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THE ICON INTERVIEW: THE MANY LIVES OF MEHWISH

September 01, 2017
Photos: Kashif Rashid
Photos: Kashif Rashid

Mehwish Hayat has been riding the wave of success for the last few years. She is one of the most sought-after actresses in the country. Adding to her impressive repertoire, she is now also known for her singing. Naturally, when an actress achieves that level of success, it creates an aura of mystery around her. The only way to unravel that mystery is to have a heart-to-heart talk with her. So we meet.

In the overcrowded café where Mehwish and I meet up, kids flock to her for selfies; others around us look in our direction to make sure that they are in the presence of the Mehwish Hayat.

“It’s good to be loved by all,” she says with her megawatt smile. Although these days one can see her face everywhere — in films, on TV, singing on a big music show — Mehwish has many secret lives.

Actress, singer, TV-show host and the face of numerous advertisements, Mehwish Hayat opens up as she gears up for the release of Punjab Nahi Jaungi, her first female-centric film

“I like to stay mysterious as I like to surprise people,” she says. The actor-turned-singer believes that a person should live his or her life fully. “Coke Studio is the ultimate platform for an aspiring singer but it was certainly not the first time I had sung.” Director Nadeem Baig selected her to sing the title track of Man Jali and later she was chosen to sing the opening theme of Nida Yasir’s morning show. “I have always been fond of singing and was lucky enough to debut under the supervision of talented people such as Strings and Shiraz Uppal in Coke Studio. Critics were out with their knives but since I got more positive feedback than negative, I am content with my performance. I have just completed a US tour where I performed in Houston, Dallas and New York… that wouldn’t have been possible had I been a failed experiment.”

Many actors have trended on social media for their acting prowess but Mehwish became even more famous (and trended on Twitter) during the Pakistan Super League cricket tournament earlier this year. Be it the falling of a Lahore Qalandars’ wicket or a Lahori bowler getting one, the pretty face from Actor In Law (AIL) was all over the stadium’s large screens and TV screens across Pakistan.

“I had no idea my name was trending on Twitter during Pakistan Super League,” she says. “Bilal (Ashraf) and I were there in the UAE as brand ambassadors for the Lahore Qalandars and when our team played, we prayed and cheered like fans instead of celebrities. Sadly, our team lost most of the matches but since all the teams were Pakistani, we enjoyed the event even more. Although I hadn’t been a cricket fan before PSL, I would love to be a part of it next year as well.”

She expresses her disappointment on missing out on this year’s Champions Trophy which Pakistan won against India because she could not get a visa to travel to England.

We also talk about working in India which leads us to Hindi Medium in which her contemporary Saba Qamar impressed viewers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. “I have always maintained that if I get a role like Saba’s in Hindi Medium or something along the lines of Queen, Heroine or Jab We Met, I will accept it,” Mehwish points out. She claims that she gave up the biggest offer of her career to date when she was approached to play the second lead in Dedh Ishqiya opposite Naseeruddin Shah and Madhuri Dixit because she was uncomfortable doing an intimate scene required for the role in the film. “If I ever do an Indian film, it will be on my terms and conditions and not theirs, because I have made a place for myself in Pakistan with honesty and dedication. I don’t want to be cast as a showpiece or an object of desire in a film on either side of the border,” she explains. “I would love to represent my country with dignity.”

“I have always maintained that if I get a role in India like Saba’s in Hindi Medium or something along the lines of Queen, Heroine or Jab We Met, I will accept it.”

People have criticised Mehwish for doing item numbers to get into films, but she rejects it. “When I started my career, the quality of films was going down and that’s why TV actresses didn’t switch to films by default. I wasn’t the first choice to play ‘Billi’ in Na Maloom Afraad but when I was approached, I liked the concept and went ahead with it. I will not term Billi an item number because it was important to the story — the Don would never have found the Na Maloom Afraad had it not been for the Billi character. Yes, the song did bring crowds back to cinemas but had that been the only reason of my success, I wouldn’t have had a song-less role in AIL.”

Mehwish has had a fantastic last few years: whatever part she’s played in different media has been successful. Be it Alyy Khan’s stage play Aapki Sonia with Sajid Hasan, her debut feature film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (JPNA) directed by Nadeem Baig — that went on to become the highest-grossing Pakistani film ever — followed by the same director’s Dil Lagi that saw her return to TV, or Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s AIL in which she played the role of a Parsi so convincingly that even the late Om Puri congratulated her on her performance, it seems she can’t put a foot wrong.

