By Sonya Rehman
Mahira Khan lights up the screen – be it on the small screen in a drama serial or on the big screen, in a feature film, she’s a complete natural, an earnest star, the eternal girl next door with an unshakable earthy vibe.
A loveable artiste who embodies each character given to her wholeheartedly, this flower child gained mass appeal after her stunning portrayal of Khirad Ehsan in Humsafar – the Pakistani drama serial which not only changed the course of Mahira’s career, but also, Pakistani television in 2011. Having starred in Bin Roye (2015) to the recent Ho Mann Jahan and her eagerly anticipated Bollywood debut alongside Shah Rukh Khan in Raees, Mahira bares her soul in a sensitive interview about dealing with loneliness amidst recognition, her career and the current state of promising Pakistani cinema.
You’ve come a long way from your VJ’ing days – you were one of the first VJs for MTV Pakistan. What has it been like these past few years, the transition from hosting to acting?
The dream was always to be in movies. The dream was to be in a movie with Shah Rukh Khan since I was a kid. I remember the first time when they put me infront of the camera, I was live, so I was just myself and that worked. I enjoyed being a VJ, but then I got bored. I used to get a lot of acting offers but I wanted to do films; dramas never appealed to me. So I just used to constantly refuse [the offers]. I eventually said yes to HUM TV for a serial, Malal, but before leaving for New York I got pregnant and couldn’t do it. Soon after, I got an offer for Bol. That’s how it really started. Even though I had a few lines in Bol, I really enjoyed it. And then Humsafar happened and there was just no looking back. After Humsafar, I did another TV serial called Shehr-e-Zaat, after which I worked on Bin Roye, which took two years to complete.
Did you ever think Humsafar would propel you into so much fame and recognition?
No, I never thought it would propel me into so much success. One doesn’t know when it happens, you know?
In an interview Alanis Morissette had once stated that when she became famous in the 90s she felt depressed and misdirected, primarily because she felt she was expected to be a certain way – she said she didn’t feel centered within. Tell me, did you experience anything like that during your career, where you felt lost and isolated once the fame reached its zenith?
Well, unlike most of the people part of Humsafar, it was my second serial; the success was overnight, and yes, because you’re not centered (that’s such a good word)…I wasn’t centered either. I’m better now, but at that time, I was like, okay, it’s doing well I guess. But slowly you begin realizing how much projection there is regarding how people want you to be, what they’d like you to be. Just the other day someone was telling me that I’m nice and meet people so well and that when one becomes arrogant, one becomes lonely. But it doesn’t matter if you’re nice or arrogant, because you’ll still wind up dealing with loneliness. And the place I’m in is a lonely place…
Do you think a lot of stars feel lonely and isolated, but choose not to talk about it?
I’m pretty sure most of them go through it, I’m sure people have different experiences, but yes most of us do go through loneliness.
Why though, how would you explain it?
I always said it’s a unique job, and every single actor in the world has had a unique journey; where they came from, how they made it. If I were to write something about myself I think what would interest people is not Humsafar, but everything other than that, things happened during that time. Things like, what was happening at home during the shoot, when I was in college, how I used to think. But coming back to the loneliness, again, because you’re in a unique position, only you know what you’re going through. The loneliness is both good and bad. I remember coming back from an awards show with three awards in my hand and realizing; you’re alone, but that’s not a bad thing. Because the flip side to the loneliness is that you have so many people around you as well.
Still, it’s very weird: it’s like, for example, you and I are the best of friends and you only know the good side of me, it’s a very lopsided relationship. Sometimes, with fans or the public, it becomes like that because they don’t know anything about you…and that’s okay.
You’ve always been a very warm and empathetic person – how come you haven’t hardened to life? How did you keep yourself so grounded?
That’s an interesting question…
…what was your anchor?
My child for sure.
So you don’t think you’ve become jaded towards life?
I have hardened. You wouldn’t believe how soft I was and how much nicer I was as a person. But I think we’re all nicer when we’re younger! Before I’d take people at face value, now when I meet people, out of say a hundred, if I’ve felt something a little off with about twenty, I tell myself to be aware of it. But how I’ve kept it intact, I don’t know…
The Pakistani entertainment industry has been through some major changes, how do you see it progressing in the next couple of years?
I said this about 2-3 years ago; I said films are going to be it! Look at our industry today, look what’s happening right now – the Pakistani film industry is in such a good place. TV too, but TV has had its peak. But we are actually coming together to lay foundations for our film industry which has been lost. Whatever we do today, will become a trend tomorrow. With our dramas, educated people came together and started writing good serials, what did they pick up? Urdu literature – Bano Qudsia, etc. You had writers like Haseena Moin and so on. That laid the foundation – so for films, we need to do exactly the same thing. We love Bollywood and Hollywood films, but what is us? When we do our cinema, let’s stick to us. I’m not against any dancing, item numbers etc, not at all, we dance so much, it’s part of our culture. Look at our mehndis! In fact, the first time I was being choreographed was for a mehndi, not a movie! [Laughs]
So what we do today, will be there forever, for generations to come. Right now, we’re in such a powerful, great place. It’s empowering.
Isn’t it surreal, that your dream to star in a Bollywood movie alongside Shah Rukh Khan came true?
Yeah. I don’t know how to talk about it actually, because I feel that there are some things that are so personal that even if I talk about it, no one will really get it. It is an out-of-body, surreal feeling…
How did you react when the production house called you up to offer you the role?
When they called me to ask if I was interested in the role, the first thing I said to them was; can I read the script? [Laughs]
The dream was to do good things, always. But, the dream was (and is) not to do just about anything, therefore the actor in me kicked in and I requested to read the script.
How did your co-workers react to the news?
I felt like it was my rukhsati (you must write this). Once, I met my make-up artist on a commercial set and he was sobbing and telling me to be happy and that he’d pray for me. Even meeting the Ho Mann Jahaan team, same thing, buckets of tears. [Laughs] But I wasn’t going to India forever; I was going to come back!
Raees will be your first Bollywood film, will you continue making movies in Pakistan?
Yes! Absolutely. Very soon I want to produce movies and later I’d like to get into direction too. I’m a Pakistani actor. Let me stress on this, I’m lucky that I got Raees, they auditioned several girls, and I was just one of them, but Pakistani cinema is what I want to do.
How did your family respond to your offer for Raees?
My family isn’t impressed by all of this – they don’t love it or hate it, they’re indifferent to it. They’re not indifferent to me, but indifferent to the frills of it. It matters to them, the work I do, it matters to my mother how well or bad I act, but the rest means nothing to them.
What’s your comfort zone, when the cameras are turned off?
A friend of mine has a really interesting take on me: he’s like, you have so many roles to play in a day – friend, mother, daughter, etc – but the only time that you’re comfortable and real is when you’re infront of the camera. He said, infront of the camera, you’re allowed to just be. I can be up for two days straight, but if you get me infront of the camera, I just enjoy it. But my comfort zone is definitely with my family and friends.
If you were to make a Pakistani production, what kind of story would you like to bring to your audience? What topic would you like to highlight?
If there’s something I’d like to show in a production for cinema, it’s tolerance. I would love that. It’s so important now, more than ever today. And cinema can do that so brilliantly.