Last weekend, Mahira Khan appeared on BBC's HARDtalk and of course, fans of the superstar and Pakistani cinema were glued to their screens.
Her appearance on the show signified Pakistani cinema's growing prominence and she fielded questions on not only her own work, but also issues like censorship and Pakistan's complicated relationship with India.
Did Mahira hold her own against a tough interviewer like HARDtalk's Stephen Sackur? We rate some of her answers:
1) Stephen Sackur asks: I wonder whether the Pakistani movie industry, the culture is ready to recognise different ways in which women live their lives. for e.g.you're a divorcee, you've raised a son single-handedly. Do you believe that recognition of the strength, the independence, the resilience of modern Pakistani woman is properly represented in the culture of your country?
Mahira Khan says: I am a single mother, I am a divorcee, I am a reflection of my country - also a reflection. I'm sure I appeal to the classes as well, but I believe I appeal to the masses of my country. How is it possible that I appeal to the masses if I'm so different from them?
Did the answer cut it? Mahira makes a valid point because she is popular in a culturally conservative country despite being a divorcee and a single mother.
While we do feel this is a good answer, we also feel that she should've admitted that she initially gained this recognition by playing likable characters on-screen like Khirad from Humsafar. While this has slowly changed, Mahira's following in Pakistan couldn't initially separate her image from that fictional character. And since Mahira keeps a low profile, there was no evidence to challenge her docile image. So Mahira also greatly owes people's reverence of her to the conformative characters written for her.
2) Stephen Sackur asks: Somebody got a hold of a picture of you sharing a moment, a cigarette with an Indian actor off set. In Pakistan social media went nuts; so many people were hugely critical of you. 'How dare she?' And 'why is she hanging out with an Indian?' How much pressure do you feel?
Mahira Khan says: That was the first time in my entire career that I was caught up in a so-called controversy. It was strange because there were so many things in that. One, obviously you feel violated, you are in a personal downtime moment and someone has photographed you. Two, obviously there was an uproar, because here I was someone who was extremely loved in Pakistan and they keep me up on this pedestal; they treat me with a lot of love and a lot of respect and there were certain things which I didn't realise that they don't want to see me do. At that point, yes, it was crazy, because it lasted for a while, it became a national topic, a national debate, every channel. It was ridiculous but what has happened post that is even better.
Did the answer cut it? Mahira rightly points out how much she is valued in Pakistan; however, it was a very diplomatic take on the issue. We would've preferred if she had not almost justified people's reaction to her photo with Ranbir Kapoor.
Rather, she should've said what she previously spoke about at the L'Oreal fashion show, "Through life's ups and downs, and the few mistakes we make and all the successes that we get, let nobody, nobody's opinion define who you are. And if anybody defines who you are, let it be yourself. Because including me and all the women out there."
Her concern should've stemmed from being allowed to be who she is in her personal capacity without being at fault. It's a bit disappointing.
3) Stephen Sackur asks: How do you make [depictions of] rape accessible in a country which has a problem with sexual violence. It's endemic, it's domestic, it's pervasive and groups in Pakistan like the HRCP talk about the reality that a women is raped in Pakistan every 2 or 3 hours. How do you take that and respect how deep and ingrained the problem is in the country?
Mahira Khan says: I have not been through something as bad and cruel as rape, so I was very worried because there were going to so be so many people who were going to watch it, for me as an actor I really did not know how I could bring justice to what was written like that, there wasn't a scene of the rape. so there was no visual representation of the rape. Shoaib saab did not want me to cry. There were times he'd be like 'No, no, no, no that's too much, I don't want you to cry I want you to be angry,' so I played it angry, almost how he wanted me to play it, almost how he looked at rape.
Did the answer cut it? Mahira's concerns about representing a rape victim onscreen were justified, but Shoaib Mansoor's response to it isn't. It's disappointing that Mahira was dictated to by a male director on how to play a rape victim when that male director would have even less of an understanding of a rape victim as compared to Mahira. This isn't to say that Mahira's understanding of it would've been completely accurate, but she would have had a more sensitive understanding of the issue than Shoaib Mansoor, but he stopped her from expressing those sensitivities.
