Coming from the 80s you would not be able to recognize the Reema of 2017. She’s come a very long way from the swashbuckling, gyrating Punjabi film heroine that she grew up as. The Reema I met two days after the Lux Style Awards in Karachi was a completely different person, someone with a swan’s persona, who spoke gently in perfect articulation and whose slightly tilted, dimpled smile did not falter for even a second.
I caught her the day she was flying out to Lahore. We were to meet at the PC at midday and precisely at 12pm she texted me her room number, inviting me to come upstairs. There she was, the perfectly groomed diva of yesteryear, dressed in a simple Khaadi lawn outfit. She wore her nails short and a sweet shade pink to match her outfit, accessorized by her wedding ring and diamond solitaires in her ears. The hair and makeup was just as well maintained. Once a star always a star, I thought to myself. And as if on cue, knowing she had my attention, Reema started talking about her hiatus even before I could ask her my first question.
“People kept asking me why I had disappeared for five years, after getting married,” she began. “I tell them that for five years I was living in a family that had no connection to the showbiz world. It’s not easy to win the trust of people who have no connection with showbiz. Firstly, you have to make your place, then you have to understand them and make them understand you. So it took me five years to gain the trust of my in-laws. They also gave me the confidence that I can do whatever I want; there are no restrictions because now they know me well.”
“When I came to Karachi this time, Sheroo (Hassan Sheheryar Yasin) and Unilever contacted me and I couldn’t say no to HSY,” she continued. “We are old friends and he’s an extraordinary person. He’s a designer, anchor, a good friend. I just couldn’t say no to him.”
Reema made it clear that her performance had to be graceful; she couldn’t do the thumkas she once mastered on the silver screen. So she worked with Nigar (choreographer) and rehearsed for merely three days before delivering that perfect sequence at the show.
“People have really praised me in all the articles I’ve read so far,” she said, visibly relieved. “I sent my husband the video and links to the articles. He replied, saying ‘I know that my Ree is different and I’m so proud of you.’ His approval was the biggest award for me. And I’m also very grateful to all the journalists who wrote so beautifully and appreciated my efforts because of which I got so much encouragement from my family.”
What would have happened had the reviews had been negative?
“Then things would have been very difficult for me,” she replied with the honesty of a woman trying to maintain the balance between personal life and the heart and soul of her existence. “Maybe it would have been the last performance of my life.”
So what had Reema been up to for the last five years? Her marriage came as a surprise to many industry insiders and no one could have imagined she would give up her career at a time when it was going so well.
“If you look at the history of showbiz, you’ll find very few stars who get married outside the industry and are given so much respect,” she explained. “People outside showbiz very silently get married to actresses and you’ll see that years will go by and you will never see those actresses again. Because either they go as second wives, or in secret marriages. My experience was completely different. It was an arranged marriage. Secondly, I married a man who wasn’t married before and had no children. I married at the peak of my career. To take such a decision was not easy but it was the best decision.”
“In America I was offered a series from America Abroad Media, called Reema Ka Amreeka,” she continued. “It was the first year of my marriage and I convinced my husband that it’s a huge opportunity and I’ll get to see and learn a lot. It required a lot of travel. He allowed me.
“I am saddened by what happened with Fawad and Mahira,” she continued. “But you should prepare yourself when going to India that you will be asked to leave any day. There are good and bad people everywhere. There are some welcoming people and there are such conservative people who will never endorse any Pakistani cricketer/ singer/ actor. You see, Nestle signed Sania Mirza in Pakistan. Name one Pakistani who India has signed for their endorsements.”
“I got a chance to attend Republican and Democratic conventions; I met President Obama. I got the chance to interview senators and congressman like Dan Burton. I interviewed Sherry Rehman and Hussain Haqqani and got a chance to hear their point of view on our foreign policies. It was a very mixed sort of a program, which went on air in several countries.”
