The petite Sarwat Gilani meets me at the Mall of the Emirates at an Indian fusion restaurant and marvels at the molecular gastronomical delights the place serves. She’s got a beautiful ajrakh scarf for me that reminds me of the fabrics of Rajasthan. We discover a common thread – she is related to a close friend from India, Aliya Babi who is from the Parveen Babi family. A free-wheeling chat with the versatile actor who made Churails a respectable term for women who spoke their mind, women who dared… who won!
How are you and Parveen Babi related?
Parveen Wali Muhammad Khan Babi was born in the state of Junagadh, which was the princely State of my grandfather’s brother Sir Muhammad Mahabat Khan III Khanji. Parveen was a ‘Babi’ which means she belonged to the same clan or dynasty as my granddad (Major Nawab Ghulam Moin ud-din Khanji Fateh ud-din Khanji Babi, Khan Sahib of Manavadar) There are thousands of Babis and we are not all particularly related. Babis came from Khorasan and ruled the princely states of Junagadh and Manavadar. Let’s say like all the Khans and Sheikhs are not related, neither are the Babis. Although Parveen was my mother’s chachi ma’s real niece (aunt’s real niece) and we would always hear about her but it would be safe to say she was from the same dynasty or clan as my maternal side but not directly related.
Which are her films you have liked the most and why?
The magical, mystical and mesmerizing Parveen Babi was the most glamorous fashion icon. Her comic role in a movie called Duur Desh was one of my most favourite roles of hers. I can never forget her as Jenny in Amar, Akbar Anthony and of course Shaan and Namak Halal to name a few.
More than her acting I will forever remember her persona, with her chiseled looks, well-sculpted body and anglicized accents that made her the prima donna of Bollywood. I remember as a kid, all my aunts wanted to be her or at least secretly desired to be as desirable as her. At a time when conservative dressing was the norm of the family Babi’s attire was completely westernized providing her a certain latitude in India’s male-dominated film industry and that to me showed that she was very bold and embraced herself in spite of the times she lived in.
Your web-series Churails blasted several stereotypes in the world of content. Were you expecting it and how did you take to the risqué path?
Kudos to Asim Abbasi for doing what everyone wanted to do, break stereotypes like never before. I had read Asim’s work before and it had always been a page turner, but when I read the script Churails I knew it was something special, most unusual and a very bold storyline. There was so much insight, honest questions and the hard truth, a truth not many of us want to address or face. It was a ground- breaking series globally because everyone could relate to the truth that was being told. I felt Churails was well received because we are all victims of the same mindset. A script that is so honest and tells its story with such clarity is bound to be very powerful and expected to draw extreme reactions especially in a society like ours. How dare we try and shake the patriarchal and misogynistic walls of our society or how dare we strip the prevailing hypocrisy of its façade? It made waves globally and questioned a woman’s place in every society, not just our own. It made people especially men very uncomfortable, and that was the idea to make these issues dining table conversations so we can start the journey to fixing them. I was blown away to see what a ground-breaking product it turned out to be. And as someone who’s always spoken her truth I felt compelled to be a part of the story.
Did you have a gleeful but tough time answering the trolls?
Trolls don’t really affect me much but they do give me an insight on how a lot of people are thinking. As far as Churails is concerned surprisingly there was more love than hate and more praise than criticism and this overwhelming appreciation reaffirmed my belief that we as a society are beginning to grow and evolve.
You have several other roles that you play in real life – of being mom, wife, daughter in law, daughter and actor. How does it all rhythmize?
In order to do it all, one has to be super-organized and the people who are close to me know how OCD I am about my kid’s routine, my life’s timelines etc. I’ve observed and learned from some amazing and outstanding women in my life who are great home makers, professionals and mothers, I would always wonder how they did it and so when it was my time I knew exactly what I needed to do and how important it was to strike a balance between myself and all that I want to achieve.
Tell us about your art school?
Fortuitously coming from a Nawab background music and arts was always appreciated and enjoyed in my family, I remember as a child I was an ardent art student because my mother instead of bringing me dolls would give me art material. Art gave me the ability to express myself in many creative ways and hence acting was one of them.
I’m am a graphic designer by education from the prestigious Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and I loved every bit of it. It gave me the vision, the organizational skills and an artist’s eye to see the world through a more creative and open-minded lens.
You are part of the special Olympics. Share a few insights?
Special Olympics Pakistan is a non-profit organization that has been transforming the lives of thousands of children and adults since the past 30 years. As an Ambassador of Special Olympics, Pakistan I have witnessed the kind of change the power of sports and inclusiveness has made in each individual’s life, it is a unique metamorphosis that transforms these children with special needs into power house athletes, owing and embracing their differences. And these benefits are not just restricted to them getting a medal, but also translated into every aspect of their lives, enabling them to realise their own potential by being able to get a job and earn for their own livelihood and families.
