Trail of success

Photography by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Photography by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Hot on the heels of success, Humaima Malick is all set to be Pakistan’s next female actor to make a mark internationally on the basis of her performance alone. Performance, rather than ‘theatrics’, as have been exhibited by other starlets who have crossed borders with fame in mind, settling for nothing more than scandal, controversy and ‘item’ numbers. Malick promises to play her card intelligently, and it is no surprise that she is trying to take the Ali Zafar path when it comes to working in India. So far Zafar is the only (male) actor from Pakistan who has maintained his identity while making waves in an environment as competitive as Bollywood.

The only other female artiste to win acclaim in India was Zeba Bakhtiar, who starred in the super hit Henna back in 1991. Can Malick be the second? Bol was watched by limited audiences in India but whoever saw Malick appreciated her work. It spring boarded her career in India and a lead role in Soham Shah’s Sher followed. It’ll take her time, luck and the right strategy to make it big but she seems to be on the right path.

Malick has crossed borders with appreciation already under her wings. Her work in Bol (2011) has kept her going long after Shoaib Mansoor’s strong social commentary won the critic’s approval. She has been picking up awards for her role as Zainab, a woman on the death row for murdering her tyrannical father. “Shoaib Mansoor turned an average girl into a star,” she says of the director who cast her in the award winning movie. “For Shoaib sahib I’d even do a film for no money.” Money isn’t what makes her tick but she is making enough to afford her own home, something she is immensely proud of achieving at the very young age of 25. It is her nest in Karachi, where she flies back to every now and then.
Her flight of fame takes her around the world. Bol put Malick on the map with nods for Best Actor in a Leading Role (female) at the London Asian Film Festival, Pakistan’s Lux Style Awards and the South Asian Rising Star Film Awards; she was competing with names like Parineeti Chopra and Preeti Desai. She was also nominated (with Vidya Balan) for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards but both lost out to Filipino screen legend, Nora Aunor.

Awards have decorated her mantle but that is not all that has kept Malick alive in the public eye since Bol. She is extremely ambitious and has stayed in the media’s eye with appearances at fashion shows, corporate endorsements and stage performances, which have all been frequent. The celebrity grapevine has buzzed with rumours regarding her relationship with cricketer Wasim Akram which she has acknowledged in print but prefers to keep private now.

“Humaima came to me when she was 12 because she wanted to be a model,” remembers fashion veteran Frieha Altaf who has been sporadically working with her for over a decade now. “I was doing a Leisure Club show and I needed kids and teenagers. She was just a kid, a sweet innocent kid. But she had the confidence and the focus of an adult. Even at that early age she knew what she wanted.”

Altaf talks of how Malick did a lot of commercial work in the past, more advertisements and less fashion. “She did a bit of television too. But in the fashion industry she got recognition after doing a Sunsilk commercial [with Asim Raza] in which she looked so gorgeous that her image got picked up internationally.”

Altaf considers Malick more of a performer than a model. “She has done a lot of stage performances and dancing (she recently danced at the Lux Style Awards for the Ali Zafar segment). I’ve seen her go through personal upheavals and her discipline and professionalism have suffered with her moods but that is something that should mend itself as she matures. At the end of the day, this girl is a star. She has the looks, the attitude and people are quite mesmerised by her.”

Meanwhile, Malick has been quietly working on furthering her acting career. Her next film – Sher, opposite Sanjay Dutt – is ready for release. Set in Rajasthan, Sher is the story of a gangster’s wife, forced to look after his empire after he is killed. Like Bol, the film is a flashback narrative. “It’s a very glamorous role,” Malick smiles when we meet in Karachi. She has the pristine appearance of a girl very conscious of revealing the right image. The jeans and jacket allow a structured and adequately glamorous image; the huge sunglasses reflect a fashionable avatar and the crystal artwork on her nails hint at youthfulness. “I’ve enjoyed wearing the ghagra cholis and stunning Rajasthani costumes,” she continues, confirming her love for appearances. “My character in Sher is very different from what people have seen in Bol.”

She is extremely happy with her experience of working with the legendary Sanjay Dutt. “I would never have given a solid performance without the comfort zone of working with Sanju. He’s a fantabulous human being and takes care of people on sets, from stuntmen and technicians to co-stars. He has a sense of humour and brings positive energy to the table. And despite being such a senior artiste he never flaunts his seniority. People say he’s a big name but he’s truly a big person from inside. He was very kind to me throughout the shooting.”

Malick is tight-lipped about her projects, revealing nothing but a tentative date for the release of Sher, which could be anytime in the first half of this year. Official looks have not been revealed yet and Malick, despite taking her own make-up artist and photographer from Pakistan (Akif Ilyas), refuses to release any pictures until the producers do so officially. “They have professional systems in place,” she says about Bollywood, “and they know how to treat a star. I was allowed my own make-up artist and I could call in my family whenever I got homesick. I was very well taken care of. So I’d like to play by the rules of the trade. India boasts of an organised, disciplined environment and I can’t give away any information that hasn’t been released officially.”

She applies the same rule to her next projects. She has signed three films with producer and writer par excellence, Vidhu Vinod Chopra (famous for Parineeta, 3 Idiots and the Munnabhai series). Scheduled for release in 2014, these upcoming films, Malick says, are essentially love stories. The first of the lot resonates of Parineeta, she shares with trepidation.

