The actor talks about complex and socially taboo characters she’s portrayed on screen and how they have changed her public perception in real life
Yasra Rizvi has been acting for almost a decade now but while she’s delivered all sorts of characters in her career, it’s the most problematic that people have chosen to define her by. Balwant Kaur in Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’; a woman who kills her husband in cold blood, with his own weapon. The alcohol dependent Jugnoo of Churails, who abuses substance, people and herself as her internal defense mechanism. Saira from Dunk is hardly problematic but the fact that Yasra signed up for a role defending an alleged sexual harasser didn’t go down well with women who felt she had become flag-bearer for feminism after Churails; ‘sell-out’ is what they called her. And then finally, on TV as Sawera from Kashf Foundation’s Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahin, a woman caught in the web of sex trafficking in Pakistan.
Had she never wanted to play a normal, easy role?
“No one calls me for normal, easy roles,” she burst out, laughing.
This promised to be a fun interview.
“Ask me all the hard questions. Don’t hold back,” Yasra exclaimed, as we sat down to chat. Dressed casually but cheerfully in jeans and a statement shirt layered with a bright pink jacket (which she immediately informed that she had borrowed from Zara Noor Abbas), I could tell that she wasn’t going to hold back and say it as she saw it.
“I take hand-me-downs from all these guys,” she offered, without cue. “I don’t have a stylist, a manager, a publicist or a photographer; I do everything myself. I’ve done my hair and makeup myself. I booked my Careem myself.”
On that note we began talking, starting with the backlash that came with her casting in drama serial Dunk, a story revolving around a university professor who had allegedly assaulted a student. She played his wife, his personal support system and possible enabler. People passed the verdict that Yasra Rizvi had sold out the minute teasers went on air. Suddenly she wasn’t a feminist anymore.
“I am feminist AF,” she responded. “I have been a feminist since I was six, seven years old, even before I knew what the word meant. I was a feminist even before Churails; you can see it in the work I’ve done, or in my decision to marry a man ten years younger than me. Do you think I need a license? I believe men and women should have equality. Nobody’s civil rights should be violated. Old, young, trans - everyone has the right to live. So I am a feminist and I’m also a woman and a Muslim and a Pakistani.”
“I’m a woman of this age, living in Pakistan. Molestation, harassment, attempted rape – I’ve gone through all of these things. It’s not that I’m such a privileged ignorant woman that I don’t know what I’m doing. A huge part of my work isn’t to give answers but to also raise questions, and that’s how I prefer to work. Tomorrow if I do another show in which I’m Phoolan Devi, will I become a ‘feminist’ again? I don’t need to prove my feminism to anyone.”
Instep: Do you think people can’t tell the difference between the characters you play on screen and what you’re like in real life because of their obsession with the dramas?
Yasra Rizvi (YR): It’s true. People can’t differentiate between the two. An actor’s job is to play diverse characters. I did Dunk - I had heard the story before the script came my way. One man’s death cannot be justified as collateral damage, in my opinion. So if in 20 stories, there is one such story, it’s okay. Such a detailed discussion on harassment is taking place because of Dunk. It shows a world where everyone believes the woman. Do we live in that world? I don’t think so. The tables have turned. A man has been accused and it’s impacting his wife and daughter. I think it raises a lot of questions.
Instep: In a country where women are routinely abused and harassed, you’re making a story on a woman who’s lying about being harassed. Is it a responsible story to tell?
YR: Are we not telling other stories of abuse, where women aren’t lying. If in that conversation, one real incident comes up, doesn’t this actually strengthen the conversation instead? Harassment or abuse isn’t the victim or survivors fault - this is being said on 20 different platforms through 20 stories. In those 20 stories, one story says that we should do this responsibly. How did this one project cause annihilation of the entire movement, I haven’t been able to understand. Mental health is also a big problem; did that professor not commit suicide when wrongly accused? In a drama, there are a lot of plot points and discussions. More than anything, I feel Dunk is about media trials. Media trials start on incomplete information; you have to be very careful about what you’re putting out there.
Instep: Do you think that sometimes you are put on a media trial?
YR: Yes, eversince I was a kid because I was a different kid. I did things when and how I wanted to. It never occurred to me that I’m a ‘girl child’ but I’ve always been on trial for it. I don’t think my extended family was okay with how I was; they would talk about me. Some people think I’m not cool enough to be an actress or good enough to be a poet. But this is who I am and I’m only responsible for my thoughts and my experiences.
Yasra’s definitely not your usual actor. Not only are the characters she portrays different, but she herself has stood out for not being part of the stereotype. She’s not your average ‘pretty, young thing’ but she is a passionate, brilliant actor. Why haven’t more substantial roles come her way?
Instep: You’re a passionate actor and you have no fears in not conforming to a sterilized stereotype. Is it your age or your looks, because you’re not the quintessentially fair, young actress we see on screens nowadays?
YR: All of the above. Maybe there aren’t enough roles for characters that look like me. I haven’t really thought about it, and honestly, it hasn’t really bothered me.
Instep: Why do you think your career is seeing a spike these days?
YR: I feel my poetry has a lot to do with it, even though Churails was very successful. With my poetry I got to do things my own way. A lot of people comment on my videos saying I should try acting.
