Her first ever interview appeared in Dawn’s Images almost exactly ten years ago. She was then a VJ for MTV Pakistan with stars in her eyes.
Not much has changed for Mahira Khan.
She is still the lithe, waif-like girl with the easy megawatt smile whose eyes grow big when she is excited. She still seems unsure of herself and second-guesses herself constantly. She still makes wishes when she passes through tunnels, believing that tunnels have the power to make her wishes come true. For all her exposure since and despite now being a mother to a seven-year-old, you can tell that she is still inherently shy.
Three days from today, she’s about to make her Bollywood debut, opposite possibly the biggest star of the subcontinent.
Everything has changed for Mahira Khan.
We meet at an upmarket restaurant for lunch that we selected assuming it would be mostly empty. But the moment she walks in she runs into her former school principal and some of her former teachers. Later they — and at least four other groups of people — come over to get ‘selfies’ with Mahira. She cannot refuse, she never once lets on that she’s probably a bit tired of the routine. They cannot believe their luck. Thankfully the interruptions don’t last very long. Even more thankfully, Mahira is a rebel against time management. She has another appointment lined up later but she’s happy to just talk and go with the flow.
Mahira Khan once dreamed of being a movie star. With her film Raees opposite Shah Rukh Khan releasing in three days, what does she dream about now?
I begin by asking her if she feels disappointed about Raees likely not releasing in Pakistan.
“Of course,” she shoots back. “I want my country to see this. I want everybody to see it, every person in the world. My friends keep saying you did it, it’s enough, you can just keep it in a box somewhere…I do that, but there’s a part of me that says, no, I want everybody to see my blood sweat and tears for these two years, because it’s been tough and I want people to see it even if I fail at it. But if it’s one thing I’ve learnt over these two years it’s that there are somethings beyond one’s control. I mean you can save a scene, you can fix things later in film but there are somethings that are out of your reach. You just can’t do anything. But I’m dying for it to come here.”
With the eruption of tensions between Pakistan and India, Mahira — and fellow actors such as Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar who were forced to abandon future projects in India — suddenly fell quiet, perhaps understandably. I wonder what she really felt then. “It was painful,” is the only thing she will still venture. “When the film comes out, I will tell you.”
But she waxes eloquent about the friendships she made across the border.
“I was coming here and the new song was out and we have a group of friends [from the film crew] who send messages whenever something happens and everyone was sending messages and I had tears rolling down in the car. Again. For the tenth time! And my hairstylist sent me a message saying ‘I think we should always say goodbye with tears because we always meet again when we do that.’ I don’t want to romanticise things but by the end of the two years we had people crying saying goodbye. And I am so indebted to all of them, especially my director Rahul Dholakia and the producer Ritesh Sidhwani, who have stood by me all through these two years, even at the worst of times.”
“With this ban, it’s unfortunate. Six months ago, I was getting a new script every day. Cut to six months later and producers are saying there’s no scope, let’s go back to dramas.”
She’s acutely aware, however, of how the tensions have badly affected Pakistan’s fledgling film industry.
“With this ban, it’s unfortunate. Six months ago, I was getting a new script every day. Two a week tau kahien nahin gaya. Cut to six months later and producers are saying there’s no scope, let’s go back to dramas. I dream of an up and running industry, with all its mess and its camps and all that comes along with a big industry, I want to see that happen.”
I remind her that she’d once told me about her disappointment at never having received an ‘Introducing Mahira Khan’ opening credit in Bol.
“I craved ‘Introducing Mahira Khan’ since I was a child. I told Shoaib [Mansoor, the director of Bol] sahib this too, ‘Yahaan bhi nahin hua, wahaan bhi pata nahin kya hoga, ab mein karoon kya!’ [It didn’t happen here, who knows what will happen there, what should I do!] He said ‘Perhaps in Hollywood.’ Such is life.”
Nobody sitting outside would ever think of you this way, I tell her. They’d be thinking ‘she’s so famous, she leads such a charmed life’ and here you are crying over an introduction credit.
“Exactly!” she laughs. “That’s what my mother also says! And my friends! But I can’t just move on. It’s my work. Yes I’m grateful, but it’s something I have worked for! Why shouldn’t I feel it? Just because I’m an actor? Just because it’s a film? Just because it seems like fluff? I also want to promote the film. I also want to be in an interview with Shah Rukh Khan talking about it. Why not? Why is it I get told that that’s asking for too much? It isn’t! It is my right. This was also my film.”
“When I wrapped up Raees I came to Shoaib sahib’s set. From that big a crew, of almost 200 people, to that small a crew. Here there were just seven people running a show and him, who’s a one-man army. And Shoaib sahib said to me, ‘Look, it’ll pinch you.’ And yes it did, the first two days.”
I ask the inevitable question: so what was it like working with Shah Rukh Khan? She tries to deflect. “Ask me something else, I have talked about it so much I’ll say the same things.”
So I ask her about his quirks. “He is magic really, honestly. He spoilt me for life. He used to tell me to do things this way, do it that way. At one point I asked him, am I not doing it right? He said ‘Look I am only telling you what I know, from my experience. You do it your way but all I want is when you see yourself on screen you don’t come to me and say, why didn’t you tell me!’ Other than that, he’s so bloody smart. There’s nothing you can’t talk to him about.”
I sense she can go on and on about Shah Rukh. “We’ve had amazing conversations. It’s so much fun to talk to someone who’s intelligent. It’s not just about films, he can talk about anything! He was watching [Netflix TV series] Narcos while we were shooting, he can talk about books and history… Of course I’ve always been a fan. But if you watch his interviews, you can tell he’s witty, smart. It was a pleasure working with someone you can have a conversation with. I think he’s hilarious, sometimes at my expense… [laughs]” I ask her what she means but she tells me I can’t write about it.
