Admittedly, it isn’t easy catching a hold of Urwa Hocane — even the spot boys on the set of her shoot have no inkling where she might be. I stifle an exasperated sigh as I watch them bustling from room to room in search of their big star, thoroughly worried that she might have bailed before completing her shoots for the day. I cannot help but feel for them for I know just how elusive Urwa can be. It has been a long couple of days trying to fit a meeting into her busy calendar and by the time she is finally available, my pre-meditated composure has been exhausted. I have her pegged down as just another rising diva in disguise, flying high upon the wings of a few television serials and a one-off film debut, made successful by her popular co-stars. Who else would dilly-dally over an interview so much, postponing it five times to accommodate her broken sleeping pattern?
I am, therefore, a tad perplexed when the pseudo-starlet I imagined walks in and embraces me as though I were a long-lost friend she had been hoping to see. It is the middle of a scorching Ramazan day and the room we stand in is rife with energy with spot boys carrying cameras, wires and props around. There is a lady wiping the floor to our right, sending off dust particles our way but Urwa seems unperturbed. Perhaps she is used to life on set, which is why she barely bats an eye as she asks me how I am and proceeds to apologise for her tardiness. “I am so very sorry to have cancelled our meeting at the last minute, yesterday,” she says with a surprising but genuinely apologetic note in her voice. “Honestly, I had had no sleep for two whole days, thanks to Karachi’s power crisis. Even my generator crashed. I hope you understand.” And as much as I want to reply with an abrupt “no, I cannot”, the truth is, I do understand.
Taking it from the top
Urwa suddenly becomes more approachable when she casually plops down on the sofa besides me, rolling her luscious brown locks into a messy bun. Dressed in a pastel, lightweight kurta, she appears to be the quintessential girl next door. Although she has apparently been shooting all morning, there is barely a trace of makeup on her face and the only things that could lend credence to her star status are her porcelain complexion and butterfly-wing eyelashes. Curled up on the sofa, Urwa begins to narrate the story of her life and career in a soft-spoken, lethargic manner.
“My father is an ex-army officer and we moved around a lot but most of my childhood memories are from Islamabad,” she says, reminiscing about the ‘adventurous’ times in her hometown. “However, despite the exposure, I was always a very shy child. Even at parties, I would stay reserved and stand in a corner, away from all the other children.” It was not until the ninth grade that Urwa started to come into her own socially. “I recall a friend of mine convinced me to audition for a play that was being staged in Islamabad — that was probably my first interaction with acting. I failed to get a part but the director saw potential in me and I was enlisted amongst the backstage crew.”
The next couple of years saw the young Urwa gradually forging an acting career, one play at a time. The more experience she garnered, the more she wanted to pursue it. “I had always wanted to be independent and knew I had the talent to pull through,” says Urwa, whose big break lay just round the corner of her seventh theatre play. “It was there that an official from a talent competition called VJ Hunt first spotted me and asked me to travel to Karachi to participate in it. Eventually, I won the title and at just 17, signed my first official contract!” Laughing, Urwa adds that the contract was signed upon her mother’s ID card as she wasn’t 18 then. “And still, I moved to Karachi, all alone, with no family or friends to help me settle down. It was extremely daunting and made me truly appreciate my parents’ hard work in paying bills, cleaning and putting food for us on the table.”
Dropping the diva attitude
There is something oddly satisfying about Urwa’s confessions. She now comes across as a regular person, especially when she mentions an incident wherein she almost resigned from her job as a VJ because she felt so homesick. “If it weren’t for my boss calming me down back then, I would’ve been out of there and on the next flight home.” But she persevered, and soon her efforts were noticed and rewarded in the form of acting offers from production houses across the country. “As I was still very young, my parents were initially apprehensive of me taking up acting so I rejected quite a few offers for a while,” shares Urwa. “Eventually, by the sixth or seventh script, I managed to show them that I could manage and accepted the role of Zuni in a serial entitled Country Love.”
Ever since, there has been no looking back. Urwa has, by now, lent her acting chops to over eight drama serials, from Yeh Shaadi Nahin Ho Sakti and Meri Ladli to Madiha Maliha and her personal favourite, Marasim. She is a self-confessed sucker for meaningful, Urdu writing and claims to have rejected many great scripts for their lack of good dialogue. “Have you ever heard Amitabh Bachchan speak Hindi on Kaun Banega Crorepati?” she asks, catching me off guard. “He speaks such deep, khaalis Hindi and it is amazing! It’s so unfortunate that no one really talks in Urdu like that anymore. I really wish we would!” But wouldn’t better storylines be more important than dialogue? “Even I am sick of the hackneyed saas-bahu dramas that we keep seeing in Pakistan,” she agrees. “It’s high time our industry moves away from them and produces good love stories or comedies. Everyone enjoys those.”
