Mahira Khan, Bilal Ashraf, Azaan Sami Khan and director Mohammed Ehteshamuddin will be arriving soon. The vestibule, where you are greeted with monochromatic photographs on each wall, is eye-catching. The real sludge of interviews will begin once the team arrives. Till then a pool table, in the middle of the room, is a good location to observe the anticipation artists create. And this is the millennial age where DSLRs and mics and other technical gadgetry is waiting for the actors and they arrive just a little past the designated time.
Bilal Ashraf, looking casual in denim, arrives followed by Mahira Khan, looking ethereal in a white ensemble, with all eyes on her. Everybody wants to get in and talk to the star. Introductions follow re-introductions; audio bites follow video bites and soon enough she is bombarded with all sorts of questions.
From a shout-out to a newspaper to wishing Eid to viewers for a channel, tanking it and getting it bang on in her third try to answering questions about her ‘firsts’ to talking to a radio station that was possibly Chinese (?) to a gazillion queries, Mahira Khan handles it like a professional.
Watching this side of Mahira Khan is a sweet surprise to me. A great deal of actors can feel annoyed by promotional spells and at minimum, would be cranky. Mahira is joking and laughing. She has put other people at ease with her non-star persona.
By the time it’s my turn, Mahira Khan is in the zone. We sit down to talk Superstar, the upcoming Mahira Khan-Bilal Ashraf film, whether there is such a thing as a casting couch and more. All of this, I know, is time-limited. Many others are waiting beyond the drawing room doors where we are sitting, face to face.
The colours of her heart
My first memory of Mahira Khan, I tell her, comes from 2007 when she was a VJ. “Yes, absolutely,” she says. From being a VJ to taking a supporting role in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol to a TV drama called Humsafar that propelled both Mahira and her co-star Fawad Khan in the stratosphere of stardom, she has risen through the ranks through hard work. She’s heard this before, she nods, before I ask her what it feels like now; how grueling does she find this part of the process? She laughs a little.
“I don’t find it grueling at all,” Mahira answers, to my surprise. “I’m used to it; I actually find it fun and interesting. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are times when I’m like I’m done. Like I think after Superstar I plan to cut off completely, social media definitely. I’ll use it for promotion or whatever but other than that, I’m done. I want to be in the bubble I’ve always lived in; I want to go back into that bubble.”
“And I think that’s my saving grace,” she continues. “That is why when I come out like this, it’s fine for me because actually I don’t go back to this. I don’t go back to industry friends; I’m not judging them but that’s not my life outside of here. So, when I come here, it’s just 3 or 4 hours of my time. I think it would really take a lot out of me if it was also my personal life. And that’s how I think I’ve remained sane,” Mahira says, as she relaxes a little into this conversation.
You’re not a workaholic then? “I am a workaholic but you know I did take a break. Can I tell you something? I have done the least amount of work than my contemporaries, my peers but I can’t put my finger on it. Why is it that it looks like I’ve done a lot,” Mahira says. “I haven’t. I took a break right after Raees and Verna released. I had done 7 Din Mohabbat In. I took a whole year off but obviously there were all these things in the pipeline so even now I’ll take off but Maula Jatt is coming out; it becomes a lot,” she admits, before stating, “But yes, I do want to step back.”
Part of it has to do with her having done Superstar. “You’re chasing a feeling as an artist when you haven’t felt that feeling and that’s what I’d been doing.”
Is Superstar fulfilling the artist in you then?
“Yes,” says Mahira without a second’s hesitation.
I ask her about the perception, within industry insiders, that Mahira Khan is the most approachable actor in the industry – TV or film -– and she’s the girl-next-door but she can’t act. How does that make her feel?
Mahira laughs a little, at first.
“I’m in my thirties now and I’ll tell you something; I truly believe I’m a little bit more sure of myself now. I’m more comfortable in my body and whoever I am. I’ve been doing this for a decade now and when I first did Humsafar and Shehr-e-Zaat, my favourite performance of Mahira, what did everybody say?
‘Oh wow, an actor has arrived. Oh she’s such a good actor’ and I was like, ‘okay’. Bin Roye happened. ‘Bin Roye was bad but Mahira was good’ and then what is it that happened that a narrative changed. ‘She’s pretty but she’s not the best actor’. What is this? I still don’t know what happened,” Mahira answers. “Now again, the people who got upset with me getting an award, again it is the same people who ask me to do a film every year. And see, I know that so I’m like ‘really?’ Look at what everybody is saying and I don’t know who they are and what this is,” says Mahira emphatically. “It’s confusing to me. So, what are you trying to tell me, ‘I’m a star but I’m not an actor?’
People love me but they don’t like my acting. So what do they love me for?”
