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Photo: Abdullah Haris
Photo: Abdullah Haris

Urwa Hocane and Mawra Hocane could be twins — but there’s a year’s difference between the actor sisters. They finish each other’s sentences, spring to each other’s defense and often drift into the past, recalling shared memories. Meeting them together, it is their camaraderie that strikes me more than the glamorous nature of their careers. There are, of course, the obvious similarities between them: the resemblances in their looks, the fact that they’re both actresses and their strong presence on social media. With millions of followers on Instagram, it is certain that Urwa and Mawra are well-loved.

Of course, the downside to such a massive following is that they are also trolled very, very frequently. I had often wondered how they must deal with the deluge of critique, which can now be levelled so easily — and often unfairly — thanks to social media. It was something that I had always wanted to ask but, now, sitting opposite them, I wonder if they would be comfortable addressing controversial questions.

“You can go off the record any time you want,” I offer.

“No, why should we? We never shy away from expressing our opinions,” Mawra asserts.

I discover this is another similarity shared by this sister act: they’re both adept at cocking sardonic eyebrows at their critics and, then, shrugging them off and surging onwards. They are also very real, willing to laugh at a good joke and refreshingly, without any starry airs and graces.

Urwa and Mawra Hocane are more than mere social media celebrities and actresses. As they launch their new clothing line, it is the sisters’ camaraderie that strikes one as more riveting than the glamorous nature of their careers

For instance, they spell their surnames with a ‘c’ and five years into building their careers, Twitter still can never forget this. Memes and jokes continue to pop up frequently, with plenty of extra ‘c’s added in to the captions! “It’s hilarious,” grins Urwa. “There was this one line that read, ‘Urwa Hocane and Mawra Hocane are cute cisters’.”

I remind them of another image that had led to unlimited internet jokes — of Farhan and Urwa featured in a furniture ad. Farhan was, inevitably, Farhan ‘Caeed’ and the sofa was a ‘cofa’. “Great, someone’s having fun. I’m glad. Some of these memes are so creative!” Urwa shrugs good-naturedly.

“We actually share a lot of these jokes with each other and laugh over them,” agrees Mawra.

Urwa continues, “You see, when you’re active on social media, it means that you will get a lot of love from your fans and you’ll be able to connect with them. On the other hand, there will also be trolling. It’s all about perspective, you could think that the glass is half-full or half-empty. I have always visualised it to be half-full.”

“And I, full-full,” Mawra chimes in. “Even when it’s empty, I’ll think that it’s full and I’ll keep going.”

It’s a very positive approach but what do they do during the inevitable slumps that are part of every actor’s career? What about when, having wrapped up projects, they are twiddling their fingers at home, waiting for the next great role to come their way? “We find something else to do,” Urwa says. “I’m producing my first movie, Tich Button, and she has completed her studies and has become an advocate.”

“All our lives, we’ve never been free,” observes Mawra. “When we were in our early teens, we’d rush from school to the theatre, to do our homework and then fall asleep, exhausted. We’d always be taking some lesson or the other, learning how to play the guitar or trying out kathak dance. To date, we always have so many plans that we’re always working on.”

One of these ‘plans’ is about to be realised, in the form of a clothing line created by the two sisters, called ‘UXM’, featuring casual Western-wear and accessories. “The tagline for the brand is, ‘The girls who can’, and it defines us in a lot of ways,” says Urwa. “There are times when we buy our daily wear from abroad or get it stitched specially and people ask us where we bought it from. That’s the aesthetic that we are bringing to the brand.”

Mawra adds, “It’s going to be a reflection of our personalities and the way the two of us dress on a daily basis.”

This reminds me of their many red carpet choices. Both sisters have a predilection for statement designer-wear and while sometimes they make it to the best-dressed lists, there are other times they don’t…

Hit-and-miss wardrobe choices … and so what?

