In Conversation with Ayesha Omar
FYI’s Editor-in-Chief, Batool Mehdi sat down with Ayesha Omar to get to know more than just the ‘star.’ In a frank and honest conversation, Ayesha opens up about her career, feminism, pet peeves and what she plans to do next. She’s thoughtful and insightful, and here to stay, in all the right ways.
Sometimes you interview someone and you realize why you wanted to write in the first place. To tell a story – to tell their story. Show a side to someone that perhaps the world at large hasn’t yet seen. Interviewing Ayesha Omar proved to be exactly such an experience.
Everyone thinks they know Ayesha. The ‘real’ Ayesha.
The Instagram trolls think she’s the girl who parties too much.
The Bulbulay fans can’t see beyond the character of Khubsurat.
And fashion aficionados don’t want to look beyond her as red carpet ingénue.
Dig a little deeper though, and there’s more.
“There’s always more,” says Ayesha, as she arrives at my house on the day of the interview and settles down on the couch with her tea. “This is part of the reason I was sold on doing this. When you get asked the same ten clichéd questions over and over again, having this kind of real and intimate talk is very appealing.”
So where’s her head at, I ask her straight away.
“Still travelling!” she remarks. “Well, mind and spirit, anyways,” she laughs. “I’ve just been travelling a lot. This year alone I’ve gone on three long trips and I’ve been a bit of everywhere really – London, Turkey, New York, Portugal.”
We discuss our shared love for travel and it’s easy to see that this is where Ayesha thrives. I ask her if one of the reasons she particularly enjoys it, is to detox from the pressure of Karachi? For love the city as we may, the pace of life can often be hectic and unforgiving.
“Actually, it’s probably more about detoxing from the industry too. Even if for a little while,” explains Ayesha. “It takes a toll. All of it. I try and stay away from the rat race. I don’t feel the pressure on most days. But then you have those maddening days as well. Where you’re on Instagram way too much. Watching what everyone is doing and thinking, wow, I’m not really letting myself get projected that much, after all, am I?”
It’s all about image perception at the end of the day though, isn’t it?
“A lot of it is about staying relevant, really. But that can’t or at least shouldn’t take over your life. When it does take over your entire existence, that’s when you know you’re off the right track,” thinks Ayesha. “It’s too much stress and anxiety. You’re always competing either with yourself or other people.”
Who has set these benchmarks of optics though, I ask. Is it all social media?
She thinks about it. “I don’t think we can discount the importance of social media. Especially in today’s day and age, where it’s a platform to get your voice heard on important issues. I get that. That’s where it starts getting tricky though. Because ultimately, social media overestimates the amount of fun you’re having, and underestimates your misery.”
That’s an interesting way to look at it, I tell her.
She elaborates. “It’s like, if you put a picture up while you’re travelling. It’s a moment that is created by you. Manufactured for social media. That’s not reality. But people don’t see that. That becomes the reality for them, which it isn’t.”
“It also takes away the mystery of a lot of things,” she continues. “If you want to go somewhere that someone else already has, you start living vicariously through them, rather than trying things out for yourself. You lose out on the curiosity factor.”
With the whole rigmarole of the social media and PR, which can often seem like one is living in a circus, where does she draw the line? How do you decide where to be yourself and when to be the star persona?
“Maybe after my accident,” Ayesha introspects. “My perspective on life and career has definitely…I don’t want to say completely changed, but maybe evolved, I guess? I mean, I’m still not even fully healed. I just realized that I don’t need this madness. I don’t need to show up to the opening of an envelope. I don’t need to go to every premiere that starts at 11 pm.”
Ayesha shares what it entails to “go it alone in this business.” She sighs. “I don’t have a manager. I manage myself. It can be an exhaustive experience. And partly it has worked out this way because I just haven’t found anyone. Earlier even when I was working with PR firms, I was the one getting all the work and they just weren’t doing enough. And with a manager too, I just felt I was training a manager, not actually keeping one,” she takes a deep breath. “I do work with a PR team. I do my own PR as well, through my own personal connections, obviously. But they help, the PR team, especially when I’m travelling.”