Mahira is now working on Shoaib Mansoor’s next film Verna but when I ask her what she can tell me about it, she laughs. “Everything but what it’s about! But guess what, this is probably the first time he gave someone the full script!”
And she laughs again. “The film was a bit tough for me to choose because I had all these big commercial films being offered to me and I wanted to do something fun and light. And I don’t know why, but when Shoaib sahib wrote to me, I just decided I wanted to say these dialogues, for my voice to echo these lines. There was just something about them.
"What I didn’t know was what I was headed to. So when I wrapped up Raees I came to Shoaib sahib's set. From that big a crew, of almost 200 people, to that small a crew. Here there were just seven people running a show and him, who’s a one-man army. And Shoaib sahib said to me, ‘Look, it’ll pinch you.’ The first two days he kept telling me, ‘It’s pinching you, isn’t it?’ And yes it was, the first two days. And the third day I was thinking, why am I happy here? And I realized that I like what I do. Everything around it doesn’t matter, what matters is what you’re doing. Honestly it’s like coming full circle.”
A seven person crew is incredibly small, even by Pakistan standards I put to her.
“That’s just the way he works, he likes taking new people, he enjoys their enthusiasm. This is a story about two or three principal characters, maximum four. He told me ‘This is how I like to work, you tell me what we can do to make this better.’ So we’ve done that.
"He’s given me the responsibility of rehearsing with the actors, and sometimes he tells me, ‘You’re handling them, na? because I’m going to do this.’ And we’re working in tandem. After Raees I used to wonder how I’d feel working on another film and to do this and still enjoy it — I know now I like acting, I enjoy it.”
"I do feel my job is a unique one. You have to bare your soul, give in to a character, whatever it is. So today your character might be happy because she’s so in love. And you might be going through the exact opposite. You’re surrendering to a feeling that doesn’t exist right now in your headspace, your soul, your heart. But you have to do it."
But she’s also circumspect about the act of acting.
“I’ve always been sensitive and over-emotional. And things get to me way more. I’ve never allowed myself to become cold. So I’d rather go through the pain of feeling something fully than to become cold, which may be difficult but I’ve never allowed that to happen. Or maybe my job has never allowed that to happen.”
She changes gears. “Look, everyone goes through things, everyone has a story. That’s why strangers are so interesting. I don’t find a single human being boring, man. So it’s not about me as an isolated case, but I do feel my job is a unique one. That changes a lot of stuff. You’re going through whatever you’re going through at home and then you have to get up and go to work. And what is your work? You have to bare your soul, give in to a character, whatever it is. So today your character might be happy because she’s so in love. And you might be going through the exact opposite. You’re surrendering to a feeling that doesn’t exist right now in your headspace, your soul, your heart. But you have to do it.”
I read her a few lines from her first interview ten years ago. She had been asked about her strengths as a VJ. And she had replied: ‘I don’t know about that but I could tell you about my weakness. The biggest being that I can’t lie on television, I can lie about little things and make up a story but I am a bad actress.’ She gives her megawatt smile. I ask her if she still feels that.
“I am bad actress when it comes to real life,” she says with emphasis. “I can’t do it, I can’t hack it. In fact, I hate the fact that I am not trained because then I’d be pulling things out of my…you know? To get into the zone, mein apnay oopar taari karti hoon [I immerse myself], I take time to believe it is me. And once I get there, I do it the best I possibly can and as honestly as I possibly can. That’s why I’m the actor who needs glycerine. I find it very strange when actors cry on demand.
"And yet, we just shot a scene with Shoaib sahib and he played the music of the film and I couldn’t control myself. It’s a new crew so they always clap at the end of the scene, it’s great for my ego [laughs]. And Shoaib sahib said, ‘Yeh sachai kissi aur cheez se nahin aati [this truthfulness doesn’t come from anything else].’ I told him, ‘You’re right, but yeh sachai baar baar nahin aati [this truthfulness doesn’t come again and again].’ But that is later. This girl,” she says pointing at the quote I was reading from, “10 years ago, she’s right!”
"Would I be who I am without a Khirad in Humsafar? Maybe not. I think every few decades the audience laps up somebody and makes them into a star. That’s all that happens. To analyse it is, I feel, a waste of time."
I read her another bit from that decade-old interview. At the end of it, Mahira had, suddenly, admitted that she dreamt of becoming a movie star. ‘I always wanted to be a movie star,’ she’d said, ‘I knew then and I know now that I couldn’t be at the time and I didn’t know what it takes to be a star but I still love to dream about it.’
I ask her if she sees a difference between being a star and an actor? She is dismissive of the question. “This whole star versus actor debate I find very silly. It’s also the roles that you do, and that is not in your control. Brando I think said this: ‘You’re as good as the role that you choose.’ That’s about it. Would I be who I am without a Khirad in Humsafar? Maybe not. I think every few decades the audience laps up somebody and makes them into a star. That’s all that happens. To analyse it is, I feel, a waste of time.” But then she adds: “My understanding is the day I start looking at myself as a star is the day I will die as an actor.”
But what does she dream about now that she’s hit the pinnacle of stardom, I ask her.
“I need to start dreaming again,” she says with her eyes brightening. “This was the dream. I prayed for it in every namaaz of mine. In every under the tunnel wish. But yeah, however small, I need to dream again.”
Those are not stars in Mahira Khan’s eyes. They are dreams.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 22nd, 2017