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A star is born: Introducing Sanam Saeed
Whether it's sizzling on the runaway or performing on stage, Sanam Saeed is fast becoming a force to reckon with! She made her TV debut at 17, but recently shot to fame with her amazing performance as Roxie Hart in the successful musical Chicago.
In this interview with Instep, Sanam lets loose her opinions on everything from modelling and fashion to film, theatre and television.

By Saba Sartaj K


Sanam is truly a fireball of talent. She had audiences in Karachi enthralled with her performance in Chicago as never before had one seen an amateur performer act, dance and carry off the bold costumes so well! She had the accent and mannerisms spot on and her lilting voice carried the tunes through. And man oh man, did she look good!

Theatre in Pakistan has been a lot of things but sexy isn't one of them. With the vanguard on theatre focusing on serious topics and catering mostly to weighty intellectuals, there are few takers for theatre just because it isn't entertaining. There is a whole new generation growing up in Pakistan that wants to look towards the future and not dwell in the past. A generation that has a different vision of Pakistan. They may be the elite and few in number, but they are there. Wearing a cocktail dress, kicking up her heels and fluttering her eyelashes, Sanam Saeed became the torchbearer for people who think theatre can be frivolous, fun and above all GRAND!

And while Chicago may be the vehicle hat's thrus her into the spotlight, Sanam Saeed is the epitome of a perfect all rounder. She can talk the talk and definitely walk the walk, whether its modelling, stand-up comedy, acting or hosting, she knows the game and is definitely on top of it.

Her success at Chicago made it imperative for Instep to catch up with this experimental and evolving star! Having arrived at her very apartment, one instantly realizes that this is a bachelorette pad. Minimal and simple, the stark blue walls gave this otherwise old apartment a feel of new age funk. Sanam shares her space with best friend veejay Anisa Sheikh (who is as multi-faceted as Sanam but that's another story). Dressed casually in a jeans and a tee, a relaxed Sanam begins to speak fondly about the play that has put her in the spotlight.

The Chicago Countdown
"It was my dream role," she says with a twinkle in her eye, "I've been doing plays in school since I was six. I've had the pleasure of working with Saba Saeed, Rahat Kazmi, Shehryar Qureshi and KB Thespians. But Chicago was my big theatrical break," she says. "Nida is a good friend of mine. She asked me to be a part of Chicago and I was very excited and immediately said yes. I was a bit dodgy at first since Shah Sharabeel has done musicals before and some of them have been disasters. I didn't want to be a part of something sub standard and was very skeptical about someone trying to pull off something so huge. But when Nida sat me down and told me the plan and budget etc I realized she was going all out and it was going to be great!"

Though the cast did think the play was going to be great, they weren't anticipating its roaring success. "We didn't think Chicago was going to be so big and so well appreciated," says Sanam modestly. "Even towards the end Nida and I were like, 'What are we doing? This isn't good enough. What are we giving to them?'. When we found out that our first dress rehearsal was going to be on the opening night, we were petrified. There were issues with the lighting and sound and we weren't perfect. It was a miracle how people said it was fantastic. It obviously got better as the days went by. Towards the end our voices went a bit croaky because we're not professional singers. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and we got an excellent response which is why we're taking it to Lahore next."

But while Velma was the lead character in the Broadway and film versions of Chicago, at the Karachi production, it was Roxie who stole the show. According to Sanam, "It's happened in a lot of plays I've done. I did West Side Story with Shehryar Qureshi sometime back, and was supposed to be an extra. But during rehearsals, Shehryar saw I was being wasted so he killed off lines from another character and gave me more time. The play wasn't great but everyone loved my role in it. I think the same unintentionally happened with Chicago. Roxie wasn't the main character but it looked like she was. Maybe it's because I'm physically a bigger person then Nida," she says laughingly and adds, "It's kind of embarrassing."
Passionately theatrical
While Sanam dabbles in modelling and TV, theatre is where her heart lies.
"Modelling is just fast cash," she says frankly. "I don't do it because I have a love for fashion or modelling. I don't aspire to be a model. I'm very shy of the camera; I'm the fastest one to make a U-turn on the head ramp! It's just a means to make money for me as is television. It was fun when I started with Café Current because it was just Anisa and I talking nonsense. Literally rolling out of bed, running across in a rickshaw to the Indus Music office. There was no script - it was totally improvisational. But I realized that I don't want to waste my life learning horrible scripts etc., I find it quite tedious. Modelling and TV are just a means to a bigger end. I actually want to move to London in January and pursue acting and theatre, which is what I love. I've applied to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and want to do it seriously. It has been a dream school but I never had the courage to apply since they only pick 34 students a year. I finally got my act together and applied since it doesn't hurt to try," she says hopefully.
The quissential independent woman

At 24, Sanam realizes the importance of being independent and fending for oneself. Coming from an educated and supportive family, Sanam found her feet early in life when she went off to Lahore to study and was living alone with a friend. A brave move in a society where young girls living alone is unheard of. But it's this early exposure in life and independence that has perhaps made Sanam the quintessential independent woman of our time.

"Anisa and I have been supporting ourselves since our A levels, when we got our first job on TV," she says triumphantly. "We became friends at school. Then, boom we went to Indus Music, were making 30 grand a month and were just 18. It was like we hit the jackpot. Little did we know that one person's salary was being split in two. Indus Music was completely ripping us off. We were making so much money and didn't know what to do with it. It wasn't enough to get us through college and we wanted to go abroad to study. And then Beaconhouse National University opened in Lahore and we moved there. But it got boring and so we came back and headed straight to work."

