The unbreakable Frieha Altaf

September 26, 2021

Thirty five years into her career, Frieha Altaf shows no signs of slowing down, forever ready for any challenge thrown her way, come criticism, controversy or Covid. In this exclusive, she talks about award shows, fashion weeks and the monumental shift from electronic to digital. She also talks about playing central character in web series Dai, the true story of a woman who performs illegal abortions in Pakistan.

The unbreakable Frieha  Altaf

Frieha’s home is in a state of disarray these days. A life-size Sultan Rahi standee welcomes you as you enter the heavily foliaged front door, but beyond the entrance, the house is a deconstructed, artistic mess. Paintings dismantled, statues in disorder, artefacts and artwork that she’s collected all her life, all over the place. She’s been renovating, breaking down walls and opening up her drawing, living and dining room as one open space that will accommodate almost 100 people. This is Frieha, restless and forever anxious to have a project on her hands. This is Frieha, prepping for life post-Covid, for a time when celebrations and entertaining returns to life as we once knew it. As with everything Frieha, there is method to this madness too.

These past 18 months have been tough on this woman who lives to work, and whose work thrives on events, activations, concerts, and shows. She’s someone who doesn’t sit idle for a second. She’s famous for having uncontrollable wanderlust; back in the day, hardly a fortnight would go by without Frieha jumping on a plane and going somewhere or the other. It’s impossible to understand what she must have gone through with the unprecedented inertia that Covid-19 forced upon us. But like all things Frieha, she persevered and she planned ahead.

“We were very excited in 2019 because we were doing a lot of stuff,” she recalls, as we sit down amidst the ‘rubble’ of dozens of huge paintings that are waiting to go back up. “A big huge LSA, we had four parties lined up for Velo, we were flying in DJs, doing the Solis festival with 5000 people in every city; what a happening place Pakistan had become. And in March, Covid hit the world.”

It took Frieha a couple of months to get a handle on things and how things needed to happen to stay afloat. She shifted her focus from on ground to online activation and started working on the first virtual fashion week to take place in Pakistan.

“What was great is that I got to pick 19 of the best designers,” she recalls. “Everyone just came together and decided to dedicate the show to the front-liners – a united fashion front. And it was amazing to just bring people together like that. It was a success, so later that year we decided to do another fashion week of sorts, this time a little more commercialised one, bringing in more high street brands.”

Beyond the occasional spark, though, she feels that fashion is quite dead these days. “There is no fashion anymore,” she says, adding that what you see on social media is designers trying to sell clothes via celebrities. “We see a lot of pretty faces selling labels, but that isn’t fashion.”

“We really need one fashion week and we need to reset with a united fashion front,” she reinforces. “I think the bas****izing of fashion happened with a private TV channel getting into it. The destruction of fashion started with that channel.”

Having done virtual fashion weeks, and watching international award shows online, Frieha then started pushing Unilever to do the Lux Style Awards virtually.

“Everyone was waiting to see if things would get better but they didn’t,” she says. “Eventually they (Unilever) came back to me somewhere in November and said, ‘let’s do it’. Again, it was new territory and we didn’t know how to go about it and because the year was ending, we had to do it very quickly.”

The Lux Style Awards in 2020 happened as a virtual event. Celebrities dressed up and were photographed on makeshift red carpets, either at restricted spaces at designated locations or within isolated spaces of their private homes. Winners who could, came in to be photographed with their trophies, and some sort celebratory mood was managed.

What about this year, though? This being the LSAs’ 20th year, a milestone no doubt, there was speculation around the ceremony and whether it would happen or not.

It is the 20th year, a big year, and an emotional year for everything we’ve been through. But unfortunately we still can’t do a 1000 people show because we have to follow Covid SOPs. We have to be responsible. So it’s going to be a hybrid event. You will see all the nominees, they will be there physically, if they can. Also, you will see performances on stage. But that is all I can say for now. It may not be a 100 foot set that we usually have but it is still a pretty grand scale. I think maybe we can use the word ‘grand’ in a different way because when we think of grand we think big. I think what’s important is the grand sense of achievement. So yes, there is going to be a red carpet, maybe a socially distant red carpet, but there will be one, unlike last year. There will be performances, and the nominees will be there. There might not be a huge audience but you will have an audience that matters and some media as well.”

The unbreakable Frieha  Altaf

Dai excited me. It was a taboo subject but then I am a rebellious, liberal, non-conformist kind of a woman. It was very important for me to get this message across. According to medical data, over 890,000 women get illegal abortions in Pakistan each year.”

The Lux Style Awards have survived twenty rocky years. Rocky, as there have been security threats, global economic crises to work through, and the usual controversies that emerge every year.

“It’s important to celebrate milestones and the LSAs are a milestone. I remember the LSAs that were held behind closed doors - I was threatened by the Taliban that year - I had never been threatened before in my life! But come rain or shine, this is the one show that stayed and it needs to be celebrated.”

