It’s almost midnight when I manage to get hold of Armeena for a conversation. She’s in Pakistan, Islamabad to be exact, for the filming of Sherdil – an Air Force film with Mikaal Zulfiqar in the lead – and she’s almost always working, with very little time to spare. Work is what keeps drawing her back to Pakistan, she says. She has a passion to act, though she hardly has any fond or binding memories of her experiences on set, she confides as we warm up to each other. Having acted in two hit films, Bin Roye and Jaanan, a big budget movie like Yalghaar and now Sherdil (not to mention her work on television), Armeena has solid work under her belt. But it appears that she is made to struggle a little more to be seen and appreciated in the industry. Work, and the worries that accompany her to the set…we talk about it all.
Armeena’s first big screen appearance came in Bin Roye (2015), in which she played Humayun Saeed’s love interest. While Armeena’s was a supporting role in a film in which Humayun and Mahira Khan played the leads, her character had its due impact and was well-received. Next came Janaan in 2016, in which Armeena played the lead opposite Bilal Ashraf; the film did well at the box office and was declared a hit. Yalghaar came and went in 2016, without leaving much of an impact on anyone, and just recently one heard that the Candian-Pakistani actress, currently living in England, was returning to Pakistan for a film called Sherdil.
“I rejected five film scripts last year,” she spoke about the choices she was making and why. “I have to believe in a project before I say yes. I read Sherdil and loved the project. I had a hit in Janaan so I had to be very careful with what I chose next. I was very lucky that my first film Bin Roye was a hit and so was Janaan. My role in Yalghaar was small bit got positive feedback. Sherdil does effect me now because I’m playing the female role opposite Mikaal.”
Without giving away much, Armeena shared trivia about the film. Contrary to what people thought, she is not playing a cadet or fighter pilot, she said. “Those images were just for a photo shoot.” She was playing Mikaal’s love interest and the film, ostensibly an Air Force project, was scheduled for release later this year or early next year. “You just never know what delays a film release,” she smiled; Bin Roye and Yalghaar were two films that had witnessed massive delays. “So far we’re on track.”
How different did she think Sherdil would be from Parwaz Hai Junoon, the other upcoming big film on the Air Force, starring Hamza Ali Abbasi, Ahad Raza Mir and Hania Amir in lead roles?
“I don’t really know anything about Parwaz so I don’t know the feel,” she replied. “I do know it’s an Air Force film but that’s about it. I do know that Hania is playing a cadet and I’m not, so let’s see what happens. I do know that we don’t know how big budgets are going to be released. The underdog has annihilated the big-budget competition,” she commented about Chupan Chupai versus Arth and Rangreza. “You can’t predict anything just because you have big names in it. The script is king.”
What else, in her opinion, contributed to the success of a film these days?
“Films that are culturally appropriate do work,” she said. “We weren’t called ‘item girls’ (in Bin Roye and Janaan) and the audience could come with their families and everyone was comfortable. We need to form our own identity and get our own culture in our films. I don’t want to see bad copies of Bollywood in Pakistan. I don’t understand why well-written scripts aren’t being written. If I ever enter production I will go in all guns blazing with the best, most professional production team in the world.”
Is production on the cards?
“You never know. But if I did, then I would actually study it before stepping into it. I’d experiment with small films before going big. These days everyone wants to work in films.”
Armeena’s experience transcends the Pakistani film industry as she is working on two films in England. There’s The Achilles Protocol and then there’s Real Target.
“The Achilles Protocol was shot over a year ago and got delayed in post-production,” she explained. “Now we’re back on track. I do want to add is that it’s a short film. The Real Target, in which I’m playing an agent, is the feature film that I’m working on these days. It’s a British production.”
The ‘British’ or rather ‘foreign’ baggage that she came with, ironically, was the biggest hurdle in her career in Pakistan, she confessed. It cast her as an unwelcome outsider in the industry and then it also threw performance related challenges her way. Take her recent role in drama serial Daldal, for example. How big of a challenge was Daldal to this presumably urban actor with a heavy Canadian accent?
