On a previous Tuesday morning, I opened the front door of my apartment to greet Aamina Sheikh –model, actress and leading lady of Seedlings (Lamha), a Pakistani film that screened at the New York City International Film Festival held at the Tribeca Cinema in August.
The screening had officially marked a rite of passage for her — a crossing of threshold from television to film, from theatrical actor to film actor and, possibly, a film star. Yet, standing across from me, dressed in a baby-pink top with black polka-dot mesh covering the shoulders, blue jeans and strappy summer sandals, with hair neatly tied back was a sweet college girl or a friend from school I could have been meeting after ages — a quintessential, archetypal girl next door who could also do high fashion.
Aamina had arrived in New York a few days earlier, along with her husband Mohib Mirza, who is also her co-star in the film. The trip to New York was very much about the movie, the first screening of which had run to a packed auditorium as the Pakistani community came out in full force to lend support and show enthusiasm for a project from home. The film was billed for a number of nominations, including best actress, which Aamina later won.
Within a span of five years, Aamina has acted in more than a dozen television drama serials, graced the covers of fashion glossies and bagged coveted modelling assignments — including becoming a face for L’Oreal Pakistan. Her second film Josh is in its final post-production stages and is expected to release soon.
The trip sounded hectic enough — she mentioned media appearances, press interviews, red-carpet events and multiple screenings — but included in that schedule were reunions with old friends and family and sightseeing in the megalopolis, all within the span of 10 days before she left for Los Angeles and Chicago. This was a girl who, in the course of our 40-minute conversation, had used the word “work” 20 times. Days after she left New York, I heard from an actor friend that he had run into her at an audition for “Law and Order,” an American television show.
Aamina had arrived on time for our breakfast meeting — three days after the first screening of Seedlings — but she had to leave for an afternoon meeting soon after. Not wanting to risk losing the chance to conduct the interview, I had decided to prepare breakfast at home. We were seated across from each other on a small dining table. I had prepared tall glasses of fruit smoothies and a hot mushroom omelette, which she layered with strawberry jam and rolled together inside a piece of toast. This was our third meeting. The first time we had met was months ago in Karachi: that, too, was a meeting over plates of hot breakfast. I remember being startled by her laughter, high in pitch and perhaps meant to disarm, but instead making me feel slightly awkward. Despite the easy-going disposition, there was a sensible air around her and the whiff of a disciplined personality. Was the friendliness a façade to not scare people away or part of the package that made Aamina one of the most sought after artists in the industry?
And she is beautiful, of course. The second time we met was the day after she arrived in New York. I had scheduled her for a photo shoot to accompany this article. At one point during the shoot, the photographer remarked how much the woman on his camera screen resembled a famous Hollywood actress.
If she was feeling pressured or overwhelmed by the pace of her days, it did not show. Instead I heard words, like “fantastic” and talks of finding the time to walk around Tribeca, and how on “one or two occasions it felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m graduating again’” because of the way family and friends had converged to be with her. New York, as it turned out, was familiar territory.
“Well I have not spent a considerable stretch here. I studied at Hampshire [College], so I came here every break that I got,” she says, referring to her four years at university in Western Massachusetts, pursuing her undergraduate degree in film studies. “I got a flavour of what it feels like to live in New York. The pace of the city and, you know, losing yourself in the subways and the crowd and observing the difference between the Wall Street crowd versus the SoHo crowd.”
The time spent had not been without struggles though. “I remember I used to be so broke that I would just go by places and sort of make a mental note of things that at that time I could not afford,” she remembers. For a weekly $100 stipend there was work to be done that no one else wanted to do. A particularly gruelling assignment, she recalled, involved SpongeBob Square Pants, a children’s cartoon character. For three months “I used to scan and colour every single bit of SpongeBob, and that dude has a million colours on him,” she says.
I wondered how much of that experience played into her decision to move back to Pakistan after graduation. There had been resistance from her brothers to stay, both of whom were settled in the US, where they felt there were more opportunities for her artistic pursuits. But she had made up her mind.
“Not for a second did I miss America. I mean, there was no nostalgia. I didn’t regret my decision,” she says.
The second of four siblings — two brothers and two sisters — she was, so far, the only one who had actively taken up arts as a career. I felt family resistance was something she was used to facing, and there were hints of resistance to her career, but I did not prod her for details. Later in the conversation, however, she did mention: “I was studying film and my dad used to tell people keh haan ye to computer graphics parh rahee hai.”
I knew that story well. It was the burden of good Pakistani middle-class girls with artistic passions, a place I too had come from, and the constant struggle to legitimise what are considered leisurely activities by grounding them in academic platforms. Hence, a degree in film for Aamina, the aspiring actress, who returned to Pakistan and shopped her CV to various channels for a job.
“The next week I got a call from Geo TV and they told me that you start as a freelancer on this kids programme, and if everything goes well, they get you onboard full time.”
There was no SpongeBob to be coloured in here. In fact, within a week she was given the helm of a weekly television programme, working three to four cameras, while directing 30 children and the host, her future husband Mohib. “I was amazed,” she says, “at how forann hee someone gave me a job like this, because in New York I was literally doing the kind of work that no one else wants to do.”
But with the position came its own set of challenges. Her background in the field was limited to academic training. In Pakistan, “your production team is made up of 20 people who are all from different places, who have different mindsets, who are all men, and who use certain lingo. To understand that and not be the person jo amreeka se parh ke aye hai aur pataa nahin kya samajhtee hai apne aap ko, and execute a production was something I learnt in my two years at Geo.”
It was a lesson in the work environment of Pakistan, but also, perhaps a lesson in living in Pakistan too.
One of her biggest challenges came from Mohib — who is now her husband. Were there any sparks? Not according to her.
“We started pretty much on opposing sides, because I was there to change the show and he was there comfortable in the show,” she says. But where Mirza was resistant to her overzealous efforts to prove her value to the channel, he was also the one to whom she reached out for help. “At that time, the channel was paying me a certain amount and I had no idea whether that was a good amount or not and I had no one to really speak to,” she says. “Slowly, slowly, I gathered the courage to get advice from him.”
She had run into Mohib before, when she was a student at Lyceum and would go see his Urdu plays. “I was doing theatre in English with Rahat Kazmi, and Mohib studied at Comecs [College] and he was brought in every time Lyceum wanted to do an Urdu language play.” He was also a witness to her struggle with her family. There was scepticism over her work at a television channel, “and then the hours … the crazy hours which the family didn’t expect and I didn’t expect, so he was a witness to that and he sort of had my back.”
Their love for acting may have brought them together, but there was no denying they belonged to two different worlds.
“No one points it out or talks about it, but I’m sure people pick it up,” she says. “But I think, in general, people are appreciative. I think it sort of makes them realise that it’s possible that the integration of the two opens up so many avenues.”
But how did she herself feel about it? “Mohib is really well-exposed mentally, although he’s very much a Karachi boy and he understands the roughness, toughness,” she says. “He’s lived Karachi inside out, but in the process of doing so he has miraculously managed to really keep his mind open and expose himself to the outside world,” she adds. “He is very ‘Urdu Daan’ and he has used that to his advantage, and he’s perfected it almost so that’s very intriguing for someone who lives with him … I mean, I feel like I learn a lot from him and he learns from me.”
I had no doubt about Aamina’s ability to learn and absorb. After all, she had just pulled off the feat of successfully portraying a mother with a lost child, notwithstanding that she has never had one in real life.
It is clear to me that Aamina Sheikh is a woman who loves challenges, and that is how she took the mother’s role. “You know there are some roles that demand so much of you that as an actor it fulfils your desire to perform. And this role demanded that,” she says.