Mahira Khan and Nina Kashif are posing for photographs when I arrive to interview them. “Can you believe it, the two of us don’t have any pictures together?” Mahira comments to me while photographer Shahbaz Shazi clicks away.
I do believe it. Ever since Mahira and Nina announced their new production venture, SoulFry Films, I frequently Googled their names together, in search for images that could go well with small news snippets on the development of their maiden project, a cricket-centric web-series called Baarwan Khiladi. All that ever turned up was a single image from long ago, perhaps from a time when cellphone cameras were yet to become tech-savvy, judging from the grainy picture quality.
Now that the series’ release date is inching closer, and in the interest of my interview with the two, it is essential that Mahira and Nina collate an updated assortment of images together. So I sit and wait, getting an insider’s look into a celebrity photo shoot. They had colour-coordinated their wardrobes and Mahira’s sari pallu keeps flying, in classic Bollywood style, on the windy Karachi rooftop.
They try out different poses, Mahira pouting, smiling and flicking her hair while Nina spends more time working out how she wants to look. One, the star accustomed to playing with the camera and the other, also no stranger to the camera, but more used to being behind it rather than being its focus.
Mahira Khan and Nina Kashif’s SoulFry Films is embarking on its first project, a web-series about a young cricket team. It is a production partnership that combines star-power and experience, but it is aided by a friendship that has lasted the long haul
Watching them being photographed, I feel that the images are somehow symbolic of their partnership. Mahira is the larger-than-life star — I have often quipped to her that, ever since she played the wronged bahu [daughter-in-law] in Humsafar, she’s been the nation’s favourite sweetheart. She’s worked with the country’s topmost producers and directors, represented Pakistan internationally, and now she plans to apply her learnings over the years to tell new stories as a producer.
Nina may be far more low-profile but her years of expertise and hard work are well-known in the industry. She commands immense respect, and having toiled behind the scenes in some of the country’s biggest hit dramas — some of them starring Mahira, including Humsafar — the spotlight zeroed in on her three years ago when she won the Lux Style Award (LSA) for Best TV Play. That drama, Baaghi, was inspired by the life of the late social media star Qandeel Baloch.
It’s a mix of star-power and experience, aided by a friendship that has lasted the long haul. They may have become business partners only now, but they first worked together eons ago, when Nina was helming a TV show for MTV Pakistan and Mahira was VJ-ing in it. Once the sun has settled over the rooftop and the photo shoot has ended, we begin our interview by remembering those days of yore, when neither woman was aware of what the future held for her.
The production equation
“There have been times when people have asked me to collaborate with them on a production, and I’m sure Nina’s had similar offers,” says Mahira. “But for me, it was important to partner with someone who knew me inside and out, and who I could trust completely. Nina is like a sister to me. I’m a dreamer, very impulsive and emotional, and she is much more grounded. I have learnt so much from her.”
Incidentally, Nina was the one who convinced Mahira that it was time to try her hand at production. ”It was a task and a half convincing her, but I was so sure that she would make a great producer,” says Nina. “Even back in the MTV days, I had noticed that she had this germ within her to get involved in all the little details.
“She wouldn’t just be bothered about how she would look, but how the overall set would be. Later, both of us ended up progressing to the drama industry and, even there, she would be so interested in everything. She’s always had so many ideas, and right after Baaghi won at the LSAs, I started telling her that, instead of passing on her suggestions to everyone else, she should apply them to her own platform.
“We work well together because we both have different ways of looking at things. Sometimes, I’ll miss out on a detail and she’ll notice it, and vice versa.”
Mahira nods, “I’ve always been so obsessed with the details that go in creating an overall scene…”
Even when working with infamously meticulous directors such as Shoaib Mansoor and Asim Raza? I ask.
“Yes, even with them,” Mahira says. “I enjoy looking at the nitty-gritties. There’s a lot more that goes into production, of course, and I’m learning a lot from Nina. For instance, the fact that something doesn’t have to be expensive in order to look expensive! In Pakistan, the producer is assumed to be the one who merely invests money into a project but, truly, it is the producer’s job to connect entire teams, from the script to the director to the cast. That’s what we have done. There’s the business aspect to it too, of course, and I’m so glad that I had Nina to guide me through that.”
“She would have given everyone extra money!” Nina laughs and then adds, “Fortunately, I’m trained to understand the financial aspects to a business. With this project, though, money is not our top priority.”
“It’s a passion project,” chimes in Mahira. “I hope that we gain street cred from it. We’re doing our job with a lot of sincerity, and it’s my belief that, eventually, everything else, fame, glory and money will follow.”
I point out that for a new web-series by a fledgling production company, Baarwan Khiladi has already gained plenty of fame because of its celebrity producer. “Yes, that’s true,” Mahira agrees. “It’s great, but it also places a lot of pressure on me.”
And even in a locker-room scene, where the boys are talking about girls, we have been careful about what they are saying. There is nothing wrong with showing something that is bad, as long as it isn’t glorified. The guy making the sexist remark can’t be the hero. And it’s important to show the repercussions of behaving in a certain way.”
Nina feels the pressure too. “I have known Mahira for so long that I don’t see her as a star. But I’m aware of the expectations that are attached to the series because she is associated with it. When we started off with Baarwan Khiladi, it was a relatively small project, but over time it’s become bigger. Despite all the curiosity surrounding it, we’ve still tried to do things our way, rather than opt for conventional gimmickry.”