Seeing people like our Chairperson Mrs Ronak Lakhani creating opportunities and platforms for our special athletes is absolutely awe inspiring. Her willingness and strength to change the perception of differently-abled people in our society gives me great hope and renews my belief that if you are willing to go all the way, you will be the victor. I use this belief in my everyday life and now I know that everything is possible.
Do you feel artistes need to raise issues of social concern?
I believe we are not mere entertainers but actual role models who have a huge responsibility to inspire uplift and elevate our followers to a better way of life. As a generation our greatest tool is social media and we are lucky that we have the eyes and ears of so many people that it would be a shame if one didn’t shed light and create awareness about important social issues. If every artist picked up a cause, imagine the kind of change it would bring to our society especially the underprivileged among us. Media is a very powerful tool that can change mindsets and changed mindsets change lives.
How did you meet your husband and how does he support you?
Fahad and I met at a theater play with friends and we clicked right away. He was and still is very charming and flamboyant and I totally fell for it. But what made me really fall in love with him was his passion for helping people especially those who had been severely disfigured through accidents. His honesty and willingness to go far and beyond for those people and help them recover is what makes me fall in love with him every day. Just like me he has a passion to give back to everyone around him and I think that’s where we both clicked. He was always comfortable in his skin and it is rare to see a man accept a spouse who’s more famous than him and still choose to help them embrace themselves. I believe he is a complete man because he always encourages me to be myself and do the best I can. It takes a substantial amount of love to say ‘don’t burn yourself out, take a break…head to a spa and pamper yourself I’ll take care of everything’. I’m very lucky to have Fahad as my partner, I can safely say I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him being the bed rock on which I stand.
Which are the Bollywood films you have enjoyed watching and why?
We all grew up watching Indian movies. My love for cinema was born out of watching Indian films, My ideal hero was Aamir Khan. I still remember watching these amazing movies with my family, classics like Satte Pe Satta, Amar Akbar Anthony, Sharabi, Lagaan, Andaz Apna Apna, Bazaar, Salam Bombay, Arth to movies like Dil Chahta Hai, Tarey Zameen Par, Rockstar, Gangs of Wasseypur and Piku. It was the same language, culture and aspirations and I could relate to them.
Tell us about meeting Karan Johar and his reaction to Churails?
I can never forget standing in the airline queue to board our flight from Rome back to Karachi and I see this guy waiting in another line being escorted by an official with a huge trawler with 15 pieces of luggage on it, I remember thinking to myself “who would want to shop so much from Italy” and to my surprise it turned out to be Karan Johar, and I was just exclaiming “O my God! O my God! It’s Karan….it’s Karan Johar!!!” I told Fahad and he turned to look and confirmed that it surely was him. Thanks to my uncontrollable excitement he looked our way and Fahad asked him if we could take a picture with him, he was polite enough to smile and nod to which I dashed towards him. I told him we were huge fans from Pakistan, we took a picture and he also said ‘hi’ to everyone in Pakistan in a small video clip. I thought it was very nice of him to do that given the current state of affairs between the two countries. I told him I was an actor and he had a sweet comment to respond back with. It showed how unbelievably real he was. I love him and his work!
After Churails, Karan reached out to me saying that he loved Churails and my work in it. He also sent love to the entire cast and crew of Churails. It is then that I reminded him that I bumped into him at the airport in Rome couple of months ago and he actually remembered.
What are your future projects?
I have done two more web series for Zee5 and I can’t wait for them to be released. I’m also in talks for a film that is planned to be shot in the winter of 2021. Besides media, a project that has been very close to my heart is setting up a vocational center for kids. During the lockdown I realised how difficult it was to keep my two boys entertained and so I started doing home art classes which were exceedingly well-received across Pakistan and abroad and a lot of mothers reached out to me on various child related issues and that is when I felt there was a dire need of creative, educational and vocational training for both kids and parents together and my space would ideally enable that to happen.
Your DP status says Sky is the Limit. Elaborate!
I believe the human body is the most advanced technology on the known planet and as such our mind is limitless so I choose to believe that one can eventually achieve anything their heart truly desires.
What are your memories associated with the UAE?
I love Dubai’s vibe, it’s is a place where I feel like I “belong,” even though I am an outsider but the assumption isn’t automatically “where are you visiting from?” but rather “do you live here?” There aren’t many cities which are similarly non-presumptuous in that way. In Dubai I meet people from all around the world and they often make me wonder about their interesting stories of Dubai. One such story always intrigued me and that was about ‘The Pearls of Dubai’, a book that belonged to my grandmother, in that book I learnt that Dubai was home to pearling sites, they were regular destinations for pearl divers dating back to 800 years ago.