Shooting a movie is tough work – but so is promoting it.
I come to this conclusion when I arrive at a press meet-up where I am scheduled to meet Bilal Ashraf and Mahira Khan, the lead actors of the upcoming cinematic release Superstar and the movie’s music producer, Azaan Sami Khan.
I usually prefer exclusive interviews, without other members of the press milling about, but my interviewees are busy, busy people, ricocheting all over the country and beyond as they promote their upcoming movie. The press meet – where I have been promised an exclusive slot – sounds like a good idea.
It turns out to be an eye-opener. Sportingly, Mahira and Bilal are sitting for one interview after another. In fact, when we finally meet, Mahira tells me, “I have been asked every possible question. So ask me something new! Put me in a corner – I’ll know how to get out of it!” she twinkles.
I think I do manage to ask her some interesting questions but even if I did put Mahira in a corner, I wouldn’t know. She’s a veteran at giving interviews and, as she professes, she’s a pro at sidling out of tricky little corners. More on that later.
While I wait for my interview to begin, the two lead actors sit through numerous video sequences. One YouTube channel films a short quiz where one of them is rendered deaf with a pair of headphones while the other makes hand gestures in order to hint at a phrase.
In another sequence, they are both blindfolded and have to make each other guess what they are eating. Fun, five minute videos designed to appeal to younger audiences – a bit inane, though, to my older mind.
These are two stars who have just wrapped up a movie and as glimpses from Superstar release on to social media, they have been weathering critique as well as basking in accolades.
One of them – Mahira – has also just been in the midst of a major online controversy involving veteran actor Firdous Jamal. They need to be asked so much. But online gimmickry sells, young audiences like to see stars playing short games and the stars, knowing this, happily comply.
My third interviewee, Azaan Sami Khan, has luckily been exempted from most of these ‘games’ although, to my mind, he is an absolute rising star. Azaan has created the music of two major movies releasing this Eid – Superstar and Parey Hut Love – and he has undeniably done some brilliant work.
The soundtracks of both movies are catchy and memorable and are bound to have other filmmakers rushing in to enlist the young Azaan for their soundtracks. While Mahira and Bilal happily go about playing games, I begin my interview with him…
I plunge right in with the trickiest question: which movie’s soundtrack do you like better, Parey Hut Love or Superstar?
“I can’t answer that!” he laughs. “Honestly, both movies are very close to me. I composed Superstar’s music first and I feel that it is simpler and more innocent while Parey Hut Love’s soundtrack has more technicalities.”
His soundtracks for the movies boast some very impressive vocalists including Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Hadiqa Kiani, Sunidi Chauhan and Harshdeep Kaur. Did he recommend these particular vocalists for the songs that he created?
“I did have them in mind when I was creating the songs. I would just think that if so and so sang this particular song, it would really sound amazing. I was lucky that those very artistes ended up singing those songs. This doesn’t always happen – a lot of times vocalists are unavailable. But I have been blessed.”
“Nepotism does exist. I know that perhaps I was given opportunities more easily because people love my parents. Perhaps audiences have also accepted my music more readily because of my parents. But, at the same time, I have worked hard to ensure that people don’t regret having placed their faith in me."
Was he given references of other songs – perhaps songs from Bollywood – when asked to create melodies for certain situations?
“I don’t like references because the music you create is bound to be influenced by them. I just created songs according to the situational requirements that were given to me. My goal was to make music that had its own identity but also create music that is at par with any international soundtrack.
Obviously, our music is intrinsically similar to music from India but my effort was that if a Bollywood album was played and then, an album created by me was played, there wouldn’t be too much difference as far as quality and listenability was concerned.”
He has managed to score some major projects at a very early stage in his career. Does he agree that this is because of his very famous parents?
“Nepotism does exist. I know that perhaps I was given opportunities more easily because people love my parents. Perhaps audiences have also accepted my music more readily because of my parents. But, at the same time, I have worked hard.
The first movie I created music for was Parwaaz Hai Junoon. I composed one song. Then, I was asked to compose another and another. Eventually, I created five out of the six songs in the movie. I have been working hard to ensure that people don’t regret having placed their faith in me.”
One of Azaan’s compositions, ‘Dharak Bharak’ from Superstar, features actor Bilal Ashraf bare-chested, flexing his muscles a la a Bollywood masala number. The video has been receiving some very mixed reviews and my conversation with Bilal and Mahira begins with their take on this song…
“I always knew that 'Dharak Bharak' would get flak,” shrugs Bilal. “A song like this hadn’t been done in Pakistan in recent times. It takes time for people to accept something new. Having said this, the song serves its purpose in the storyline. It shows a side of the actor Sameer, the character that I play, in this all-out masala number.”
Mahira adds, “And honestly, if you just listen to the song, you know that it has to be filmed on a bare-chested actor. It’s a new step and over time, I think that Pakistani filmmakers will become more at ease with filming songs like these.”
“It was the toughest part for me in the film,” Bilal confesses.
