My most vivid recent recollection of Kubra Khan is of her on TV, whirling on a stage, her hair flying about, her gaze vacant. Husn-i-Jahan, she was called in the TV drama Alif, a name that implied that she encompassed all the beauty of the world. The character was riveting, struggling to stand by her morals, fending off societal prejudices and ultimately destined for a poignant, tragic end.
When I meet Kubra for this interview she’s certainly not in an elaborate peshwaaz a la Husn-i-Jahan. Instead, she’s wearing a T-shirt with a Disney character grinning on it — ‘Abu’ the monkey from Aladdin. She is effortlessly beautiful, quite like her on-screen avatars, but fortunately, not despondent like Husn-i-Jahan.
“The audience sometimes assumes that an actor is like his or her on-screen character, but I’ve never tried to encourage this thinking by behaving in a certain way,” Kubra says. “I am my own person with opinions, living life the way I want to, wearing the clothes I like. I’d never pretend to be like a character. I’m more of a geek,” she laughs.
Kubra, though, is not a geek. She’s just very, very real. She may be hugely popular and working in a slew of top-notch projects and yet, she doesn’t seem to have the patience for putting on celebrity airs and graces. Instead, she laughs often, is refreshingly candid and makes intuitive observations.
Actor Kubra Khan is the kind of person that anyone can relate to: she’s down-to-earth, cracks jokes and is just so naturally likeable that, despite the fact that she’s a bona fide star, you may feel like you know her…
Her life, at present, is moving at breakneck speed, careening from one major acting project to the other and her eyes glow when she talks about them. She is just as enthusiastic as she tries to plan a mini-vacation in the few free days she has in between work, or when she talks about the regular ‘game nights’ that she has with her close friends.
“We’ve just started playing Catan and Gohar’s been winning,” she wrinkles her nose and grins as she talks about her ‘bestie’, actor Gohar Rasheed.
In retrospect, when I think about Kubra now, some days following our interview, she strikes me as the sort of girl that anyone could relate to. She grins, cracks jokes and is just so naturally likeable that, despite the fact that she’s a bona fide star, you feel like you know her.
At one point she tells me, “I’d forgotten how much I loved to dance and ever since I recently danced at a wedding, I’ve remembered. And now my friends and I are dancing all the time!” And then, “I cried within five minutes of beginning to watch the animated movie Up. And I cry constantly during Disney’s Lion King!”
I tell her that I will be needing images of her to accompany the interview, and that she shouldn’t be holding a weapon in them. Kubra finds this extremely funny, even though I tell her that there have indeed been past cover story images where weapons, erroneously used as props by celebrities, have had to be Photoshopped out with great effort. When she does email me the images, she tells me that she was considering getting photographed with a toy gun just to scare me!
I ask her for hair and make-up credits for the images and she replies, “I do my own hair and make-up, because then it has ‘my’ feel to it. If you want to give me credit you’re welcome to!” she chortles over a WhatsApp voice note. So rare. And so real.
Nevertheless, this very real girl, who came to Pakistan from London seven odd years ago, has seen the highs and lows of celebrity life. She’s enjoyed the support of a loyal fan-base but also borne the wrath of online trolls; endured busy movie shoots as well as spans of time with nothing to do; made friends and suffered heartbreak. She’s had phases when she has considered leaving her high-pressure career and returning to her family in London. And yet, here she is today, working with some of the most powerful names in Pakistan’s entertainment industry, getting ready to storm the TV screen with some very intriguing projects.
The fate of her movie with ARY Films and Six Sigma Plus, the star-studded London Nahin Jaunga (LNJ), has been hanging in the balance since last year, ever since cinemas closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, Kubra’s springboarding right into TV’s crowded, competitive waters. Her drama Hum Kahaan Kay Sachchay Thay (HKST), co-starring Mahira Khan and Usman Mukhtar, and directed by Farooq Rind, begins airing this weekend on the Hum TV Network.
In addition, she’s about to begin shooting for Sinf-i-Aahan, a joint production between ARY Digital with Next Level Entertainment, Six Sigma Plus and the ISPR. The drama, directed by Nadeem Baig, will also star Sajal Aly, Yumna Zaidi, Ramsha Khan and Syra Yousuf.
Later this summer, she’ll be flying off to Pakistan’s northern regions to work in Sang-i-Maa, spearheaded by the same team that she worked with in her debut drama Sang-i-Mar Mar, including director Saife Hassan and actors Naumaan Ijaz and Sania Saeed. Kubra was also just seen in Absolutely Knot, a flippant, feel-good Eid-ul-Azha telefilm co-starring Vasay Chaudhry and directed by Nadeem Baig.
It’s a whopping, impressive line-up of work and we begin our interview by focusing in on it…
Soldier for a day!
Does she feel intimidated by the fact that she’s working with multiple actors in two of her most high-profile projects, Sinf-i-Aahan and HKST? Kubra mulls before answering. “No, not really. For one, I don’t get intimidated very easily. Also, I have worked with extensive ensemble casts before. Of course, healthy competition is always there and the audience may gravitate towards particular characters but, as long as you do your work well, it’s fine.”
I don’t get intimidated very easily. Also, I have worked with extensive ensemble casts before. Of course, healthy competition is always there and the audience may gravitate towards particular characters but, as long as you do your work well, it’s fine.”
She continues, “In Hum Kahaan Kay Sachchay Thay, I’m sharing screen space with Mahira, and it helps that she’s just so down-to-earth. I thought that I was easygoing — a malang — but then I met her and it’s wonderful that she’s the same. We’ve had such a great time on set and Usman would be clutching his head, wondering where he’d gotten stuck. Usman’s a great guy too.
