‘When it clicks, it clicks’: Fahad Mustafa and Mahira Khan on why they clicked in Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad

Chemistry isn't something you can fake, but luckily, these two movie stars didn't need to fake anything for their new film.
Updated 10 Jul, 2022

It’s 10am in Houston and 7pm in Karachi and I’m on Zoom waiting for Mahira Khan and Fahad Mustafa. The two have been in back-to-back interviews since 10am promoting their new film Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad. This chaotic schedule — which entertainment industry insiders refer to as a press junket — has been the duo’s life for the past month and it’s only getting started. By the time you’re reading this, the two will be headed to Dubai and then the US.

Right on time, Khan and Mustafa pop up on my screen. Despite a day of journalistic interrogation, both are fresh faced and friendly with Khan rocking her signature blowout and no-makeup makeup look and Mustafa looking casual cool in a blue button down.

We get deep right away when I ask Khan what questions she’d ask the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam, if given an opportunity to have dinner together. Pausing thoughtfully, she says: “I guess I’d want to ask: where did we go wrong? And what is one thing we are doing right?”

Covid and cinema

Like all film industries across the world, Covid-19 affected the Pakistani film industry in a major way. Shoots came to a halt as actors and filmmakers, like the rest of us, were sentenced to their homes. Money dried up for indie projects. And films that had a 2020 release date were shelved for a time when audiences felt safer returning to crowded movie theatres.

No one could have predicted the paradigm shift that would take place in the audiences’ viewing habits.

“Because of social media and the constant and instant content creation, cinema has taken a backseat. [But] cinema is revolutionary. That’s why a cinematic experience is so important,” says Mustafa, who along with being an actor and talk show host, runs a production house with an astonishing output of over 100 drama serials.

The QAZ team is acutely aware that getting people out of the comfort of their homes and back into crowded movie theatres where a ticket per person costs far more than a streaming service membership is no small feat. In fact, despite the pandemic now in its third year and social restrictions much more relaxed, movie theatre attendance still remains less than half of what it was pre-Covid-19. And with plenty of filmmakers and production houses releasing content straight to streaming titans like Netflix and Amazon, some argue that a fraction of the movie theatre business may be lost forever.

Yet, some cinematic experiences are meant to be experienced on the big screen, and, according to Mustafa, Quaid-e-Azam Zindabad is one of them. “In order to get people to come out of their homes, away from their phone screens, the film had to be larger than life,” he tells me.

When Mahira met Fahad

The extended-cut trailer certainly promises a cinematic, larger than life experience. There are exploding cars and a fight scene on a cargo jet that has its doors wide open. There’s stacks and stacks of cash hinting at a theme of bribery and corruption. There’s even a lion on a leash. Think the Fast and Furious franchise meets Dabangg — but with a better looking cast.

“There was a specific moment during the film’s narration where I knew I wanted to be a part of this,” recalls Khan. “I wanted to be part of an entertainment extravaganza but I also wanted to be part of a film that I can be proud of. That is rare.”

For Mustafa, being the film’s hero was a given because of his long term relationship with director Nabeel Qureshi and writer Fizza Ali Meerza. The trio have previously worked on mega hits Na Maloom Afrad, Actor in Law and Load Wedding, so he was onboard before the script was even completed.

But the filmmakers kept the identity of who his leading lady would be a surprise for Mustafa.

“I kind of knew maybe it would be Mahira. But there’s always the chance of her backing out,” says Mustafa, only half-joking. “The day she came to the set is the day I believed it. I’ve pretty much worked with everyone. The only surprising thing for me was… and still is… is the opportunity to work with Mahira.”

But having Khan as his leading lady came with a surprising amount of pressure. Since so much of the ‘Mahira Khan effect’ lies in her undeniable chemistry with whoever she shares the screen with, during the interview circuit, Mustafa has repeatedly been badgered with (frankly, ridiculous) questions about how he feels following in the footsteps of Fawad Khan and Shahrukh Khan.

During our interview, I don’t care to bring up Khan or Mustafa’s past pairings. I do want to know how the duo went about creating chemistry when, prior to shooting, they’d never really crossed paths as colleagues or even acquaintances. Both tell me chemistry was not something they had to work very hard at.

“Everyone wanted Mahira and I to work together,” says Mustafa. “I wanted to get it right, I didn’t want us to be a misfit.” To which Khan adds: “There are actors who may be feeling the chemistry while filming but it may not translate on screen. You never know. You just have to be honest with what has been given to you. We definitely didn’t try it. When it clicks, it clicks.”

Watching the two interact in real life, the chemistry is undeniable. I find myself not only believing they’ll make great onscreen lovers, I can sense the two have become genuine friends.

“Fahad’s sense of humour is so dry. I like it. I have very close friends and family like that. That’s what makes him different from others. With a straight face, he’ll annihilate you,” says Khan.

Mustafa tells me he didn’t expect Khan to be so cool and casual.

“I’ve worked with a lot of people not just as an actor but also as a producer. The eyes never lie. You can figure out what type of person is in front of you. I see the genuineness in her, there’s a lot of positivity around her. I’ve seen a lot of fake people in my life. Maybe that’s why we clicked. We are just the way we are,” he says. “My one advice to Mahira would be ‘apne dil ki suno [listen to your heart]’.”

In another life

With the release date days away, for the time being the team’s hard work is over. All they can do now is wait and see if Pakistani audiences will turn up to support their own the same way they turn up for foreign productions, or, if people will ultimately choose to wait until the film is available for viewing from the comfort of their homes. With several films releasing this Eidul Azha and the horrors of the pandemic a somewhat distant memory, the ultimate question is whether we are willing to make time and spend money for a truly distraction-free, immersive experience.

As the old aphorism goes: only time will tell.

For now, both Mustafa and Khan hope to fully enjoy any rare time off.

“Honestly, I like to do nothing on days off. I listen to old songs. I watch something. I put on a candle. I’ll speak to my Amma and Abba. Then I’ll cuddle Azlan. I’ll just go into a zone,” says Khan, who at the moment has just finished binge watching The Offer, which she calls “brilliant”. She’s now started The Staircase but Mustafa — who is currently watching Peaky Blinders — recommends Amazon India’s Panchayat to both of us.

For Mustafa, downtime means sleep. A lot of it.

“I can sleep 18-19 hours a day,” he says. “When people meet me they expect me to be this full of energy guy… to crack jokes. I’m shy, it’s not like that when you meet me.”

Mustafa — who thinks he might have been a chef in an alternate life and loves sad music so much it’s even on his workout playlist — tells me the pandemic-era lockdowns brought some unexpected moments of joy and peace.

“I’m a mall person. I’d love to be at the mall all day. Weirdly, during Covid-19, I got a chance to enjoy that. I was everywhere — doing the groceries, going shopping, I even took a walk through Lahore.”

Khan — who thinks she would have made a great architect in a previous lifetime and wishes the public would be more forgiving of her in moments when she’s not so perfectly eloquent — agrees: “One day you realise you can’t do normal things or go out normally. But you have to do certain things regardless. I still like to go to the mall. Maybe not as regularly. But I still like to live a regular life.”