In Conversation with Zainab Qayoom

For this issue, FYI’s Editor-in-Chief, Batool Mehdi sat down with the inimitable Zainab Qayoom, or ZQ, as she is more affectionately referred to by industry friends. Over several cups of coffee, laughter, and visits by common friends, the two spoke about female solidarity, career goals, the art of balance in life, and much more.

By any stretch or definition of the word, Zainab Qayoom is an accomplished individual. In fact, make no mistake – she is an absolute force of nature. You realize that the minute you meet her and you are constantly aware of it, even as you continue to get to know her. The best part, though? She doesn’t need to bludgeon anyone over the head with what makes her unique – and that too, with that veneer of pretentiousness we have unfortunately gotten used to with so many around us. No. This woman revels instead in being utterly real and grounded.  That’s her true superpower.

“Is the sun being obnoxious? Tell me if it is, I don’t mind switching places,” says ZQ, as I join her at the table. In our self confessed bid for punctuality, I’ll admit, she won, edging me out by arriving five minutes earlier at the café than I did. In my career of over ten years, having interviewed countless celebrities, this is the first of its kind occurrence. I assure her that it isn’t, and as I sit down, ready to order our respective coffees, I realize that I was spot on about her, even before I ever met her, purely through our phone/chat conversations. She has a kind of infectious positivity to her that’s so rare to find nowadays.

We jump straight into her work, when I congratulate her on her recent performances in her drama serials. I ask her what it feels like to play the ‘dukhari aurat’ though, on lather, rinse, repeat sometimes. “I think the first thing you’ve got to ask yourself, and I know it’s probably a clichéd answer, but should serials reflect what is going on in society or what should be the case instead?” she begins thoughtfully. “Look, there’s no doubt that ultimately this is a TRP game. If you show an empowered woman, sure, some women will be wishful. But a bechari aurat? Far more women will sympathize with her. Regardless of whether they can even relate or not personally. But more so because they are conditioned to believe that’s who they should be relating to.” That’s a really interesting observation. “Well, look at some of the biggest writers around,” ZQ offers. “It’s the digest writer narrative, isn’t it? Haseen admi, dukhi aurat.” So, essentially a Mills & Boons derivative, I say. ZQ laughs. “Yes, and now imagine my challenge in playing some of these roles. As an actor, the challenge for me, when I’m really honing my craft is when I play the bechari aurat. The emancipated strong woman is easy to pull off because that’s me. I also like to branch out every now and then. I like playing the villain. That really exercises my acting chops.”

It’s important to note here that ZQ shows a real, honest passion for her craft here. And incredible respect for the industry, despite the issues we may all have to varying degrees, with the narrative that’s peddled. “I think we’re trying to find a balance,” she continues, on scripts. “At the end of the day, I know that I, and like me, there are other actors too, that actively try and seek out projects of all sorts.” How important is a good team in this regard, I inquire. “Hugely important!’ she exclaims. “I remember back in my modeling days too, you sometimes had to wear hideous clothes. But you sign a contract, and being a professional means that you still give it your all. Having good people around you helps of course. Same with acting. I’m such a director’s actress. You say jump, I’ll ask how high. Sometimes, you’re lucky and get an involved director. Like Shakeel Khan. He will sit with you and talk about your scene and ask for your input,” she elaborates. “Having said that, if you think you’re better than the director in Pakistan, you’re mad. He’s the captain of the ship, and as it should be.”

What have been some of her favourite roles so far? “I have to mention one of my recent ones here,” she starts animatedly. “I loved playing Faysal Qureshi’s mom in Khalish. It was a tiny role…” Tiny but pivotal, I interrupt. She nods her head. “Yes, exactly. It really allowed me to prove myself. I remember I was also doing Aangan at the time, which was doing really well and a lot of people around me wondered why I took on Khalish. But for me, it was about taking on something challenging. I mean, Faysal is older than me. And I insisted to do this whole thing without the whitener trope.” I tell her it was a convincing portrayal. There seemed to be almost a visceral bond between her and Faysal as mother-son. “I’m so glad you say that,” she says. “Having a good co-star is so important in this case. Initially, he couldn’t comprehend it, me playing his mother. We even joked about how we’ve been each other’s romantic co-stars on screen earlier. But see, here’s the thing. So what? Actresses world over have done this. Rakhi-Amitabh, anyone?”

If only male actors would start playing father to female actors older than them though, I joke. “Welcome to the subcontinent,” ZQ says with an epic eyeroll. “Remember how Arabs used to bury their daughters alive back in the day? Well, our production people will bury an actress over 35. No-one wants to show the portrayals and lives of dynamic, beautiful, successful women over 35. Some married, some single, some divorced. It means exploring a whole new set of emotions and feelings and life’s ups and downs. But no-one wants to go there.”

