On a balmy fall day, typical for Texas, I drove to a Hilton in a swanky part of Houston. Just the day before, a flock of Pakistani celebs — big, small and everyone in between — had descended upon this multicultural, metropolitan American mega-city that I call home.
We were days away from the Hum Awards and it was my job to capture all the star-studded behind-the-scenes frenzy for our readers. I have reported on film festivals and film screenings previously, however, this was my first time covering an event of this magnitude.
As a pregnant woman in her third trimester — meaning swollen feet and a hyperactive bladder are, as of late, par for the course — my nerves were, understandably, frayed.
Over the course of 72 hours, I saw firsthand the relatively well-oiled machine that is an overseas award show. But my three days covering the Hum Awards weren’t all pretty photos and schmoozing with celebs.
In fact, most of my hours were spent sitting and waiting for celebs I could flag down for a photo or quote.
For instance, on Thursday — T-minus two days before the awards — I spent around seven hours loitering in the Hilton lobby trying to look busy on my laptop while secretly on the prowl for celebs who would, hopefully, grant me a quick interview as they came and went from the hotel gym, Starbucks and the nearby mall.
On Friday, the night before the awards, I scored an invite to the award show dress rehearsal. I sat in the front row (fun fact: it was the same seat Noman Ejaz sat on the following night) and watched in awe as Haroon outdanced his backup dancers and as Asim Azhar fine-tuned his energetic yet soulful tribute for Alamgir.
I chatted with Kubra Khan and Momal Sheikh about the difficulties of finding makeup artists abroad who truly understand desi features and skin tone (the struggle is so, so real!).
Kubra told me she wound up doing her own makeup before last year’s Hum Awards in Toronto. Momal, who was hosting the red carpet, told me her first outfit pick for Saturday got damaged right before her flight to Houston.
On Saturday, the day of the awards, my motley team (consisting of myself, my husband slash cameraman for the night and our other friend who we had tasked with taking backup photos) arrived an hour before the celebs to take our place right in front of the red carpet.
The red carpet was, indeed, red. But that’s pretty much where the glamourous aspect of it ends. For two or maybe three hours we stood shoulder to shoulder with other media crews, packed like sardines in a can.
With so many bodies under hundreds of bright, hot lights, the place felt and smelled like a sweaty sauna. Halfway into it, I kicked off my Manolos and went barefoot.
For celebs, the red carpet is important because it showcases who they are as people. Unlike film promotions, where celebs promote the character they are playing, the red carpet celebs promote themselves.
For us media folk, the red carpet is equally important.
It’s when we are able to get up close to celebs with the questions our editors want us to ask. It’s also when we get to document the constant stream of couture, which is so loved by social media users.
Our endgame is basically waiting for and hoping to capture that glorious moment when someone like Iqra Aziz (who is really good at working the red carpet) shows up, pretend-fluffs her gown and then slowly turns her head left, center, and right allowing every camera to get a perfect portrait, which is then beamed up into space before making its way onto all of our screens.
Time on the red carpet has made me realise that, basically, there are a few different types of celebrities.
Some celebs are made to just shine in the spotlight (like Mawra Hocane or Javed Sheikh). Others seem to be over it before it even begins (Noman Ejaz).
And then there are the veterans who have been there and done that too many times to be truly fazed by it all (think Mehwish Hayat, who didn’t walk the red carpet on Saturday, and apparently doesn’t really do the red carpet scene).
Some celebs are really good at keeping their cool and banging out eloquent responses to the toughest of questions (like Ayesha Omar). These are the celebs who know that any misstep or gaffe will quickly become a meme and live forever on the Internet.
Others are shockingly earnest (like Imran Ashraf who got carried away in a sea of people only to work his way back to me so that we could complete our interview).
Some are so shockingly good looking (Adnan Siddiqui) that, mid-interview, I sent myself a mental note to be a damn professional and keep it together. Some have made me laugh so hard with their performances that, upon meeting them in real life, I’m starstruck (Nadia Afghan).
After finishing up with red carpet coverage, we made our way backstage.
There we found Azaan Khan pacing back and forth waiting to be called onstage. He told me he was nervous because it was his first time singing and dancing on-stage. Ayesha Omar and Ali Rehman Khan joked around while rehearsing their dance moves.
