Actress Mahira Khan writes obsessively. Everyday she fills page after page of her journal, writing letters to her two and a half-year-old son Azlan…just in case she dies, you know. “You never know what can happen” she says.
In her journal she chronicles the thoughts that spill out of her head at an excessive, incontrollable rate. It is in these pages this former bubbly VJ, and now breakthrough star of the most popular drama serial in Pakistan, is struggling to figure out what on earth is going on.
“These days the pages have so many emotions crammed in them,” says the actress, sitting in a cosy café in Zamzama on a chilly Karachi evening. “But I think one that really stands out, is that I’m desperate… willing to do almost anything to find an answer to the questions that I have.”
Mahira is seated in a corner booth, her clear hazel eyes scanning the menu. Despite her raw beauty, she is just not the kind of celebrity who demands to be noticed, someone who sits with the air of entitlement one would assume an immensely popular actor would have. In fact, she almost seems to shrink into her clothes, a seven-year-old peach-pink georgette kurta. She is smiling, but there is something startlingly vulnerable about her. She is not one of those women who look as if they’ve just stepped out of a salon: her long hair is uncombed, she doesn’t have a speck of makeup on her porcelain skin, and her eyebrows are still trade markedly un-plucked. She still looks stunning.
She says she’s starving, and orders the first sandwich the waiter recommends — all she wants to know is whether there will be ample fries with her meal. He assures her there will, and scurries off with a goofy smile on his face.
For the first few minutes of our conversation, it is obvious that Khan goes through a silent struggle with herself, of whether she should talk about what she “should”, the way Pakistani girls do to convince boys they are good girls, parents that they are innocent, and journalists that they are cool and confident. Or to just shed the facade and tell it how it really is — which is, in all honesty, not that great. Luckily, today the truth wins.
“The past year has been nuts,” she explains with a sigh. “I’ve lost two very special people in my life and I’ve seen two friends go through the worst times of their lives because of it. I’ve been struggling to give time to my family, and I’ve seen this sudden fame which I just can’t really sort of enjoy,” she says.
A pretty heavy statement coming from someone who has recently hit a career jackpot most actors can only dream about.
Mahira has struck it big with her latest drama serial “Humsafar”, based on a novel written by Farhat Ishtiaq and directed by Sarmad Khoosat, creator of sitcom “Shashlick”. And we’re not talking about just any big, but instant-recognition-by-Pakistanis-world-over, Bollywood-offers-on-the-table, moral-policing-aunties-scrutinising-her-every-move big. For most people, Mahira is simply Khirad, the small town girl with stellar principles that she portrays in “Humsafar”.
It was the kind of success she hadn’t anticipated, especially because she had already worked in much larger productions like Shoaib Mansoor’s blockbuster Bol, and with award winning directors like Mehreen Jabbar, on drama serial “Neeyat”. While making “Humsafar”, Mahira and the director never spoke about the people who would watch it, and whether they would like it or not. When the show swept the ratings, Khan was in shock. “I still call up Sarmad or Fawad or my producer and we laugh,” she says with a smile, “and we’re like ‘Dude! Can you imagine? Can you actually imagine?’”
Before “Humsafar”, Mahira was lost as an actor. On the sets of Bol, Shoaib Mansoor didn’t give her much direction, preferring to let her be. Mehreen Jabbar taught her how to discipline herself as an actor, but it was Khoosat who gave her the faith. “He would sit with me during the times I would doubt myself, and tell me, ‘You have no idea what you can do’.”
Despite all this support and encouragement, the months spent shooting the serial were some of the most trying for Khan personally. If it’s true that Pakistani drama ratings are derived from how hard someone can cry, Mahira was the best choice for the role of Khirad. Besides losing loved ones, the burden of constant shoots and media attention took a toll on her family life as well. “When all my time is being spent out shooting or on the phone, that’s when the problem comes in and yes, that has had an effect on my closest relationships.”
For the irrepressible former VJ, trying to get into the character of the reticent, almost stilted, Khirad was a constant personal battle. At a time when Khan could only think about defending her right to spend so much time at work because it was something she really wanted to do, she just couldn’t wrap her head around why Khirad embodied a tattered punching bag in the first half of the serial. “I would wonder: ‘Who is she yaar?’” she says with an annoyed and quizzical look. “When will she stand up for herself?”
The cosmopolitan actress is a far cry from the poor country cousin she portrays in the drama serial. Possibly the worst financial crisis that Mahira has dealt with in her real life was during her time at college in the US when she worked two jobs to meet ends meet, but as the shooting progressed, Khan took Khirad’s character and made it her own. “I kept her herself, very desi and chup chaap, but then Khirad became me. And I’m going to take a little credit for that,” she adds smiling.
According to a regular drama critic, ‘Drama Buff’ who writes for dramapakistani.net, Khan’s performance in “Humsafar” was far superior to her acting in any of her previous roles, where it was at times labeled “wooden” and her presence disparaged simply as the “eye-candy” of the production. Drama Buff says, “In “Humsafar” Mahira was great for the role because she looks innocent and is a strong, independent woman at the same time, this way she played the “victim” well and could also stand up for her character.” He adds, “Still some scenes were difficult for her to pull off, but if she continues working with good directors and tries to emote more she is on her way to becoming a really talented actress.”
And Khan is willing to do all it takes to get there. She reads every single review that is published or posted online, and is extremely self critical, “If I find a piece where there are 10 good things about me and one bad, I obsess about the bad,” she explains. Mahira, more than anybody else, is aware that she has a long way to go. “When they introduce me on talk shows, they always say something to the effect: ‘Now please welcome the very pretty Mahira Khan,’” she shouts, her voice booming in a parody of the announcer’s stage voice. “I won’t be happy until they say ‘Now please welcome the brilliant actor Mahira Khan.’”
The curse of beauty is something Khan has been compensating for her entire life. Ever since she was in school, and had blossomed into a beauty — one that boys, girls and teachers alike were smitten by — Khan tried to downplay her flawless magnetism. “Even when I was young I was always conscious about it,” she explains, “I always felt that if I downplay my looks I can prove myself in other ways.”
Fellow students remember her in her Foundation Public School uniform, her thin sash of a dupatta trailing on the floor behind her, hair strands straying out of her pony tail in disarray, and her pillowy lips chapped in the dry winter air. Even then, she stood out amidst rows of other girls in the monotony of beige, white and pony tails.
As she grows older though, she has begun to question this resentment. “How can I be embarrassed by myself, and something that I have? I should be embarrassed about other things that I lack. I’m not proud of my Urdu, so I should work on that, but I shouldn’t consciously remove the makeup from my face so I can look real in front of the camera. I am coming to terms with the fact that I have to stop being apologetic.”
And maybe she has. The pink kameez she’s wearing is shorter than the cut off length fashion trends today would dictate. Mahira, who is usually on trend, explains that it holds sentimental value: it was something she wore when she had a fight with her now husband, Ali Askari, 7 years ago, when both of them were in college.
She may be one of the most adored actresses in the country right now , whose childlike innocence, girly sophistication and flawless looks many look forward to watching in the evenings in order to forget the tribulations of their day. More so than before, many are also supporting her struggle, as she evolves serial-by-serial, film by film, into a mature actress, and a strong human being. Mahira is grateful for this, but has decided not to pretend that she knows what she is doing. “I had it all figured out a while ago,” she says. “Now I’m trying to find it again. I am at a point where I am reassessing everything in my life. I’m full on with my hands in the keechur, trying to figure out things, you know?”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.