Mahira Khan’s big-screen portrayals cross the Indo-Pak divide
BY Zahir Janmohamed with additional reporting by Sonal Shah
At a Halloween party last October, Pakistani actress, Mahira Khan posed for a photo with Pakistani director Asim Raza. Khan pointed to a sign held by Raza, which read “Mahira Ko Bahar Nikalo” (Mahira, get out). The sign referred to comments made by Indian nationalists, who had called for a complete ban in India on collaboration with singers, cricketers and actors from Pakistan.
When the picture went viral, Khan was quick to tweet an apology, saying that the image “was not done intentionally to hurt anybody’s sentiments, neither to make a political statement.” She added, “artists are creative people who can’t be dragged into the politics of nations. I have always made a concerted effort to maintain this standard for myself.”
As much as Khan may wish to remain to distance herself from politics, her career choices push her into political discussions. She starred in the ground-breaking hit Pakistani television drama Humsafar, which also aired in India. And she’s crossing the border in a bigger way in next summer’s big-ticket release Raees. Khan plays opposite the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, in this film about a bootlegger in the dry Indian state of Gujarat.
Acting with Shakhrukh was a childhood dream for Khan. Growing up in Karachi, there was a time when she used to watch the box office success, and classic film, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge—or DDLJ as it’s commonly referred to—every day after school. As she embarked upon her career as an actor, she found herself attempting to balance roles like the feisty lead played by Kajol in DDLJ, with the doe-eyed good-girl roles she tended to garner because of her looks.
When Newsweek Middle East caught up with Khan this week, ahead of the release of her new film, Ho Mann Jahaan, we revisited her first role, in the 2011 movie Bol. The film, which boldly explored both transgender issues and inter-sect marriage, was well received for its strong female characters, and has been taught at universities around the world as an exemplary piece of Pakistani cinema. But when Khan got a call from director Shoaib Mansoor, she had no idea of the impact the film would have.
“I meant to do a drama before that film,” she told us. The call from Mansoor came out of the blue, during the seemingly interminable lean days in Lollywood, as Lahore cinema is called. “At the time he was one of the only people making films, and we did not have many choices as actors. My friends kept saying, ‘Why would you want to do this? You are going to get crazy offers.’ But I did not see the parts coming.”
According to Khan, Mansoor doesn’t let any of his actors read the entire script, only individual parts. “I think he keeps it in a lock or something,” she said. “But one day, I managed to steal a script and read it entirely. I thought—this man is amazing. He is doing something and saying something so unique.”
Khan was lucky to come to her role as Ayesha, a rebellious daughter, without the baggage of audience expectations. “At the time, audiences did not really know me, and when you are in that role as an actor, you are fearless,” she said. “Creatively it is very freeing. And we did not have any idea the kind of impact Bol would make so we were fearless by default.”
Years later, Bol is still being talked about because of its fresh and unapologetic approach to complex themes. “It did wonders for cinema in Pakistan,” Khan agreed, and “was a success at the box office. However, after Bol, we should have seen many more Pakistani films come out, but we did not.” Khan speculated that “Bol was too new for the Pakistani film industry, so the industry had to catch up, which it has. But also, audiences were not ready. We were not ready. Today I can try to do the most cutting edge cinema but I also have to ask—is this the right time for the film audience to see this kind of movie?”
As in the case of the Halloween picture, Khan often seems to be calculating the height of the tightrope she walks between pushing boundaries and retaining her popularity. The issue is especially fraught when it comes to questions of feminism and nationalism. Given the strong women she has played, it may surprise some that she is reluctant to call herself a feminist, as she told Newsweek Middle East: “I would like to believe I am a humanist,” she said. “I am not going to fight that much more for women than I will for men. I will use my voice to speak up for men, for women, for people of all creeds, of all races.” Her fans may decry her position on feminism as evasive, milquetoast even, but given how “issue” actresses are often ghettoized in India and in Pakistan (such as Nandita Das in Bollywood), it is understandable that Khan would be cautious, especially since both conservatives and liberals in Pakistan try to claim her as one of their ‘own.’