Malick has truly got international cinema on her mind and she is unwilling to stop at India. She recently signed a contract for two experimental Iranian films that will most certainly cement her reputation as a serious actor. She is already polishing her Persian as the films will be shot in Persian and English. “I’ll probably start shooting in Tehran from June onwards, once my commitments in India are wrapped up,” she says. “I can’t disclose much except that [one of the Iranian films] is an emotional film; it’s an unusual reality story. But what delights me most is that it’s a performance based film and I want to be known as a performance based actor.”

Malick shares stories about her life as we talk. She is one of six siblings and the only one to take up a career in the arts. That too happened by coincidence, as she was ready to step into the corporate world once acquiring her degree in sales and marketing from Greenwich University in Karachi. She talks about her marriage and its dissolution “being one of the most liberating experiences of her life.” She says she only learnt what independence was once she gave up on life with a much older (and unsuitable) man. She talks about the publicity of her relationship with Akram, dismayed at how certain journalists blew her comments out of context to defame them. That there is a ‘them’ is very clear.
She is candid when she talks, guarded when she is being quoted and politically correct when it comes to any kind of questioning. She knows she has come a long way from the time (a decade ago) when she did her first commercial or modeled for designer Deepak Perwani. Ambition took her through television as well, she started with the popular Ishq, Junoon, Deewangi for Hum TV; her last performance was as Asghari in the popular drama serial Akbari Asghari.

Though she has put television on the back-burner these days (films are taking up most of her time), she vocalises her take on the Turkish plays that are causing controversy in Pakistan these days. “We need to be strong and confident enough to compete with what comes our way,” she says. “We should be open to art from all over the world.”

The dirty picture

Vidya Balan, the lead actress of the film.

Starring: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor

Directed by Milan Luthria

Recently, former supermodel Elle Macpherson – referred to as The Body in high-fashion circles – was instructed by Italian Vogue, with more than a touch of schadenfreude, to move over and make way for some young thing called Karlie Kloss who has been declared, rather unimaginatively, The (new) Body. This has nothing to do with the film I’m reviewing here of course, except to suggest that in instances where a woman’s physical being is treated as a commodity, it has an apparently short shelf life, not only expendable but also easily and unceremoniously replaced. This is just one of the excremental facts of life that come to mind when watching The Dirty Picture, Milan Luthria’s lively but equally discomfiting follow-up to the glamorously gritty Once Upon A Time In Mumbai.

(Very) loosely based on the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of 1980s South Indian filmi sex siren Silk Smitha, the film ably demonstrates Luthria’s strengths as a film-maker, the most obvious of which is his knack for locating the ballsiest, no-frills elements of his story and magnifying those in fairly broad cinematic strokes. More often than not, in favouring sensation over subtext, he does somewhat overshoot the heart of the tale, making him more Mickey Spillane than Joseph Conrad, but this also lends his work a certain disarming honesty that works especially well in The Dirty Picture.

Reshma (Balan) runs away from her village with dreams of being a film star. She quickly realises though that for her kind of woman, the only way into the movies is through her ample cleavage. Undeterred, she asserts herself before she can be made a victim, capitalising on (but therefore also controlling) her body as her ticket to stardom, albeit in the form of soft-core sexploitation cinema. But stardom is stardom, never mind how it comes about. Now re-christened Silk, she catches the eye of Southern superstar Suryakant (Shah) and sparks fly, both on- and off-screen, his marital status notwithstanding. Her lover’s brother (Kapoor) is also smitten and – misguidedly – tries to make an honest woman of her. The only man seemingly immune to her charms is ‘serious’ filmmaker Abraham (Hashmi) whose art house sensibilities are offended by her crass, sensationalist ones. Silk also realises soon enough that though she has made it, the nature of her work will always keep her as an outcast both within the industry as well as in life, ogled, used but never truly accepted. As friends and fame start to abandon her and look towards greener, leaner and younger pastures Silk hits a downward spiral.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of how Luthria has framed Silk’s story is that despite the lurid subject matter, the innuendo-heavy dialogue and the flamboyant narrative style, it is never exploitative or sleazy. On the contrary, the film is squarely in its protagonist’s corner, never less than sympathetic to her and also to the larger issues at play. Silk is part of a world where men’s attitudes dictate the lives of women; women who must be desirable but not desirous, sexy but not sexual, and certainly not in possession of their destinies or even their own bodies.

If a woman is provocative, it is her dignity that will get tarnished, and the men who leer at her will do so without consequence. And if she oversteps her pre-defined place in society, then she’d best be prepared to be a pariah, forever relegated to the peripheries. That we identify with such a potentially polarizing central figure as Silk is due in no small part to Balan’s astonishing performance — she is funny, she is fiery, she is utterly fearless. At once vulnerable and steely, the actress sheds not only her inhibitions but also the accoutrements of the Bollywood glamour masquerade, courageously piling on the weight and then displaying the results without a shred of coyness or vanity. It is a tour de force that helps us to forgive the film’s narrative inconsistencies and lack of nuance.

Bhumika [1977]
Based on the memoirs of 1940s Marathi stage and screen star Hansa Wadkar, Shyam Benegal’s haunting film features a star-making turn from Smita Patil.

Further ruminations on the cost of fame, with Ranbir Kapoor as the troubled protagonist.

Coming Attraction
Heroine [2012]
Madhur Bhandarkar, of ‘Fashion’ infamy, will direct Kareena Kapoor in this exposé on the Hindi film industry.