“Oh my goodness,” she sighed. “Anyone who knows me personally will know what a big challenge it was. It was very difficult. I want to experiment with different roles; all my characters have been very different so I decided to play the mazloom card and see how it fared too; it did fare really well but I wasn’t too sure about my role (when I signed on for it) because all she did was sit there and cry and I couldn’t relate to it. But then the character does evolve and that was reassuring to me.”
“The public has appreciated the different shades in my role,” she continued. “I researched it and worked on it. I’m a method actor and I create characters. So that is my endeavor. I am trying my hardest. Daldal was my hardest role yet. It was in a hot June and I was dying on sets. It was blazing. And I wouldn’t come out of my character for days.”
Talking to Armeena I did realize that she is anything but the mazloom character that she portrayed on screen in Daldal; that much also comes across in her strongly opinionated twitter feed. It’s the work she does as part of the Manchester Muslim Community, she said, that had equipped her to tackle issues. It helped her take issues and run with them.
“The Manchester Muslim Community has managed to bring different sects of Muslims to come and work on one platform,” she explained. “What we do is we try to come up with projects to help the community integrate better and put a platform to help create dialogue with the native community. When the Manchester attacks happened we were on ground, trying to diffuse the situation to our best possible way. Right now there’s no exclusive cemetery for Muslims so we’re working on that. We feed the homeless. We want to tell the world who we really are. We’re trying to deflect the negativity. I’m also on a panel of speakers that go around and give motivational speeches in schools and community centers.
“Post 9/11 the Muslim community has been marginalized. I don’t feel safe walking down the street in England. I don’t know who might take offense to my skin colour and attack me,” she said.
Armeena also spoke about being an ‘outsider’ in Pakistan and how she dealt with discrimination in the entertainment industry?
“I’m ignored at award shows, I feel, because I don’t hang out with the right people,” she shared. “I have a select group of friends. I don’t have the time to sit here and network. I’ve been in the industry for five years but I’m ignored for it. The Lux Style Awards have ignored a big drama like Daldal this year. I wonder why. You saw how I was absolutely mistreated at the awards last year. I boycotted them and just made an appearance for Zara Shahjahan. Janaan was ignored although it was a hit. I had the western sensibility that my character needed in the film.
“I’m a fully trained actor from the Met school at Ealing studios London; I trained in acting for film. But my characters are appreciated in the west but not here. There’s just so much negativity around me. It took me time to see how the industry functions but whatever I’ve done has been on merit. I haven’t had a lot of support.
“I’ve been quiet for a long time but I want these things to be known now. I was taken advantage of because I didn’t know the system. I have been discriminated against on sets, shouted and screamed at. I often get the odd comment that I’m not wanted here. Ultimately I am Pakistani and I’ll go whenever I want.”
Had she made any friends in the entertainment industry here?
“Mawra, Urwa, Kubra, Ayesha, Bilal, Humayun, Sami Khan, Zahid Ahmed…these guys have been really supportive, to name a few,” she replied. “These are just a few names and there are many more.”
She spoke about discrimination, against her for being a virtual ‘outsider’ but what about sexual discrimination or harassment; an epidemic that had take the world by storm.
“Here in Pakistan, I haven’t faced any sexual harassment I have to say,” she clarified. “You have the odd co-star who has a crush but that’s okay. I have faced it at the beginning of my career but abroad, not in Pakistan. I just feel that there is a lot of gender discrimination in Pakistan; as a woman I have no voice on production sets here. I don’t have a voice and the men are always given preference. ‘We’ have to abide by a certain code of conduct. I’m always afraid and so careful because I don’t know how I’ll be misrepresented. There are sexist jokes that just won’t stop.”
Wanting to end our conversation on a positive note, Armeena spoke of support from her fans – millions of them on social media – that kept her going, as well as the few mentors from within the fraternity that made it possible for her to keep coming back.
“Everything that I do is done to ensure that I produce the best results within the realm of my roles,” she concluded. “I want to execute my roles in the best possible way; one day I want to make my fans proud on an international stage.”
- This interview was first published in Instep on Sunday, January 21, 2018