Roughly fifty-years on, Bushra Ansari is as high voltage as her famed character Bijli from Shoaib Mansoor and Anwar Maqsood’s sketch comedy, Fifty-Fifty. Though an absurdly dressed Ansari with bulbs on her head tickled every Pakistani’s funny bones throughout the 80s and continues to do so till date, the character was actually a dig at load-shedding and power shortage in the country. How Ansari and her contemporaries merged substance with hysterical offerings remain classics for the times to come.
Today, the veteran artist, having dabbled in singing, acting, writing and hosting throughout her illustrious career, is "unsure" in her own words of where the fraternity and the country itself is headed. "It’s frustrating, but I can’t predict anything. As they say, you only return when you’ve reached a certain extreme and I hope that’s true," she maintains, comparing Pakistan to the rest of the world.
From Toronto, Canada, where she’s visiting her elder daughter, she speaks to Instep over an elaborate telephonic conversation and dissects the current state that local television is in, while announcing the return of the comedy-drama Aayegi Baraat-series. Pragmatic, yet extremely passionate about the craft of acting and writing, in an in-depth conversation, Bushra Ansari says it all.
Instep: In the age of social media, how connected have you been with the metamorphosis content?
Bushra Ansari (BA): I don’t know anything, I get to hear somebody saying something about me, somebody’s photo-shopping my pictures, but I don’t know. People like my children can understand what’s photo-shopped, but the majority can’t. And there’s this one picture (with a low neckline) that scared me to death. What would somebody who’s walking out of a madrasa, looking at the picture, think of me? He wouldn’t know that it isn’t me, but there’s so much sickness in people’s minds.
The kind of language we use for people, how we respond, it’s all very sickening. I have these applications on my phone, but I just scroll through my feed very rarely. I’m just glad I have better things to do. After coming back to Pakistan, I have to complete a script and shoot, so why should I get into this? I don’t want to know who’s travelling first class or who isn’t, I know I don’t post how I’m traveling or what I’m eating. I want to communicate by meeting people, my friends, my children, my sisters.
Instep: You’ve also had to bear with ageism when some of your wardrobe decisions haven’t gone down well with online trolls. How have you responded to the stereotyping?
BA: We live in a world where you can’t wear a pair of pants after you’ve crossed forty (laughs). I worked for PTV, so sleeveless tops weren’t allowed back then, but all my life – I was 22-years-old when I got married and even after – I’d wear skirts, I’d wear sleeveless tops. People like Badar Khalil, Jawed Sheikh, Behroze (Sabzwari), Saba (Hamid) and I had a group, and we would dance at discos too, we were very modern people. Now, when I wear something I want to – on private channels – people simply can’t digest that.
I’ve stopped (wearing certain clothes) because the kinds of things you get to hear mentally disturb you. We’ve become so used to approval, to hear people clap and cheer us that when somebody criticizes you, you can’t wrap your head around it. And it’s not only one or two people, for instance a hijabi girl, very politely, said I shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops in the USA, but I didn’t mind that because she respected me and her way of saying that was correct. Though on a whole, it’s a polluted generation that’s been given the internet.
Instep: You’ve been vocal about your mixed thoughts in regards to the evolution of television; what’s your take on social dramas?
BA: Unfortunately, we’re not able to reach our goals as we think we are. Udaari is a small example of something that came after a long time, but said something that should’ve been said much earlier. Out of a number of things, if we’ve started issue-based plot outlines, I’ve seen some very relevant subjects being dealt with. Of course, there’s also the fact that if a certain issue garners more attention, people jump onto the bandwagon, losing the benefit that one may have possibly gained.
But I saw Daldal, a play on human-trafficking. Something I also admired the other day was Aisi Hai Tanhai which spoke about the cameras on mobiles and social media, and how maximum communication with the world has now started adversely affecting us, creating a very complex society. I loved Khaani as well; it really appealed to me how the statement was given out. However, out of a thousand serials humiliating women, three or four aren’t enough; we need to work more on these lines.
Instep: As a writer, what do you think is most important whilst dealing with a socially taboo subject?
BA: I think the way an issue is handled is what matters. From my own writing experience, even though I can’t compete with writers who write routinely, I remember writing a tele-film a long time back, but it couldn’t have been shot. I wrote about a gay child. He’s a nice boy, loving and caring, and I named the play Normal. I tried talking about how the parents react to their son being encapsulated in a body that his spirit doesn’t belong in. If you don’t discard your child who has a broken leg or only one eye, why discard a child like this?
I did it in a very subtle, decent way around fifteen years ago, but I still have it with me, I spoke to a few channels and it’s still something I hope I get to do someday. On a larger scale though, I think people with some sensibility are now in minority. We’re being run by people we’re scared of. That of course is something different altogether, but for now, we need to, in small doses, say what we have to, talk to society and think before we pen down.
