Just a girl, raised by an exceptional man

1. Tell us about yourself. Who is Mariam Saleem?

Mariam was supposed to be Omer, a boy, but much to the dismay of her three older sisters, she was in fact, not. Mariam’s father and both her grandfathers were all officers in the Air Force which meant she lived in a happy bubble a little way into her teens. Mariam was… wait, why am I writing in third person?

Being the youngest of four daughters, I was everyone’s favourite. I was loved and doted on but never spoilt, and for that I am only grateful. My best friend was my Baba, who also happened to be my Prince Charming, my french-fry-maker, my math tutor (much to his frustration), my cuddle monster, my personal library, my dance partner… I could go on, but you’ll get bored and I’ll start going into a fetal position.

You see, Baba passed away in an air crash on the 20th of February 2003. The light of our lives had left us.

I’d always wanted to make him proud. He laughed out the loudest when I put on one of my funny accents and did a little monologue for anyone who would listen. He also was one of the first to give me a standing ovation when I did my first school play. I played Benazir. For months after he would ask me, ‘Baby, woh phir sai kar kay dekhao Benazir waala’, and I’d jump right into it for him to let out the warmest, heartiest laugh I’ve ever heard. So this is why, in my darkest hour, I naturally gravitated towards the one thing I loved, and he loved watching me do – acting.

That brings me to present day Mariam who is slowly venturing into the world of television after a romance that spanned over a decade with the theatre. Oops… there I go talking in third person again!

Now to answer your question, Mariam is just a girl, raised by an exceptional man, hoping and trying with all her might to make sure he is proud of everything she does. The End.

2. Your recent rise to popularity has been through your appearance in Khuda Mera Bhi Hai. What do you feel about the role you played and the message of this drama?

I was sold on the idea of Khuda Mera Bhi Hai long before I was told what role I was going to play. I wanted to be a part of it, because the subject itself, is so taboo in our society and in such dire need to be spoken about. The third gender is viewed as this mythical beast, that will rain down the fury of God’s wrath on us, shall we dare spite it! So whenever they come knocking on our car doors, we give them whatever change we have, and then pray they’ll just go away. We are so vastly and wilfully ignorant of the fact that there is a third gender that lives amongst us, that we are completely oblivious to what the difference between words like ‘transgender’, ‘homosexual’, ‘intersex’, ‘transexuals’, ‘transvestite’, ‘eunuch’ is.

They all mean very different things, but we’ve decided to settle with two words in our country, both of which are also used as insults, ‘hijra’ and ‘khusra’. KMBH is based primarily on an intersex child and his struggles in life, but it also weaves in the lives of others from the third gender. Had we a more tolerant society, maybe through a drama like this we could have gone into a little more detail about the third gender but perhaps that’s asking for a bit too much, too fast. The fact that Pakistani audiences are watching and loving KMBH shows that we want to change and are willing to become more aware, that in itself is quite the feat.

3. Tell us your inspiration behind acting. And your plans.

I’ve been inspired by the likes of Khalida Riyasat and Nadia Jamil, both of whom so effortlessly donned such convincing characters. I’ve also just always been mesmerised by the fact that there are 7 billion people in the world, all so unique, yet quite the same. Regular, everyday people inspire me, what makes them tick, what makes them move a certain way, why they take a glance like that or rub their nose when their when they feel a certain way. Little things like that. I love the idea of new characters. It’s like wearing new clothes, except it’s an entirely new personality. I dream of a time when we start churning out content here in Pakistan that doesn’t reduce characters to 2D cardboard cutouts.

4. Your role in KMBH was that of a powerful woman with a mind of her own,but with a kind heart -contrary to what dramas usually portray. What do you feel about this? Why are dramas regressing from how they portrayed women back in the 80s?

Oh was I ever so grateful that KMBH was intrinsically feminist in its approach! That its female characters have soul, purpose and strength. I loved that Sanam was a working woman, who was divorced but unafraid to remarry and start a new life in spite of all the roadblocks in her way. I loved that Sanam and Mahi both liked giving each other tough love and didn’t abby each other through all their trials. The women in our dramas, or somehow only the ‘good’ kind always seem to be sacrificial lambs, that will give up anything to make the men in their lives happy. The very concept of a woman living for not herself but a man is glorified in our dramas. That’s absurd! This is such a deeply perverse ideal of a patriarchal society and its sad how our female audience is conditioned to just lap it up, to even enjoy that kind of misery!

 I’m so glad you brought up the 80’s, when we had the likes of Marina Khan and Shehnaz Sheikh playing strong, witty, no-bullshit characters that knew how to fight for themselves and think for themselves. Characters that weren’t afraid to do what made them happy. Why we have regressed from that time in my very humble opinion, is broadly due to the ever changing socio-political landscape of Pakistan. That and the fact that a time came when only ‘uss tarha kai log’ could do something as ‘vulgar’ as acting… haawww!

5. What are the challenges you face being in the media and now in the spotlight?

I have to try and look nice all the time so no one can say, ‘haye yeh tau asal main churail lagtee hai’. Just kidding, if you ever see me out and about there’s a 50% chance you’ll see me in my night suit!

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