Down the Mystic River

In terms of initiation, the eighties rules. Despite the garish technicolour, the empire sleeves, the culottes and the pantaloons, the decade had a regal bearing, one that crashed in with force and would leave its mark for years to come. With this tsunamic wave swept in the making of an industry in Pakistan and when the tide retreated, it left behind the ultimate diva: ATIYA KHAN. As a model Atiya allowed a free imaginative interaction with the clothes she wore. She was versatile, unorthodox and unpredictable, retiring at an unforgivably young age of 21 to explore more stimulating pastures. As an ad-film maker, Atiya was a disciple, learning on the job, allowing her creative prowess to unleash a freedom, which had been stifled in the world of modeling. But it wasn’t long before film-making too reached a point of saturation and she abandoned the career without a second thought, substituting it with the more challenging role of motherhood. Atiya’s recent comeback as a model, member of the fashion fraternity and as a research analyst on Sufism proves that time has lent her a diversity without diminishing her panache.more

With this re-entry she proves that it is possible for intelligence and a fashionable chic to co-exist. From modeling to film making, from advertisements to telefilms and from pursuing a full-time career to the whole nine-yards of motherhood, Atiya has traveled through a full circle of life. Still, there are miles to go…

When you stepped into the industry as a model in the eighties, did you believe things would evolve as they have today?

In some ways the industry has evolved more rapidly than I thought it would. It has grown tremendously in terms of fashion publications and the number of people who have started modeling. There were just a handful of people back then: designers, photographers, publications… you could count them on your fingers quite literally. And it was primarily all about Karachi back then but Lahore too is huge now. Still not much coming out of Islamabad yet, though. And with the expansion and conception of annual awards like Lux Style Awards and Capri face of the Year, fashion has become quite mainstream and professional.

And modeling?

Well yes. Girls then did it as more of a hobby. There was no way you could have lived off a modeling career. Now it’s become lucrative enough for girls to take it up as a long-term career. Expansion and professionalism, yes. But can you say the same about quality, comparing it tot he work done in the eighties? Well look at anywhere in the world and you have pioneers, leaders, trend setters. The rest are followers and we’re still a mushrooming industry. We have not reached perfection but it’s still good to see a lot of interest in this field. I mean we have fashion schools now. People like Frieha are training models. I believe Sania Saeed is starting a talent agency.

It’s easy to identify the stepping-stones, but what do you feel are the potholes.

Obviously there is room for improvement and one problem we face is lack of teachers. I mean where would you find people qualifies enough to teach these subjects. In the eighties there were a few teachers but they were more qualifies. But what’s encouraging now is the enthusiasm. Then our market is too diverse and the buying power for designer clothing is very limited. It does not have mass-market appeal. People are still conservative. So I feel the success or failure of fashion here depends a lot upon market dynamics. But I do feel we have proved that a few of our designer like Rizwan Beyg. Faiza Samee and Shamaeel have made a mark, especially when they go abroad. Inherently, there’s a slight stigma that goes with certain professions in this country. We still haven’t managed to break away from the ‘doctor, lawyers’ approach. In terms of government support and funding the industry isn’t taken seriously enough. So the potential isn’t being reached. But Insha’allah things will wake up.

How do you think that’ll happen?

The market will dictate this change. There has to be enough demand. One understands that that the government has other huge issues to look into but again the private sector isn’t really helping either. We live in a culture of followers. Nobody’s going to take the plunge but when it clicks with one person, the whole world will want to get into it.

Television channels are already very interested in associating themselves to fashion. Don’t you think their involvement is more tacky than constructive?

What do you do when suddenly you have 28 new channels coming up and your ad power really hasn’t grown? Suddenly you need 24 hours of programming on each channel. Consequently the quality of what you show has to go down. Budgets are low and so there are no quality productions. Producers sit there wondering what to do. As a result anything with mediocrity is taken up, fashion being no exception.

As a model you retired at the age of twenty-one, just when your modeling career was hitting the limelight. Why?

Well modeling in Pakistan is not a huge achievement. Anyone with half a face and figure can get up and do it. Things got pretty monotonous for me and I didn’t feel challenged anymore. But I’m very happy with the legacy I’ve behind. My name is still mentioned with fondness.

Do you ever regret the decision?

Not at all. I’m very happy with the decision I made and feel that one of the reasons why people still appreciate me is that as a model I didn’t get stale. I didn’t model for that long, hardly did many runways. People didn’t get sick of me.

Talking about staleness and over exposure, how would you evaluate the current scenario where our top models like Vinnie and Iraj have been bearing the torch for what seems like eternity?

I really think they’re still very good. Modeling is not about a pretty face but about variety. You have to look different in every shoot-a quality which very few models here have. In Pakistan it’s all about pretty-pretty, and glamour. Perhaps it has to do with lack of exposure and training and a lack of understanding what is required. I’m on the board of Governors for the Lux Style Awards (LSA) and when we get models’ portfolios we try to explain that it’s not about presenting a pretty picture but about diversity.

Your comeback into the fashion industry was marked by your association with Lux…. Do you think you’ve been effective enough in influencing an improvement?