“Of course there are times when we’ll make bad wardrobe choices and other times when we won’t,” says Mawra. “That’s okay. It doesn’t mean that we should be boring and stop experimenting with our looks just because we fear that people won’t like them.”

“I think that I am the queen of bad wardrobe choices for the red carpet,” adds Urwa. “I don’t know what happens to me, I always end up opting for something that doesn’t go with something else.”

Mawra has her own take on things. “There was this one time when I had recently worn a gown by Manish Malhotra and, soon afterwards, a sari by Shehla Chatoor. People began discussing on Instagram if I looked good in one or the other and they were sometimes complimentary and, at other times, very negative. A friend of mine called me and told me about this and I found it so funny. Regardless, it was me wearing both clothes. It was a win-win for me!”

I suggest that they could forego the critique altogether and just opt for safer sartorial choices. Some of their most popular posts are on a Friday, where it is part of their routine to upload images of themselves in desi clothes, wishing their followers ‘Jumma Mubarak’. Also, Mawra has been making a strong case for the old-school gharara, wearing it for her role in Aangan, the period drama currently airing on the Hum Network.

“But why should we opt for safe choices?” Urwa asks defiantly. “Of course, traditional-wear comes naturally to us, but where else could we be flashy and experimental if not on the red carpet?”

Indeed, where else? Social media’s opinionated commentators can go on commenting, for all that these girls care.

When you’re active on social media, it means that you will get a lot of love from your fans and you’ll be able to connect with them. On the other hand, there will also be trolling. It’s all about perspective, you could think that the glass is half-full or half-empty. I have always visualised it to be half-full,” says Urwa. “And I, full-full,” Mawra chimes in. “Even when it’s empty, I’ll think that it’s full and I’ll keep going.”

“No, it’s not like we don’t care when we are attacked on social media,” says Mawra. “I don’t care if my wardrobe isn’t liked, but of course it hurts if someone attacks my family. The first time I was trolled, it was very upsetting and I have seen my co-actors crying over social media controversies. There have also been times when I have addressed trolls and it hasn’t been because they are important but because I feel that I matter. I can’t let people go off and say whatever they want.”

“We have become thick-skinned,” agrees Urwa, “but I do get the feeling that people have tried to put us down simply because we are brave. We haven’t created special social media personas for ourselves. We don’t measure our words when we write a post on Twitter so that we remain politically correct. I’d like to believe that we are wise and correct just the way we are. But just the fact that we are comfortable with projecting who we really are is something that a lot of people are unable to accept.”

Insta-lebrities!

Urwa Hocane as Durdana and Humayun Saeed in Punjab Nahin Jaungi
Urwa Hocane as Durdana and Humayun Saeed in Punjab Nahin Jaungi

“I think that when people will look back in retrospect some years from now, they will appreciate how we actually paved the way for others,” says Mawra. “When you are the first one to do something, you have to bear the brunt, but if you lose out on your courage, you’ll never be able to express yourself the way that you want to.”

Urwa chimes in: “Like, even before I married Farhan Saeed and was dating him, I never hid the fact that we were together. Now, celebrity couples are more open about their relationships but back then, it was rare.”

This makes me recall a certain shoot that Urwa and Farhan had released after their marriage, on their first wedding anniversary. The very intimate shots had made the internet reel and plenty of snide comments had followed. “So what? It was a shoot that we liked. It made us happy and our fans appreciated it too,” she says. “Right afterwards, a lot of other celebrity couples posed for similar shoots. We were just the first ones to do it.”

They were also two of the very first Pakistani celebrities to begin posting on Instagram and build huge followings for themselves. “I didn’t know any other actor who had an Instagram account back when I first started out,” agrees Mawra. “I made Urwa’s account and I made the accounts of so many of my co-actors. Yes, I love connecting with my followers but I also love Instagram simply because I enjoy it a lot.”

