The News – Instep – 12 July 2016
Mor Mahal’s Wazir Begum talks about characterisation, fashion and being unafraid of embracing strong roles.
A veritable chameleon, Meesha Shafi is a powerhouse who can transform from one avatar to the next with the ease of a snake, shedding its skin.
Shafi, who started out as an artist and a model quickly expanded her portfolio to encompass the many dynamic facets of her personality and has since collected one accolade after another, for singing, acting and being an overall bad-ass.
This year, her work takes a royal tone as she embodies Wazir Begum, the female titular character in the epic fantasy saga Mor Mahal.
Shafi, while talking to BBC Urdu, explains that she’s never shied away from portraying strong female characters on screen. “There’s a general formula that’s followed while writing female characters for local television and they usually depict a harsh dichotomy between the good and the bad. The women are either saintly or sordid and there are a lot of tears written into the script; maybe it has something to do with my upbringing or experiences in life so far, but I have never been able to relate to those characters or have had any inclination of playing them on screen,” the mother of two states.
“I’ve grown up around strong, independent women. My mother, Saba Hamid (another legendary local thespian) embodied her fair share of hapless, helpless women on screen but perhaps it was who she was in real life that made me want to play more substantial and nuanced characters in my career. There are countless women around us who are in positions of power and authority and are doing complete justice to their roles – we need to bring these characters to life on screen and break away from the stereotypical depiction of women that does them no favours,” Shafi states.
It’s an interesting stance to take, particularly in a society as conservative as Pakistan, where opinionated women are automatically deemed unpalatable and most actresses accuse the script and writers for giving them weak characters. Shafi proves that while yes, there is a certain demand from the audience to see simpering women on TV, there are options available for those who aren’t afraid of breaking the mould. Shafi is one of those rare actors who hasn’t shied away from playing an antagonist, whether it’s her conniving character Farrukh Za’ad in Mor Mahal or her role as a spy in the army backed production, Waar. It also hasn’t affected her popularity as a celebrity – in fact, if anything, it has helped her carve out a niche for herself where there are millions of women willing to wear white and sob silently into the camera.
Shafi’s track Jugni with folk singer Arif Lohar is still one of her most loved songs.
Shafi believes that as an artist, its her responsibility and of those within the industry to not only give the audience what they want to view but also to educate them and to introduce progressive concepts into their daily life.
Part of Shafi’s onscreen presence in Mor Mahal relies on the costumes and stylization of her character to denote the rank and power associated with it. With opulent costumes designed by the avant garde Ali Xeeshan, BBC Urdu’s Fifi Haroon notes that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the dramatic outfits but Shafi carries them off with panache. Could it be that the existing relationship Shafi shares with fashion allows her to use it as an intimidation tactic on screen? The crooner disagrees. “I love fashion and I never wear anything to overawe but Wazir Begum’s character demands a larger than life wardrobe to strengthen her role. The image Wazir Begum has created for herself serves as visual weaponry; she steps into a room and lets her presence be known before talking. It lends weight to everything she does and says,” offers Shafi by way of explanation.
She wraps up the interview by talking about her recent tour to the US with Arif Lohar and the experience of performing for a crowd that chose to be present because they paid for the show as opposed to an invite-based event. “Unfortunately, since the time I started my singing career, the security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated to the point where public events are a hazard so I experienced what a proper concert feels like for the first time on this tour. To play for an audience that chose to spend their time and money to come see you just takes the performance to different plane; their love and affection is infectious and uplifting beyond measure.”