Reema’s Amreeka went down well and in 2014 the AMA gave her an award. She made a speech in front of a huge audience, including dignitaries from the Pentagon, she shared. This was an award that even Aamir Khan had received.
“That was a good start for me,” Reema reminisced. “I came to Pakistan then and did two very small modeling assignments; they were lawn ads. And then very silently, I went back without making any public appearances. During this time, I got TV and film offers but I kept apologizing and turning them down. In 2014, I got pregnant. I was excited to be a mother. I was enjoying life as a wife and a daughter in law but when I became a mother, that was an out of this world feeling that I cannot describe. I had a healthy son and my life started revolving around him.
“When my son turned two, I celebrated his first birthday in Pakistan,” she narrated. “I met Shaan, Gulam Mohiuddin, Zeba, Babra jee, Anjuman jee. They all said the same thing; they told me to get back to work. I told them that my son was too young.”
How difficult was it for Reema to give up a life of financial independence and stardom? To give up her identity and to patiently live your life to win her husband and in laws over must have required a lot of patience.
“I’m extremely passionate about everything I do but I don’t use my patience easily,” she acknowledged. “When I got married, I had a 3 crore contract with Geo News; they had signed exclusively with me. I was going to get 15 to 18 lakhs every month. For two years, this was going to be my fixed income. I had a very strong association with Unilever; I had done the most number of Lux commercials. During my time, since 1992 till 2013, I was the ambassador for Lux. It was an exclusive contract for their regional campaign. In 1997, there was an ad in which Juhi Chawla and Raveena Tandon were there from India and Meera jee and I were from Pakistan.”
What was it like meeting Meera after so long? Meera made a very bold, gold and glamorous appearance at the Lux Style Awards and she was seen chatting with Reema.
“I’ve met her on and off,” Reema laughed. “She always finds me somehow. Somebody asked me to describe her and I said she is an innocent girl. Unko maafi hai. There are some people who know how to be in showbiz, how to stay relevant and how to stay in the news and Meera jee knows how to do that. I never get angry at anything she says. There were instances when she would say things about me but I would never respond because I like everything about her.”
Reema was part of Lollywood at its peak and then there was a gap where we saw nothing. Now the industry is reviving again. How did she feel about the new films? Had she watched any and what was her expert opinion?
“Some people go abroad and get degrees in films,” she replied, “but experience teaches you something which degrees do not. From the age of 15 till now, I’ve learnt so much because I’ve worked with the top directors and I’ve learnt that the most important thing is screenplay. Nowadays, you see a lack of screenplay in films. The big screen needs depth and a tempo. Nowadays the scenes in our films just go on and on and on. That’s the tempo of television, not film. But something is better than nothing. There was a time when nothing was happening and now we have something so we should appreciate it. It’s a very healthy thing. You should give positive criticism so that people can work on their mistakes.
“When people talk about the old days, purana sau din naya nau din,” she continued. “That’s why those films used to stay in theatres for two years and nowadays films only last for two weeks. It is a great thing that films are being made but I would like to say that when TV people make films, they should seek help from the film people and try to benefit from their expertise. They might not speak English like them but they have experience and knowledge. They know what the demand of the big screen is. 99 per cent of old school directors can’t speak fluent English but they have the sense of theatre, of the 35 mm, which is why they were so successful. Directors today speak fluent English but don’t have that experience.”
Have you seen any films yet?
“I watched Asim’s film (Ho Mann Jahan) and I watched Bin Roye. They were both good but were very slow and lacked screenplay. That said, I’m glad that today a lot of people have the opportunity to make films and they’re keeping cinema alive.”
What else does the film industry need to do to improve, I asked, bringing up the growth of Bollywood.
“The Indian film industry has expanded a lot; they’re ruling the world. Raj Kapoor set the pace for them when he went to Russia and Europe and distributed their films for free and set the foundations for his film. They still give their songs and films for free so that people get a sense of their culture and lifestyle. It becomes an addiction.
