Venus rising: Mahira Khan

Published July 26, 2015
Mahira in a screen grab from Bin Roye.
Mahira in a screen grab from Bin Roye.

There’s no doubt that Mahira Khan leads a glamorous life. Lights, cameras, fabulous designer-wear and fans follow her wherever she goes.

She’s innately stylish, very popular and currently making waves as she launches headlong into cinema. Her movie with Hum Films, Bin Roye, is presently screening in cinemas and her next venture, Asim Raza’s Ho Mann Jahan, is set to release in a few months. Meanwhile, shooting for her Bollywood debut opposite no less than ‘King’ Shahrukh Khan is already underway. If she isn’t on-set in India, she’s filming a song sequence in Chitral or hitting Prague for a commercial shoot or jetting across the globe for Bin Roye’s promotions.

Also read: Review: Is Mahira Khan the best thing about Bin Roye?

And yet, she talks about it all in the most unglamorous way! “I am so tired, I can barely walk,” she tells me. “I am limping my way to promotions. Only a bystander can believe that I lead a glamorous life. You should see the number of times my mother calls me while I am away and she’s taking care of my five-year-old son Azlan. I have no life at all!”

“I don’t even have time to buy clothes. My closet’s empty and a few days earlier, a friend offered to swap kurtas with me when we were about to go somewhere and there were chances that I’d be photographed,” she laughs.

But while her daily wardrobe may be limited, Mahira’s looking better than ever. She takes center stage in Bin Roye, proving her acting mettle with her highly-emotional role. Fresh-faced, svelte and with flawless skin that most women would kill for, she’s been spotted in select designer wear both on-camera and off. From traditional formals by Feeha Jamshed and Elan to smart casuals by Sania Maskatiya to cutting-edge Muse and Misha Lakhani, Mahira’s sartorial choices have quickly gained a fan following all of their own.

Mahira dressed in Feeha Jamshed (L) and in MUSE (R)
Mahira dressed in Feeha Jamshed (L) and in MUSE (R)

On the day we meet — a rare day, squeezed in between her madcap schedule — Mahira is wearing a simple white kurta with her hair tied up and her face completely devoid of make-up. She’s still turning heads, though. On a sweltering summer afternoon when the city’s barely trundling through the day, people keep coming up to Mahira, requesting autographs and selfies, unrestrained in their adulation.

“I have never been so consistently photographed or had such a schedule before,” she admits. “I’ve been travelling, returning home for promotional appearances and juggling it all with being the mother of a five-year-old.”

She’s enjoying it all, though. “I want to do the best projects and I am lucky to be enacting roles that I love. But let’s not talk too much about Raees,” she says. Her Indian debut is the subject of much conjecture and she’s obviously tired of discussing it. “I am excited about it but its release is still at least a year away. Bin Roye has just released and HMJ follows soon. I have very disparate roles in both movies and I am eager to see how well they do.”

She touches wood superstitiously as she talks. That’s Mahira for you; passionate about what she does and utterly sincere with her opinions. She’s an absolute star who doesn’t feel the need to feign starry airs. She frowns and weighs her words as she tries to be politically correct and endearingly veers towards ‘off-the-record’ territory every now and then. She’ll ricochet from anecdotes from movie sets to mulling over the future of Pakistani cinema to agonising over the trials of motherhood, one after the other.

There is so much more to Mahira Khan than pancake and bright lights. In an exclusive interview, she talks about her celluloid dreams, career highs and offers a glimpse of the woman behind the starry veneer …

Silver-screen stardom

“I honestly didn’t know how well Bin Roye would fare with audiences,” she admits. “I couldn’t be indifferent while watching it. I kept seeing tiny nuances that I could have changed with my role.”

The movie, a Momina Duraid effort, met plenty of hitches and delays before finally reaching completion. “Bin Roye has been a true labour of love, a testament to how all odds can be defied when you are passionate about something. I signed on to it when my career was at a high and it was frustrating waiting for it to be completed. Eventually, I began reading other scripts and signed on for the drama Sadqay Tumhare. Losing myself to another role was refreshing.”

Mahira's turn in Bin Roye features some song and dance.
Mahira's turn in Bin Roye features some song and dance.

Despite the angst and exhaustion, the making of Bin Roye brings back many fond memories for Mahira. Schedules varied from filming in Karachi’s scorching weather in a house rumored to be haunted to San Francisco and Santa Barbara in the winter. “When we were abroad, Momina kept us on a strict roster and we weren’t allowed to go into the city and party. Instead, we would have parties of our own in our rooms. And in Karachi, we had a great time filming the movie’s songs. 'Ballay Ballay' was shot by Asim Raza and we were rehearsing and dancing for 10 whole days. Sarmad Khoosat filmed another song, 'Tere Bina Jeena', and we would all laze around for hours, drinking cups of tea and listening to music while the set got ready. Even my friends would come over and sit on set. It was fun.”

