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“Social media has given every idiot a voice!”

Aisha Khan on why social media critique on her fashion choices does not bother her and how weak scripts prevent the portrayal of strong female characters

“Social media has given every idiot a voice!”

instep interview

Pakistan’s drama series have been the backbone of our entertainment industry since our country managed to find its bearings post partition. After our film industry gradually lost steam, the masses turned to their television screens as their only outlet for entertainment. It is no surprise then that some of our biggest celebrities right now are not movie but rather TV stars and there’s perhaps none who is more talked about currently, for a character she is portraying, than Aisha Khan.

Taking on one of the titular characters in hit serial Mann Mayal, Khan has impressed audiences with her portrayal of Jeena and is one of the hottest commodities currently onscreen. We catch up with the in-demand star for a quick tete-a-tete.

With a career spanning over a decade, Khan has embodied many a characters in her time on screen but obviously as time has progressed, certain roles must have taken on a saturated appeal. What kind of characters does she find attractive at this stage as an actor and which ones would she like to add to her repertoire?

“To be very honest I’ve always tried to play varied characters,” she reflects. “But I’ve been limited in my ability to explore more nuanced roles because we don’t have scriptwriters or an audience that is willing to give space to a balanced narrative. For women there are only two polarizing characterizations; either she is a baychari (helpless ingénue) or she’s a totally negative character; an out and out villain.

I’ve never understood why people view personalities as either white or black; this dichotomy doesn’t exist in real life. Having said that, I have faced criticism in the past over the women I’ve played on screen, complaining about ones that are too negative or too hapless in their depiction but the fact is, there’s only so much choice we have as actors.

What I would like is obviously roles on women empowerment but our audience refuses to accept those. They only want to see the girl who bites her lip, shies away and acts all coy, like she’s never been touched or had any desires in life; and I’ve done that to death.

With Mann Mayal, people hate my character Jeena but that’s the success of the character. What is frustrating though is when people can’t seem to differentiate between my onscreen persona and who I am in real life.

But in terms of a character that I really want to play I am drawn to epic romances like Heer Ranjha or a localized version of Romeo Juliet. Maybe something like Umra-o-Jaan or better still, I wouldn’t mind playing a drug addict. Addicts again are consistently stigmatized, in reel and real life but everyone has a story. Why can’t we show their struggle instead of perpetually vilifying them?”

If there was one role that would epitomize Khan’s career, what would it be? The wily thespian claims she’s already in the process of filming one such character. “I’m doing a series that comes with a very strong social message,” she claims, adding “God has made many different kinds of people but He has also given us the capacity to understand, accept and tolerate the variety; a capacity that is beleaguered in modern times. I can’t say too much about it right now but the ethos is that we have to be more open and accepting, which is exemplified by the title: Khuda Mera Bhi Hai.”

Having discussed potential characters that Khan finds enticing, we circle back to how far the onus for pushing social boundaries and bringing taboo topics to light falls on the actor and director of a drama series. Khan claims that in our current industry actors and directors, every now and then, push the envelope a little further than before but these stories are hard to come by because of a lack of strong plotlines. Khan views the situation as a failure on the part of scriptwriters, who refuse to pen layered characters. “Our scriptwriters need to understand that even an evil character won’t be evil in entirety; there has to be some human element to them, something redeeming and relatable. The scripted character is so one dimensional that there is no room to maneuver.

I feel like our strongest suit is romances but the second you add an extra element to the romance even some of our most acclaimed writers balk at creating a more rounded characterization. We have to learn to explore the shades of grey and only then will we be able to engage the audience better. And beyond that we need young, modern writers who understand the trials and tribulations of contemporary times,” she states.

Beyond the writers though, there is a certain lens through which the audience always views their favourite actors. Each actor amasses a loyal following based not only on their onscreen persona but also on their real life avatar, which in itself can be restrictive because toeing the line means that you’re possibility affecting your fan base. Does Khan, who generally has a very conservative image and chooses to dress modestly, ever feel restricted because she can’t explore alternate options that might lead to a backlash or drop in popularity?

“It’s very difficult to have to do the same thing repeatedly because you know that’s how the audience wants to see you. It takes a very courageous actor to refuse to succumb to the pressure and take a stand for roles you believe in. As an actor you have to eventually push the boundaries for the sake of your own growth as an artist. For nearly 14 years I’ve played characters that I know people have wanted to see but it’s time now that I portray women that speak to me. I’m now at the point where I want roles I am passionate about, whether they go with my sweetheart persona or not,” Khan reveals.

However, the pigeonholing isn’t just restricted to the characters you portray onscreen. In Pakistan there’s backlash even for photos shared on social media or editorial shoots published in magazines. Female actors, more so than males, are subjected to harsh and sometimes even violent responses online.

“I feel sorry for people who lash out at me because they’re unhappy with who I am playing on screen. As far as being careful about my personal image is concerned, I can afford to play it safe because we do belong to a conservative society and people don’t really have a progressive mindset. But I find that too less restrictive than having to play it safe on screen,” she opines.

The conversation eventually turns to our film industry and its current revival. Is the direction our films are taking exciting for Khan?

“I’m very excited,” she says. “There’s a lot of passion and energy being invested into films right now which is only natural because we’re working to rebuild the industry. But you see with films there comes a great responsibility. When people criticize a drama I’m in I don’t mind; they can simply flip the channel and find a program they find more palatable. But when it comes to films, we owe it to the audience that they walk out of the theatre feeling like their time and money was well spent. So I take my film roles very seriously because people are investing resources to view it,” is Khan’s stance on the matter.

Lastly, before she has to return back on set and continue shooting, we briefly talk about the rise of a new breed of fashion police facilitated by social media and technology. “First of all, for a lot of these bloggers and self-proclaimed style critics, they don’t know me or my story. Just because I wear jeans and speak in English doesn’t take away from the fact that I am a conservative person coming from a conservative background and I’m not comfortable exposing myself on camera or in real life. If someone doesn’t think I do justice on the red carpet, I really don’t care for their opinion. These are my values and I will not compromise on them just to make it to a best dressed list.

I’ve been happy with all my red carpet looks so far and I also understand that my style puts certain constraints on designers themselves because there’s only so much variation they can inject. A repeated criticism I’ve faced has stemmed from the embellished ensembles I wear to events. Why can’t I wear embellishment? It’s what our region is famous for and just because Charlize Theron wore some plain, red gown to Oscars doesn’t mean that that’s pinnacle of style.

Plus my question is: who are these people sitting behind their computer screens passing judgment on my outfits? What are their credentials? Where have they studied style or worked in terms of fashion before stating that my aesthetics aren’t up to par? It’s a very single minded approach where we’re constantly pandering to Western ideals of what is fashionable, whether it ties in with local craft or not becomes irrelevant. I dress for myself, for my body type and honestly for me that’s what style is about.

Furthermore, I’m not here to be judged on my style; I’m an actor, judge me on my body of work rather than what I wear to some award ceremony. Social media has given a voice to every idiot – that doesn’t mean I’m going to take their words to heart and change who I am over it. For me these judgments by bloggers are trash and that’s exactly where they go,” she answers.

Despite reaching what can only be called veteran status now, Khan still appears to be an unstoppable force; opinionated with a strong sense of direction and an irreverence that is refreshing. We know Jeena will only serve to strengthen her credentials as an actor instead of marking it as her highest accolade.

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