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OK! Pakistan celebrates its fabulous seventh anniversary with groundbreaking actresses Sarwat Gilani, Sanam Saeed, and Ushna Shah


Sarwat Gilani is a TV and film actress who believes in ‘less is more’. An interior designer at heart, she is a free-spirited and chirpy person with a voice of her own. She comfortably juggles motherhood with her acting ambitions, and is one of the few celebrities who were productive with their artistic pursuits during lockdown. Recently, she earned widespread acclaim for her role as ‘Sarah’ in the famous web show Churails.

The response was amazing for Churails! It was the best comeback you could have planned for yourself. Compliments poured in from the biggies in India like Karan Kohar and many others. You were also trending in India for two days when it was released. How did it feel?
SARWAT GILANI: The response that we got after Churails released was an unbelievable experience. The promotions took place during quarantine times so our PR team in India lined up about 50 or so virtual interviews but as more people started watching the curiosity grew and we ended up doing so many more. We had billboards all over India and people from all across the globe wanted to know the school of thought behind the project.
Karan Johar reached out to me personally and appreciated the show and my acting in it, gave love and kudos to the entire team, and said he loved every bit of Churails. It was very uplifting. In spite of people telling me that I should share his message on social media, I opted not to and that gave me a kind of satisfaction that only I knew about. It felt personal and I didn’t feel the need to show it off publicly.

How does it feel to be Asim Abbasi’s muse? He always writes his scripts keeping you in mind, including Cake which you had to leave after script reading sessions due to pregnancy. Also tell us how it’s different working with Asim compared to the other directors.
SG: Asim is an extremely talented and intelligent writer/director. It gives me a lot of encouragement to know someone that bright and unconventional out there recognises my talent and believes I can do justice to his projects.
He saw in me what no one could in my 20 years of career, by helping me believe I could shed off my preconceived notions about acting that had almost become my skin. He pushed me to try and learn a new way of acting, let go of my inhibitions and take the risk to be different. The most amazing thing about Asim is his vision, his unspoken expectations, his ability to get anything and everything out of an actor with very few words or directions. The most inspiring thing about him was the discipline with which he ran his set; everyone was working towards one vision – Asim’s vision. There was no hierarchy between actors, everyone was treated the same and was expected to be on top of their game. The actors we’ve seen over the years were looking and acting differently because he pushed everyone out of their comfort zones and that push made Churails so different and unique.

Khasara was your last television drama. Why didn’t you do any TV series after that despite the great reviews?
SG: I believe the media holds a lot of power, power to bring about a much needed change in the mindset of our society. Our stories must elevate the public, uplift our women and encourage our youth with models and ideals that they want to follow and become. I do believe in entertainment, don’t get me wrong! But I also know that the people in important positions of our media can be a bit more responsible in what they are showing. I remember Dhoop Kinaray, Tanhaiyan, Angan Tehra, Fifty Fifty and Sona Chandi days where some of the most pertinent issues of the times were portrayed and addressed so sensibly and sensitively. Today I see entertainment but with inadequate professional responsibility. If we want our society to flourish, amongst other things we must also tell real success stories of the millions of heroes of our own society. We must build ideals and show positivity in more optimistic, artistic and empowering ways.

How was it working with Nadeem in his super successful JPNA 1 and 2. Does comedy come naturally to you? Also is it difficult to work in big ensemble casts SG: JPNA was a super hit film in the true commercial sense. Nadeem Baig’s direction and his sensibilities never fail to impress his viewers. He is one director who understands the requirements of the time and has always played it to the T, whether it was his hit dramas or super hit films. He and Humayun make a great squad and they complement each other’s vision and make a promising team for the film industry’s future.
Timing is everything when it comes to comedy. Comic roles are not easy but if you get the hang of it, they are a lot of fun. With Gul’s character I not only had to concentrate on my timing and wit but also work on my pashto accent, which I was familiar with but not so fluent in. But these obstacles made me work more on myself as an actor, and I received immense love and appreciation for Gul’s character.