Does she find that line blurring sometime, between work and creativity?
“Oh, absolutely,” she agrees. “Thing is, I want to delegate more responsibility. Because somewhere I felt I was becoming my own manager so much, that I stopped being the talent. Or even having the time to be the talent.”
I probe her on the creativity thread and tell her the reason I’d like to believe that she’s stayed away from a lot of television serial work is because she’s as put off by the scripts and the regressive narrative most of them are peddling, as I am.
She laughs. “I don’t think anyone has put it quite that way. And you know, there’s probably some truth to that.” She thinks about this a bit more. “I can’t say I have loved every script coming my way, but there are a few which have appealed to me. I think for me, it’s more about going in that zone, that serials require of you. That, and I’ve just been travelling lately so much and serials require a more extended involvement.”
I tell her that for me, it’s fundamentally stripping away the female character of any agency that really bothers me. How a woman’s identity is portrayed only through her relationship with a man, be it marriage, her in-laws, divorce, etc.
“They’re just shown as these emotional vessels sometimes,” Ayesha adds thoughtfully. “We definitely need a more well-rounded representation of the Pakistani woman. It’s like what you said earlier, when you cross a certain age, things start making a lot more sense, you start understanding things from a different perspective. I realize now that I don’t necessarily want to be a part of sending out a particular kind of message to the audience that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m lucky that I don’t have to rely on serials for my bread and butter. I host a lot, sure, but I miss honing my acting craft, all the same.”
We talk about fashion weeks. I ask her if she finds them as increasingly irrelevant as I do. They come and go, in their own little bubble of the fashion fraternity and paid bloggers for a few days and then disappear inconsequentially. There’s no business generated and no-one really cares outside the little band of concerned about what’s going on, or that it’s even going on, at all.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of truth to that. I don’t think I’m as put off as you, but I do think they are becoming a little passé and irrelevant. That’s why I’ve stopped walking in them that much now. I do still make exceptions for friends, of course.”
What about her personal style evolution?
“On the whole I’m glad I’m working more with international designers now. It’s a different sensibility. Like you said, it’s a style evolution.”
In between more cups of herbal tea, we talk the F word next – Film.
“Well, I was getting offered by the big banners,” begins Ayesha. “At the same time, there were also offers from smaller production houses. I opted for the latter in one particularly difficult decision because I felt the story angle was stronger and the character had more scope for growth.”
She goes on to share an especially harrowing experience of a film shoot where the producer “up and left” and “the budget literally ran out.”
“That one film not seeing the light of day, I’m still so upset about. I put my heart and soul in to it as well” she continues, exasperated. “The whole production experience was a disaster. Ninety percent of the shooting was outdoors in freezing Punjab weather, but with appalling shooting conditions. After six months, the producer literally left and the budget was no more and we still had 7-8 days worth more of shooting.”
The Karachi se Lahore experience was different though, surely?
“Wajahat is a thorough professional. It was a seamless experience in that sense. And so much so, that I’m signed on for Karachi Se Lahore 3 and looking forward to the experience tremendously.”
Does she feel the script could have been better, though?
“The hope is that with the sequel, Wajahat will know what to focus on, and what not to. I’m confident he will do a good job. Sometimes I would give my opinion on something I felt could have been done differently but at the end of the day, how much input can you really give? As an actor, my job is to take direction and although I know my input isn’t being rejected, I don’t want to cross a line and offend the director either.”
What about Yalghaar? Did it turn out the way she had hoped?
Ayesha smiles, contemplatively. “I choose to take away the positives. I got some great energy from the actors. It was the human experiences I will cherish. I learnt to draw from my own experiences in order to really give it my best shot during a scene.”
As the conversation drifts to other matters, in Ayesha’s words, “now we’re getting real” – we share our mutual disdain for the curse of ‘mansplaining’ and what it means to be a woman with an opinion or voice in Pakistan. It’s what I like to term the ‘angry woman syndrome’ stereotype that any woman who dares to articulate an actual opinion, is often painted with.
