It’s 10:30 am and I am sitting in the car, reviewing questions that I want to ask Marina Khan, while on my way to her home for an interview. A bright, sunny Wednesday morning in Karachi, a few hours before we witness rain in the city, it is so hot that I can barely stand outside waiting for someone to open the door for me. The gentleman who opens it directs me to the creatively accessorized drawing room; it is well designed and comfortable with colours thrown in the form of cushions.
Marina Khan steps in, dressed in a plain blue top and beige pants, and greets me warmly. It gets a little intimidating when someone, who defines some of the finest years of Pakistani television, is right in front of you. But that feeling of intimidation disappears as soon as she starts talking.
"Acting was never really a passion but when I started directing I realized this is what I love doing," she says while sipping her coffee. "Direction is still what I would love to do except that now, for a director, there are too many cooks. The channel dictates not only the story but also the people you are going to hire. Obviously, they need to make a business; they see trends, but my preparation is, I start working with the writer so I am really investing myself from day one. And then suddenly two months down the line, the project is taken away because they want it to be their way."
"I got a little disheartened because of that; it happened twice," she recalls, adding that her investment went in vain, after which she decided to give in. "Therefore (I do) whatever serials are coming my way; some of them are good while there are others that you do for money, though I don’t like saying it. It is a business and it is a two sided industry."
Marina Khan appeared in multiple TV serials in the last couple of months, in which she essayed the role of a mother. However, she introduced us to a different kind of mother in each project. For instance, in Noor ul Ain, she was a dominant, control-freak who refused to surrender to her son’s wishes while in horror drama Bandish, she was the kind of a mother anyone would ask for. Similarly, in the recently concluded Dil Kiya Karey, she was portrayed as a very superstitious woman, who would end up upsetting her progressive children, whereas in Qaid, there were multiple shades to her personality.
"I think acting is the easiest; there is no tension. In my eyes, acting requires two major things from an actor: reaching on time and memorizing your lines, among other little things," Khan admits. "Other than that, an actor’s job is the easiest. I am not saying ‘good acting’ is easy; to bring a character to life is what very few of us do, including me. But when you come back home, you sleep in peace, you get off days unlike the director, whose work doesn’t end. They come back home and think of what the next day is going to be like. You can see the frustration of a director on set."
Anyone who has watched Pakistani drama serials from the ‘90s, especially iconic classics such as Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinare, can’t get enough of Marina Khan and her charming ways. These dramas set a benchmark for Pakistani television so much so that people still remember them and make comparisons with scripts that we have now. Reflecting on TV serials that were made then and the ones that she sees today, Khan shares that we have eradicated shades from our TV serials.
"Our dramas have become linear, with no ups and downs and the characters are really not bringing on the game," she points out. "We need light hearted, strong plays. There is no romance, no laughter; what is life without that? There are certain stories that I would love to tell but people don’t want to laugh anymore. If we have to laugh, we laugh at stupidity. A sitcom has its own style but they need shades in it too. Where are the Azra Sherwanis, Hasnaat Bhais and other characters we used to write? Why are these names still fresh in our minds even though they weren’t main characters? Because they were so well rounded and helped improve the overall story.
Even the supporting cast used to have their opinions, their happy and sad moments; that’s how you bring characters to life," she continues."If we pay attention, these characters can totally change a play. But now we write one sided characters - if you are negative, why are you like that? Actors must know the back story to understand the character. Channels, writers and directors miss out on a lot of finer details while developing a story. In fact, in most cases, they don’t even know the end of a story, which is why the plot often weakens by the end."
Since there is less creative control than there used to be, we are stuck in a rut, according to Khan, who insists that television should be both aspirational and a reflection of society.
However, she believes that there are plenty of other miseries too rather than just domestic issues, if misery is what sells on TV.
"We can educate people and provide them solutions by highlighting other issues too but are instead taking their education away by showing them that the world ends at domestic issues. The masses you are portraying, they don’t even watch television," she asserts.
One thing our TV dramas miss out on today is progressive women; there are some but they are static. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Tanhaiyaan featured more urban, progressive women than we have seen in a Pakistan drama lately. Ironically, we have come so far in terms of technology and equipment but our dramas are still suffering from regression.
When asked if she feels there are not enough independent, strong women onscreen today, the 56 years old actress responds in affirmative. "Unfortunately, yes. The struggle is the woman’s but the cure is in someone else’s hands - which is either the husband or the mother in law. Where is her journey? Her journey is not just to cry but try and break out of the shell."
However, Khan is optimistic that with a slew of young directors coming out, there is hope. They can change the game if they are allowed to. This is the time, she feels, actors, producers, channels owners and writers should sit together and bring their issues on the table. Once everybody is on the same page, it will be easier to work together in a smooth manner.
One question that’s in my head, while speaking to Khan, who has been active in the entertainment business for over three decades, is about the #MeToo movement. It might have been in headlines for the last couple of years more than ever before, but it is not a new issue; it has plagued the industry since time immemorial.
Sharing her thoughts on the subject, Khan expresses her support to people who speak up against it, paving a way for others to raise their voices. However, she explains that there is a downside to it too.
She notes, "It is a very good thing that women have come out and said what they have to say. This has been happening to men and women since forever; in fact, between people in power and the ones who are not. Whether you can prove it, that is something the courts have to decide, not the media. I think the media war that we come down to, is the worst of all. The war is between those people; it’s private.
"If someone speaks up, others get the courage to do that too but its downside is, people can take advantage of it by hurling false accusations," she furthers. "I believe it should be on our contracts and there should be a system. This time, I have added it in my contract. If someone misbehaves with me on set and you don’t confront a situation, you can’t force me to remain a part of your project."
Marina Khan, who has also starred in films such as Na Maloom Afraad 2, Parwaaz Hai Junoon and the most recent Parey Hut Love and Superstar, is presently busy shooting for two upcoming dramas, titled Munafiq and Dilruba. Hoping to direct a TV drama or a film soon, the actress wishes that the industry flourishes and more attention is given to content.
"Stories need to be told better," she concludes.