You may remember her as the very pretty Priya from Shah Sharabeel’s Bombay Dreams or those whose hearts lie in serious theatre may remember her in Javed Siddiqui’s Aapki Soniya, a sequel to the iconic Tumhari Amrita in which she appeared opposite Sajid Hasan. Mehwish Hayat may have made an impression in Manjali, a TV serial that established her as a serious actress but it was the foot-tapping ‘Billi’ in Na Maloom Afraad that planted her firmly on the silver screen, in the welcoming arms of fame. Jawani Phir Nahi Ani propelled her to stardom and with everything from theatre, television, music and film under her belt she has become the most bankable starlet in Pakistan’s entertainment industry today. Smart, sexy and undeniably talented, who is the real Mehwish Hayat, I wondered as I set out to meet her for the first time.
We first met on the set of a Sana Safinaz shoot (see Style pages 34-37) where Mehwish had effortlessly stepped into the avatar of fashion model. She looked stunning as the make up transformed her generously wide smile into a sultry pout. Her eyes, twinkling with laughter as she spoke, took on an intensely brooding gaze as she looked into the camera and posed. Our meeting was brief, as not to disturb the shoot underway, and we scheduled a date to meet at her new home in Karachi the next day.
A nine-inch big, tiny mouse of a dog is hardly what I expect as I walk into her guarded gate in DHA, but the welcome is both warm and noisy as Mehwish’s overprotective Chihuahua yelps with the delusion of believing he’s a German Shepherd. He is quickly shooed away as a smartly dressed Mehwish in denim and boots rushes out with that warm smile that is now part of her persona. She carries that smile with restless energy that can only be characteristic of youth. She is 25, she clarifies, and not 32 as Wikipedia has been misquoting. We settle down, closing all doors to the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling household, and dive straight into the hottest topic of the moment. Is she content with title of item girl?
“Honestly speaking, the artist within me wants to do a serious role,” Mehwish is quick to respond. “I literally crave for it, which is why I’m working in a drama right now, after two years. But I really do believe that what people need right now is entertainment. There is more than enough depression on television and I believe that films should be not be depressing because people already see so much misery on news and TV shows. People go to the cinema to seek entertainment, they want to relax and have a good time and forget their worries for those good two to three hours. I wouldn’t pay for a ticket to come out crying.”
Entertainment is one thing but objectification of women is another. As a woman how doyou respond to being objectified as a Billi or Marina, I ask?
“Why must a beautiful woman only be viewed as an object of pleasure?” she offers a quick reply. “Why can’t we be seen and appreciated as normal human beings? Women are beautiful and should feel blessed but it is our society and men who reduce them to items. It is an actor’s job is to perform, no matter what the role and I’ve done nothing wrong. As beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, so does lechery. I love dancing,” she continues, “but I turn to TV when the actor inside me craves solid work.”
She’ll be back on television in 2016, she reveals, and you can sense the excitement and anticipation in her eyes. She has been cast opposite Humayun Saeed in Dillagi and without revealing too much she lets on that her role will be a serious one, with none of the second-wife-saas-bahu tedium that has become customary in every second play. In this serial she plays a strong and fearless girl, one who isn’t afraid to take on challenges head on. Much like the real her.
“The artist inside me was dying,” she says. “I was craving a solid role and when this came along I was delighted. My fans have been writing to me, asking me to comeback on television and now that I had time between films, I decided to take up a TV project.” She adds that the next movie she has signed up for goes on floors next summer and by that time Dillagi will be on air.
Ironically, while it is the two films – casting her as nothing more than eye candy – that have propelled her to stardom, it is indeed television that has established her as an artiste. People may have watched and loved her as Billi in Na MaloomAfraad or Marina in JPNA but it was three of her plays, telecast in India,which piqued peoples’ interest across the border. Kabhi Kabhi, Meray Katil Meray Dildar and Mirat-ul-Uroos were aired to amazing feedback. She got calls from various producers who loved her work and she was supposed to go to Mumbai in November but could not because of political circumstances. There are no regrets, she dismisses.
