“When my husband was busy doing films, I fell in love with another man. He was not only tall, dark and handsome, he was a genius of a film-maker, too. It was love at first sight.”
This describes Samina Peerzada’s dramatic meeting in 1979 with creative genius Satyajit Ray in Kolkata. She had not yet entered the field of acting and was meeting Ray only as an ardent fan. The reclusive film-maker, on the other hand, had agreed to see her because she came from the famous film and theatre clan of the Peerzadas. “I see an actress here,” was his prediction, as he spent several hours on two consecutive days with his gushing admirer, talking to her about the arts, showing her stills from his films, his handwritten scripts, drawings of all the characters in his films, and also his book illustrations.
“I grew up dreaming to be an actor and director,” says Samina. “I remember watching Zindagi ya Toofan and a film with Nutan as the heroine. I was convinced as a child that this is what I wanted to do.”
We are meeting in Samina’s sparse but tastefully furnished apartment, located next door to an old and decaying stone building that was once a hotel. The apartment is bright and sunny, radiating her persona. Samina is dressed in a yellow floral kurta and sarong, complimenting her glowing skin. She is a charming hostess, too. Although located in the ‘heart of the city’, the place is quiet, tranquil ... with only the occasional whirring and whistling of a passing train. A large, eye-catching, black-and-white portrait of the actor/director, evocative of the ’50s style of dressing, is perched on an easel in the hallway. “This picture was taken by Imran,” she says, referring to her brother-in-law. “I brought some of my stuff over from Lahore so that I could feel at home here.”
She has had this place, her ‘very own’, for over a year now, although she moved from Lahore nearly two years ago. Much of our discussion focuses on her decision to move to Karachi, leaving her husband, her two daughters and much more, behind. But more about that a little later.
Samina produced her first film, Nazdikyan, with husband Usman Peerzada in 1986, in which she played the lead role opposite him. The film won several National Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress of the Year. In 1992, she was chosen ‘Miss Festival’ at the Tashkent Film Festival for her film, Bulandi. After doing just two leading roles, she moved on to play the role of a wife in Bazar-i-Husn and a mother in Bulandi. “I am a thinking actress. I opted for character roles instead of bimbos,” she clarifies.
She has also forayed into the world of modelling, as well as theatre. “When I did the Lux ads, I thought ‘this is it’. Although I did get offers for other good projects, I was busy becoming a director then,” she says.
Her much-acclaimed play as an actor and producer, Gurya Ghar, was based on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. It was performed first in Karachi in 1992 and then at the Ibsen Stage Festival, Oslo, Norway, in 1994. The play was also staged in Lahore, Islamabad, and Copenhagen, Denmark. After that, Samina launched a 13-episode TV drama serial, Karb, in the mid-90s which established her directorial credentials.
Samina’s debut as a film director is more recent. Inteha, based on the subject of marital rape, was released in major cinemas across Pakistan, going on to become a hit despite its thorny subject matter. She was hailed for resurrecting the floundering Pakistani film industry. People expected more such productions from her. The question in my mind was why she had chosen such a subject, and whether she had had any personal experience of domestic violence and trauma.
“I am a product of General Zia’s oppressive regime against women, am I not? I could not be associated with a routine boy-meets-girl film.” She recalls that as a child, she had seen both physical as well as emotional violence in her own house. She then elaborates on her statement by saying that she also clearly remembers how she would stay awake many a night hearing the wails and shrieks of a female neighbour. Barely five years old then, she wondered how that same woman, after suffering her husband’s beatings each night, served him breakfast in the morning. She could watch the couple in their verandah located directly below her own.
Moving back to her marital issues, in a fit of nostalgia she wistfully recalls that she had first met Usman in Chaklala where she was visiting family.
“He followed me to Karachi, where I was studying at the Government College of Commerce and Economics. On the very second day, I proposed to him to marry me!” Chuckling, she adds, “When he took me out for a cup of coffee, he said ‘If we get married, you cannot become an actress. Both of us cannot be working in the same field’. And I said ‘We will see’. Later, of course, he gave in after he saw my determination to act. Both of us had dreams of changing the film industry. Little did we know then what a jungle it is out there.”
Samina has been quite busy in Karachi. Besides acting in TV serials, she is doing Heart to Heart, a talk show in which she is interviewing famous Pakistani personalities from different fields. “I have recorded 13 programmes so far. I have enjoyed doing them thoroughly, and am ready for a break.” Earlier, her daughters had been visiting her in Karachi. “Usman has also seen the apartment, and feels more at ease now, knowing that I am staying in a comfortable and secure place. While he has given me the strength to go at it alone here, I owe it to Sultana Siddiqui for the serial Thodi si Mohabbat and to Iqbal Ansari, who believed in me and asked me to do the talk show.”
I ask Samina which director inspires her the most and whether she has found a good script for her next film. She says she is watching a lot of Iranian cinema, but is thoroughly impressed with Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s work. She recommends that one should watch his films, particularly All About My Mother, for which he won an Oscar and numerous other awards.
“As far as scripts are concerned, I am collecting, but haven’t yet found something really exciting. I am pinning my hopes on Dr Dennis Isaac, Zehra Nigah and Noorul Huda Shah. I feel there is no one else in Pakistan who can write good film scripts.”
We then approach the tricky subject of leaving Lahore, in search of her true self. She explains the background behind the move.
“Shararat’s story was quite different when I took on the film, but it changed. While Inteha was an independent film, this was a ‘studio’ production. Whereas I had all the respect of the unit and my staff, there was little artistic freedom with Shararat. If I had stayed on in Lahore and did one more mediocre film, I would become just another cog in the Lahore film industry machine. I was being compromised. I was most unhappy. I would have died as a sensitive director.”
Samina says that her younger daughter, who is 14, reminded her that she was made to do better work. She showed her the way. ‘Mama you must leave Lahore, and go do some television in Karachi’, she advised. Both her daughters urged their father to let her go. “Usman did not fully understand why I was so unhappy, why I was sulking, refusing to go out with him and refusing to meet people. He was flabbergasted that producers were begging me to take on their projects, and I was saying no to all of them.”
It must have been a painful decision, leaving the family behind. The poise and determination with which she is handling the projects in Karachi gives her fans and admirers much to look forward to. “I had no choice. I could have stayed on in Lahore and sulked, or moved and started afresh. Karachi has always given me warmth and love. This is my own city. I feel I belong here,” she states, clearly and confidently.