“Mam, relax karein. Tension na lein,” Ayesha laughs. “These are my ‘favourite’ ones”, she adds. “More than the ‘angry’ woman syndrome, I think it’s the ‘difficult’ woman syndrome. Because women are so quick to be labeled ‘crazy.’ If a man is stating his opinion and getting a little animated or heated, he’s just being authoritative. But if a woman does it, she’s off her rocker,” Ayesha states emphatically.
I admire her stance on female solidarity in today’s polarized times and ask if she’s faced any backlash from voicing her opinions about the #metoo movement?
“Of course,” she admits. “And it comes in different kinds of reactions. Like, with my male friends. If I’ve supported someone because I’ve believed in them, for these friends, it has become a personal issue. Bhai, I believe in something, even if I’m not friends with that person. I’m not going to believe or state otherwise just because it may ruffle some feathers. Then I’m just an enabler.”
But we have been enablers, haven’t we? As women? I wonder.
“Oh, yes. At some point, I have, you probably have, because at certain points we know things but we choose not to speak up about it,” Ayesha offers. “There are women in positions of power who are the biggest enablers sometimes. Because for them, personal equations matter more than promoting an environment where women don’t have to feel like scum for coming forward with stuff like this.”
Ayesha’s clarity on this matter is stunning.
“It’s frustrating,” she says. “Sometimes you get less work even, because you’ve chosen to be vocal about something. Because you have rubbed off certain people the wrong way who are influencers in terms of contracts. But I can’t sell my conscience.”
I share my similar disappointment at the hypocrisy of some of these people, especially women who are in positions to bring about change, yet they don’t. All because they are too comfortable keeping the status quo of their ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ mantra with certain celebrities and media heavyweights.
“These were all women who pushed the feminist agenda,” adds Ayesha. “They were the flag bearers. Double standards is not a good look on them.”
She goes on to share her other pet peeves.
“She’s such a strong woman. How could it had have happened to her,” she says about the oft repeated statements that irk her. “Or why didn’t she just smack him then? I mean, when is this mindset going to change?”
It’s not even education, I say. It’s reeducation that’s needed because these are such deeply ingrained stereotypes in our collective mindsets.
“The scariest mindsets are often of those who are supposedly the most educated,” thinks Ayesha. “I know a highly educated, well informed, well travelled lady say on #metoo in general, ‘why is she creating such a big issue? If she’s in this industry, she should be used to it.’ Imagine.”
Get over it. Or deal with it. Two things women have been silenced with, for years now, I add.
“I can’t be bothered to change myself to fit the perceptions of other people,” Ayesha is adamant. “At one point, I might have tried. But not now.”
We talk about her current and future projects. What is she excited about?
“I’m working on Karachi Se Lahore 3. There’s also Bulbulay, the Film. And my stint with Pepsi Battle of the Bands is always a thoroughly professional experience,” explains Ayesha.
“What I’m genuinely excited about, is working on a health website,” she continues animatedly. “I’ve been actively speaking about it, trying to educate people. I went through a lifestyle change a few years ago. I don’t work out. But I just try and put healthy stuff in me and do a more holistic, organic approach to food.”
So what does she hope to achieve?
“Well, I’m thinking a web portal to begin with. Create awareness, break myths and dietary stereotypes. I want to talk about the importance of supplements, organic lifestyle. Eventually, I even want to start talking about product lines,” she says, with a smile that you can tell is about more than just ambition, but passion. “Long term, maybe even open my own organic food café.”
As we wrap up, I ask her to imagine that she’s talking to her fans as a collective whole.
“As clichéd as it sounds, I would want to thank them, obviously. But thank them really, for holding their own. For believing in what they believe in. That gives me hope too,” Ayesha says with conviction.
And in a way that’s all you really need to know about the ‘real’ Ayesha Omar – her belief and conviction. More power to you.
Photography Kashif Rashid
Hair & Makeup Nabila’s
Styling Amal Qadri
Coordination Zainab Muhammad