Bright lights – hot, harsh, merciless – bear down on him from all corners, blinding him as he stands solitary on centre stage. The audio mic is acting up – there is a strange, persistent, gnawing buzz in his ear, which he fixedly ignores as the teleprompter jumps to life, signalling that it is time to get the show on the road. Even his visual aid doesn’t come handy on this particular Sunday afternoon – it isn’t in sync with the pace of his delivery. But he keeps the show going, going, improvising where he needs to, until he misses a beat and finally slips up. The audience hisses, rather audibly, in mock disappointment – it’s part of a running joke, I later learn – as the director yells “Cut!” But Mohib Mirza is a man, unfazed. This is just take one of a gruelling 26-hour shoot.
Mohib was never one to be daunted by the opinions of others; a rebellious streak shone in him from the very start. Maybe that’s why he inexplicably wore a baseball cap indoors, when we meet two weeks later at his Defence bungalow. His graphic tee, a sombre grey, features Popeye, that spinach-downing childhood hero of many a boy growing up, suggesting that this actor-host hyphenate may have played a grieving father in Lamha (2013), a bright-eyed aspiring politician in Josh (2013), and a gambler extraordinaire in the recently premiered Kanebaaz (2013), but he is still a child at heart – untainted by the politicking and commercialism that characterizes showbiz today and going after his heart’s desires with the wilful tenacity of a youngster who’s all id. He stands tall at 6’2”, but he had peaked at that height when he was a basketball champ of a mere 13 years. Mohib is still very much the child he used to be.
A flagrant rule-breaker at school, he was the bad boy who’d disrupt classes – misdemeanours that have come back to haunt him in a karmic twist of fate, as he faces an audience of a hundred hecklers week after week on the stage of Pakistan Idol. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t the studious sort, questioning the point of it all – “Where will I apply these laws of physics? What’s this thick book of statistics good for?” he would muse – and that trait of questioning, of never taking anything at face value, of making one’s own judgement calls, of being one’s own person, that all-important spark of ingenuity that makes an artist an artist, is alive and pulsing in Mohib.
Mohib’s grown with the industry, it seems. Back in the heydays of the PTV when he was just starting out, things were more home-grown and Mohib self-started his entry in the field after co-founding a theatre troupe, which he simply dubbed Dramaybaaz (Storytellers), to make a quick buck to pay for a college semester. Of course a play had to be written first, and this insouciant boy of 20 wasn’t going to put up ‘a social play’ as was the popular norm, oh no. After asking around, he realized nobody had ever staged an airplane ride before, so he went and did just that, titling his first work One-way Ticket, a prescient choice of title for a man whose future was being made and would never look back.
Fashioning a cheap set from used car seats, Mohib wrote a nonsense comedy about a hijacked PIA flight with gags like people knocking at the door of an airborne plane before coming in – a novel story that garnered a word-of-mouth frenzy that pulled people in long after the seats were taken out of the venue. Many dinners at Lal Qila ensued, “and the money just wouldn’t end,” shares Mohib, smiling as he recounts his first taste of success. More acting gigs followed, and Mohib made the move to television, learning to tone down his exaggerated movements for the stage for the more nuanced performance required by the intimate TV screen.
Still, he was the same Mohib as before, flippant to a fault, and marvellously enough, that’s always worked in his favour. Among his greatest claims to fame is his TV role as the irreverent Ishrat Baji in the sitcom of the same name, described as a Pakistani Johnny Bravo, “a loser of the highest order who just wouldn’t accept that about himself”, a role that was a 100 percent nonsense improvisation, and is also one of his favourite projects to date.
Much earlier, one of his big breaks came when his co-star Nida recommended that he try out for a part in her mother Sahira Kazmi’s play called Zebunissa. Mohib sauntered into the PTV studio for his audition, but was soon scared out of his wits. Huge blowups of the portraits of television bigwigs loomed over him as he walked down the corridor dotted with doors bearing all the big names in the biz to Kazmi’s office. As soon as the door swung upon and he caught a glimpse of the sheer talent in the room – Sania Saeed, Sajida Syed, Adnan Siddiqui, among others – he wanted to bolt. But bolt he did not; instead, when he was handed a script for a standard read-off-the-paper audition, he, ignorant of the industry norms, went on to memorize all three pages and act it out, gestures and all and improvising props from his surroundings. Kazmi gave his performance table-thumping approval, and he got the part.