You had always skipped dancing in songs  but you finally gave in with an opening performance at the Coca Cola arena for an award show. How was the experience?
SG: Dancing in movies is really not my thing, but give me a stage to perform and I’ll give it my all. It was a great experience, from understanding the Punjabi language to learning the songs and trying to perfect your moves with a great dance team, to finally being placed backstage for your finishing performance. The adrenaline, the kick of having a live audience and the magic of it all was unreal.

Since expectations are high – what’s next on your plate. We hear you did a narration of Gulzar Sahib’s stories for Sarmad Khoosat and also another webisode for Meenu and Farjad. Tell us more about these projects.
SG:After Churails I’ve shot two more web series that are in the pipeline to be released this year. It’s been an exciting year for me as I’ve gotten to work with some of the most amazing directors such as Sarmad Khoosat and Minu. I’ve always admired Sarmad’s sensibilities as an actor and a director and had always wished to work with him. As expected, his way of going about the script was most unusual and his creativity most fascinating; it gave me a chance to explore my own ability to act differently and manufacture characters I could’ve never imagined playing. The project in itself is so different that I can’t wait to see the whole thing myself!
It’s interesting how people can point out something about you that you never knew about yourself, even though they have never worked with you before. Meenu is that observant. She knew what she wanted yet was open to how the scene would flow, and it was extremely easy for me to work with her. As for the web series, it is a piece of art, well written and knit together while outstandingly shot by Mo Azmi and directed so sensitively by Minu. Can’t say more right now except that a lot of your favourite artists will be seen in this web series so stay tuned.

You have been very active as the Ambassador for Special Olympics Pakistan. How was it producing the anthem with Strings? And then representing it in Abu Dhabi?
SG: It’s my sixth year as the Ambassador of Special Olympics Pakistan and everything related to that cause is an absolute honour. SOP’s Chairperson Ms Ronak Lakhani’s vision to see an inclusive Pakistan is awe inspiring. She is a great ideal for me and many others, and witnessing her will and courage to overcome obstacles is very encouraging and motivating for all of us.
When I came on board SOP I realised there is something missing on Ronak’s checklist and that was the Special Olympics Pakistan’s Anthem, a Special Olympics tradition a lot of other countries followed. Being from the industry I thought of reaching out to people who’d be the perfect voice for this cause and who could pen it better than Anwar Maqsood Sahab, whose words never fail to impress us! And it was unbelievably humble of Strings to lend us their time and creative talent as a gift and we at SOP will forever be grateful to them for their kindness. I produced the song with Omar Adil and Beenish and it was released nationwide by the name of “Tum Asmaan Ho”. It did a few global rounds at different occasions at the World Games in Abu Dhabi.

Tell us about your art classes. How did you come up with the idea of going online?
SG: That was last year. This year I have a surprise for all my fans and friends who appreciated Sarwat Gilani’s Art House and were my regular students virtually.
I feel Covid brought back hobbies in every one’s lives. Mine was going back to my art roots. It was a wonderful experience to have people from our entire country as well as other countri  es tag me everyday with the ‘art project of the day’. Without having to leave our homes thousands of people were connecting through art and that was an unreal feeling. Also, It was a great opportunity for me to bond with my kids and other mothers who needed guidance on how to talk, explain and respond to their children. Therefore, my next project in the pipeline is related to children, parents and their creativity. Can’t wait to tell you about it but super excited for all of you to see and experience it once it reaches its conclusion.
PS: An artistic film project is underway for October and November of 2021. You’ll get to hear more soon!


Three words that best describe you?
SG: Optimistic, creative and driven.

Favourite restaurant or cuisine?
SG: Okra Test Kitchen, Wang Wang and Chulu Kabab to name a few.

The one thing you cannot live without?
SG: Positive vibes.