We scrutinise how Baarwan Khiladi treads risky territory. For one, it’s a web-series produced by Mahira Khan which doesn’t star her. Also, Mahira, with an extensive repertoire of romantic roles to her credit, is making her debut with a story about cricket. And the two of them have decided to collaborate with a fledgling digital streaming platform, Tapmad TV, at a time when local OTT services are yet to gain popularity.
“Yes, it’s risky but it wouldn’t be fun if it weren’t,” points out Mahira. “I had always thought that my very first production would be completely women-oriented. I had also assumed that I would end up making an all-out romance. But Nina ran this script by me and I fell in love with it. I decided that I wanted to place my trust on this story about young people, featuring young actors. I wanted them to shine. And yes, I’m not acting in it because there was no role in the script that I could play. I didn’t want to just force myself into the story.”
The series’ cast consists of relatively new names, mostly making their acting debuts: Danyal Zafar, Shahveer Jafry, Khaqan Shahnawaz, Zarrar Khan, Meer Yousuf and Kinza Hashmi. Nina elaborates, “We didn’t want to bank on well-known actors for our cast. We wanted to select boys of a certain age, because the story is about a young cricket team. We also opted for new actors because they are yet to have any characters associated with them from previous projects.”
“Nina really worked hard on headhunting potential actors…” Mahira begins.
“But we did make all of them audition to make sure that they would suit the script,” Nina adds.
“They have all worked with such passion and dedication and I hope that they never ever change,” says Mahira. “The best thing is that, at some point or the other, the boys all told me that this is how we talk in real life, too. It makes me think that the script is true to life and that people watching will be able to connect with it.”
She continues, “The one obstacle that we had to counter was that the script had to be politically correct. I’m sure that Nina felt a bit pressurised about this, but I have always spoken out on topics that I feel strongly about. The flipside to this was that my own production needed to tell the story in a certain way. I wanted the female character to be very empowered.
“And even in a locker-room scene, where the boys are talking about girls, we have been careful about what they are saying. There is nothing wrong with showing something that is bad, as long as it isn’t glorified. The guy making the sexist remark can’t be the hero. And it’s important to show the repercussions of behaving in a certain way.”
Why a web-series and not a mainstream TV drama? “Someone has to place their faith in the web,” points out Nina. “It’s the future. Pakistan needs OTT platforms of its own, and Baarwan Khiladi is going to hopefully build more viewership for Tapmad TV.”
Didn’t Nina try to convince Mahira to play a role in the series, even a cameo? “She is acting in our next production,” Nina smiles.
“It’s a biopic but that’s all we can tell you right now!” says Mahira.
And while the series may not star its famed producer, it will be featuring cameos by two other very famous celebrities: Fawad Khan and Shoaib Malik. “I’m so grateful to the two of them for doing this for us,” smiles Mahira.
How involved were Nina and Mahira in the actual filming process? “We lucked out with our director,” says Nina. “The director who was originally supposed to be a part of the series fell ill and I took a chance and contacted Adnan Sarwar…”
Mahira adds in, “… and who better than him, with all his experience, to direct a sports movie?”
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there for most of the filming,” says Mahira. “I tested positive for Covid-19 and had to isolate at home. There were scenes that I had really wanted to see getting shot but I missed out on them. I tried to utilise the time by working on the series’ script. There’s actually a picture that I took of my bed completely strewn with scripts. My brother had to eventually take them away because I wasn’t resting enough!”
“We were both involved constantly in the shooting process,” says Nina, “but we had a great director working with us so it was fairly smooth-sailing.”
The pitch is set
Of course, had the coronavirus pandemic not come along, many more of Mahira’s projects would be under discussion right now. Three of her movies have wrapped up shooting and are waiting to release once it is safe for cinemas to reopen: The Legend of Maula Jatt, Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad and Neelofar. Did Mahira and Nina decide to partner for SoulFry Films during the Covid-19 lockdown?
“No, it’s an idea that was being discussed much before the coronavirus pandemic,” says Nina.
And did Mahira opt to work on Baarwan Khiladi, instead of take on another film role, keeping the current state of cinema in consideration? “I just didn’t want to act in another movie,” she muses. “I already have three movies that are ready for release. My last acting role was in Neelofar and it has been one of the most enriching projects of my life. I hope that it sees the light of the day, and it shines,” she says emotionally, reminding me of past interviews where she has talked just as lovingly about other roles.
I mention this to her and she agrees, “I always feel very passionate about the characters I play. I have acted in some amazing projects, but I understand that they are very few. I want to act in so many more. Perhaps, I will take on another film role by the end of this year, but I’m happy working as a producer. It’s actually great to not be in front of the camera and to just concentrate on the overall visuals.”
In the next five years, does Mahira see herself producing more than acting? “I think so,” she says. “I understand that I’m an older woman now and I want to play parts that suit me. At the same time, it gives me so much pleasure to see someone else shine on screen. The budding romance between Danyal Zafar and Kinza Hashmi’s characters in Baarwan Khiladi is depicted so beautifully, and I’m so glad to have been part of the process. I think that’s the name of the game. You have to take whatever you have learnt and pass it on.”
Nina observes, “The fact that she has no insecurities has really helped in the production process — I know from experience that it’s rare!”
I try to venture towards personal questions — the odd rumours that are part of the celebrity life — but the two are well-prepared. “Let’s talk about Baarwan Khiladi only!” laughs Mahira.
So we do. The series was originally supposed to release around the end of the Pakistan Super League tournament but, with the cricket matches now delayed, Mahira and Nina are now considering a date that “won’t be beyond Eidul Fitr”.
Social media is rife with curiosity, expectations are high and in cricket-speak, the pitch is set. Score a sixer, girls, and then score some more!
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 21st, 2021