By Muhammad Asad Ullah
From a relatively moderate celebrity profile as a Pakistani drama artiste to making a star turn opposite the legendary Sridevi in Bollywood, Sajal Aly has traversed some distance.
Before Sajal found her calling, she was a teenaged wannabe actress from Lahore, Pakistan, who, moved to the port city of Karachi to support her family financially. She worked as a brand promotion girl before landing an audition — and shooting into prominence — for Mehmoodabad Ki Malkain (a family drama on the private TV channel ARY Digital in 2011).
Sajal was one of hundreds of young faces, who arrive every year in Karachi carrying sanguine, but mostly farfetched, dream of making it big. It won’t be erroneous to say that you can find all that hoopla of collected ambition in her uncanny expression that mottles the screen only once the camera rolls.
For Sajal, it is another leap in a career in which she has forged ahead from a newcomer to winning two nominations at the prestigious Lux Style Awards 2018 in a single category of Best Actress; acclaimed for her dramatic talent — from the assertive Sassi of O Rangreza to the vulnerable and relatable Dr Zubia of Yaqeen Ka Safar — drama serials on Pakistan’s premier entertainment channel HUM TV — both in 2017.
After enduring the heartache of her mother’s demise last year, Sajal expresses her utmost grief, disbelief and shock over the death of Sridevi, who essayed her reel life mother in the Bollywood dark thriller Mom.
The legendary Indian showed her love and concern for Sajal in a video, during promotions for Mom when the Pakistani actors couldn’t rub shoulders with her at the promo events, thanks to a ban. She even broke down in tears and regretted Sajal’s absence verbally. She referred to Sajal as ‘mera bacha’ (my kid), in a video to show how much love and affection she had for the Pakistani artiste.
The 24-year-old’s eyes caterwauls as she moves from one project to another; making it straight from her shoot for Aangan (an upcoming drama serial based on pre-Partition) in a clean casual uptight head bun and a French pink jumper she carries effortlessly whilst Community sits down with her to run the gamut of a rich journey — now almost a decade old — before she heads over to her makeup artist, dolled up to walk the ramp.
Yaqeen Ka Safar and Rangreza are two serials that did way too well on the screen, earning you two nominations for the Best Actress at Lux Style Awards 2018. Yet, you share space with relative newcomers whilst you yourself are an established actress. How do you explain that?
Well, a throwback to my career and you’ll see I’ve always been part of plays where I was cast opposite relative newcomers, but I’ve never had a problem. And you know all those projects, did way too well on television screen bringing immense TRPS.
And yes, the two nominations are for both the projects that are very close to my heart: Yaqeen Ka Safar and Rangreza. They are completely different yet represent two very strong characters. I am honoured that I got to play these roles and represent independent strong women and their tireless journeys.
What kind of bond did you develop with Sridevi? Were you still in touch with her post-release Mom?
Yes, I was. We shared a very mother-daughter kind of relationship. In the first two spells of the shoot, my mother was there with me and they developed a very good bond, so we spent a lot of time together — like a family. In the last spell of the film since I was alone at the shoot and my mother was in the hospital, that was when I got attached to her (Sridevi). For me, she’s no doubt a legend but even in my first scene, I never felt like I was sitting in front of Sridevi; I felt I was sitting in front of a mother. She made me feel that way. It’s a very big thing. Lots of newcomers come and shoot with you and sometimes they even get intimidated or nervous, but during the entire shoot of the film, I never felt uncomfortable sharing the screen with her.
She broke down whilst talking about her bond with you at the promos. What do you feel about that?
It came as a surprise to me and I was extremely emotional at that time because my mother had just passed away a few days ago and when Mom came out, it was all about the bond between mother and her daughter. So yes.
How much of a setback has the ban on Pakistani artistes in Bollywood been? Do you agree with the narrative that artistes are a soft target in all of this?
Yes, they are! Since artistes are prominent both in Pakistan and India they’re a soft target, which is wrong. I am glad that I got a chance to work in Bollywood and might as well go again, but I am also concerned about contributing to a positive growth in Pakistani cinema. I believe the hard work that we put in the projects abroad can just be put in at home, where we are given the respect we deserve. Therefore, the ban shouldn’t be taken as a setback anyway.
What is the first thing you prioritise before signing up a project?
A substantial script and role is all that I look into. I just don’t want to be there for the sake of it — you know just the beauty element. I’m an actor at the end of the day, so I look forward to a project where I can challenge my own abilities.
How do you find inner peace? Is there something that you do to get away from all the action in your life? Are there beauty secrets lurking somewhere that other aspirants could make use of?
There’s no beauty secret. I’m a very simple person in nature; it’s just that I take my work very seriously. After my mother (passed away), I did a lot of projects to keep myself as busy as I could, but you know once you face certain realities of life, ultimately your life gets easier — you’re over all your fears. I’m happy in action, workwise. That’s the real peace for me — keeping up with everyone and being the candid me!
What has changed after Mom as an actress? What do you think needs to improve in Pakistani cinema?
Nothing has changed. I’m still doing projects and people do appreciate them. Our work is a constant struggle. I believe it’s better to keep doing the work and get even better with every project. It’s still a learning curve for me. When it comes to Pakistani films, there’s still a lot to learn and do better.
What issues are the closest to your heart? Is there something that you have found more fulfilling doing than what has made you famous?
I feel like contributing and working for cancer patients in Pakistan. Maybe, I can relate to what the family goes through, it’s something very close to my heart. When my mother left us, it brought unbearable pain for the family. So, I don’t really want anybody else to be in the same boat.
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