Never one to restrict herself, Frieha is also part of the Pakistan International Screen Awards (PISA) this year. Despite the show taking off on a very shaky start last year, she’s decided to associate with it. Talking about her affiliations with numerous award shows in Pakistan as well as abroad, Frieha explains why she decided to support PISA.

“I said yes to it because I have been there,” she explains. “When we did the LSAs for the first time, people were awed by it because it was the first time but it wasn’t perfect; it had so many flaws. It was a learning experience for me as well. I tried to create the red carpet but that didn’t happen because the red carpet host came four hours late. Then Shaan, who was the host, came three hours late. There were so many learning experiences. It was the coldest night in the history of Karachi and we were at the Yacht Club. It was also so badly shot. But the takeaway was the creativity. The LSAs didn’t get okay till their fourth year.

As for PISA, I believe that Faisal Khan’s heart is in the right place but perhaps he didn’t know the process on how to get it together. I think if you have good, honest and professional people with you, then you can fix things. As of now, I am involved in the PR side of it in Pakistan only and securing the media partners and all of that. Show wise, I want to clarify through this interview that a lot of people have misconceptions and think that the show director runs the whole show. That’s not how it is. There is always a creative director who decides the content, then there is a show producer who is bringing the money to the show. There is show production, that is set, lights, sound and everything. At the LSAs, I wear all these hats. I just don’t do the red carpet anymore and I don’t do PR, award management and the logistics part of it. I concentrate on creating what is going on television – the two hours on TV.”

“Faisal has asked me to do show direction and if things are to satisfaction, and if I think I can pull it off with the creative director’s script and TV director, then I will do it. Right now we are just working and helping the organization along.”

If PISA manages to get it right, then what, in her opinion, will be the show’s USP?

“PISA is an international award show. Last year I was a jury member and I was treated perfectly fine. I do understand that there were issues with travel management and too much content. But I was treated very well and it was amazing being abroad in an international show. The venue was unbelievable and I thought the show production was really good technically. Obviously, there were things that were wrong and things that were right. So if you can get those wrong things right you can actually progress towards a better show. And you have to support these things because we don’t have credible international awards. Beyond that, PISA has got social media awards, which I think are very relevant and very important right now.”

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the most important and relevant shift observed in this past one year has been from electronic to digital. With theatres on standby and television on a creative standstill, artistes have been venturing online, signing up for web content for various OTT channels. Never one to hold back for the fear of failure, Frieha also reconnected with the actor inside her. She signed up as central character in a web series for UrduFlix, called Dai. Tailored after a real life midwife who managed illegal abortions in Liaqatabad, Karachi, Dai revolves around the countless stories of women who come to abort unwanted pregnancies. The series is dark and most definitely grisly, but written by the veteran Muhammad Ahmed, the way this taboo topic has been tackled is also brave.

The unbreakable Frieha  Altaf

Thirty five years into her career, as an actor, supermodel, event manager dealing with celebrity management, event management, TV, film, fashion and music, Frieha is nothing if not brave.

“When you’re doing things for as long as I have, you get bored. So I went back to a lot of things. I went to Art School in Florence to see if I could still paint and sculpt. I could but I came back thinking that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I got that out of my system. I also wanted to go back to acting but I didn’t want to play myself or a boring middle aged mother role. I wanted to act. Feroze Khan offered me a film in the 80s but I saw that all they wanted was a woman to get into skimpy clothes and dance. That, for me, was never acting. I’ve done theatre and that I loved. I wanted to play a character and show some skill.

Dai excited me. It was a taboo subject but then I am a rebellious, liberal, non-conformist kind of a woman. It was very important for me to get this message across. According to medical data, over 890,000 women get illegal abortions in Pakistan each year. 42% of them end up hospitalised with post abortion complications, and many of them die at the hands of these dais, who don’t know what they’re doing. The activist in me wanted to do this. This woman is shown to have a younger love interest, another taboo, and a transgender assistant who wants to change her sex. Pre-marital sex is happening in Pakistan, contrary to what we’d like to believe, but most abortions happen amongst married women and it’s happening under the radar. It’s happening to women who can’t afford and risk having a seventh daughter. These horrific things are happening and it’s time we got real!”

The web series is just the beginning; Frieha has embraced the digital space in more than one way. While renovating her home, she has converted her basement into a sophisticated studio. It’s primarily for her son, Turhan, who she sees as her link to the future of technology and music, and working with him, she’s all set to start her own podcast. She’s working with Abdullah Kasumbi and other young, likeminded people on the project.

“The idea is to talk about taboo subjects and real stuff and feelings…single mothers, body shaming, sexual harassment and everything people are going through. It’s call F-WHY because WHY, I think, is the most important question to ask.”

The unbreakable Frieha Altaf