“Also, I keep to myself. I don’t intrude upon others. It helps in keeping things cordial when you’re working with a huge cast.”
Switching gears to Sinf-i-Aahan, she says, “When we go to shoot the drama, we won’t immediately begin filming. For some time, we will be training as cadets, learning how to shoot and salute and do mud crawls! We’re going to be cadets for that time period. This is why I love my job. In what other profession could I suddenly get up and say that, today, I want to be a soldier?” she beams.
“I’m also really excited about Sang-i-Maa because I’ll be working once again with the team that I had started out with. I had known nothing about acting back then!”
Kubra may currently be in a position that many of her peers would covet, but has it been tough getting to this point, where she’s working with major names in prestigious projects? Was it, for instance, depressing when the release of her movie, LNJ, went into limbo due to Covid-19?
“My scenes in LNJ had been more or less wrapped up when shooting came to a halt. And yes, it’s sad but there’s nothing that can be done about it right now. I think we’ve all come to terms with the fact that we may have to wait things out for a while more,” she says pragmatically.
“But yes, there have been tough times in the past. I took a three-year gap because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue doing this. Over time, though, I realised that the fault did not lie in my profession but in how I dealt with it. I realised that I needed to find peace within. And I began to appreciate how a character that I played — for example, someone like Husn-i-Jahan — could positively impact people.”
Kubra muses, “In retrospect, the personal battles that I went through have helped enhance my understanding of acting. I hardly ever need glycerine now! There will be parts that will just naturally tug at my emotions. I can be a total emotional wreck!” she laughs.
Blessed beginnings, tough times
She may have been unsure about continuing on with her profession, but a motley crew of Pakistan’s finest producers and directors certainly seem to have had faith in her, based on her current line-up of work.
“For me, MD Productions has always been like home, because I started out with them,” says Kubra. “I feel that I can just drop in at any time and say ‘hi’. My work with Six Sigma has so far been only with Nadeem Baig, and I have blind faith in him. I know that he can mould me into any character.” She crosses her fingers. “I suppose I’m blessed.”
Even her debut in acting, back in 2014, seems to have been guided by good karma. A random modelling tryst in London led to her striking up a friendship with actors Ahmed Ali Butt and Fatima Khan Butt. They suggested that she should consider acting and, when she visited Lahore to attend the couple’s wedding, Fatima encouraged her to audition for a major commercial being directed by Ahsan Rahim. “She told Ahsan to let me audition and that he should take me on only if he liked my work,” says Kubra.
She got the job, following which Ahsan offered her another, bigger commercial, to be shot in Kashmir. “That was the point when I realised that maybe I could do this,” recalls Kubra. “I have to thank Fatima baji and Ahmed for having encouraged me.”
It almost seems too easy, I comment. Kubra interjects, “No, but then it got very difficult. I was working very hard but I was getting hurt by the way people were judging me. For one, they did not like my accent but what was more hurtful were the assumptions that they were making about me. I was just a simple girl who lived with her family in a three-bedroom house in London. I wasn’t who they were making me out to be. Fortunately, I have a tougher, thicker skin now but, back then, I was very new and I didn’t know how to deal with all of it.”
She continues, “You know, it’s just so sad how people pass these judgments on social media. I know some of the kindest people, the sort of people who you could call in the middle of the night, if there were an emergency, and they would drive you to the hospital. They are good Muslims, good humans, but they still get bashed because they are part of the entertainment industry.
“The thing is, everything we do is not for public consumption. I remember when I decided to set a few days aside for prayer and sat in aitekaaf, I did not post anything about it. My friend, actress Ushna Shah, found out and she came to congratulate me, and which is how people got to know about it. But it was something very personal and I didn’t want to shout it out to the world. I don’t have to be a certain way just so people could judge me more kindly.”
Does she feel that, beyond the physical hardships of the profession, actors today have to deal with a lot of mental pressure? She nods, now serious.
“Definitely. You know, when we’re shooting, in rain and sunshine, through long days and nights, it’s work. We’re literally pouring our blood and tears into what we’re doing. But someone somewhere, hiding behind a fake identity on Twitter, could say that one word and it could get stuck in our heads, ruining our entire day.”
Is she, consequently, more careful with how she puts herself forward on social media — perhaps, by avoiding risqué images, given the brouhaha that skin show tends to trigger?
“I just personally don’t wear clothes that are very risqué. I like to be comfortable in what I’m wearing,” she shrugs. “Having said that, you can’t make everyone happy. I can’t waste my life by going into a shell, worrying about how people I’ve never met and may not even exist, will take offence.
“If someone’s shining a bright light at me but I’m not looking at it, that won’t bother me, because I won’t be paying attention.
“What makes me sad, though, is when women pick on women on the internet. We’re just women like them, trying to live our best lives and fulfill our dreams. And if we can follow our hearts, so can they. But so many people just don’t see that.”
I point out that she does have some fiercely supportive fans. “Yes, I’m lucky that people who follow me on Instagram are generally not negative,” she smiles. “I don’t obsess over building fan followings, but I’m happy that the people who follow me, do so because they like my work and not because I’m controversial or that I’m in a high-profile relationship!”
With HKST premiering, is she looking forward to fans’ reactions and reviews? “Definitely,” she nods. “I love how the characters in the story are so human. No one’s completely good or completely bad. My character has so many shades that you can just peel off layer after layer. There were times when I was expected to depict 10 different emotions in a single scene! It’s definitely the most difficult character that I’ve played to date.”
She tells me that, so far, people associate her the most with Husn-i-Jahan and with Shireen, her character in her debut drama Sang-i-Mar Mar. But there are so many more roles that she’s playing now, so many stories that she’s about to tell. There will inevitably be many more names and characters connected with Kubra Khan in the coming days.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 1st, 2021