In the plethora of drama serials on air every year, it’s quite strenuous to get your work noticed. Sometimes the anger roars. Other times it seethes. It can be silent or eloquent, mighty or impotent, righteous or nasty. Or almost invisible. Whatever goes into a performance — talent, grit, wit, strength, inspiration, exhaustion, luck — was part of actors’ performance that was seen and appreciated by masses this year. Much great acting takes place in drama serials that actually aren’t all that good, in terms of budget I mean. Over the period of time Pakistan entertainment industry has realised that it’s not the star power that brings the good rating and fame to any serial but the substantial content and characters.
Where unconventional characters and storylines are gaining popularity for their relativeness with the audiences, there is so much feeling that needs a story right now, when all kinds of people are mad — in real life and in the movies — for all kinds of reasons. Some of those people are played by the 8 actors selected for this year’s Ruling the Television Screens piece, especially by the women. When we finished with our list, we noticed that women out numbered men. We thought about adjusting the balance but decided not to. Female anger is a potent political, social and creative force nowadays. The portrayal of a strong lead female character rather than any damsel in distress is carving out a frame for actors to showcase more of their versatility, and perhaps our critical antennas picked up on that.
Pakistan entertainment industry is well on its way and there’s quite a reason to expect progress in the years to come: Hira Mani, one of five women to make our top 8, was relatively less known just last year.
It’s time to show some love for the scads of performances that you’ll be sorry to have had missed, if you have. Here’s a selection of the very best.

Imran Ashraf in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi
Imran Ashraf really is defining acting prowess with unconventional roles in the real sense of the world. His character Bhola in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi hit home for many, and created awareness about mental health. Imran has raised awareness around disorders like ASD, ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome via Bhola.
 Normally, when Imran’s character loses it, it’s because he’s right in a world that’s wrong, and the anger is meant to identify and then destroy the injustice. Imran is at his critical best when the serial needs his face to do what a screenplay can’t. His expression — a rictus of embarrassment, confusion and guilt — belongs in a gallery. It’s a masterpiece of confusion, comedy and a social satire. 

Ahad Raza Mir in Ehd-e-Wafa and Yeh Dil Mera
Ahad is a very fine addition to the entertainment fraternity. We’ve seen him put his acting skills well to use and make audiences sway with him. If you feel like you’ve been seeing a lot of Ahad Raza Mir lately, you’re not wrong: The pro actor released his two drama serials in three months – Ehd-e-Wafa and Yeh Dil Mera. Ahad is wonderfully terrifying in Yeh Dil Mera – a boy-next-door with quite nothing to lose attitude, his unrelenting pursuit of the leading lady as the actor is slowly but surely is unravelling his character’s motivations. Ahad plays it close to the vest throughout, making his reveal and scenes all the more powerful one after another.

Sajal Aly in Alif and Yeh Dil Mera
The truth of the matter is that Sajal Aly could make the list of great performers in just about any year, for just about any role. She is always interesting, never not surprising and consistently unnerving, even if the serial falls short – and that’s a big ‘if’ because that’s a rarity. For the previous at least half a decade, except a movie she did in 2016, Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai, there’s no project of hers that have gone unnoticed by the viewers and masses at large. In 2018, her most-heralded work on television was O Rangreza where she played a blithe girl full of life. The zone where normalcy collides with extremity — where high comedy and psychological terror keep company — is her sweet spot.
What makes her work this year in Alif and Yeh Dil Mera, both on-air simultaneously, even more astonishing is that she brought that sweet spot with her, infusing those drama serials with an element of vitality they would otherwise have lacked. Both of them are hothouse blossoms, exercises in sensibility for directors with very particular agendas. Both characters are driven by the element of innocence at some point, and that’s how Sajal takes the wheel with her big shot eyes. 
Ayeza Khan in Meray Paas Tum Ho.
What to do with an actor in a type of role you dislike that’s the centrepiece of a drama you really care for. Well, if the acting works, you just ignore everything else. And Ayeza Khan’s acting in Meray Paas Tum Ho really works. You dislike the character so much that you want other characters in the serial to do well in terms of storyline. Ayeza Khan not only deserves an applause and appreciation but some awards as well for signing on to a role like Mehwish in Meray Paas Tum Ho. The actress who is usually seen either as a damsel in distress in dramas or the manipulative kind have shattered all our pre-conceived notions by playing this character. Ayeza paid meticulous attention to detail by nailing each and every expression and dialogue, making us hate Mehwish for her ruthlessness. If that’s not extraordinary then what is?

