Mera Saaien - Poster

Pakistanis do not do things just because they are supposed to; their motivation to work is based on feelings and mood

Things are done differently, and at a different pace, in Pakistan. Was it easy to adapt to the Pakistani style of working?

No. It was difficult and, occasionally, a little frustrating.

The ability to get things done in Pakistan is both an art and a science; an obscure art and science, actually. It takes a lot to learn how to get things done here. This was the most important and most difficult thing I had to learn after my move to Pakistan. Pakistanis do not do things just because they are supposed to; their motivation to work is based on feelings and mood. I had to learn how to motivate people into doing what I needed them to do. Pakistan is multilingual. I had to learn how to converse in multiple languages to communicate effectively. Women and men are treated differently in Pakistan. I had to adapt to the gender divide. Show business attracts people from all strata of society, the rich and the poor, the well-connected and the regular folk, and the educated and the illiterate.  I had to learn how to deal with each and every one effectively. Once I had this down, the rest was easy and quite enjoyable actually. Once Pakistanis are motivated, they are creative, industrious, resourceful, cooperative and a lot of fun. I was happy to be back in Pakistan.

Women have been the most popular subject of television plays, serials and series in Pakistan.

Yes, they have. It is ironic that in a country where they are often denied the most basic of rights, women feature prominently on television.

Josh - Film Poster
Josh - Film Poster

The lives of the vast majority of women in Pakistan are sorry and sad

They sure do but the portrayals almost always depict women who suffer at the hands of their families, society and tradition. How come women like yourself – smart, educated, confident and successful – are not shown in television plays?

I think that is because there are very few such women in Pakistan even today. Our women continue to be subjugated and denied basic rights. The lives of the vast majority of women in Pakistan are sorry and sad. That is what television shows.

Television viewership in Pakistan is largely comprised of women who lead miserable lives. They cannot identify with the liberated woman but empathize with the suffering woman shown on television. They understand her trials and tribulations. They identify with her and tune in each week to see how she deals with adversity and unfairness. The suffering woman, therefore, has always been, and continues to be, ubiquitous on television in Pakistan. This is really unfortunate for female actors who are forced to play the same character over and over again. I wish it would change but in reality, our society will need to change before this happens on television.

Do you feel that there is a lack of creativity amongst television writers?

Yes, I do.

Could this be another reason for the protracted reign of the suffering woman as a subject of television plays?

Yes. In fact, it most certainly is one of the reasons.

A while ago, I acted in a serial where two sisters who had very different personalities and values lived in the same environment. The serial was very successful but, unfortunately, started a trend of having two sisters in serials. I was offered numerous roles as one of two sisters after the serial and found myself saying no very often. I had already played the role once and did not want to do it again. The reason was not only a lack of creativity but also an unwillingness to take risks. Using a tried and tested formula is considered to be a tacit guarantee of success.

That being said, I must say that every few years, and sometimes months, one sees new subjects on television; subjects that are daring, risky and avant-garde. No one can deny that. One just wishes it would happen more frequently.

Both you and your husband, Mohib Mirza, work as actors. Is acting a viable career in Pakistan today?

Absolutely. Mohib and I are blessed to be in show business at a time when there is a lot of money and an abundance of opportunities in the field. I am aware that in the days of PTV and STN actors were paid very little and couldn’t possibly make their living as actors. That has changed completely. A career in show business is not just attractive but is desirable and lucrative today.

A lot of Pakistani female actors give up show business when they get married and when they have children. What are your plans?

I am in it for the long haul. I studied to be in show business. I married an actor. I plan to continue to be in the field for a very long time. I have no plans to give up a career that has been one of the wisest choices of my life. As television and cinema evolve in Pakistan, there will be more and more roles for female actors of all ages. The days where female actors were objectified as pretty faces and had careers that spanned no more than ten years will soon be behind us. I feel that I will have more and more opportunities to act in the future. I plan to be acting even when I am in my sixties and seventies. A life in show business is the one I wanted and the one that I enjoy.

Aamina Sheikh at the Lux Awards, 2014
Aamina Sheikh at the Lux Awards, 2014

A lot of characters that you play on television and in films are of very plain women and some are decidedly unglamorous. Why is that?

It is a conscious choice. I believe that I have more to offer than just good looks. Glamour is good but histrionic ability is more important for an actor.

