The woman who walks in knows herself; she’s just wary of the fact that people don’t always see the same person she does. Hugely underrated, often misunderstood and frequently the subject of social media trials, Ushna Shah knows controversy a bit too well. Her talent, intelligence and overall gorgeousness take a backseat when she has an altercation on social media. But after spending little over an hour with her over mugs of coffee and masala chai, it’s evident that Ushna is neither a rebel without cause nor a person who stirs up trouble for attention. She’s just an actor who loves her job while being very good at it, and just resents the sexism, gender disparity and overall lack of fairness when it comes to being a woman in the field. Having an opinion is her crime.
Power suits, she says as she walks in with a beaming smile, are her go-to item of clothing these days. It is of course strategic, as style statements should be but rarely are these days when stars will wear anything that comes with a commission. Her well cut, powder blue jacket, worn with jeans and a white shirt, is professional and yet alluring; it sends out a message of power, confidence and femininity.
Ushna has never been this healthy, she confesses. It’s a result of three gym sessions a day and a very carefully curated diet. All this is in prep, it seems, for a role she’s signed up for. Having played diverse roles on television for over seven years, she is finally ready to make her big screen debut.
“I can’t disclose the title because it’s still in the works and I think our hero is in talks,” she says, refusing to commit to whether it’s Usman Mukhtar, as rumour mills would have you believe. “It is a crime drama and it is just the kind of role that I wanted to do for a while. My role is not that big but my character is the only female lead and she is actually really cool. What I can tell you is that I play a cricketer. It is a strong woman’s role, and though the film isn’t about cricket, it gives me motivation that I am playing an athlete.”
The characters Ushna has been playing on television have been diverse but not always the kind of strong and motivational roles that reflect her personal brand. She is currently on air in the hugely successful drama serial Bandhay Aik Dor Se and plays a very meek and sweet girl named Maheen, who wants to please everyone around her. Other drama serials that can be considered landmarks in Ushna’s career would be Alif Allah Aur Insaan, Balaa and her breakthrough project, Bashar Momin opposite Faisal Qureshi and Sami Khan.
“Bashar Momin was my breakout character and I am very thankful for it,” she says. “But now looking back, it was glorifying domestic violence. The message that it gave out, especially to young girls, was that if you tolerate a man’s abuse, he will change. As a grown woman, I do not want to give that message now.”
Ushna’s opinions (and it’s refreshing that she doesn’t mince her thoughts or words), stem from the overwhelming sexism and gender disparity in the entertainment industry. More and more women, female actors and their supporters are raising their voices against unfair practices that favour male actors.
“I am the opinionated person who needs things to be done in a certain way and what I have noticed is that there is always a negative connotation attached to a woman’s behaviour, whatever it maybe,” she elaborates. “If a female artist is demanding something or wants everything on time, they are considered bossy or shrill whereas if a hero or male artist shows such behaviour, it’s not problematic. So sexism is definitely there.” Speaking of the gender disparity in pay scale, Ushna says, “Our drama serials mostly revolve around a female character but male actors get paid more per day. If you compare contemporaries, then men make more money and that’s not fair. Women are usually driving the project, we have to come early, wear makeup and we have to shoot more scenes. We have to do a lot more work in this industry and the kind of things we deal with to get into it – it is definitely harder for us.”
Talking about nepotism or the notorious casting couch, Ushna admits to the convoluted system that a female artist has to go through to get an audition or casting call. Coming from a family that was already affiliated with showbiz (her mother, Ismat Tahira and sister Irsa Ghazal are well respected veterans) she wasn’t prey to the patriarchy when she returned from Canada around a decade ago, but she knows girls who were.
“I see a lot of girls being exploited and it is not necessarily by the top level people but the lower tier that these girls have to go through to get to the meetings and auditions,” she shook her head while sharing. “The kind of sexism we deal with ... men like to pass comments that at some point were considered funny by our society. But it is not funny anymore. There is so much sexism that I don’t think that most men even realise that these things are inappropriate or that you are not supposed to comment on/about a woman like that.”
Ushna also talks about the pressure of maintaining a certain look for the screen. The most popular, ‘best-seller’ in female molds would be young, slim, fair with large (thus vulnerable and innocent looking) eyes and irresistible long hair. Anyone deviating from that look either doesn’t make it or has to try harder. There is very little room for diversity.
“If a female actor is retiring at the age of 34 but a hero is entering his ‘50s and he is paired up with a 22-year-old, then the career span of a heroine is automatically cut short,” she scoffs as she says. “On top of that, you have maintain a certain look and stay in shape; I am such a foodie, who has PCOS and who is pre-diabetic as well, I have to work so much harder to stay in shape. It is definitely tough, it is a tough field.”
In this very tough field, Ushna Shah is working hard to find work that she enjoys and that she can leave a lasting impression with. Her skill as an actor is appreciated, but is still underrated, which she blames on her inability to fraternize, conform or be politically correct at all times. Her off-screen persona, of being a firebrand, has somewhat compromised her career; such women are considered trouble makers. But young, energetic and confident, she is hopeful.
“Growing up in Canada, I wanted to do something like Kill Bill,” she says, adding details of how she even had to change her accent when she came to Pakistan. “Now the biggest challenge for me is how to reinvent the characters I play and how to put some dimension into them. When I did Balaa, it was a beautifully written script by Zanjabeel, but I didn’t want to play a one-dimensional, evil character. I love the fact that my writers and directors allow me to experiment. So I gave my character Nigar some sociopathic and narcissist traits, which made her relatable and kind of natural. When I did Alif Allah Aur Insaan I studied beggars for a month; I wanted to walk and talk like them. I learnt their Punjabi dialect, I mimicked them for weeks, so when I get such challenges I try to rise to the occasion but that rarely happens.
“I loved my role in Cheekh, even though it was a guest appearance,” she continues. “Even though it was a submissive role, I got to play a girl with a lot of hasrat (desire) in her. That role had a lot of dimension. Now I want to do some action stuff; I am a strong girl and I want to play something crazy and amazing. I would love to play somebody with multiple personality disorder; that is my dream role. If I get the chance to appear onscreen where I can portray different characters in one frame, the amount of homework and effort that role would require, that is something that I want to do. I need a challenge.”