She is not alone in her quest to work out exactly how to do this while not getting “dragged into the politics of nations”—the challenge is one that both India and Pakistan’s film industries have yet to figure out, even as they begin to work together more closely.
“As artists we do not want to be limited,” Khan said. “Cross cultural artistic exchange can only be a good thing. We have so much in common—language, culture, music. I have learnt more and I have grown more because I work in India and in Pakistan and I know many Pakistanis who are eager to work in India and Indians who want to work in Pakistan.”
As Bollywood and Lollywood begin more exchanges, with ambassadors such as Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan—the Pakistani television actor who was also singled out by nationalists after his Bollywood debut in Khoobsurat—there are more opportunities for friction as well. In an interview last August with TV talk show host Reham Khan, Mahira Khan, who had been shooting for Raees, reflected that in Pakistan. “The more clothes you wear, the more respect you are given. You don’t need to do an item number for respect here.” The statement, taken somewhat out of context, was understood by many to be a criticism of Bollywood’s moral laxity. An ‘item number’ is often a sexually-provocative dance sequence of a film, that is generally unrelated to the plot. Khan clarified to us that she was misquoted as saying that she did not need or want to do an ‘item number’. “I have no issue with dancing in a film,” she told us. “In my next film, I am dancing.”
Shortly after the “item number” incident, Pakistani actor Mawra Hocane came under attack for ridiculing Pakistan’s ban on the Bollywood film Phantom. Khan offered a tweet in support, but her simple pat on the back—“Good One”—to Hocane resulted in a fairly scathing backlash on social media. Khan seems to accept this sort of reaction as part-and-parcel of the Pakistan film industry’s growing pains, as the maturity of its television dramas, which have gained new popularity in India, feeds into the expansion of its big screen fare. “I feel very optimistic about Pakistani cinema right now,” Khan said.
“What is exciting is that we do not have a prototype for what Pakistani cinema should look like,” she said. “We do not have a formula for success and we cannot say for sure if this will work or if that will work so there is a lot of experimentation, which is great.” She rattled off a few recent films to illustrate her point. “Na Maloom Afraad was a hit, and it was a comedy thriller. Manto was also a hit, and it was a serious drama. Bin Roye, which I acted in, was a hit too. So it is a very exciting time for Pakistani cinema.”
She’s not wrong. A new generation born into Pakistan’s diaspora have been able to reconnect with their heritage, as the nation has witnessed a resurgence in its nationally-produced fare. ‘Made In Pakistan’ now carries a note of pride. In recent years, films spanning genres from the low-budget Shah, to the critically acclaimed Moor or Zinda Bhaag, as well as box-office hits such as Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, Waar and Bin Roye have hit the right notes. Families across West Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, have headed to movie theaters in their droves, inculcating their young with the finer merits of Pakistani cinema—and a new-found patriotism.
Khan’s upcoming film, Ho Mann Jahaan, releases next month and is a coming-of-age romantic drama, directed by Asim Raza, one of Pakistan leading filmmakers, in advertising and TV and now cinema with his directorial debut. “I had just done some very intense drama,” Khan said, “I was looking for something that would be lighter, and Asim Raza is someone I admired. He is like a father figure to me, and I was very excited about his vision for this film.”
Khan said she would love to write and direct as well someday. “I would love to produce,” she joked “but I have seen producers lose their hair—and I already feel like I am losing my hair!” Khan added that she didn’t have any particular dream roles in mind, “but I know I want to do things differently. I am lucky that I have a voice and that my voice is being heard so if I can speak up, I can and I will.”
Around the world, many female actors have recently been speaking out about the tendency of interviewers to only question them about fashion or romance, while male actors are asked intellectual questions about their work. We asked Khan if she had experienced anything similar. “I have been doing interviews all day and I do not think this is true. For example, you are a man, and you are interviewing me, and you have not asked me once about fashion or clothes.” She continues carefully, “So yes, it happens, but it is not always the case.”