Perhaps it was her desire for something new and special that lead Urwa to act in Na Maloom Afraad, but one thing is for sure: she doesn’t regret it. The film, in which she starred opposite seasoned personalities like Javed Sheikh and Fahad Mustafa, opened in the fall last year and went on to receive rave reviews from critics and viewers worldwide. “When you are involved in some form of art, you want to grow in it and learn as much as you can,” explains Urwa of her experience of playing Naina, the female lead in the movie. “It was an honour to work on such a great project at just 22! I was super-nervous and would re-read the script every day for six months prior to shooting but it turned out to be great.”
Indeed, great it was, considering how the unprecedented success of the comedy propelled Urwa’s career to a whole new level and listed her amongst the most sought-after fresh talent in Pakistan. “I will forever be grateful to Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza — the director and producer, respectively — for taking the risk and believing I could deliver. The project turned out to be a turning point of my career.” According to Urwa, playing Naina also helped undo the typecast of a negative female character which she had developed on account of her previous roles. “You see, most actors emote from a grey area, regardless of the type of role they are playing,” she explains with a hint of self-deprecation. “I, on the other hand, tend to be very black or white and get carried away in my portrayal of antagonist roles. I realised I was being associated with negative characters and had to work very hard to break free from the mould.”
Negativity no more
What has truly struck me about Urwa is that unlike many of her colleagues, she is very open to change and growth. In fact, she finds change to be ‘important for everyone and everything’ and has a secure game-plan to lead the change. “I rely on intuition and accept what feels good,” she says defiantly. “As long as there is a positive vibe and good story, I am willing to go to Bollywood, Hollywood or anywhere else. My sister Mawra is currently shooting three films in India and besides, I think it promotes a healthy image of our country.” So was a negative vibe the reason behind Urwa’s decision to forgo starring opposite Bollywood heartthrob Emraan Hashmi? Urwa laughs. “That was a simple case of inflexible dates. Like I said, I support the international exchange of art and artists wholeheartedly, whether it’s me going to Bollywood or Turkish dramas taking over the local TV industry,” she says.
With this positive outlook, Urwa is fast becoming the face of change in the current crop of actors in Pakistan. In fact, she seems somewhat disappointed when I ask her to describe the current condition of the industry, claiming it to be ‘too shallow’. “There have indeed been some vast improvements but the scripts are still, mostly, below par and the writers very average,” she laments. “We aren’t big enough yet for our artists to take long breaks between projects and swoop in with comebacks later on. We have to keep ourselves relevant but unfortunately, a lot of the projects just aren’t worthwhile.”
Interestingly, Urwa’s refreshing take on the world isn’t restricted to just her work. Her modern approach is reflected in how she chooses to handle her personal life as well, especially when it comes to her relationship with singer-turned-actor Farhan Saeed. “In Pakistan, dating is considered wrong but I believe that if two people like each other and are willing to own one another, there is no need to conceal anything,” she confesses, with a twinkle in her eyes. “Farhan is in the same industry so he understands and supports my career needs. Marriage is definitely on the cards for us someday but the timing remains undecided as we are both so busy all the time.”
For now, Urwa is packed and ready to travel to Australia for a fun-packed family reunion over Eid. “My family celebrates Eid in a typical fashion, complete with rasmalai, bangles, eidi and big, khandaani dinners. Mawra and I even have a childhood tradition of applying mehndi on each other every chaand raat. For me, that is the only definition of Eid: family.” After this hocane you not love her?
Rapid fire with Urwa Hocane
1. Describe the Pakistani showbiz industry in one word?
2. Your ideal honeymoon destination would be…?
Too long a list because I love to travel!
3. An idea that changed your life?
Live to love and love to live.
4. If you could send a message to Farhan right now, you would tell him that…?
I would tell him that he is quite a blessing in my life.
5. One thing Urwa has that no one else does?
I am very courageous — more so than most other people.
6. What do you have to say about Meera?
7. Your acting inspirations include…?
I love Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet, Kareena Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut.
8. Favourite movie…?
Too many to name!
9. Bollywood or Hollywood?
10. Item numbers — yes or no?
Maybe someday, who knows…?
11. A typical Urwa food plate includes…?
I can’t live without daal chaawal!
12. Hypocritical humility or truthful arrogance?
If a doctor calls himself a doctor, a celebrity should call himself a celebrity. Truthful arrogance is less hypocritical so I would go for that.
13. If you could relive any one day of your life, it would be...?
I would probably want to relive one of my school days, I think. I really miss them.
14. What’s your secret fitness/beauty regime?
It may sound clichéd but I drink a great deal of water. I think that is what works for me.
15. The last thing you do before going to bed is?
I can’t sleep without reading something, even if it is just two pages.
16. Your competitor in the film industry?
I don’t see anyone as my competitor.
17. Celebrity crush?
18.Most awkward fan encounter?
Just recently, an elderly lady came to see me and grabbed me from behind. She told me she was a fan and kissed my neck! That was kind of scary…
Amna Hashmi is a sub editor at The Express Tribune’s magazine desk.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 19th, 2015.