Instep sits down with the up and coming author and actor for a tete-a-tete
Move over Meera Jee, there’s a new namesake in town. Mira Sethi’s similarities to famed veteran actress Meera ends with the name. Sethi, a Wellesley graduate in creative writing, is the daughter of politico-journalist Najam Sethi and progressive commentator Jugnu Mohsin and sister to the classically trained singer, Ali Sethi.
Sethi, tall and statuesque, takes after her mother when it comes to her good looks but her ability to creatively express herself using two distinctly different mediums belies growing up in a household where art and culture was not only appreciated but also cultivated. She is currently pursuing two simultaneous careers, one in acting and another in writing. With the former, Sethi has already managed to make a mark for herself on Pakistani silver screens but her engagement with the latter is what propelled her into the news recently.
Having been offered an international book deal by publishing giants Knopf and Bloomsbury (with a slated release for 2018) Sethi aims to join the incredibly limited number of global Pakistani authors who will be able to claim a worldwide audience. Her collection of short stories will be published in the US, UK and India and will mark the second literary accomplishment of the Sethi family, the first being her brother’s debut novel, The Wish-Maker. Writing, most obviously, is in their blood.
We caught up with the writer turned thespian for a quick chat about her exciting book deal, thriving TV career and how growing up in a family of writers shaped her.
Sethi explains that growing up in a household with parents who write (both are journalists, Sethi, the erstwhile editor of Daily Times and Mohsin still oversees The Friday Times; the family also has a third publication, Good Times which features Mira on the masthead as the publishing editor) probably had something to do with her affinity for the medium of expression.
"From the age of 16, around O Levels, I began dabbling in writing. My teachers would read my essays out loud in class and I’m happily one of the few people who have a BA (Hons) in creative writing from Wellesley College. Not many people know this but I actually wrote a novella at the age of 22. I don’t think it would hold up as a strong piece of writing for me if I read it now but I guess my foundation for the process can be traced back to all these amalgamating experiences," she explains.
Sethi’s collection of short stories started with an email she sent to herself at the age of 25 that contained the beginning of a short story. "I worked for a while on the draft in my email," she divulges laughing, "but work on my book earnestly started three years ago." Her collection chronicles coming of age stories with a focus on identities. To quote Sethi’s editor at Knopf, "Mira’s stories upend traditional notions of identity and family in South Asia through deeply realized portraits of characters one comes to know and to care for."
It is a book that is set in contemporary Pakistan and examines the intersection of culture and globalization, making it a rather relevant read in today’s setting.
Sethi further reveals that she was simultaneously writing and acting and the two complimented each other well. "Writing is a very solitary act. It’s just about me and the keyboard and my fingers flying over it while acting is a collaborative effort between me, my co-stars, the director, the editor and the makeup artist. I identify as an extrovert but eventually need my own space to process whatever I have experienced so my acting appeals to the more outgoing side while writing is more cathartic," she states.
"My friends actually find it very amusing that I’m a fairly sociable person but after a while I tend to disappear. We’ll be at get-togethers and around mid-night I’ll quietly slip out and return home, not because I have a curfew or anything but because I want to digest whatever I have experienced personally," she reveals.
The conversation naturally turns towards acting and what prompted her to choose it as a possible career. "Since high school, I’ve been involved in debating and dramatics and always had a flair for mimicking. I was actually an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal when I decided to leave it all behind and move back to Pakistan to pursue it properly, full time. As you can tell, I’m quite the risk taker and plunged into it head first," Sethi elucidates.
Sethi’s silver screen debut featured her in a negative role and for two years she was type casted as such until a six-month hiatus (in which she worked on her book) and perseverance paid off. "My character, Shama in Dil Banjara is a soft-spoken artist, she paints actually but isn’t a pushover as the audience will find out with the progression of the serial," she discloses.
Talking about characterization we come to frequently asked questions regarding scripts and the roles offered to women. Yes, there is a dearth of deeply nuanced scripts that feature characters in shades of grey, Sethi agrees but she says that it is possible to find a character that suits your artistic sensibilities. You just have to be patient and find the right script.
Being a writer, was she ever tempted to turn towards script writing, considering the much publicized dearth the country faces? "I need to be idiomatically fluent in Urdu before I can even consider writing a script. I’ve gotten much better over the years but I’m no Khalil ur Rehman. Maybe in a decade I’ll write an English screenplay for a movie but nothing on the cards yet," Sethi answers.
We talk about her future plans; she’s looking over a number of scripts for the upcoming year, including some feature films while also preparing for her impending book launch in 2018. "I’ve been offered quite a few films but nothing appealed to me. Ideally, your movie debut should be a strong one because it provides a solid platform to build on further and I’m looking to find the right role," says the multifaceted actor.