Years down the line, when a makeup artist suggested he try his hand at video jockeying, he walked into the Indus Music office without an appointment, asking to see the main guy in charge. Of course, he was turned away, saying that the said main guy wasn’t in the office, when the churlish Mohib said “Okay then, just tell Mr. So and So that I have a few lacs of his with me and I’m going to walk out with them.” A puzzled and definitely intrigued Mr. So and So magically appeared in the office, inquiring about the promised millions. And Mohib said, “I’ll give you your millions, you give me a chance.” An on-the-spot audition later, which went on from the standard five minutes to a show-length half-hour, because it was just that entertaining, he had a show of his own. Connections and training can take only take you so far, asserted Mohib pragmatically during the interview. And Mohib is living proof of the fact that that it takes a combination of natural talent, heartfelt passion and sheer gumption to make it in this cutthroat business.
Of course one can’t have it all their way, reveals Mohib. When he started being cast in romantic roles, he was faced with a real problem. This was years before he would meet the lovely Aaminah Sheikh whom he would marry in 2005, so he had no firsthand experience of what it is like to woo a lady, and to feel love for someone for that matter. And he grew up watching all kinds of films, except exactly what he calls ‘white background films’ – “films with a cute boy and a cute girl against a white background on the DVD cover, films ranging from Pretty Woman to There’s Something About Mary,” he explained. It took considerable time for him to warm up to the idea of watching “those kind of” films. Mohib may be a stickler for his principles, but he’d come halfway when he felt the need.
More films he’d steer clear from were those starring Amitabh Bachchan – a shocking admission for an actor in this part of the world. The reason for his distaste? Simply because people used to liken him to Big B when he was growing up as a gangly teenager with earthy-toned skin and those intense dark eyes.
Films hold a special place in the heart of this man-boy, who’d watch between one to three films before going to bed every night. Enamoured of the fantastical element in films, Mohib believes there’s a magic and potency in a one-time story that television can’t produce with its segmented storylines. Mohib waits for the day that films really take off in Pakistan, and believes that men should be at the centre of them. “In Pakistani television, it’s the men who need empowerment. TV is flooded with ‘Mein Paglee’, ‘Mein Deewani’, ‘Mein Jhooti’ – where are the men’s stories?” he asks, expressing a turnabout way of looking at the surfeit of ‘the suffering woman’ on television.
Mohib has played the suffering man in Ward Number 7 – a telefilm about three psychopaths in a mental asylum, another one of his favourite projects. “I can never forget the process of becoming that character,” he shares, “I kept my nails long and dirty for months at a stretch, and even walked barefoot in a hospital full of TB patients. It was the one that looked most cinematic, but probably was the most dangerous. I even climbed up the Saudi Embassy traffic signal for the film, that’s another stunt I can’t forget.”
Fast forward some eight odd years and it’s the age of the corporatization of the media – and here is Mohib as the face of Pakistan Idol, the biggest show to hit the airwaves in the country, as he matches the industry’s every move, beat by beat, putting his own spin on a role that could be very cookie-cutter. It’s not easy to fight commerce, but you have a good shot at it when you have the support of the viewers. Continuing on from his school days, he’s still Mr. Popular with that undeniable mass appeal that his humble, people’s person demeanour creates for him.
Why, everyone wants a piece of him! In his breaks between takes, it’s difficult to catch him alone, as inundated as he is with the adulation of fans, more mothers of contestants than contestants themselves. Asking for two minutes to speak to this scribe, he is met with the cheery reply, “No no, take four!” They speak to him like they’ve known him all their lives.
And that’s the magic of this Mohib Mirza. He’s a star who shines on ground level, mingling and mixing with the crowd, like a true son of the soil.