Verna is one-dimensional because it shows a lack of emotional trauma and the host of sentiments one goes through post the incident. Rape from the point of view of someone who hasn't been through it, invalidates the trauma of a serious issue, especially when no outside help has been taken in writing the script of a film that deals with the issue.
4) Stephen Sackur: Pakistan has been swept by a cultural conservatism that has militated against free expression in the cinema, and that's really a problem for people like you.
Mahira Khan: That's exactly what the generation before me went through. By the time I came around, or in fact while I was working, my debut was probably one of two or three or maybe five films that released that year... Right after that, because again of the political climate, it changed. People were coming in, people were trying to invest in films and today, we are on the path on a huge revival as far as cinema is concerned.
Did the answer cut it? Mahira's answer seems to come from an awareness of the debilitating effects of General Zia's Islamisation policy on the entertainment industry; however, her attempt to sweep the charge of cultural conservatism under the rug by talking about the resurgence of Pakistan's once-dormant film industry was both inaccurate and unnecessary.
Pakistani cinema and its current crop of filmmakers and actors continue to suffer due to cultural conservatism and a prime example of this, ironically, is the almost-ban on Mahira's Verna after "unanimous objections" to its content by members of Pakistan's censor boards. (Verna is a film about a rape survivor's quest for justice.)
It would have been better if Mahira took the opportunity to talk about how conservatism affects her work as an artist. She was not under obligation to defend the worst impulses of the forces operating around the entertainment industry.
5) Stephen Sackur: How difficult was it to make a film like Verna in Pakistan and to believe that it will find an audience in Pakistan?
Mahira: It wasn't difficult to make it. The man who made it, he's made two previous films, Khuda Ke Liye, which again was a brilliant film but touched on very sensitive topics, whether it was religion or politics or how we treat women in our society. All of that was touched upon in KKL. Then he came out with Bol, which touched on even more sensitive issues. And now he's made Verna. The making of it with a man like Shoaib Mansoor was not difficult because that's what he does.
Did the answer cut it? The question was simple: was Verna a simple film to make and did she think there was an audience for films like it? Mahira should have resisted the impulse to lavish praise on Shoaib Mansoor and instead speak about the ease or difficulty of her work in the film and comment on whether audiences take well to taboo subjects like rape. She could have pointed out, for instance, that TV serials with themes of child sexual abuse or honour killings have enjoyed high ratings, which indicates an appetite for serious subject matter.
6) Stephen Sackur: Do you feel so bleak about Pakistan today that women who have undergone these terrible experiences have no sort of resolution or justice or serious accountability from the political system, from the community? Because your character has to take revenge herself and it's violent and horrible. Is that the message you're telling me about Pakistan today?
Mahira Khan: No, that's not the message I'm telling you. And I'm not sitting here... and telling you that it doesn't happen. Of course, that happens. You have the statistics here in front of you. But, right after Verna, the Zainab case just happened, everyone came out, everyone talked about it...
Stephen: But it doesn't stop it from happening.
Mahira: It eventually does. See, this is the problem. There are two things and I keep talking about this: This is not a Pakistan-centric epidemic, it's a world over problem and how do we stop it. I mean, look at us. We have the best... we have the correct judiciary sitting there, we have the police, we have everything and still, we are not able to stop it. So somewhere I feel we're failing on two levels. We do not have grassroots level education and awareness about this. If you read up more about this, so many of these cases, whether it's abuse or rape, takes place inside their own homes, and then there is shame attached to it. And these things don't get over in one day. Even in Hollywood, they keep talking about how real change is coming out. I think real conversation is what's happening right now.
Did the answer cut it? This was a pretty key question, considering that Verna received criticism locally as well for its promotion of vigilante justice. And it was Mahira's opportunity to respond to that criticism.
But Mahira digresses from the core point of the question completely, choosing to bring up the Zainab rape/murder to highlight how Pakistani society came together to call for action. Did this mean Mahira feels there is some hope, some semblance of support for rape victims in Pakistan? ↵
That's never clear, because after Sackur's brief interruption, she goes off on a tangent, touching on disparate points ranging from the global prevalence of rape to threats within the home to Pakistani women.
However, Mahira does makes a pertinent point when she makes a distinction between conversations and real change. She points out that her film is important for initiating conversations, which leads Sackur to probe her further about Pakistan's #MeToo movements.