Everyone’s interested in Reham Khan’s business, which might be why the former TV host has tread carefully these past few months. The result? Reham’s regular presence on billboards promoting her talk show Tabdeeli has been quietly replaced by her perennially active Twitter feed and stories about her personal life that graced tabloids in Britain have tapered off.
But this month Reham will find herself in the spotlight again, and for very different reasons. She’s one of the producers behind upcoming film Janaan, starring Armeena Rana Khan, Bilal Ashraf and Ali Rehman Khan, and is reinventing herself as a devoted patron of the arts.
“In the Pakistani entertainment industry it’s very, very difficult to get your foot in the door if you don’t have a network in Karachi or Lahore or in the film circle,” says Reham during our chat. “So I try to facilitate anyone under 30 if they want to improve their skills. I tend to mentor young people in the creative arts anyway, because I did that for the BBC for five years.”
In a sense, Reham’s sympathy for young talent others might deem the underdog is congruent with her recent brush with fame and the media. Both during and after her brief 2015 marriage to PTI Chairman Imran Khan, Reham was dismissed as, at best, “a weather girl,” and at worst, a threat to her spouse’s political future.
So why has she decided to plunge back into public life, that too through a medium with which she has little experience? In this candid exchange, Reham minces no words as she talks about present-day Pakistani cinema, being a role model – and love.
What prompted you to get involved with producing Janaan, a film that focuses on Pakhtun culture?
Reham Khan: Janaan is very much a romantic comedy. It’s light, fluffy and doesn’t pretend to be anything serious. It’s a contemporary film, a story from our own families, such as what happens when a modern Pakhtun wants to marry a Punjabi.
But we have addressed our genuine problems as well, such as the Punjabi-Pakhtun rift.
I’m Swati. [In film], I think we should promote communities that we know and understand and that haven’t been promoted. The Pakhtun voice has disappeared. The piecemeal offering in dramas is a stereotypical character, with the Chitrali topi atop the head, weapon in hand. I felt very strongly that this is not the Pakhtun culture I know and love.
How is Janaan different from other, recently released Pakistani films?
RK: One of the things my family found very objectionable [in recent films] – mind you, we’re from abroad – was language that was objectionable for family viewing. Two films we watched featured open swearing in Urdu and English and then innuendos, which made it very uncomfortable for us. Not just because they were sexual innuendos, in a very cheap way, but because they contained a lot of misogynistic messages.
For me, film is a responsibility. For example, if we’re teaching people that they can cheat on their wives in Bangkok... Although you might have a moral at the end of the story, you’ll have people actually pick up these messages from films.
“I’m a film buff. I don’t watch much TV, but I watch a lot of films in the cinema and it frustrated me to go and see poorly made films coming out of Pakistan.”
Apart from cliches about Pakhtun culture, what other stereotypes does the film break?
RK: Well, in Janaan the protagonists are all women. So the chunkier, meatier role is leading lady Armeena’s. She is the one who precipitates things, she is the catalyst in the film. Likewise, the dadi, the phupi, the second leading ladies in the subplot, they’re all very strong characters.
Who financed Janaan?
RK: Contrary to what has been said about the film, it was the finance that we struggled with. Investors feel film is a very risky venture, and it is, but somebody has to do it.
See, I’ve taken a major risk by giving the film my name since I have given these boys a lot of independence. It’s important that they learn from their mistakes and they learn to work independently. Finance was a big issue.
In the end we didn’t get financed from Pakistan, we got better finances from a British-Asian route, because they take risks more than Pakistanis.
Apart from finances, what was the most difficult aspect of making Janaan?
RK: We faced a lot of problems. Children here have done an MA or BA but they can’t write a decent email or CV. I used to work for news channels and they go for cheap labour – but a cameraman paid 8,000 rupees will only do 8,000 rupees worth of work. If you don’t spend on skilled labour, your own quality [of work] will suffer.
The government has to support these projects. If it supports [films] then the corporates will also support them. Initially, the government should support the industry through tax exemptions. Of course it’s a big risk but there needs to be some sort of [financial] attraction to come into this. PTV has lots of space which should be used. There is a PTV Academy, which is empty. It’s a big, huge resource which is empty.