Words of wisdom or favourite quote?
SG: Life is what you make of it.

Any book you would recommend?
SG: “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson.

Favourite song?
SG: These days it’s “New Rules” by Dua Lipa.

A piece of advice that changed your life?
SG: One day life will present you with a bill and you should be able to pay it.

Favourite luxury brand or item you own?
SG: Channel, can’t live without my scents.

Best holiday destination?
SG: It was Rome until Fahad took me there, now it’s Maldives!

Most inspirational person you know?
SG: Every self-made person is an inspiration for me.

Your most memorable experience?
SG: My last moments with my father.

One thing that you love about Pakistan…
SG: It’s home.

She’s television’s finest star and has enacted the opinionated girl in her two most successful dramas to date — Mera Naseeb and the hugely popular and ultimate favourite, Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Tall, svelte, easygoing and poised, Sanam Saeed has established herself as a brilliant actress in the media industry.

“I am firm in my opinions but I am never really as emphatic as the characters I’ve played” – you said this years ago in an interview. Do you think the characters have finally changed or does this statement still hold true?
SANAM SAEED: I haven’t played a very assertive character in a while, there are still all kinds of roles out there. But I might say this statement still holds true for now.

How was it working in films? Mehreen Jabbar and Asim Abbasi are both known for their master craftsmanship.
SS: Working in films is magical. It took me a while to fall in love with acting for film, but I think I’m there now. Mehreen and Asim are indeed two very interesting story tellers who have made a name for themselves telling stories off the beaten path.

You once said, “I feel I’ve found my niche with acting. It allows me to put on a façade, let go of my inhibitions and lose myself in a character. For me, it’s well worth the long hours and the hectic schedules.” Has your career been fruitful, are you satisfied with the roles you have played? Do you think there is much more that is left in you to share?
SS: Without a doubt my career has been fruitful Alhamdulillah. I am so grateful for all the opportunities, and the love and recognition I’ve received for doing my job – which happens to be my passion. I’ve been so lucky to play some incredible roles so far. But there is still so much to explore, learn and create.

What have you been up to in the past one year? What keeps you busy at home? Any hobbies that you are pursuing?
SS: In the past year I’ve done two films, moved house, become more health conscious and focused on new content ideas for television.

How do you choose your roles? Why did you say no to such a strong role in Churails?
SS: I choose my roles according to their purpose in the script and the message they carry through them.
The dates for Churails and another project I had already started were overlapping. I had to finish what I had started first.

What’s next for you?
SS: More films and webseries until I come across the right script for TV.


Three words that best describe you?
SS: Curious, understanding, indecisive.

Favourite restaurant or cuisine?
SS: Pakistani and Mediterranean.

The one thing you cannot live without?
SS: Good company.

Words of wisdom or favourite quote?
SS: It’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

Any book you would recommend?
SS: “The Girl who fell from the Sky.”

Favourite song?
SS: “The way you make me feel.”

Best holiday destination?
SS: These days it’s Turkey.

Most inspirational person you know?
SS: My mother.

Your most memorable experience?
SS: The first time we performed “Chicago”, the musical, in Karachi.

One thing that you love about Pakistan
SS: The food and culture.

Beautiful, witty and never afraid to speak her mind, actress Ushna Shah has won a devoted fan following through her powerful performances and forthright demeanor. Born to a family of artists, her love for artistic expression is deep-rooted, but what makes her truly special is her admirable aplomb and poise.