“Today our population is mostly made up of the youth, this is a great thing for us,” she continued. “But I’m so sorry, does our youth know who Babra is? Who Waheed Murad is? They’ll know the name but they won’t even recognize their faces. I honestly have experienced this. Why? Why don’t our channels play old films? There is no archive or studio for our old films. No place where we’ve preserved the work of our seniors. Even today, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh, Shammi Kapoor films are being watched on Indian channels. We have nothing like that here.”
Reema was offered several opportunities to work in India but she was one of the few people who refused.
“Working in India isn’t a big deal but going to India aur apni aukaat se bahar hojana, that’s not right,” she said passionately. “When you come back to your own country and demand a ridiculous sum of money, that’s not right. The reason I never worked there is that the day the Hindu fundamentalist stands up, woh doodh se makhi ki tarha utha ke phenk dega. And that’s what happened.
Why do we allow Bollywood stars for our ads then?
“This pinches me a lot as well! We’re so patriotic but then why don’t we ever show patriotism? There should be a cohesion between our words and deeds. That’s why our country doesn’t succeed the way it should. Because we have too much corruption in ever sector. The day we fix ourselves, no power in the world can beat us.”
Was she planning to enter politics?
“No way,” she laughed. “I have gotten lots of political offers from all parties. I’ve met all the politicians but I personally have no interest.”
Which party did she feel would save Pakistan?
“No party will save Pakistanis; only the awaam can save themselves. Till we don’t respect ourselves and our country, nothing will happen. People ask me, who has the biggest hand in your success, and I said ‘Reema’. If I lose from myself, nobody in this world can make me succeed.
“I’m constantly working on myself instead of comparing my life to others,” she said. “Our culture is lost somewhere. I live in DC and I feel the community there, those Pakistanis are more patriotic and keeping our culture alive more than those living in Pakistan. We always have to speak English. Are you only considered educated if you speak English? I had to speak in English at the LSAs even though I wanted to speak in Urdu. Don’t forget your own clothes and language. Our bloggers are to be blamed as well. They’ll make fun of women who’ll wear shalwar kameez by saying ‘Oh, it looks like she’s come to a shaadi!’
“Last year I attended an awards show and my friends convinced me to wear a yellow Asim Jofa gown on the red carpet . I felt so uncomfortable. People were criticizing my clothes. I knew it because I could feel it myself. So I went backstage and changed into Sheroo’s sherwani and wore a dupatta with it. People should do what feels natural to them. In our time, everything was genuine. We had no Botox, no photoshop, no hair extensions. Today everything looks very glamourous but isn’t genuine. What they say isn’t genuine. I’m not saying that everyone is like that but the majority is.”
What is your plan to return as an actor, director, producer?
“I intend to do that but I need some time; maybe six months to a year. My son is very young right now. But when he grows up and I get the permission from my husband, then I will see. My husband is very supportive. Definitely, I would love to.”
What about Angels Within, the film she was apparently working on?
“Angels Within is a documentary film,” Reema explained. “It’s not a commercial feature film. It’s about physicians and doctors who are serving without considering races and cultures.
“My aim is to now interview international celebrities along with our own,” she concluded, with an eye on the future. “I want to be such an anchor that I’m considered amongst the ranks of Moin Akhtar or Anwar Maqsood sahab. Internationally, I want to be amongst the ranks of Oprah Winfrey. I really admire her and look up to her a lot. I want to be on that level. I’m in talks with a TV channel right now and if that works out then I’ll start from Pakistan and then my effort is to interview the Canadian Prime Mister or the likes of Michelle Obama. And they won’t just be interviews, there will be a lesson in them as well.”
Wouldn’t she be interested in interviewing Donald Trump, I asked.
“I think that’s one man who’s out of my league,” she laughed, before signing off.
This article was first published in Instep, May 7, 2017.