The all-rounder

A still from the critically-acclaimed Aangan Terha; Bushra as the overbearing Bilqis Kaur; as Saima Chaudhry in Annie ki Aayegi Baraat

Striking up a conversation with Bushra Ansari is easy — she loves to talk. But she struggled with words when an American couple seated next to her on a recent long haul flight asked her how she spent her time in Pakistan. For a while, she was stumped. After some reflection, she responded: “I am an artist.” “Oh, that’s lovely! What do you like to paint?” pat came the next question. Bushra erupted into her characteristic full-throated laughter, knowing words wouldn’t do the trick this time. She zipped out her Ipad and began showing the Americans video clips featuring her varied talents — as an actor, a comedian, a playwright, a television show host and a mimic.

For over three decades, Bushra has been a constant fixture in the Pakistani media industry. Throughout her long and varied career, she has firmly held her audience’s interest, no mean feat considering that many of her television co-stars from the 1980s and 1990s have either faded away or no longer receive enough opportunities to act. Uzma Gilani, Ruhi Bano, Khalida Riyasat – three great television actresses who started their careers around the same time as Bushra – now live only in the memories of their ageing fans, while she continues to move from strength to strength.

One possible reason for her longevity at the top of television in the country could be her ability to work in different genres with equal ease. While the older generation remembers Bushra as Jahan Ara Begam, the caustic wife of a retired civil servant in the Pakistan Television (PTV) classic Aangan Terha, or her entertaining parodies of Salma Agha, Tahira Syed and Nur Jahan in Showtime, the younger people identify her as the vivacious Faisalabadi designer Saima Chaudhry in Geo Television Network’s Aayegi Baraat series or the dominating mother-in-law in Hum TV’s Bilqis Kaur and Mera Naseeb. “If you’re not a good storyteller, your acting will not have the required emotions, and if you’re not a good dancer, then you won’t have the poise that the screen requires. This is why successful stars, such as Bushra, try to push their boundaries and explore all their talents,” senior television actor Samina Peerzada says while explaining the eclectic nature of Bushra’s talents.

The other reason could be her ability to maintain a balance between her career and her home. She did not give up one for the other; in fact, she balanced the two in such a manner that she could give time to both without any regrets. At home, she is like any other Pakistani woman, for being a star has not saved her from facing the mundane monotonies of life.

When I catch up with her at her apartment in a swanky Karachi high-rise on a late summer day, the place is aflutter with activity. Her mother and an aunt are visiting from Lahore, the cook is pestering her for ideas about lunch, the maid is trying to make an escape without finishing her work and Bushra is fretting about how she might be required to babysit her grandchildren. Within minutes, she sorts everything out — her guests are plied with tea and biscuits, the cook and the maid are given stern instructions, and a quick telephonic conversation with her daughter concludes that Bushra’s babysitting services will not be needed until later in the day. That such dexterity should have helped her survive for so long in an industry where turnover rates are quite high, if not downright staggering, is hardly surprising.

Seated beside me in black pants and an oversized shirt, Bushra wears furrows of worry on her make-up -free face as marks of a constant struggle to juggle time between family and career. But an aura of grace surrounds her as she begins to talk about her past and present, a grace that could only have been produced through a profound sense of achievement.

Bushra was born in a talented household. Her father, Ahmad Bashir, was a left wing writer and journalist, and his sisters were also involved in creative fields. One of them, Parvin Atif, is a well known short story writer in Urdu. But instead of following in the footsteps of one of her illustrious relatives, Bushra imbibed one thing or another from each of them, mixing it with her own creative talent to become what she is presently known as — an actor par excellence, a comedian endowed with great wit, a writer with flair and a television host with a distinctive style.

Nine-year-old Bushra (second from left) with the cast of Kalyon Ki Mala. Photo courtesy Nariman Ansari

This hasn’t been easy since her father – though himself a one-time film director – was apprehensive about what society would think if “his beautiful daughters” started to appear on television. “The very idea of acting in a drama serial was sacrilegious in our household because most storylines had love scenes and our father would never allow his unmarried daughters to be a part of such dramas,” says Sumbul, one of Bushra’s three sisters. At the age of nine, Bushra, along with her mother, had to sneak out of her house without her father’s permission to give and pass an audition for a PTV music show Kalyon Ki Mala.

The change came when she met television director Iqbal Ansari and the two decided to get married. The marriage came along with a tacit agreement that Bushra could act as long as it didn’t interfere with her domestic duties. When she talks about her early years of marriage, it is mostly about how she would do everything expected of a desi housewife, tending to the needs of her two daughters and husband, before being able to make it to the set of a television play. “In the first 10 years of my marriage, I was so busy with my family that I was part of a meagre six plays,” Bushra says, without even a hint of bitterness. Her family, in return, provided her artistic opportunities which others might not have received. She made her first television appearance in a serial called Gharaunde, which was directed by her husband. Her first serial as a scriptwriter, Neeli Dhoop, telecast in the mid-1990s; was directed by her daughter Nariman Ansari.

Bushra first won critical acclaim in Aangan Terha, a social satire on Pakistan in the 1980s. While her portrayal of a sardonic housewife, constrained by economic difficulties, was outstanding, people also lapped up the play for its subtle critique of the army and the martial law regime of Ziaul Haq. She recalls those old days with mixed emotions — nostalgic about PTV’s glory days and proud of having worked with such legendary directors as Muhammad Nisar Husain aka MNH, Mohsin Ali and Shahzad Khalil, she also remembers how she would constantly run between her home and the set to ensure that both her family and her directors would receive her best.