You have always been known for picking out unconventional roles. Be it Raani Begum in Alif Allah aur Insaan or Nigar from Balla, your versatility has stood out and garnered a lot of praise. How do you leave your personal mark in every character you choose?
USHNA SHAH: I don’t have a process or an inclination to leave a personal mark, it is more about performing with as much sincerity as I possibly can. In Pakistani dramas, we are still limited when it comes to diverse characters. I do see this changing especially with OTT platforms coming in but when it comes to drama serials we still have a long way to go. For the majority of roles, the leading girl must fall into the same familiar persona to be accepted by society, in layman’s terms, we aren’t given much to play with. The challenge is to be as honest and raw as possible with the characters and to bring something new to the table. I was blessed with Balah and Alif Allah Aur Insaan but those happen once in a blue moon. Most serials, unfortunately, don’t offer such characters yet so when I am given such an opportunity, I take it and am grateful that the audience has accepted, and as you said, appreciated it.

Being the voice for countless, you have been headstrong and determined with your social work and especially animal activism through the years. This year you have even collaborated with WWF as an Ambassador. Truly well deserved, what are your ambitions with it for the future?
US: As with most public figures with a platform, I also believe it is our collective responsibility to speak for the voiceless. In my case, I have always been inclined towards animals hence my voice is, quite literally, for the voiceless. The state of animals on a large scale in Pakistan is abhorrent yet there is still a stigma attached with speaking against it. Very few public figures have taken up this cause and we are often ridiculed for it. The problem lies in awareness: Animal Abuse is not even recognised as a problem, so the number one goal is to educate the next (as well as the current) generation on the importance of kindness towards sentient beings. There also needs to be enough civil societal pressure on the government to create and implement strict laws against the mistreatment and abuse of animals. Our country follows the barbaric and inhumane practice of culling street dogs; this ought to be replaced with spaying and neutering programs that are much better suited to control their population. The horrendous negligence and abuse of animals in zoos in Pakistan often garners international attention, and it is sickening and embarrassing. Zoos need to be replaced with globally recognised sanctuaries or the animals need to be sent abroad.
There is also the mistreatment of pets in homes that needs to be addressed, and for that we need Public Service Announcements funded by the Government.
Partnering with WWF, an esteemed international agency, gives me an excellent opportunity to bring awareness towards the endangerment of indigenous species, and problems such as illegal poaching as well as the illegal import of exotic wildlife in Pakistan. I highlight the importance of conservation of endangered species as well as the protection of our environment. A part of their MOU is “to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature”, and that is a vision I definitely share with them. These goals will not be achieved overnight, they require continuous work. However this work is more fulfilling and important than anything I have done and will do on screen.

We hear that you will be pairing up again with Usama Ali Raza after Bashar Momin. Apart from this there is a new film in the works for you. Walk us through your new mega projects.
US: Usama and I are collaborating after seven years. As much as we love and appreciate Bashar Momin, we felt that at this stage of our careers we owed it to our audience and country to let our art truly imitate life. Rape and female harassment is nothing new, but social media noise is, and this past year has heard plenty of that. A recurring theme in rape and harassment cases is for the abused to stay quiet because the stigma falls on the victim, not on the culprit. This is what gives them power, to use a woman’s shame as leverage. Through our narrative in this project, we as artists want to contribute to the movement that is challenging the placement of this shame.
The film is written and directed by Syed Zaheeruddin, who is known for his socially conscious storytelling. It also follows similar themes: about raising one’s voice against injustice, not negating the value of a woman’s life and not cowering in front of authorities who abuse their power.

Your recent project with RDB garnered a lot of attention. How important do you feel it is for artists to promote cultural collaboration to preserve this form of art?
US: My recent work was with Manj (stage alias ‘ManjMusik), the lead singer and music producer from the now disbanded group RDB and it will release after Eid inshAllah. Having grown up in Canada, my environment was very multicultural and I was especially close with many people from India, especially the Indian Punjab. Manj and I are similar in the sense that I am from Canada with roots from Pakistan and he is from the UK with roots from India, yet we were connected through music, culture and a shared respect and love for the subcontinent. Most people of diaspora have a similar sentiment, we are connected in foreign lands yet divided in our own. Art has the power to break down barriers, and this was an excellent opportunity to do just that. RDB are legends in Pakistan, even Manj’s current music is very much played here, we love it and dance to it at weddings. I hope this collaboration is a stepping stone for our people to create more art together, away from politics and policies.