I ask ZQ whether she agrees with me about the negative connotations associated with the word, spinster. “Oh yeah,” she’s quick to agree. “It’s that whole stereotypical way of looking at things, isn’t it?” There couldn’t have been a better segue way to our next topic – her Ted Talk in Lahore recently. At the time, ZQ was preparing for her particular address, ‘breaking stereotypes.’ “You know, meeting people like you,” she says, looking at me. “It helps me even more with my topic. This is what we need. Diversity. And celebrating that diversity.” Since her talk. ZQ has received much acclaim on her talk which was a roaring success. I can’t help but marvel at the synchronicity of her topic as well, for who better to address ‘breaking stereotypes’ than someone like her.

I inquire after her book next. Yes. She’s currently in the process of writing one. Is it part fiction/part reality? Is it about stereotypes? ZQ requests not to give too much information but does share that, “it’s incredibly close to my heart. I’ve been working on the book in snippets and spurts in my head for a while and now that it’s finally getting or gotten the shape on paper or cyber paper, that it needs, I’m feeling really pleased about it. I just need to find the right publishing fit for it.”

Has the bug for writing always been there? “Yes, I mean, my background in Literature helps. And there was my stint at Libas. But the book really has been about discovery and self discovery too. A journey. And it’s fun. That’s what I love!”

As we head in to our umpteenth cup of coffee, the topic naturally drifts, as it often does in Pakistan, to politics. So, is she politically aware or interested? “I am aware. Interested is another story,” says ZQ frankly. “Actually, international politics I’m definitely interested in, but I’ve become so disillusioned with local politics, that I just can’t find myself getting invested.” And why is that disillusionment so strong? “I think some of it certainly has to do with the Dunya TV morning show I did a few years ago. It was a current affairs based show. For me, taking it up was a challenge because till that point, I never sought out TV for a politics show and the newspaper was just about funnies and horoscopes. So I wanted to stretch my horizons. But it was honestly the most painful three months. I learnt enough about Pakistani politics to never want to go back to being interested about it ever again.”

Has she seen enough of fashion to feel the same way? She thinks about this one. “Partly, possibly,” she begins. “I still don’t mind doing one off’s for designer friends (she recently walked the ramp for HSY’s Mohabat Nama show) but as a profession? Yeah, I’m done. I went out on a high. The last official, full show I did was TRC. And as I walked the ramp, I realized in that moment that I didn’t want to do this again. It’s too stressful, the gazes from the lecherous men, the insecure, accusatory looks from their wives. I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was a personal decision.”

We talk about the irony of the looks from the wives in particular, when their husbands, who are the ones who really ought to be censured at all, are sitting right next to them. I confess that before I got married, I too, would get my fair share of these ‘looks.’ “It’s maddening!” ZQ says, passionately. “I always make it a point to get to know the wife and be friendly with her too and make it very, very clear that there is nothing but platonic between me and her husband. I firmly believe it is up to the woman, to be an enabler or disabler, in this kind of situation. I just pray that if I end up getting a tharki husband, and if I don’t end up killing him first myself (I literally do a spit take here out of laughter) that some woman does for me what I have done for countless others before me.”

I can clearly tell this is something we both feel passionately about – female solidarity. “Definitely. It’s so sad and frustrating how a woman can and is too often another woman’s worst enemy. I can’t help but feel some of it is this ingrained cycle of revenge of jealousy. The ‘if I can put you down, I will’ syndrome. Like, if you’re looking fit and hot and there’s absolutely no way I can take you down, I’ll still throw in a ‘you’re looking weak’ line. That kind of thing.”

ZQ checks her phone just then and it’s the perfect opportunity to ask her about her social media experience. I ask her what she makes of this unique connect she seems to have with her followers. “I’m so humbled by it,” she says with a smile. “These days it’s almost like you’re not known by your body of work but by the number of followers you have. But for me, it was never about that. Hence, even my twitter and insta handle, Zainaconda. I wanted to use this as platform to share stuff I really wanted to share. Be me. Not put on a façade. I had so many image consultants say, ‘put up this and put up that’ but I stuck to my guns. I kept it real. And that’s hopefully what my followers see!”

As we begin to wrap up the interview and discuss the cover shoot, she tells me how much she enjoyed the interview and that it “felt like a chat with an old friend rather than an inconsequential QnA.” I joke that our mutual admiration society will make narcissists of us both, if indeed we aren’t there already. We laugh and do our goodbye hugs and as I sit in my car and drive off, the one thing I’m left struck with is the genuineness of this encounter. And that just about sums ZQ up – a genuine person, unpretentious to the core, and sincerely dedicated to her work. How can one not wish her well? Stay real, ZQ. We need more of you out there.

Credits

Photography – Kashif Rashid

Make up – Sana Raees

Hair – Sabs

Creative Direction – Zainab Muhammad