Speaking about her break from TV a few years back, Mehwish says she “had left television because of a few issues with some people.” It was during that period that the actor found the time to explore and try her hand at other projects.

“Aapki Sonia is a Javed Siddiqui masterpiece and would have done better had it been staged somewhere in the city instead of the elite club where it was staged. JPNA and AIL made me a film star while Dil Lagi was a way to reach out to the audience all over Pakistan — especially those who don’t go to cinemas to watch films.”

Mehwish has had a fantastic last few years: whatever part she’s played in different media has been successful. Be it Alyy Khan’s stage play Aapki Sonia with Sajid Hasan, her debut feature film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (JPNA) directed by Nadeem Baig — that went on to become the highest-grossing Pakistani film ever — the same director’s Dil Lagi that saw her return to TV, or Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s Actor In Law in which she played the role of a Parsi so convincingly that even the late Om Puri congratulated her on her performance, it seems she can’t put a foot wrong.

While Mehwish claims to be choosy about selecting film roles, she doesn’t seem to take much time pondering over TV commercial offers. The advertorial segments seem to show that the actor easily agrees to take up TVCs. Does she prefer to be recognised as an actor or a model? “Both,” comes the prompt reply. “Both professions are two sides of the same coin. I consider working in TV commercials a bonus since it is one of the best ways to reach a wider audience. You get to play a character in less amount of time for more amount of money. But there is a problem. The ad people must have a policy of discarding an ad after it has run its course over a few years. There are a few commercials of mine in which even I can’t recognise myself.”

There was a time when Mehwish was the brand ambassador for a popular skin whitening cream, something that is now criticised as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘racist’ by the artist community all over the world. “I am against discrimination myself but when I agreed to do the commercial a long time back, I was naïve and had no understanding of how things worked. With the passage of time, I have learned that a beautiful heart matters more than one’s complexion. That’s why now I am very careful in choosing what brands I represent. When you go abroad you realise that a wheatish complexion is preferred over being gori which sadly still remains the beauty standard in this part of the world,” she says. Interestingly, she has featured on lists of most desirable celebrities in the last 10 years. “I don’t make an effort to be on such lists but feel honoured if they consider me as someone with good looks.”

Mehwish may be one of the most recognised faces in the country but she doesn’t have an award shelf at home that proves her to be an actor to reckon with. “Awards don’t matter to me. I hardly attend award functions as I don’t really feel that getting an award is any criterion for deciding who the best is.”

She was recently snubbed in two categories — Best Actress TV and Best Actress Film — at a celebrated award show. “I am my own competition. I respect everybody’s view, be it someone who likes me or not, because it’s due to them that I strive to become even better at what I do.”

She feels that in the coming days, there will be an improvement in Pakistani films just as there was in TV dramas some time back. “When I started my career, Star Plus dramas were a rage, much like Turkish plays these days, but thankfully due to some well thought-out characters and intelligent choices, I broke free of that monotony by playing real characters. That was one of the main reasons the audience switched to Pakistani plays and that’s how we plan to revive cinema as well.”

And then there is Punjab Nahi Jaungi (PNJ), her upcoming film. She has impressed all in the trailer for the film with her expressive acting besides sharing the screen with Humayun Saeed, Urwa Hocane, Ahmed Ali Butt and Azfar Rehman. While some claim that her character is an extension of Anmol, her role in Dil Lagi, Mehwish doesn’t think so. “It might look similar to JPNA and Dil Lagi because it has more or less the same co-actors. People who know me weren’t surprised when they saw me playing basketball in the teaser. As for the character in PNJ, we have tried to make her different from all characters we had done before.”

Not many Pakistani actors can claim to have worked in films with female-centric titles. Mehwish believes that such a chance occurs once in an actor’s career and she couldn’t have asked for a better one. “Carrying the responsibility of a film is the best thing that could have happened to me. This film is the struggle of a girl who embarks on a beautiful journey. Khalil ur Rehman Qamar’s script was a bonus since the dialogue is both a challenge and a treat. The best part of the film was our staying together as a family for the entire Bahawalpur spell. The weather was cold and freezing when we shot the rain song and I had to look both comfortable and beautiful.”

Now that PNJ is about to release (the film releases on Eidul Azha) what is next for Mehwish? Another rom-com or something different? “I have a number of offers to act in films but would be more interested in doing a film based on women’s issues. I am also open to doing quality theatre where the play gets at least 15 days to make its presence felt. There is also an option to turn to direction which is something I would like to do in the long run.” And will she go to Punjab or not? “Well, that’s something you will have to find out,” Mehwish says.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 1st, 2017