“There was a time when movies weren’t being made in Pakistan,” she says, “and artistes needed to go to India for work. But that has changed now that we are making great movies. Ten released this year. Next year there will be thirty. Now I would only agree to go to India if the role were strong enough.” She has heard rumours of Shoaib Mansoor casting Kareena Kapoor in his next film and she solemnly reflects that she would be very disappointed if it turned out to be true.
Meanwhile, Mehwish has been practicing her dance steps and vocal chords for her first popular track, which should be releasing anytime soon. She did sing the title track for Manjali three years ago but this is her first pop single that will release with a video. ‘Karachi, Bang Bang’ is an ode to the city. And the racy track does remind one of Priyanka Chopra’s ‘In My City’, people are sure to notice.
“No one can say that I’m copying her,” she insists passionately. “I started way before her. I sang for serials and for television three years ago. People who have known me will confirm that I have been singing before her.”
But Mehwish’s career is reflective of the Indian superstar who has gone to become a global sensation. There’s an ambitious urge to do it all, rise above everyone else and be everywhere.
“I am committed to my work, I am married to work,” she states, dispelling all rumours or curiosity regarding her relationship status, which is restricted to her family, two dogs and two birds. “My work is not a 9 to 5 job. I’m trying to adjust in my roles; it takes a lot of time and effort to be a hardcore artist and is not an easy job. I feel work is my first priority and falling in love is not on the cards. Plus, I feel self love is the best love. I probably sound very selfish and self-centred but honestly, my life has a lot of ups and downs and I don’t think I can afford to be in a relationship right now. My life is very stressful already; when I get done from work after 12 hours, I am exhausted. A relationship would drive me crazy.”
“Plus, I am happy being with myself,” she continues, unknowingly offering herself as an example for young girls who are made to feel incomplete without a man in their lives. “I like to go out alone. I travel a lot and hang out with friends… that’s a break I take twice a year. I enjoy that freedom. If love is meant to be then I will eventually fall in love. But there’s no time for it now.”
Mehwish is still on the path of self-discovery, throwing herself into what her current role requires. A dance means endless hours at the gym. A performance means research and devotion to get under the skin of her character. She’s ambitious and wants to do it all; she wants to excel at it all.
“I have just started recognizing how powerful a woman can be,” she smiles conclusively. “I am still trying to discover myself.”
And time alone will tell where this journey of self-discovery takes her in life.
– Photo credit: Akif Ilyas
On working with
Hamza Ali Abbasi
Hamza Ali Abbasi is the biggest anti-item number campaigner. How was it working with him in JPNA?
“Hamza is a friend; Humayun Saeed, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Ahmed Ali Butt and Vasay Chaudhry are literally jokers and will make you laugh all the time. The Hamza I know is a fun-loving guy so I don’t know what happens to him when he logs onto Facebook. A lot of people come up to me and ask me about him; I always tell them that I really don’t know that side of him because when we meet on sets we all have a great time as friends and have a good laugh together.”
On being objectified
After ‘Billi,’ what was the worst reaction you got that absolutely broke your heart?
“The worst reaction was actually before the release of the film, when people all over the internet starting condemning me for that three second teaser that we had put up. They were harsh and abusive. I kept wondering whether I had done something wrong but I had faith in Fizza and Nabeel and they made sure I looked graceful and sexy, not vulgar. I couldn’t find anything wrong in the song but the reaction was so explosive that I thought to myself, ‘this is going to be my first and last item song’.”
On cosmetic surgery
One can’t help noticing your physical transformation in the past five years. Have you been under the knife?
“I honestly haven’t. I just grew up, lost the baby fat and started gaining muscle. My mother is an actress and I look a lot like her. I started out very young; Faisal (Qureshi) and Fahad Mustafa will vouch for that and a girl changes when she goes from 16 to 21. I feel there’s nothing wrong with plastic surgery if you need it, but I don’t. I do confess to getting fillers in my lips, though. The last ones were administered three years ago and were quite painful. They were permanent fillers and still haven’t worn off.”