Thanks to the recent channel boom many talented youngsters have had a chance to prove their mettle and make a name for themselves. But, perhaps few have made as great an impression in such a short span of time as has Zhalay Sarhadi for she is not only gifted and attractive, she is intelligent and has her head firmly planted on her shoulders. One feels that hers is going to be a name to look out for both in front and behind the camera. Mag4you.com has a chat with this sprightly youngster in order to get to know her better.
The daughter of Bilal Sarhadi and niece of famous television actor Khayyam Sarhadi, it was inevitable that Zhalay start with TV. After her start with the screen she took a transition to ramp and print. Zhalay's height is an advantage for her to be on the ramp and she has a full figure to support her tall structure. A classic Pakistani beauty, she has already endorsed many products. Tapal's new face, Zhalay is a dream come true for designers who love the presence she has on the ramp. This presence has been put down for posterity in Ali Zafar's 'Rangeen' video, where Zhalay grooved on stage with the pop sensation carrying off a big nose ring with elan
Your name is extremely unusual. What does it mean?
It means prosperity in Persian, warrior princess in Arabic and morning dew in Uzbek!
How did you make your debut in the world of showbiz?
I used to act in plays at school and college level, so Sajid Hassan, who is a family friend of ours and knew of my interest, got me a small role in a sit-com, ‘Punterz’. After that I performed in ‘Maya’, which was followed by a string of hosting assignments. My big break came in the shape of ARY’s Gold Quiz, a programme which I co-hosted live with veteran film actor Nadeem, everyday for two months. My next big break was hosting ‘Shaadi Online’ on GEO TV.
How is it that you landed up hosting shows instead of acting, which is something you have always enjoyed?
Actually, I did all these assignments over a span of four years, during which period I was studying at the University of Karachi and couldn’t spare the time for acting. Compering is less time consuming, so was easier to handle. But, now I have graduated and have moved away from hosting shows to acting. The only programme that I am still compering is ‘Gaye gi dunya geet meray’.
Are you enjoying doing the show?
Yes, I find it more interesting than ordinary compering because I get to sing. I come from a family which has been into music for a long time, so it’s great incentive for me. Also, it’s fun working with an Indian team.
How is it different from working with a Pakistani team?
The circumstances are different. There is limited time in which we have to do the shows with our Indian counterparts and they are a lot more organized. Everyone knows exactly what they have to do and no one meddles in the other’s affairs. They are very efficient and work like cogs in a machine. Also, their concepts are very clear. Pakistanis on the other hand, tend to be very slack. But, the strange part is that when we work with them, we become more professional. It’s like we are just waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling. Most of the time, we are not willing to take the initiative ourselves. Even in the local productions, I’ve noticed that my colleagues are initially always unpunctual, but when they realize that I am invariably on time then they begin to adhere to timings.
What was your major at University?
I was in the virgin batch of the recently introduced department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi and did Fine Arts from there. I majored in painting and drawing but was keener to do film-making which was my minor. I hope one day to be behind the camera.
Have you enjoyed your stint at modeling?
I only started modelling in February this year when I appeared on the ramp for a show choreographed by Imran Qureshi. But I don’t enjoy modelling and compering as much as I do acting, because I feel they tend to be restricting. Their only advantages are that they are over with quickly and pay well.
How was your experience acting in soaps?
As far as my experience of ‘Love Marriage’ goes, it was great. Rana Rizwan is a good director, and Imran who is a friend, was acting with me, so the team was good and it was an enjoyable experience. My role in ‘Jo bath ghar mein hai’ was quite small, so I didn’t feel the strain too much, but ‘Kanch’ will be my true test, as I am in a large number of episodes and that can be a bit unnerving. It begins to take over your personality after a while.
Soaps are still a relatively new phenomenon for local channels. Do you think we are equipped to handle them?
Ours is not such a soap society, and the culture still has to develop. We have too few actors and directors and there is a lack of consistency. A lot of channels have come up but the creative talent has not increased proportionately. So, unless our base broadens and we get a fresh breed of people, I feel we can’t afford to produce too many soaps.
But don’t you think our actor base has considerably increased over the years, what with so many models now taking to acting?
I think it is ridiculous that models are becoming actors. Just because producers now want to show glamour and pretty faces in their serials, they are willing to recruit models, whether they can act or not. It is a shame there is no institute to teach pretty faces to act and the not-so-pretty actors to groom themselves.
But there is the ‘Adam’s Academy of Digital and Media Arts’. Why aren’t newcomers encouraged to avail of the facilities offered there?
It will take time for the institute to establish itself. But there is one consolation. Art institutes have taken off and they are very much in link with the media and the performing arts, and are teaching concepts that come in handy to those entering the world of showbiz.
Have you ever toyed with the idea of working in films?
No, I’m not interested in films. They envelope you completely and kill your privacy, so that you die out as a person. TV, on the other hand, still allows you some privacy. And, anyway, I wouldn’t do a film for any of the current film directors. If the likes of Jami or Saqib Malik were to make a film, then I’d think of acting in it.