She went on to share how someone else had first been cast for the role of Jugnoo but that actress couldn’t commit because of dates. Consequently, auditions opened up; she auditioned for the role and then got it. Churails was followed by Dunk and then Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahin, a Kashf Foundation Production on the problem of human trafficking in Pakistan. The story, written by Aamna Mufti and directed by Kashif Nisar, is riveting.
“Are we not telling other stories of abuse, where women aren’t lying. If in that conversation, one real incident comes up, doesn’t this actually strengthen the conversation instead? Harassment or abuse isn’t the victim or survivors fault - this is being said on 20 different platforms through 20 stories. In those 20 stories, one story says that we should do this responsibly. How did this one project cause annihilation of the entire movement, I haven’t been able to understand. Mental health is also a big problem; did that professor not commit suicide when wrongly accused? In a drama, there are a lot of plot points and discussions. More than anything, I feel Dunk is about media trials. Media trials start on incomplete information; you have to be very careful about what you’re putting out there.”
– Yasra Rizvi
“Now nobody is talking about my character in Dil Na Umeed and how my character is in favour of women and their rights because its not controversial enough. It’s not noteworthy or discussion worthy.”
Except that even this character is controversial; how socially acceptable is a girl, a prostitute to be exact, in the world we live in? Sawera is a survivor, having been trafficked at the age of six and raised in a brothel by a madam. She’s seen girls come and go, but has lived to tell the tale, a heart-breaking story of sexual favours, perversions, crimes and all.
Instep: What exactly spoke to her?
YR: The script, setting and characters of Dil Na Umeed got my attention. Then I wanted to work with Kashif Nisar and Yumna. Yumna and I started our careers together and she’s such a brilliant actor. We’ve had a close bond since then. She pays attention to her work and we also have a lot of fun together. I’m also assured that I’ll get to rehearse my lines with her and when we get into the scene, she will surprise you. I like that.
Then there’s Kashif Nisar, the director. Kashif and I were unable to work since a few years because for one reason or the other, I was unable to commit. This time I knew that if I didn’t do this, I’d never get a call again. Then the script was so good that I had no reason to say no. And Kashif Nisar is Kashif Nisar for a reason. He has so much depth and such good understanding of narrative. To notice little mannerisms and body language and then to remember to include it later in the show also. Sawera is a call girl who isn’t very educated. She talks like this. To pick up on that and then incorporate it later also. Even if I’ve done a little gesture, he’ll be like, I must include it later too. For a director to be that invested and that present - Kashif Nisar doesnt get awards for no reason.
Instep: Human trafficking, child labour, sex trade, it’s a serious subject. Did you have to go through any preparations for Sawera’s role?
YR: Some things in stories exist in a very obvious way, and then there are certain layers that impact a viewer very subconsciously. When there is a character whose method acting you cannot do, like I’m probably not going to end up going through a brothel, but you still need to practice a lot of the character’s behaviour, politics and emotion. She is an excluded woman and I’ve understood that as a child. I found my emotion there. You draw on these things. I have elements of both, a fighter and a realist. As a woman, you have to be.
Instep: Going back to Churails, do you ever feel Jugnoo would have been palatable for more people if she didn’t swear so much?
YR: I always rave about Asim Abbasi. I loved the Churails script. And he turned out to be such a good director. Jugnoo was his creation. The writer didn’t wish to write her any other way, so he didn’t.
Instep: Do you ever tell the writer or director that something in the character needs to be changed?
YR: I didn’t feel like doing it. I liked the discomfort it created. We water down things so much on TV, all the time, that among all of that, this seemed fresh. I really enjoyed doing it. There were a lot of the motifs in the script. It was the writer’s vision and he managed to direct it so well too.
Instep: Not many people know that you’re also turning director and even producer now.
YR: I’m the writer, director and actor in a film I call Senti and Mental. We completed some of the shoot in 2018 and then the economy dived and corona hit. People really appreciated the first look. Senti and Mental is an ensemble cast, with 18 people. Ab how do I shoot a mehndi function in corona times? I now have debts to pay off. I put some of my own money and then some deferred payments. I’m actually also doing drama serials like Dunk and becoming a sell out to pay off my debts (jokes). I need to change my tariff.
Instep: There is a lot of money in TV. How did you take it when people called you a sell-out after Dunk?
YR: I’m a working artist. If TV has a lot of money, it’s not like I have millions of followers. Which billboards have you seen me on till date? I do one or two TV plays a year, the script has to make sense to me also. It’s not like there’s a queue of people waiting to work with me. It’s not like I got a lot of money to do Churails or Dunk. I live in the same rented apartment that I did eight years ago; I live the same way. So, where’s the money if I’m selling out?
Instep: Are you satisfied with the trajectory of your career?
YR: Whatever we want in our life, for it to happen or not, it depends on our motivation. For me, my motivation has always been about telling and listening to stories. Otherwise I‘m a perpetual seeker of love; I look for love everywhere. But with this work, I have a very simple connection.
Instep: Will we be seeing you in any other serial?
YR: Currently I’m writing a script and might be directing soon also. Acting I might do again later at the end of the year. I like doing all these things, it’s good for your growth.
Instep: What do you think needs to change in the industry?
YR: We need to unlearn and learn new things. We need to unlearn older practices and learn new practices in order to progress. Audiences need to update themselves by knowing the context of everything and everyone so this environment of causing pain to others might decrease. Media professionals really need to get down to learning.