Adnan Siddiqui casually rehearsed his upcoming flute performance while a gaggle of makeup artists stood by silently swooning. When Mikaal Zulfiqar, who was one of the hosts of the evening, walked offstage I heard him randomly shout out “This is my chapstick!”
He then proceeded to sit down before his hair stylist and get lost in a massive amount of hairspray. Bushra Ansari reviewed cue cards — her script which she told me she was seeing for the first time. Sanam Jung, Iqra Aziz and Yasir Hussain sat on cheap folding chairs watching one of the many screens livestreaming the show.
At one point I poked my head into Mehwish Hayat’s trailer for a quote and felt like I’d died and been resurrected in a Sephora. Mehwish, who was in sweatpants sans makeup, had skin so beautiful, it was literally glowing.
After leaving Mehwish’s trailer, we ran into Ahsan Khan. He invited us to his trailer to do a Cribs-style interview. We had to turn on all of our cell phone flashlights because it was so creepily dim inside.
After wrapping up the interview we sat and chatted like old friends. After 20 minutes of him making us laugh, I left (taking all of his water bottles with me because no one tells a pregnant woman “no”).
Even though backstage was a few short steps away from the 8,000 people sitting in the arena watching the awards show, it felt like a whole other world back there.
There were backup dancers rehearsing everywhere, tech guys running around with heavy equipment on their shoulders and long wires trailing behind, and celebs sitting serenely waiting their turn.
Like an entire ecosystem unto itself, I was able to fully appreciate just how much collaboration and cooperation goes on between the hundreds of technicians, camera and video crew, stylists, makeup artists, PR reps, and the 20 or so Hum TV employees who spent the past year putting together the show.
After a couple of hours behind-the-scenes, we finally had the coverage we needed and so we headed to the front to catch the tail end of the show. We were just in time to catch everyone’s favourite performance of the evening (which I had already seen snippets of backstage).
Mehwish Hayat and Ahsan Khan are incredible dancers, true entertainers and just so, so good together. Their chemistry was palpable and sizzling and literally set the stage on fire. And, because they were so into it everyone in the audience was also so into it.
Equally amazing was Asim Azhar’s song-and-dance tribute to living legend, Alamgir. Asim had already won me over earlier in the week with his awesome work ethic (he flew into Houston a whole week before so he could have his routine down pat) and his emotional intelligence (I was particularly impressed by the way he showed everyone — from fans to his celeb friends — tremendous amounts of love and respect).
A few days before the event he’d confided in me that he would be representing the people of Kashmir on the red carpet and that he was living a lifelong dream by getting to honour one of his pop icons, Alamgir.
To watch him in the moment was incredible and I felt an inexplicable surge of patriotic pride to be from a place which has produced so much talent.
The event also had some incredibly woke speeches (Dar Si Jati Hai Sila’s director standing in front of millions and saying our mentalities need to change felt so, so critical). From Sultana Siddiqui's emotional speech to Yumna Zaidi tearing up during her acceptance speech to the Dar Si Jati Hai Sila writer’s speech, there were plenty of meaningful moments.
Of course, there were plenty of inexplicably awkward moments that were just plain strange like Noman Ejaz’s speech which didn’t really have a beginning, a middle or an end and which managed to insult Bushra Ansari who was onstage at the same time.
Mikaal and Ali Rehman Khan and Ahmed Ali Butt made for good hosts with the right amount of comedic relief and roasting. Ayesha Omar wasn’t particularly memorable as a host but Bushra Ansari, as is usually the case, did her hosting duties justice.
As I sat and watched the final few acts and awards, I thought about how it takes a certain personality to perform under such pressure without folding like a cheap beach chair. (Spoiler alert, folks: I do not personally possess this type of personality but I am in awe of the crew and celebs who do).
For Pakistan’s rapidly maturing industry, award shows are important.
They are not just a chance to celebrate talent and award excellence, they are an incredible PR moment: a chance for minor and major celebs to put on their most immaculate faces and show up in style to promote their projects of the past year and, hopefully, leave a lasting impression on the millions watching.
Still, despite seeing it all up close and personal, the speed with which events like the Hum Awards are documented, disseminated and followed continues to baffle me.
Imagine having your wedding pictures rocketing around the world in real time with millions watching and commenting on how you look as you walk down the aisle.
That’s basically an award show — a truly surreal set-up that really makes me realise just how bizarre celeb culture and our obsession with it is.