And they surely have. Even at the ripe age of 56, she is acting, writing scripts and hosting a cookery show besides ensuring that her husband receives fresh meals everyday and that her daughters receive her active help and advice in coping with pregnancies and rearing children. For Bushra, all this has been taxing, just as it would be for any other individual. “Because of all the stress, there is always this sense of urgency in my mind. Sometimes, I go to sleep at night and wake up feeling even more tired, because all night my brain has been buzzing with creative ideas,” she says. “However, the show must go on.”

Scriptwriting is a relatively less known aspect of Bushra’s life, perhaps because it is a later addition to a career that started eons ago. Her first script, Neeli Dhoop, focuses on a middle-aged widow who devotes her life to her daughter, but does not in return receive the same kind of attention. Its overarching theme is the status of widows in Pakistan and the double standards people adopt towards women. Since Neeli Dhoop, despite their different storylines, all her scripts have one common factor — she has consistently highlighted social evils casting a shadow over so many lives. Her latest script Mere Dard Ko Jo Zuban Mile is centred on the dilemma of a young girl who marries a deaf and dumb person, but a few years down the line, is given the option to leave the marriage.

It is striking, however, that her scripts are so divergent from her happy-go-lucky persona. She appears untouched by pain, always laughing and joking and never giving the smallest indication that there has ever been sadness in her life. Yet all she writes are gut-wrenching plays seeped in anguish and misery. Bushra says she certainly does not write from personal experience, but that there is so much trouble in society at large that it becomes difficult to ignore. “There is so much that I want to write about. I just need to find the time to pen down all the ideas floating around in my head,” she says with a smile. But why has she focused so much on the tragic in her writing? “As a nation we are obsessed with pathos. Subcontinental culture allows artists to romanticise pain,” she explains, without really clarifying whether she is cashing in on this romanticisation of pain for commercial success, or employing it as a tool to highlight social problems.

Then there is her passion for singing, something she says she has never found enough time for. As she talks about this passion, her face softens and the pitch of her voice falls a few notches. As a teenager, when her father disallowed her from appearing on television, she tried to compensate by singing classical songs on the radio. Every now and then, she would plead with her father for permission to receive professional singing lessons, but he remained unwilling.

As with her acting career, marriage also gave Bushra the liberty to pursue her music. Soon after her daughters were born, she began training with composer Ibrahim Hussain. But it did not take her long to realise that singing required a discipline and a commitment that she could not afford. “That discipline and time was devoted entirely to my daughters and I knew that there was no way I could commit to anything as regular and demanding as classical singing,” she says.

Bushra parodying as singer Salma Agha. Photo courtesy Nariman Ansari

Frustration over her own inability to pursue music as a career apart, this failure hardly takes anything away from her multidimensional talents which unsurprisingly frustrate those who want to box her in as a comedian, for instance. When her comic roles in shows like Fifty Fifty and Show Sha became hits, her husband told her to focus exclusively on comedy as he regarded that to be her forte. Bushra’s reaction to his advice was to detach herself from all comic roles for the next few years and focus solely on serious plays. In 1986, she proved her mettle in that genre by winning several national awards in the best actress category for her serious role in PTV serial Raat Gaye.

Over the years, she has perfected both kinds of roles — this was quite evident when this year her two most watched dramas were Bilqis Kaur and Annie Ki Aayegi Baraat. Both serials required her to play the part of an overbearing Punjabi woman, though with vastly different characteristics. In the former drama, Billo’s character was that of a stern and humourless matriarch, living along with family in New York, a woman whose traditional beliefs clash with the modern values of her children, while the infamous character of Saima Chaudhry in the latter play was that of a flirtatious woman whose idiosyncrasies brought nothing but mirth and laughter to her family and the audience. Both characters lie at opposite ends of the spectrum but Bushra proves that she has the ability to make her fans cry in anguish or laugh with pleasure.

Having won so much acclaim for everything she has done, Bushra seems to have left no peak unscaled. For many, this would be the time to say goodbye and pack up. Not for her, though. “I’m not going to give up. I love challenges and I love the sense of achievement you feel when you successfully gain something,” she vows, adding that she does not do anything for money or glamour or for any social or political reason. “I do all the work I do firstly because I can, and secondly because it gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

Rumours abound about what she may be up to next. Some say she is going to campaign for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf in the next elections; she denies that, saying she doesn’t have the emotional strength for it. Others, such as senior actor Javed Sheikh, speculate that she may come up with a music album; though flattered by the speculation, she dismisses it as baseless.

But then, Bushra has always been full of surprises. She surprised her father when she succeeded in her first television audition. She surprised her husband with her accomplished performances in serious roles. She surprised herself when critics lauded her for the script of Neeli Dhoop. Who she will surprise next and how she will do it is difficult to predict, but what is easy to predict is that she will continue to explore and experiment. And she knows that she is not going to go away from the national television scene any time soon, unlike so many others of her generation who have done so. When I first called her for an interview, she was wrapped up in shoots and asked me if I could wait a few weeks. Upon hearing the dejection in my voice, she cheerfully added: “Don’t worry, jan. I will still be famous next month. What’s the rush?”