If you’ve noticed, every year the LSA is different. The suggestions and criticisms that follow the show are always taken into consideration. The problem in our society is that people love to criticize. Everyone’s a drawing room critic and no one’s willing to go out there and do something.

A lot of the senior designers don’t even bother to participate in protest to what they regard as unfair policy-making. Don’t you see yourself running out of nominees very soon and how does LSA plan to rectify this problem?

Unfortunately, as in the rest of the world, there are a lot of egos involved here. When you’ve reached a certain level in life, you don’t want to risk losing. So I feel that something like Lux is maybe primarily about promoting new talent. However, having said that, now that LSA is getting more international exposure, perhaps the more established lot will reconsider. It’s no longer about promoting yourself but promoting Pakistan. It’s about creating a platform that hasn’t existed before.

If it were so much about promoting Pakistan, then why was Indian talent involved in this year’s ceremony? Didn’t that just prove our incompetence to handle things?

First of all, what talent was brought in? The choreographers and dancers. You have to admit we don’t have the best of those in Pakistan. And the show was taken abroad for purely technical reasons. Asim’s show, the previous year was great but there were technical problems. Dubai simply gave better facilities.

As Governor, what difficulties do you face on the board?

We have to judge on portfolios, which becomes a bit of a problem but then there is no other way to feasibly judge work. Since judge comes from all over the country, they’re not all equally aware of the work being done around them. We have to find a very efficient way of being fair to everyone, keeping it cost-efficient too. To get the board together is another problem. We meet only once or twice a year which isn’t enough. I wish there were a way around that because the process needs more brainstorming. But I realize it’s a big expense.

Maheen Khan and Abbass Sarfraz’s resignation from the board caused quite a stir. Did they actually resign or was their contract simply not renewed?

There is no question of renewal. Governors are there to serve for 3 years only, after which they will be rotated. But Maheen and Abbass Sarfaraz each had a year to go. They resigned because they felt that a) their option wasn’t valued enough and b) meeting once a year wasn’t achieving anything. Hameed Haroon and Mian Yusouf Salahudding have served a full term so replacing them, a few new governors will be inducted. The selection is in process.

(Atiya got bored with her career as a model much too soon and substituted it with her interest for filmmaking. She began assisting Zeeshan Hassan, a private film maker at SASA, and spent a couple of years in copywriting and audio-visual direction. This exposure, she says, gave her good learning ground after which she continued working as an independent and soon successful ad-film maker. The advertisement she made for Rafhan Jelly won her an award, recognition and soon she realized she had had enough, opting to risk her expertise on television. She directed and produced ‘Raqeeb’ the first TV film to be made for TV and once again, her magic struck gold. ‘Raqeeb’ got raving reviews and is still remembered as the debut of experimentation).

How do you remember the experience?

Great. A lot of recognition and appreciation came with it. ‘Raqeeb’ was Tehseen Hassan’s debut on TV. It was Faisal Rahman’s first performance on TV. Omar Shiekh was a newcomer too. It was my first directorial/produced project, done on a shoe string project. But I’m so proud of it. It was so different from the regular TV drama-it was dynamic.

Just when your fans were anxiously waiting for more, you took off on a family oriented sabbatical, recently returning and picking off where you had left. Coming back must have been hard after being out of the picture for so long?

Well yes, but it has been more disappointing than difficult. When I left things were better, the budgets were higher than today. As a film maker, when you want to come up with something good, it’s not feasible.

What motivated you to model in the Mobilink campaign?

Well I decided that modeling was becoming a bit of a block for me. I thought about it and wanted to challenge myself. You see I had become averse to being in front of the camera, wanting to break away from the model/glam girl image. It’s something I’ve been stuck with despite having modeled for only a few years. I’ve done so much since then but that’s still how I’m remembered.

But your interest has changed as well. Tell us how?

Over the past few years I have developed an interest in religion and Sufism. So when I started working again I was commissioned by Indus to do a documentary on the annual Urs at Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalander. I went there and it was an eye opener. 1.5 million people at one place made for some very very powerful stuff. I came back and edited the film but things did not make sense. I wanted it to say more. So I researched, found the meaning of Qalander, learnt so much. This was such a radical part of Islam. I was exposed to a whole new universe. I’ve been shooting for 3 years, have rolls and rolls of footage, 15 versions of the script and feel its still evolving. Insha’allah it‘ll be complete by the end of the year.

Sufism is seeped in to our music, dance and culture. What concepts are you working around in the documentary?

It’ll follow what I’ve discovered in the last few years: primarily the universality of all religions. The same message came at different times. I’ve just tried to explain it all.

It is a rather sharp deviation from fashion, glamor and showbiz. How did you make the transition?

It was very easy for me to let go. I had done it all, was commercially wanted as a film maker and director, but wanted to let it go. I found a certain magic in ordinary life, a certain supremacy. I’ve surrendered to that. I grew, evolved and distanced myself from the media. I’ve done it over and over again so was no problem. Other things have come into my life. It has become a journey in which I’m seeking, searching for answers.

Leave a Comment