“Bin Roye has been a true labour of love... I signed on to it when my career was at a high and it was frustrating waiting for it to be completed,” says Mahira

Bin Roye has been winning rave reviews but many fans are bemoaning that the original choice for the movie, Fawad Khan, couldn’t work in the project due to date issues. Does Mahira feel that she makes a good pair with her much older leading man, Humayun Saeed? “I think so,” she says. “Humayun acts very well and that matters the most.”

In contrast, Mahira’s co-stars for HMJ, Sheheryar Munawar and Adeel Hussain, are much younger. “It’s a younger, more lively genre of cinema,” explains Mahira. “We had a blast, rehearsing for scenes and having wrap-up parties long before shooting actually wrapped up.”

The poster for Ho Mann Jahaan.
The poster for Ho Mann Jahaan.

HMJ was completed in a matter of months because that’s just how Asim Raza works. Recently we visited Chitral to shoot a romantic song and got caught in the middle of a hailstorm. There I was, trying to look serene and lovelorn with hailstones pelting down my face and umbrellas and people flying about me. Asim was sick at the time but he persisted. It was grueling work although it does seem funny now.”

Also read: Ho Mann Jahaan — the next big thing in Pak cinema is coming soon

“Asim’s a friend and whenever I work with him I feel spoilt,” she continues. “He pampers his cast and makes them feel utterly comfortable.”

Cross-border dreams

Did she feel as comfortable working in Bollywood’s clustered, competitive waters? “It took some time,” she admits. “Raees’ producer Ritesh Sidhwani and director Rahul Dholakia were very kind with me from the onset. They listened to my reservations, explained things to me and told me repetitively not to worry. Indian cinema is certainly more extensive than our nascent film industry but I can’t really say that one is more professional than the other. I began shooting for Raees immediately after HMJ and both set-ups were extremely efficient.”

“My co-stars in India have also been very kind. I play a Muslim girl from Gujrat so I didn’t have to master any particular Hindi dialect. Perhaps the main obstacle I had to overcome was mastering song-and-dance sequences. Shahrukh practiced with me till I got it right. He’s a natural and a very quick learner — I took a bit longer!” she laughs.

And how true are the rumours that she pulled contacts in order to land her role in Raees? “They’re not true at all,” she protests. “My drama Humsafar had just been aired very successfully in India and the Zindagi channel had invited me to India for some promotional appearances. Completely coincidentally, I auditioned for Raees while I was there. A week later, I got a call that I had gotten the role. I didn’t even know at the time which actors I would be working with.”

"Why are we always on a quest to conquer Bollywood? I just want to do the best work wherever I go. It could be here in Pakistan or India or anywhere else," says Mahira

Her role in Raees appears to steer away from the risqué unabashed female characters that frequent current Bollywood ventures. How does Mahira plan to build her career in Bollywood? Will we be seeing her in an item song or two in the future? “There are some things that I will never do,” she mulls. “I can’t predict what I will or won’t do in the future but I have certain limitations. They may restrict acting opportunities for me but I am happy to work within them.”

“Besides, why are we always on a quest to conquer Bollywood? I just want to do the best work wherever I go. It could be here in Pakistan or India or anywhere else,” says Mahira.

Personal balances

It’s a sensible career plan for Bollywood is tricky territory and uptil now, no other Pakistani actor aside from Fawad Khan has been able to sufficiently impress Indian audiences. Will we be seeing the hit Humsafar couple on screen any time soon? “Nothing yet,” she replies, “Although I am reading a lot of scripts right now.”

She balances it all with the demands of the man in her life, her son Azlan. “When I am working in Karachi, I am just like any other working mum. I am constantly with Azlan while I am home. And while I was in India, Azlan was with his father or with my parents. It made things easier for me.”

But life isn’t easy, even if you’re Mahira Khan. She’s no longer with her husband — a topic that she is deliberately reticent about. “There are some topics that you want to keep private when you’re constantly in the public eye,” she says carefully. “There are so many other things I want to say, so much I have to be thankful for, so much more work that I want to do.”

And whatever she does, the limelight follows her, relentless in its scrutiny. Bin Roye features her in almost every scene and is being applauded as her film. And beyond Pakistan, she’s now being called ‘Shahrukh Khan’s new heroine’.

“Hopefully, everything will work out well.” She touches wood. We’re touching it for her too!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine July 26th, 2015

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