Another song from the movie that has created a small furor is ‘Noori’, featuring a lissome Mahira, twirling in a mirrored lehnga, dancing like a dream to the sort of beat that stays with you the whole day long. This is the first time that I have seen you dance with such abandon, I tell her.
“Yes, khul kay,” she agrees. “That’s just the sort of song Noori is. I couldn’t have danced like this to ‘Ballay Ballay,” she refers to a song from her earlier movie Bin Roye.
“That was my character’s dance to a wedding taking place in her family. This, on the other hand, is a song that marks the coming of age of an actor. It has pizazz. She wants to show the world what she can do.”
Noori has received rave reviews although certain quarters have cribbed that Mahira is trying to act like Madhuri in the song. Was she? “Öf course I was!” she exclaims. “How could I not? Look, there’s Shahrukh Khan, my love as a fan starts and ends for him. And then there’s Madhuri, who has magnetism and dances with such flair. I wanted to dance like her.”
The reviews may mostly be positive but are both actors feeling the pressure as Superstar inches towards its release date?
After all, both Mahira and Bilal’s previously released movies had been flops – 7 Din Mohabbat Inn and Rangreza respectively. Mahira says, “Yes, there is pressure but more than that, I am just happy that I did this film. I am sad that now it’s ending and going out to the world.”
Bilal, meanwhile, shrugs, “No pressure. I’ve left the past behind and thoroughly enjoyed working on this movie.” He, particularly, has weathered some very cruel reviews in the past, having even been coined a non-actor. Is he dreading that similar comments may be voiced after Superstar’s release?
“I am not worried at all,” he flashes his dimples. “Such critique will come but at the end of the day, film bolti hai, public bolti hai, logon ke likhnay say kuch nahin hota.”
I continue probing. Given Mahira’s huge fan following, was he not even worried that he may get lost in her shadow? “No, and a lot has to do with the way she made me feel. We were so comfortable together that I didn’t have any apprehensions.”
They certainly do look very comfortable together. In fact, even during the long pre-release promotions, as they troop from mall to mall, city to city, Bilal and Mahira seem to having a great time. Have they become good friends post Superstar? “Well, we’re on our way to becoming good friends,” laughs Bilal. “We’ve been having fun during promotions.”
“Ä few days ago, Bilal and I were part of this interview where we were asked all these questions about our families,” says Mahira. “When we were done, I actually sat down and asked Bilal how many siblings he had. We don’t know too much about each other.”
“And he’s such a gentleman! We were in a mall, about to get engulfed in a huge crowd and he turned and asked me if he could hold my hand. I began laughing. Here we were, about to die and Bilal had to ask to hold my hand so that he could drag me away from the crowd,” she laughs.
The two actors may be enjoying promoting Superstar but a recent, quite infamous, episode did make things difficult for Mahira.
Veteran actor Firdous Jamal came on air in a morning show and declared that she couldn’t act and was too old to be playing a leading lady. The entire industry subsequently came out to support Mahira and while the experience may have been a bitter one, was it also an eye-opener for her?
“Äbsolutely,” she says. “I was completely overwhelmed. I don’t know what I have done right to win the support and love of so many of my peers.”
She continues, “This was why I ultimately decided to address the controversy by penning a letter about it and putting it out on social media. People have taken digs at me my entire career but I don’t usually retaliate. I was going to do the same this time.
But so many people came out to support me, my fans and the entire industry, from the veterans to the young. That doesn’t happen. I realised that it was important to speak out.”
“Ï didn’t want to put out a Facebook or Twitter post. I wanted to write on a paper that could be rolled up and then, two decades later, my child could read it. And I wanted to say that enough was enough. If we wanted to thrive, we needed to build each other up. And if there was something that we needed to fight, it was this mindset that a successful woman is an intimidating creature. A woman is not a destroyer. She is, by nature, a nurturer and when she in power, things bloom.”
The industry at large may have censured Firdous Jamal on social media but Bilal had ostensibly remained quiet. Why? “I stayed quiet because I felt that whatever I say may get politicised and effect the movie,” he muses.
"People have taken digs at me my entire career but I don’t usually retaliate. I was going to do the same this time. But so many people came out to support me, my fans and the entire industry, from the veterans to the young. That doesn’t happen. I realised that it was important to speak out," shared Mahira.
“I am actually really glad that he didn’t say anything because he told me what he was going to say and it would have just been too controversial,” adds in Mahira.
“I was just going to call a spade a spade which is something that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with,” Bilal says. “People don’t talk about others when they haven’t achieved much.
But Mahira has the love of millions on her side and some people are unable to comprehend that kind of star power. The fact that Firdous Jamal said anything at all is an indication that she’s on the right path.”
Let’s hope the path continues to rise high with Superstar. I leave Mahira and Bilal so that they can proceed to another video interview – more games, perhaps? They have been at it for several hours and the only indication that they are tired is the way in which they are chugging down caffeine. “What will you ask me?” I hear Mahira laugh and ask an Urdu journalist who has been waiting her turn.
Amazing. Superstars can be like that.