UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH SHAHANA KHAN KHALIL

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USMAN AHMED CHATS WITH THE MULTI TALENTED ACTRESS AND DIRECTOR SHAHANA KHAN ABOUT HER LOVE FOR STORYTELLING, LIVING IN NEW YORK AND WES ANDERSON

 

When did you decide that a career in the Arts was for you?
I’ve always known this was where I was headed -from the very first role I played, Merlin, in a community play back when I was a child in the United States, and then again when I was sixteen with Dracula. From then on, I think I’ve just been continuously at it, and in more ways than I originally expected.

What made you decide to study filmmaking in Cape Town?
While acting was the original magnet, I began thinking in visuals when I started understanding the cinematic art of storytelling. I had originally intended on studying at the New York Film Academy in NYC, but when my student visa to the States was rejected, I decided to live out an experience in a place you wouldn’t normally expect. The time I spent in Cape Town not only opened my mind through academics, but more importantly in ways that has made me more appreciative and sensitive to global trends, cultures, people and inevitably stories. The decision to move there was on a whim, but I think I may have left my heart in Cape Town.

What do you love about acting?
When I was younger, I think it was all about the rush of being so free, doing and saying things I normally wouldn’t in real life. Now, however, especially after my training, I find that I’m obsessed with the idea of re-experiencing life on stage. You can actually create reality in the present moment based off of psychophysical stimuli. When you really get into it, it’s a fascinating art.

Tell us about your course at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, and about living in New York as a Pakistani artist.
Strasberg was the dream of the sixteen year old me, which became a reality a decade later. The course is probably one of the best things to have happened to me to date and it’s a relationship I would like to commit to for life. New York City consists of the world in terms of nationalities and ethnicities. Most people did not think I was Pakistani to begin with, and were often surprised by how ‘great’ my English was, but overall the people I came to know are all awesome. I had the pleasure of working on lots of productions with people from across the globe; they’re very open and curious about Pakistan and I think I’ve motivated a few to visit.

In your opinion, how important is studying theater? Can you get by on just natural born talent?
That’s a constant debate. The general belief is you either have talent or you don’t. I don’t really agree with that, but I also don’t believe that you have to go to school to become talented or to create art. There are so many actors, filmmakers, musicians, and artists that have had no formal education, and to claim that without an education they aren’t real artists is plain stupid. At the end of the day it comes down to the individual and what path you choose. For me, I wanted an education. I wanted to immerse myself into an experience both with film and acting school. School puts you in a place where you’re around like minded people who are just as passionate as you are, but it gives you the space to also make mistakes.

You were in a leading role for an Indie film, Slackistan. Tell us more about that experience.
Slackistan was a real turning point in my life. Along with the role I played, it taught me a lot about Indie filmmaking, and it all happened before the recent wave of film revival in Pakistan. We were doing the whole thing guerilla style without much of a budget, and Hammad really pulled through. While being banned in Pakistan due to censor board objections, the film went to a number of international festivals and I was even invited to attend the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which exposed me to how things work on a global level. I’ll forever be thankful to Hammad for the entire opportunity, as the whole thing eventually sparked my interest in filmmaking.

Why did you jump from acting to directing? What do you enjoy the most about filmmaking?
You may not remember a lot of things but you’ll always remember a movie that truly moved you. Most people ask me to pick between the two, and I always answer with ‘Why is it so hard to believe that you can do both?’ I’m taking things easy and letting things happen. When you love something you commit to it for life and I’d like to keep doing this even when I’m covered in wrinkles.

If you could act in or direct any three movies, what would they be?
All I want in life really is to be in a Wes Anderson film; or have his brain; or both. I also really like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s style, so I’d jump to do something along those lines. So off the top of my head, The Grand Budapest Hotel, August: Osage County (so brutal, so good) and The Lord of the Rings because I’m a sucker for fantasy.

What other projects are you currently working on?
There are lots of prospects at the moment, so I will have to see how they flourish. I am working on producing a show, writing a script for a friend’s film, developing some of my own scripts, shooting some more Indie shorts, and hopefully getting some cool low-key theatre stuff going. I guess you’ll know when I know.

What advice do you have for upcoming artists?
You’re in it to learn, so be open to that and to others. Never let your ego be bigger than your art. Do what you need to, to create your art authentically and never lose sight of the bigger picture.

You also worked on Season 6 of Coke Studio, how was that experience and what was working with Rohail Hyatt like?
I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of a globally renowned production and to collaborate on its first International venture. The team I worked with consisted of some of the most talented people I know, and I learnt so much during my time working on that season. It was such a whirlwind – traveling across the globe, setting up productions in 7 countries, working with teams and musicians all over, making friends and eventually becoming a family – sometimes I wonder how we pulled it off. Working with Rohail was such a privilege and I am forever thankful for his faith in me.

You are also a part of the Kuch Khaas family. How was your experience working with them?
Kuch Khaas happened to me at a time when I had no intention to ‘work’ ever again in my life – in the conventional sense anyway. I think that’s probably why fate brought Poppy to me. She is the owner, pioneer and dreamer behind Kuch Khaas and my mentor, friend and my family. While she no longer walks this earth, I refuse to refer to her in the past tense. Kuch Khaas gave me the opportunity to learn what it truly meant to take on responsibility and I took to the concept like a moth to a flame. It was infectious and exhilarating if not altogether overwhelming. It is with great pride that I can say that much of the original dream that Poppy and I shared has now manifested with an entire city to stand as witness. I feel like I get to see a part of myself in every bit of Kuch Khaas and I hope that the same happens to everyone that comes into contact with it. In this way, Poppy’s dream lives on.

LIFESTYLE

Fav. vacation spot: Cappadocia, Turkey
Perfume you wear: Hugo Boss Nuit
What makes you impatient?: Indecisiveness
Addicted to: Traveling. Can’t say no.
If you could change one thing about yourself, it would be: Being too hard on myself.
Secret talent: I can talk like the Chipmunks
You like your coffee with: Cinnamon, please.
Brain or brawn: Brain. Go figure.
Love or money: Money’s great but pretty lonely without some good ole lovin’.

FASHION

You hate it when you see people wearing: Those horrid jeans from the 90’s.
Your closet is a shrine to: The color black.
Favorite designer(s): Dior, Zara, Mango and this really cool Turk brand called Yargici.
Oldest item in your closet?: My Lynard Skynard t-shirt.
Necessary extravagance: Sunglasses, unique long necklaces with single pendants and boots.

AT HOME

Fav. piece of furniture in your home: My old makeshift blue briefcase bedside table. My grandfather made the briefcase himself.
Most typically Pakistani thing about you: My obsession with food.
What makes you laugh uncontrollably?: Those videos of kids falling in silly accidents. I’m horrible, I know.
When are you happiest? When I’m creating stuff and traveling. Put the two together and you’ve got a happy kid.

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