What if you were offered a role in an Indian movie?
Indians are constantly on the lookout for Pakistani stars, but I am not interested in acting in Indian movies. Their films are very sex-oriented, and I am not in favour of exposing flesh and becoming a sex symbol.
You’ve been in the television industry for four years now. Did you notice any changes in this time?
Yes, certainly. With so many channels coming up, there are far more people involved in the industry in one way or the other – whether as sound engineers, cameramen, music directors, or what have you – so more respect is being shown it. Also, within the industry there is more professionalism now, and the people involved don’t treat their work as a mere pastime, but as a profession.
Her new look has not gone by unnoticed, as she now appears in all the top fashion magazine. “Let’s face it: modelling brings in a lot of money in a really short time. I’m only doing it for the money and exposure. I haven’t taken it seriously at all and I don’t love it.” As to how she has managed to make her place in this field with such a brazen attitude, she says: “I got into modelling when ZQ, who is a very good friend of mine, introduced me to a couple of people.” She is looking for a break with major designers and photographers. “I don’t want to associate myself with one group,” she hints at Lahore’s on-off politics. And despite her relationship with the fashion industry, she loves the ramp: “It’s quick and it’s fun. All you need to do is show an attitude.”
As far as the media is concerned, she has her ambitions crystal clear: “I definitely want to make a profession out of acting. It is my passion, besides singing. I have done many drama serials and two of them are still on air.” She sees herself as a “paid internee learning the do’s and don’ts of the field.” She is presently working for four soaps with more in the pipeline.
Her association with the media is certainly no coincidence. The late Zia Sarhadi was her grandfather and Khayyam Sarhadi, her uncle. However, despite being that pedigree, she says she has no obligations or pressures. “We are not very close to the part of my family who are associated with the media and my parents have always been very supportive of whatever I do. They want me to be successful in the career of my choice.”
She sketches out her point of view: “Around the world, acting is taught academically, and things that are taught later become careers. People here need to start taking acting professionally. In Pakistan, people don’t take you seriously when you tell them you’re an actor. It shouldn’t be like that”, she says.
Her abrupt exit from the much-acclaimed Shaadi Online has been subject to a great deal of controversy and she talks of her experience: “Shaadi Online was very interesting because I met a lot of people. But later on, it turned commercial and then it shifted to Lahore. I had no intentions of going there because I had my thesis going on, so I was planning to leave it anyway. Then one day, they called me up to tell me I was not a part of it anymore.”
She terms her Dubai experience one-of-a-kind. “Working with Anu was a little difficult, but then again, being Zia Sarhadi’s grand-daughter and made a big difference as he is a big name in India”, she says. Her personal interest in music and films has also helped her a great deal. “Anu was happy with me and I developed a good relationship with him, despite subtle tantrums.”
What exactly does she plan to do with her future? “I will carry on with acting and I hope I get telefilms. I have already worked with all my favourite people including Marina Khan, Sahira Kazmi, Rubina Ashraf and Sania Saeed.” Among her projects with these veterans, she names Dhool, Kaisay Kahoon, Kaanch and Jo Baat Ghar Mein Hai. She is particularly excited about one of the serials in the pipeline, Noor Mehal, where her character follows the lines of Madhuri’s in Devdas.
But as far as films are concerned, she would rather do art films with serious-minded directors than commercial films where the girl is a sex symbol. “Eventually, I want to go into direction and production,” Zhalay says, adding that while she has been getting offers for films in India, she has refused them so far. “I want to establish myself firmly in Pakistan and only then think about working in India. When our stars go there, they are ridiculed because they are not well groomed and trained as actors. I don’t want to work for any mediocre projects. I want to be taken seriously, and for that, I want to polish myself as an actor first.”
And as for a career in singing, she says: “Presently, I have too many commitments with other projects so singing has taken a back seat. When some day I do take it up, I’ll get proper training. I like our local semi-classical music a great deal and would like to work in that area.”
Television viewers have been seeing a great deal of Zhalay on ARY, Geo, PTV, Aaj and Hum TV, and when asked to comment on it, she is childishly happy about it. “It’s hilarious. I’m simply everywhere,” she says with a mischevious grin.
With a spark in her eyes, Zhalay talks about her metamorphosis. “It’s hilarious. If you had seen me six years ago, you wouldn’t have recognized me. I was overweight, nerdy, depressed and living in Lahore, a place I hated. All I did there was stuff myself with food all day long.” So what led to her remarkable transformation? “Unbelievably, I got a modeling assignment, and even though I didn’t take it up, it got me thinking. When I came to Karachi, I started working on myself and in three months I had toned myself down.”
Zhalay, today, exudes something much more than glamour. Does it mean she has had a makeover? She brushes away the notion. “Not at all. I just carry myself in a certain way and I’ve gotten conscious of my appearance even more. It’s not a facade; I have moulded this change to my personality and I’m very comfortable with it.”