Was this why they had allowed Urwa’s wedding to Farhan back in 2016 to be such an all-out social media affair? #UrHan’s many ceremonies had been floated out on the internet, and while some loved watching every nuance of the revelry, there were others who had not been pleased. It was pointed out that some privacy should have been retained and that the showmanship was likely to instill an inferiority complex in a country mired in poverty.

“We actually had no idea that the wedding would become such an internet sensation. Had we known it, we would have prepared better dances, at least!” Mawra laughs. “We had only had a month to prepare and we had all been rushing about, wrapping up work and figuring out the guest list, the décor and what we were going to wear! It’s just that all the guests had cameras and the images ended up filtering out.”

Career moves

Mawra Hocane and Harshvardhan in Sanam Teri Kasam
Mawra Hocane and Harshvardhan in Sanam Teri Kasam

But while they may be pros in the world of Instagram, Urwa and Mawra’s main claim to fame — their acting careers — have had their highs and lows. Both actresses have worked in a range of TV dramas as well as dabbled with film and many of these have been hits.

Mawra made her Bollywood debut with Sanam Teri Kasam back when cross-border ties with India were better. Would she still consider acting in an Indian movie, given how tumultuous Indo-Pak relations can be?

“I always consider one project at a time,” Mawra muses, “and what draws me is my role and the overall script. I can’t say at this point that I will refuse a role. It all depends on the situation at the time.”

She is currently starring in Momina Duraid’s drama Aangan but what are her favourite projects to date? “I loved acting in the drama Mein Bushra and in the movie, Sanam Teri Kasam. I think I aged by six years when I was working in that movie. I learnt so much and, by the time that I was done with it, I was completely drained.”

Urwa, meanwhile, considers Hum Network’s hugely popular drama Udaari as her most impactful role. Her most famous character, though, has to be that of Durdana, a side role that she played in the movie Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ). Had Urwa initially been comfortable with playing a side character?

“Sometimes even side roles turn out to be memorable ones, and all I know is that I had enjoyed playing Durdana,” she says.

Was this why she had wholeheartedly been part of PNJ’s pre-release promotions while remaining noticeably absent in the activities preceding the release of Na Maloom Afraad 2 (NMA2), her other movie that had been releasing at the same time? “No, I was just more visible in the PNJ promotions because I couldn’t possibly be in two places at the same time,” Urwa reasons.

So there are no bad feelings between her and the makers of NMA2, Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza? “Not at all! I have worked with them in two movies, haven’t I?” she points out.

And now, of course, she has turned producer with Tich Button, with husband Farhan Saeed in the main lead along with Feroze Khan, Sonya Hussyn, Iman Ali, Sohail Ahmed and Marina Khan, among others. What prompted her to take the production route?

“It’s something that I had always wanted to do,” she says. “There are changes that you can’t make to a set even if you want to and, with this movie, I could call the shots completely. It was tough and I don’t think I truly slept properly for weeks! But I learnt something new every day.”

Was she not scared about investing in local cinema, where most movies fail to break even? “If I keep getting scared about trying out new things, I won’t be able to do anything at all,” she predictably replies.

Mawra adds, “It all boils down to business. Everyone needs to take a first step and then grow from there. Losses may happen, but so do profits.”

There’s that positive thinking at work again. How do they deal with co-actors or directors who they have worked with, and who choose to complain about them later? “We can’t do anything about it, can we?” Urwa says. “Sometimes, things don’t work out. There could be date issues, for instance. It doesn’t mean that we resort to public attacks against each other.”

“It is our rule that we don’t talk about roles that we refuse,” adds Mawra. “We would never want to belittle another person just for the sake of our own pride. But we can’t control others.”

Instead, they just keep going, searching out some truly good roles, basking in their respective fandom, ignoring the vitriol that is so prevalent in this social media age and, instead, getting dressed up, taking a picture and wishing you, ‘Jumma Mubarak’. Thick-skinned, driven, Insta-savvy and with so many plans for the future, this successful sister act can teach the world a thing or two.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 9th, 2019