During the first two years of my career I focused on tele-films and individual plays. These have significantly smaller budgets than serials and series so there is a greater willingness to take risks since possible losses are relatively small. I got some very good roles in these small projects; roles which were not flashy or glamorous but challenging. They afforded me an opportunity to prove my mettle as an actor. I have since played some very glamorous roles but don’t feel the need to do so in every project I undertake. I am a serious actor and will hopefully play a lot of very different characters in my career. Some will be glamorous while others would be plain.

There is a lot of talk about the resurgence of Pakistani cinema these days. A few good films have been produced in the last couple of years. Do you think this is the start of something big?

Pakistani cinema is certainly experiencing a revival. There is no doubt that we have seen some very good films in recent years. In fact, I have starred in a few of those films. But, it is too soon to be celebrating the birth of good cinema in Pakistan. This may or may not be the start of something big. The momentum that has been achieved needs to be sustained for us to be able to say that Pakistani cinema has arrived and is here to stay.

A class system seems to exist in show business. It can be seen on the set and on location. It is certainly on vulgar display at award shows and other events where people from the same industry are seated separately based on a royally unfair but pervasive class system. What do you think of this?

It exists. It certainly does. I do not like it. I see three classes in the world of show business. There are those who have money, social and political clout, and connections in the industry. There is the class of people that come from dubious backgrounds and are thought to come from families of nautch girls. And we have a third class of people who are poor - very poor – but want to join show business. They are deemed to be mailaa.  This is a sad division of people that must be eliminated for the sake of show business and for the sake of humanity. Fortunately, we have a few directors and producers who work with people irrespective of class. They base their choices on merit and not on a sad class system. Their work, consequently, is of superior quality and much better than that of people who like to work exclusively with the beautiful, the rich and the powerful.

While the class system is appalling and deplorable, and it really is, we should not forget an individual’s responsibility to stand up for himself and his rights. People who are not treated well because they have been relegated to a “lower class” should protest, fight back, and demand proper respect. It is difficult to do – very, very difficult – but they must do it. People who create classes should not be allowed to get away with their behavior. The oppressed need to fight back. They owe it to themselves if not to anyone else.

How did you meet Mohib Mirza?

I first came to know of Mohib while a student at the Lyceum in Karachi. Mohib and I were both very active in school plays at the time. I used to see him in plays frequently. We had some friends in common as well but, somehow, never developed a friendship with each other. We became friends when I returned to Pakistan from the United States and took over the directing of GEO’s program Bachay Mann Kay Sachay. Mohib was the host of the program. We did more than fifty episodes of the program together. The close working relationship afforded me the opportunity to learn more about Mohib and become very fond of him.

What attracted you to Mohib?

His passion, energy and drive.

Mohib is a very attractive man. He does not let society, or friends, or even family dictate the terms on which he leads his life. He operates under his own belief and value system. He never pretends to be someone that he is not and is not afraid of being himself. His originality makes him very desirable.

I view Mohib more as a partner and less as a husband. He brings out the best in me. He reinforces and strengthens my beliefs, principles and opinions. He understands what is important to me. I think achieving my goals in life is going to be easier because of having Mohib by my side.
Sometimes Mohib becomes the stereotypical male

Does Mohib do anything that drives you insane?

Of course he does. Sometimes he becomes the stereotypical male which is very annoying.

 What is a stereotypical male?

A man who is very laid back; a bit too laid back for comfort. He is someone who can sit in front of the television all day and do nothing meaningful. He is messy and disorganized. He is not communicative and emotionally distant.

Mohib is a good looking and, as you say, an attractive man. He is in show business and works with some very beautiful ladies. Are you ever concerned that someone might steal him from you?

No, never. I am good looking and attractive as well. If anything, Mohib should be concerned about someone stealing me away from him. On a serious note, we are not just in love but enjoy being with each other. We have similar careers and similar goals. We share a common belief system. There is a lot of confidence and trust in our relationship. I do not worry about Mohib being unfaithful.

Who is the better actor, you or Mohib?


Did you face any abuse or mistreatment when you started out in the industry?

No, I did not.

Is that typical of the industry in Pakistan?

No, it is not. A lot of people, especially newcomers, are treated horribly in show business.

Why is it that you did not face any abuse in a field known for its exploitation of newcomers?

I am a strong and confident person. I do not seem vulnerable to people who like to take advantage of others. I am also fortunate to not be financially dependent on my career in show business. I do not have dozens of people to feed with the money I make. Sadly, quite a few women in show business do. They cannot afford not to make money and not to do well in show business. This makes them dependent on their careers and vulnerable to abuse. It is a sad but unfortunate truth. Need, and not a desire for the glamorous life brings a lot of women to show business.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas where he works in the field of telecommunications. He can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com