Instep: The small-screen system and popularity is dependent on ratings. Does quality suffer when TRPs are prioritized by production houses?
BA: There’s no honesty anymore, it’s a rat-race and I think apart from politics, there are two things that have completely shattered us, social media’s negative use where you can ruin lives and the ratings on TV. The shows I’ve watched make me vomit and everybody is puking very happily because they’re getting paid big amounts. So did I but I couldn’t continue with it. Recently I’ve done some roles where I’ve played a very cruel mother-in-law or a dominating mother and we’re made to believe that if she’s an elder woman, she has to be mean.
If she’s young, she’s a damsel-in-distress, and it makes me wonder if there are only two roles left for women to play?
Instep: These are also important times for actresses worldwide; has the local television scene fed off of the global phenomenon and demands?
BA: Not at all. I’m actually frustrated by how people are writing scripts without thinking. Some of the serials I’ve done in recent past have been great, like Udaari or Bilqees Kaur, or the character of Saima Chaudhry (from the Aayegi Baraat-series), and I realized such roles don’t come to you very often. I think you can decorate your characters when you get some margin. I’m sorry to say this, but now, most of the trash is mostly written by household women who have a limited vision. Today, we don’t value quality, with some of the recent work I’ve done, I’ve truly felt like I’m committing some crime.
But you see, we do have to play safe at a lot of occasions as well, we’re scared of religious resentment and there are a number of factors that affect what we present. For instance, you can’t make a drama on Mashal Khan (murdered for blasphemy accusation); you can’t make a serial on the Christians burnt. So it’s become restricted and the easiest is to kick a woman out of her house because she didn’t give birth to a male offspring. Channels don’t want to take risks, even though the audience does respond, they liked Udaari, and they liked Darr Si Jaati Hai Sila.
Instep: What is that you wish to pen yourself now?
BA: I know that this industry cannot be run by people like me, but whenever I write, I should say something. I have a serious and comic line, whatever God wants of me next, I’ll do it. For now, I’m thinking of doing a serial from an immigrant Pakistani woman’s perspective, who’s an acclaimed artist in her country, but lives in Toronto as a complete nobody and it’ll be attractive to our audience as well. I see that as an issue and how I choose to make it interesting is up to me. It’s my duty to make it entertaining as well and that’s the way forward for me.
Also something I’m very excited about is that I’ve been asked to write the next installment of the Aayegi Baraat series. I haven’t started it as of yet, but since a lot of people had demanded it and I initially wanted Ahmad and Vasay (Chaudhry) to write it, but they were both already busy, I finally took it up. So I’ve started thinking about whose Baraat will now come (smiles). Instead of doing something around the same old saas-bahu, I want to write to my caliber.
Instep: Speaking of comedy, what do you make of the current content being produced in the genre?
BA: Well I’ve never worked in all these sitcoms, in fact, I only like Bulbulay. It’s not comedy if you add laughter after every scene yourself. We didn’t do that with Aangan Terha or the Aayegi Baraat series, and I understand its different, it’s black-comedy, but your work treats you how you treat it. Honestly, I feel everything has its own time, after giving it a lot of thought I decided to do it (the next Aayegi Baraat), but I know after a few years, Dolly Ki Aayegi Baraat’s time would also end. We’ll hold on to it because the current generation has an association with it, but in another decade, people would move on.
Thankfully, everybody’s here with us: Saba (Hamid), Jawed (Sheikh), Samina (Ahmad), Sheheryar (Zaidi) and all the kids, so they’re available also. But beyond this, you see Moin (Akhter)’s left us, yes, Anwar (Maqsood) Sahab’s comedy exists, but he’s also become very selective. I don’t say you become nostalgic, but it’s also true that comedy isn’t valued or rated as high as serious serials. It isn’t nominated at awards and maybe, the money that’s in it is also lesser, which is why a lot of channels aren’t interested in it at all. And most importantly, not everybody can write comedy either.
Instep: In such trying times for the industry, what keeps you going?
BA: I can’t leave work because it’s become a way of life now, it’s not that I need money, thankfully. I’m very comfortable and I’m done with my jobs, so I work because yeh meri aadat hai (I’m used to it). I sit down to write, I travel, I act; I’m constantly doing something. My grandson asks me why can’t I retire like Baba, (Iqbal) Ansari Sahab, my husband spends most of his time in Toronto and he says he’s resting now, but I can’t stop, I can take breaks in between, but I love what I do. I can wait for characters like Seeta Bagri or Bilqees Kaur, but I can’t leave, which means I sometimes have to compromise as well.