Different hats: Modelling, singing, teaching
Sanam confesses that she is very shy and has to make an effort while walking down the ramp. "When I'm on the ramp, its Sanam being a model, ME wearing the clothes, ME walking down the ramp, MY expressions, but when I'm in character on stage it's not me, it's the character, so I can detach myself and don't feel shy or nervous."

Of course, fashion insiders disagree. Sanam is one of the finest amongst the newer crop of models. Her ability to glide on the catwalk in Eastern or Western coupled with her fabulous height and lithe figure ensure that she is a part of every major fashion show.

Also a background singer for the band Club Caramel, Sanam maintains that she doesn't see herself ever becoming a singer. "I love singing and my friends have tried to make me sing but I lose my voice as soon as I'm put on the spot. I did a good job in Chicago because it was Roxie singing and not me."
She was also part of Pakistan's first improvisational comedy troupe, Blackfish. "I've always been a joker, imitating the teachers at school, creating a riot.

The credit goes to my family, which is very funny. My father and his brother talk to each other in cockney accents! I was a part of Blackfish for three years. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and was my first type of commercial stage."

Another profession Sanam loves is teaching: she has also had a brief stint at teaching kids and loved it! And she does want to pursue it in the future. But the burgeoning media industry has ensured that a born performer like her isn't out of work. There is too much work and a dearth of talent, so Sanam has had the opportunity to dabble, and dabble she has!

She talks frankly about the different arenas she's worked in. "Theatre is by far the cleanest industry that I have been a part of. Fashion is really boring. It's the same walk, choreographers and designers. The clothes aren't very innovative and it's the same faces. There is no standard, you can have a 5"2 model, or a 200 pound model. Since there is a shortage of girls you have to make do with what you have. 'Dark eyes pale lips, dark eyes pale lips' - it's very monotonous.
"I've heard the fashion industry is b***hy but never experienced it. I keep to myself and I'm there for light conversation and move away when things get intense. The girls are nice and fun and there is a sisterhood of sorts when we're there. There are the odd couple that have to pass an unnecessary comment but they aren't vicious," she says.

"But in the TV industry sometimes they throw so much money at you to do an episode or a series that it feels like a crime because there are so many people starving out there. On the other hand, there are the pathetically low budgets and they make you work so hard but pay less. I haven't done much work but from what I've seen there isn't much professionalism in the industry."
Sanam would like to try her hand at films, provided a good script and team comes her way. Ramchand Pakistani, she thought, was a bit of a disappointment. "I loved the kid in Ramchand and I was so disappointed when they killed him off and brought in a new face (as an older Ramchand) without showing the child growing up," she says emotionally. "I was so attached to that child and then the other one came and I completely lost interest. It was good to see Khuda Kay Liye. I really wanted to see how good of a job Iman Ali would do but honestly, I wasn't impressed. KKL was all about taking the big names in the industry and pretty faces and that was used to sell it. The acting was nothing great."

The unconventional model
Candid and opinionated is how Sanam is and that makes her all the more refreshing. The constant spotlight has had no effect on her, but it has made her take her appearance a little more seriously.
"I've recently started bothering with my appearance 'a bit'. I always used to dress very comfortably and casually. When I'm called for a TV interview, I make a bit of an effort. I'm just so uncomfortable letting my hair lose and looking all pretty and dolled up, I've got such thick hair and it's such a pain," says an exasperated Sanam. "When I was in Lahore, I went to a fashion show rehearsal where all the girls were decked up and wearing mufflers, heels and all that jazz, and I arrived wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweat shirt since I was coming straight from college.

Frieha Altaf was handling everything and wanted me to do something for the after party. I said sure, but what about being in the show? And she said the strangest thing: 'Jaani they want the 5"8 5"9's.' I said well, I am your 5"8 5"9s and there are not many of us. She said 'No no, you know Iman and Vinnie and all.' I said okay and stood up. Iman and Vinnie were wearing heels and I was wearing flats and when I stood up I was still taller than them. So I told Frieha, tell me I'm overweight, tell me I'm ugly, tell me something, but don't tell me I'm too short. And then she sat me down and said 'Ok, it's none of that, it's because of your presentation.' Apparently some of the designers were at the rehearsal and were picking out models for the show and I wasn't presentable enough. So I said I'm not going to change that. I'm not going to make an effort to come for a rehearsal and compete with something I can't compete with. I don't wear high heels and I don't own a pair of high heels.

"I found it totally absurd because whoever is picking models has seen enough of us in the media. If you see someone looking the part on the ramp then what business is it of theirs how we look at rehearsals? Apparently we're supposed to look presentable and ravishing all the time. Girls come to rehearsals fully made up, and it's their life and career but not mine. Frieha Altaf has instilled in them that you get picked like that 'The cameras are there, FTV and Style 360 is there and when you come on TV, you can't look like that!' But I'm not going to do that anytime soon. I'm on my way out since I'm planning to move to London and pursue acting."

And that is a sad realization for all of us at home. Sanam Saeed's star is on the rise and she is making her exit far too soon. One hopes to see her return because we haven't had enough of her yet! But here's hoping she does get into RADA, make a name for herself out there and then brig some of that stardust home. What our industry lacks is magic, and it seems fitting that Sanam Saeed who has cast such a spell on us with Chicago, wants to go out into the world in search of it.