You’re a journalist by profession, why did you decide to go into film?
RK: Personally, my daily routine is journalism.
But people don’t read books anymore, people don’t even listen to the local mullah anymore, the message that you want to convey will be conveyed through the media. And of course, the bigger the medium, the bigger the message, the more emphatic the message.
When you walk into the cinema you have to switch your phones off, you get involved with the big screen, you cry with the film, you laugh with the film. It actually drives the message home far stronger than when you quickly see it on your phone. If you look at things in international terms, a lot of the way we think is because of Hollywood, [or] because of Bollywood.
So these conversations are very important.
And I have always been fascinated by films. I’m a film buff. I don’t watch much TV, but I watch a lot of films in the cinema and I think in Pakistan there has been a lack of this, which just annoyed me. It frustrated me to go and see poorly-made films coming out of Pakistan.
"I feel love is about complete commitment, complete fidelity. It seems like in Pakistan it has become acceptable that fidelity is not expected and I don’t mean only physically. If you can’t keep someone as your confidante then what is the point of keeping them in an obviously very intimate relationship."
Is that also why your own show went off the air? Was it not able to maintain the standards that you wanted?
RK: I’ve always been very careful and with journalism it’s not a good idea to take a break. But of course, I got married [to a politician] and I couldn’t work on TV. When I restarted I really wanted to bring that change.
But now nobody watches TV like that. So the young people, or people like me who pretend to be young, watch everything online. Traditional news channels really limit me.
How have you dealt with the ugliness and the accusations that were leveled at you during your marriage and after your divorce? Do you have any advice for young women in the media who might experience the same?
RK: I do what I do because I have two children who look up to me. So if I pick up a cigarette, I’m their role model. They don’t have a father, they don’t have much of an extended-family support network, so whatever I do, they will inevitably pick it up.
The same goes for the women who are looking up to me, whether they’re my daughters or other young women who I know are seeking advice.
That’s why I came back because I thought, no, this is not on, you can’t bully a woman, it’s not a woman’s fault she’s divorced. Nine out of 10 times it’s blamed on the woman in our culture and if she’s in the media or twice-divorced, God forbid!
I say this to girls in person, I say this in interviews, and you can write this down: work hard, put your head down, stay out of [office] politics. I’m rubbish at politics. [Of course,] it’s harder for a younger girl. I come from a privileged background so I know I can sort this person out.
But this needs to change. I’ve had to tell boys working for me to keep a four-pace distance from female co-workers. If you’re in an authoritative position and a younger girl is coming to work, try to be supportive. [Our problem is] we have no support for other female colleagues, we actually back stab them.
Janaan is ultimately a film about love. Why were you so enthusiastic about this film after everything you’ve been through with your marriage? What’s your own idea of love?
RK: I’m a perfectionist. For me, love is very different from how people think about love in our day and age and particularly in Pakistani culture.
For us, love is generally superficial. You know, you see the girl, the girl’s good looking and you think ‘oh I’m in love with this girl’.
For me, it’s not that. Love, for me – and I think maybe it’s nonexistent, maybe in real life it’s nonexistent – is the Pakhtun love – without any bars, go the long haul. It’s giving your life, and sacrificing, whatever it takes. So I don’t believe in this love where people will say, ‘oh I love my husband but I have my separate life’, I don’t get that. If you want a separate life then you might as well be single, I’d be as brutal as that.
I feel like love is about complete commitment, complete fidelity. I must say, it seems like in Pakistan it has become acceptable that fidelity is not expected and I don’t mean only physically. If you can’t confide in someone or keep them as your confidante then what is the point of keeping them in an obviously very intimate relationship. So I’m quite an idealist and perfectionist in those areas.
A lot of people criticise me for doing this and that but I don’t think it goes against feminism to give so much and also to want your husband to be successful. I don’t see a clash in that. I think if you can support your husband, or the husband can support the wife, then there’s nothing wrong in that.
I think both should do it and it shouldn’t be one-sided but there’s nothing wrong with being devoted to whatever your partner is doing. In Pakistan, that is sometimes seen as negative.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2016