Sana Javed in Ruswai
In Ruswai, Sana plays a girl who despite being helpless does not submit to her family’s pressure and stands her ground. She is a victim of harassment who is first betrayed by her father and then her fiancé but she goes on to stand her ground. It’s the sort of bound-for-tragedy part that barely needs an actor. It practically performs itself. And yet, many actors have given it and had many a statuette thrown at them for doing so. But as the story becomes about a woman’s dignity, Javed inhabits the horror of unsought valour. She makes the physical challenges secondary to the psychological ones. Sana has found a way to play a part that can only be described as charismatically unremarkable; except she doesn’t just play it, she disappears within it. The bombing in the serial happens sooner than you want it to. The minute you see the episode of her being dragged down by a group of thugs from her father’s hand, you start wondering about what’s going to happen to her, obviously. I worried about what would happen to Sana’s acting. She works here with remarkable restraint. The character struggles with pain and unceasing pity. The actor doesn’t appear to struggle with anything. She plays the shock of attention, the suffocating embarrassment of pity, and rage at how the harassment forces Sameera to take greater responsibility for her choices.

Hira Mani in Do Bol
The shot from Do Bol that probably pops into your head first — it was in the trailers and will no doubt feature in every award reel — is of Hira Mani in close-up, shrugging off Affan Waheed at a train station, her eyes squinted with disappointment and overflowing with tears. It’s a pivotal moment, for sure, both in the plot and in Hira’s performance: the big reveal and the first big emotional payoff. But it’s also a confirmation of the importance of those eyes to the structure and meaning of the film. They are perhaps its only reliable barometers of emotion, instruments of empathy and windows on the truth. Hira Mani practices a kind of naturalistic, Karachi mode of performance in Do Bol. It’s acting that’s more like being: She makes her way through the drama serial as she might go about her actual day. But rising above it is her performance, the garrulous, whirring, sweet-and-sour energy steals all her scenes. Hira has never seemed so relaxed and radiant on-screen — she takes a nothing role and gives it flesh and blood.
Affan Waheed in Do Bol
It has been apparent for more than half a decade — let’s say since Daastan which you may have forgotten had anyone else in it — that Affan Waheed can do anything. Even as a supporting actor, he clearly possessed lead-level discipline and versatility and also the kind of relentless, fearless, unshowy honesty most often associated with great actors like Waheed Murad. In Do Bol, Waheed proves he can do anything by doing something that may sound easy: playing an ordinary Pakistani middle-class man. ‘Ordinary’ is hardly fair, though. Badar in Do Bol is typical only by virtue of the circumstances over which he has no control. Affan is in no way exceptional and in every way unique — a marvellous impossibility that has rarely been captured with such a romance.

Sanam Baloch in Khaas
Part of the force in her performance in Khaas has to do with our long relationship with this star. We don’t know Sanam Baloch, but we do know ‘Sanam Baloch.’ And here she is in a new mode: a victim of emotional abuse but she is not the damsel in distress the masses adore. She is a strong, educated woman with resources, who is willing to compromise but has enough self-esteem to resist her narcissist husband’s attempts at manipulating and belittling her. Baloch uses her stardom some — that smile of hers is forced into a rictus of iffy optimism — but it’s more restrained. She has discovered new ways of doing fear and nervous confrontations, not for acting’s sake, but to serve the mounting desperation of her character.
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