The atmosphere has changed. Mahira has lost the laughter and a sense of anger is palpable. “It’s confusing. I’m bad with business and numbers but obviously I read stuff when people tag me. I would love to be a part of those big, blockbuster films but I have never been in male-led films. And that’s not a choice that ‘oh I don’t want to be in a male-led film’. No, I would love to but it didn’t interest me to be a part of those films.”
She carries on: “I wanted to be a part of Verna or Superstar. So this perception is confusing to me and recently – referring to the Firdous Jamal episode – I called Sarmad (Sultan Khoosat). He’s the only one I call; otherwise nobody from the industry so I’m surprised everybody came out in support and said what they did because I hadn’t spoken to any of them, not even Asim (Raza).”
That said, Mahira Khan maintains she will always respect her seniors.
Mahira recounts how she told Sarmad that she was losing faith in herself and he told her otherwise. She admits that it does shake your faith. “Sometimes I think to myself that what are you guys trying to do – shake me, what have I done? Nothing. I have done my work, maybe it’s luck but nothing else. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘say whatever you want’.”
Why Superstar? It has already been compared to Abhimaan, Aashiqui 2 and A Star is Born and isn’t even out yet.
“I’m at a point where I get to read the best of the best (scripts) but I’m a sucker for emotions, things that other people don’t want. I’m just that person. Azaan was a 19 or 20-year-old boy when he told me the story and I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ For four years I have waited for this film.”
“I have said no to such big films because of this,” she goes on, “and it’s not just that; I’m proud to say that I have held his (Azaan Sami Khan, screenplay and music director for Superstar) hand and taken him everywhere, be it to Asim or someone else. When I heard Parwaaz Hai Junoon – he sends me these songs before anyone else – I was like “man” and he was like if you hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have done it. Why? Because I gave this boy my word; I gave this film my word.”
Superstar is something Mahira Khan cannot articulate fully. She tries to but struggles. “It’s worrying sometimes when someone asks what if this film doesn’t do well… and the world will rejoice, because she failed,” she laughs and yet that hint of anger, you can still hear it. She doesn’t hide it, nor is she ambivalent as she remarks, “But can I tell you something? I’d rather fail at things I want to do than doing things that other people want me to do. There is more success in it as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’ve become angry,” she says so herself. “I don’t know any of these people personally, I don’t party with them, I’m not bum-chums with them but the fact that everybody came out in support of me says a lot.”
Love will come Through
Mahira thinks, she admits, like a producer, director and the audience because she loves filmmaking. Direction is something she’d be good at and would like to try her hand on, one day.
“I have never felt typecast,” when asked about characters she has played, “Every single time I have chosen a character which is different from another. Verna is the polar opposite of 7 Din Mohabbat In. I would request people to look at what other people are doing and see how it’s different. No, it comes down to me. I believe sometimes this persona that people have created – and I’m grateful to them – becomes bigger than what you are doing. And that is where my job becomes harder.
In Superstar, I’m playing a struggling actor and my biggest problem was how do I make sure my audience believes this girl is a struggling actor and that guy is the superstar?”
Discussing the trailer, where the first half is about this girl who says we’re from lower class families, which keeps us from rising, whereas in the second half, it changes tone and you’re left wondering if she has succumbed to the inner workings of an industry to rise?
“A lot of people thought we should not have put that part in the trailer,” Mahira reflects in hindsight. “I disagree. We’re making films. We can’t take lines and treat them out of context. So, if in context I tell you: it’s we’re actors from small homes so we only get work by sleeping with someone.”
Is there a casting couch in the industry?
“Yes, there’s a casting couch in the industry; I have never been through it but again, I don’t think I would have gone through it. Are their girls who have gone through it? Yes. I thought it didn’t exist. But, I met this girl in a toilet at an airport and I was chilling with her (in the bathroom) and I don’t name people because it is her story. She asked me, ‘Is it true? Do I have to do this? I said absolutely f*****g not. No, you don’t.’ But what does a person do when they are in such a vulnerable position and want to make it big but maybe they don’t have enough money or they just don’t know anybody. What does one do? And that’s why we need to create these work spaces – rock solid – where you can’t do anything because it is not just women; men go through it on a daily basis.”
Mahira, connecting it to Superstar notes, “In this film, my character basically tells this man that it’s because of people like you and how you treat us that there is this perception that because I’m from a lower middle class family, I have slept my way to the top. I like that line a lot.”
But the film is not about the industry although that is something Mahira Khan would love to attempt – another time. This film, she notes, “is a love story, they are artistes, they meet and it’s like being on two parallels. In essence, it is a love story. Have we touched upon subjects that have a lot to do with being artists? Yes. But I don’t expect the audience to understand that we are artists, we are magicians and we are entertainers.”