Long before K-dramas swept up small-screen audiences with their slice-of-life stories featuring strong female protagonists, the Pakistani television industry had won the hearts of South Asian audiences with serials like Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Women like the strong-willed Kashaf, played to perfection by Sanam Saeed, felt rooted in emotions and experiences that felt relatable across social and political boundaries. Since that breakout role, Saeed has steadily established herself as an actor who is as talented as she is selective. A decade after Kashaf and Zaroon’s love story made hearts go pitter patter, she’ll be reunited with her Zindagi… co-star Fawad Khan in the series Barzakh.
Directed by Asim Abbasi (of Churails fame), Barzakh blends magic realism and fantasy with family drama. Co-producer Shailja Kejriwal told Variety that the show is “a product of the Covid brain”. The title refers to being in limbo and Abbasi came up with the idea after his father’s passing. Making a show on fathers and sons, intergenerational trauma, and the idea of an eternal love has been a deeply personal experience for the director. Barzakh is currently doing a tour of international festivals and is expected to stream on Zee5 at a later date. Saeed plays the central female protagonist and she’s excited to see how audiences respond to her role, which she said is unlike previous characters she’s played.
Whether as the gloriously assertive middle-class Kashaf or as annoyingly stubborn sibling in Cake (2018, also directed by Abbasi), Saeed’s acting feels rooted in authenticity. Even so, she remains unusually humble. During our chat, she said she’s eager to “get some training”, rather than relying on what she described as “auto-pilot acting”.
Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
They say about you that you turn down more scripts than you accept. Is that true?
It is true that I definitely end up having to reject more scripts than the ones I accept. There are less than a handful of great scripts that float around every two years I’d say. But there are many actors who are capable of portraying the characters in such scripts and there are several able directors hungry for such scripts as well. I think It is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That’s always been the case.
Do you think that evolution is a natural process when it comes to actors? How have you evolved as an actor over the years?
To be honest, I’d say I haven’t evolved as much as I would like to have. I feel a strong need and urgency to get some training now. That I believe will help me in refining my craft, learning new techniques, and will help me in shedding my inhibitions a tad more. I feel there is a lot of auto-pilot acting that is happening given the circumstances and similar narratives. It leaves a little room to experiment or break the mould — or maybe that’s fear talking! But I’m definitely open and ready to learn new tricks of the trade and push my limits.
You are quite a recluse, going by the number of outings a star is expected to do. Do you ever fear anonymity?
I like the idea of mystery around me. I don’t wish to be overly exposed. Going out and being seen once in a blue moon is more appealing to me both as a celebrity and as an admirer of a celebrity. I try my best for my work to speak for myself rather than my outings and appearances define me. After all, we only remember how an actor’s performance made us feel — we remember them for their body of work, not how many events they attended. Outings are transient memories; screen presence is more eternal. At least that’s what I’d like to believe.
Barzakh means the state of limbo or uncertainty. Most actors say that they take the day as it comes and enjoy the surprises which life brings with it. Do you ever feel like you’re just going along for the ride that is life? Or are you looking for a true north?
I think at some point in our lives we all experience being in a state of limbo. I was always sure I wanted to be an actor. Particularly an actor on stage. When that didn’t happen, and television took over I experienced the power of television and that threw me into a state of limbo for a while. I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go in. But with time and after having dappled in all the mediums I definitely found the direction I wanted to go in. I don’t see the north yet, but I am certain that I am walking in the right direction.
Barzakh is your second project with Asim Abbasi. How was the experience of collaborating again?
I have fallen in love with every single one of Asim’s scripts that I have read. Whether it was a short film, a feature film or a mini-series. His stories are relatable and have universal themes. His characters are flawed, vulnerable, real people and not saints or Satan. I enjoy his perspective on life and the minor details in his characters that add these quirky nuances to the script. His stories come from a real tangible, emotional, place. The fact that he is the writer and director of the projects I’ve worked on makes the job all the more fulfilling as an actor.
You and Fawad Khan are back on screen after a decade. Does it put you both under pressure because audiences could be unforgiving if they do not see the same spark?
I think a 10-year gap means audiences have changed, outgrown certain pairings and are eager to see fresh ideas. Themes and dynamics from a decade ago may not be as relevant today. I think the audience will be in for a big surprise and will hopefully appreciate the performances of all the actors in the show. I can guarantee that our roles are something that the audience has never seen us in before. I’m excited to see what the new generation of viewers think about us.
You have been part of four films. Don’t you think that the thrill of the cinematic release is missing on an OTT platform and the feedback is gradual too?
I think the thrill on the OTT platform comes from its statistics i.e. number of viewers that have watched or have tuned in. It opens up to both makers and viewers. A person sitting in a different continent can access our work, which is not necessarily the case with cinema. There is a bigger exchange of stories and culture. Cinema in that regard could be limiting sometimes. They both have their unique appeal though and can co-exist.
The OTT revolution has resulted in many innovative stories being told. Do you think a theatrical or regular release affords this kind of experimentation?
Absolutely! I say this because watching the first two episodes for Barzakh on the big screen was a totally different experience. Can you imagine watching Game of Thrones or Dark in the cinema ? It heightens the experience tenfold. You catch more of the finer details, the quiet dark room with a massive screen holds your attention better than sitting in the comfort of your own home, filled with distraction. The responses one receives at a festival could be very different from the one in cinema halls.
Do you categorize appreciation or have a special preference between mass appreciation and the ones that come from the admirers of art?
That’s a good question. There is definitely a difference between festival film spectators and commercial film spectators. The expectations are different. That’s why there is a space for all kinds of films because there are different audiences. Anything that breaks away from stereotypes or a formula is a risk. I wouldn’t say I have a special preference, but I am grateful that there is an audience for differently told stories. The risks and efforts don’t go in vain. But I do believe If a story has a universal theme it’ll speak to anyone.
Sadiq Saleem is a Dubai-based entertainment writer. He can be contacted on his Insta handle @sadiqidas.