Fitness has been a strong driving force for you. Keeping one’s mind and body healthy is important in today’s era. Tell us about your motivation to achieve both.
US: Working on the Mind-Body-Soul trifecta is the ultimate display of self love; one must make time for themselves through exercise or sport, meditation and activities that feed the soul.
In today’s day and time, fitness is not a luxury, it’s a need. We live in a world that thrives on people’s insecurities. Social media has given a higher public visibility of our personal lives to people, resulting in more pressure to be your absolute best. This pressure adds to the already existing stress of our day to day lives and work.
Ironically, at the same time, people are spending more and more time hooked on to the screens on their devices, not investing enough in their own physical health. Pakistan, in particular, will rank quite low if there were a global fitness index in comparison to European or Asian countries and that ranking could go even lower for Pakistani women as they have limited opportunities and awareness to maintain their fitness levels.
For me, my health and fitness are of utmost importance. Exercise helps me reduce stress, and it is scientifically proven that exercise releases endorphins – hormones directly connected to happiness and physical wellbeing. I believe I need to invest in myself and my personal growth; keeping myself fit and healthy is an investment in my own future. It is highly rewarding in the present and I believe, will help me even more in the longer run. I hope my fitness journey can help motivate people to live their best lives as well.

We really appreciate how vocal you have been regarding women’s health and PCOS. What drives you to openly discuss these issues, which are still considered taboo to some extent?
US: My drive is ‘teenage Ushna’. Before I was diagnosed with PCOS, I was too embarrassed to discuss my symptoms with anyone, even in Canada. The symptoms are physical as well as emotional. Had I been more comfortable and had I known more, I would have had a much easier time growing up instead of wondering whether something was wrong with me. One in 10 women have PCOS, and conventional medicine has not evolved for it in decades. Everyone diagnosed is more or less given the same prognosis in most parts of the world. Most women are not told that there are various types of PCOS and the best way to manage them is to learn about them and then make lifestyle and diet changes accordingly. There are a lot of myths surrounding PCOS that I wish to alleviate as they can cause unnecessary worry and stress to women. My life changed after I did my own research and educated myself, so I am hoping my platform can help other women connect to portals that offer information, or that I can teach them what I know via my posts so that they can manage their PCOS in a better way. And if even one young girl or woman who follows me sees that her symptoms don’t make her an anomaly, that they can be managed and that she is not alone, that even the actor she sees on TV has the same problems as her, then I’ve done justice to the teenage Ushna whose difficulties did not go in vain.
Segregation and lack of health education in schools has made many natural issues for women even more distressing as they are taboos in society.  For example: If women weren’t shamed for their period and if men were educated on PMS symptoms, then schools and workplaces would be safe and comfortable environments for women. If my platform can help educate these men and women and make lives a bit easier for them, then I am not at all afraid of the stigma that might arise from it.


Three words that best describe you?
US: Ushna H. Shah

Favourite restaurant or cuisine?
US: Cold pizza on a Sunday afternoon.

The one thing you cannot live without?
US: My inhaler or antihistamines; I could die if either were unavailable when needed.

Words of wisdom or favourite quote?
US: Sh*t happens!

Any book you would recommend?
US : My recent favourite is “The 5AM Club” by Robin Sharma

Favourite song?
US: “The Show Must Go On” by Queen, but I’m grooving to a lot of Rotimi these days.

A piece of advice that changed your life?
US: Moving to Pakistan and working in television dramas.

Favourite luxury brand or item you own?
US: Honestly, my mattress.. it’s a luxury memory foam and I love it more than any article of clothing or accessory.

Best holiday destination?
US: So far, Bali but my bathtub is a close runner up.

Most inspirational person you know?
US: That chick in the mirror.

One thing that you love about Pakistan
US: The lack of judgement from society.


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