Circa Pakistan in the 1960s, Shamim Ara Begum was the country’s ruling star. Her public appearances were rare and coveted. People would wait endlessly for a mere glimpse of her, for just a whiff of the star-power that surrounded her.

“There was an aura of mystery around her — people wondered how she would be around her family, what her home must be like,” remembers director Syed Noor. “Once, she told me that she went to Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar wearing a burqa and someone managed to recognise her. The market went haywire and had to be shut down. It was a different time. Actresses worked hard on retaining their elusivity. They wouldn’t marry just so they would continue to be perceived as ‘desirable’. And if they married, they would go to great lengths to hide it from the public and fans.”

Madam Noor Jehan, Pakistan’s reigning superstar for many years and one of our most iconic leading ladies, made great efforts to retain a certain public image. “Every day, she would be ready at 2pm, with her make-up on, wearing a sari, ready to go to the studios,” remembers Madam’s daughter Nazia Ejaz. “This was the norm. Stars back then didn’t step out of their homes in their casual wear or without wearing any make-up, just to buy groceries! My mother never really went to the bazaar and, if she ever did, she would be wrapped up in a huge chaadar with just her eyes showing. She was quite comfortable with being mobbed at the airport when she was dressed properly but she would never want crowds of people to see her when she wasn’t looking her best.

“It was a different time,” Nazia continues. “At that time, if an actor appeared in a commercial, it was an indication that his or her career wasn’t doing well. There would be talk of how so-and-so has had to resort to selling soap or cooking oil. Now, the number of endorsements celebrities take on are a measure of their popularity!”

Today’s most idolised screen women don’t need to pretend to be young and single in order to feel coveted or put on a pedestal. But they still have to live up to certain traditional ideals...

The world today has gone through a complete paradigm shift. Today’s most-loved actresses are quite happy appearing in multiple advertisements, lending their star power to anything from soap and cooking oil to confectionary. Pakistan’s most aspirational, most idolised women aren’t the ones that hide themselves from the public eye, surfacing only occasionally into the limelight. They don’t try to pose as single young girls, hiding away their family lives, and most aren’t even the seductress sirens who stalk the red carpet in slinky designer gowns.

It’s all about relatability

In the age of social media, stars’ popularity is often gauged by the number of followers they have on their Instagram accounts. And even if these numbers are somewhat distorted, exaggerated by means of fake, purchased followers, the most coveted stars have fans that rampantly comment on every image that they float out. These comments, at least, can’t be faked and can be considered as an indication of an actors’ clout. And fans, evidently, love actresses that they can relate to.

Ayeza Khan, for instance, is at the pinnacle of popularity right now, both on and off social media. She walks into a mall and irrevocably gets mobbed by huge crowds of fans, some of them even getting teary-eyed. They love her because she’s a very talented actress. They especially love her when she plays the role of the pious, long-tortured daughter-in-law in TV dramas. And in no way does her popularity get negated by the fact that she is married (to actor and show host Danish Taimoor) and a mother of two children. 

Ayeza has, on occasion, talked about managing her domestic responsibilities with her hectic work life, on how she juggles breakfast duty for her children with an early morning shooting call. It’s an admirable image — and a realistic one — but it isn’t exactly a glamorous one.

Like many other working women in Pakistan, Ayeza has mastered the juggling act between domesticity and a full-blown career. It’s possible that this very facet of her personal life has made people love her even more.

There are so many other examples. Fans are smitten when a newly-wed Sajal Aly bakes cinnamon rolls, or Mawra Hocane wears a shalwar kameez and wishes them ‘Jumma Mubarak’, or Iqra Aziz stitches a kurta for her husband. These same fans had been livid when Iqra had accepted a wedding proposal from beau Yasir Hussain at the Lux Style Awards last year, and had hugged publicly. In Pakistan, we are supposed to show our love by stitching clothes and cooking food — not through actual physical cuddling!

“Pakistan’s core audience watches TV dramas and they like to see characters that they can relate to,” points out Abdullah Kadwani, director of 7th Sky Entertainment. “They will always prefer characters who follow religious, moral and family values that are similar to their own. It’s my observation that they feel a sense of ownership and love towards an actress whose life they are able to understand.”

These words ring true when one considers Mahira Khan, veritably one of the country’s most-loved actresses, but also one of the most-trolled. Mahira shot to fame many years ago playing the good daughter-in-law who endures years of marital torture before, finally, her estranged husband sees the light and she zones in on her ‘happily ever after’. She acted well but she also wore beautiful three-piece shalwar kameezes and, to top it off, she was beautiful with — the icing on the cake — a fair complexion. People loved her. They wanted to be her. They continue to do so.

But anytime Mahira has chosen to dabble with her glamorous side and slip into a risqué gown, the audience has taken offence. Some of them have offered kindly ‘advice’ via social media while others have resorted to cruel, snide comments. And when, back in 2018, pictures of Mahira in a backless dress, having a smoke with Indian star Ranbir Kapoor leaked out, the country’s moral brigade went haywire. How could she, one of their own, the good girl in dramas who bears with societal evils until fate hands her the fruition of her pains, be seen in these images? The love of Pakistan’s emotional ‘awaam’ can truly be a blessing as well as a burden.

Similarly, Mehwish Hayat, an actress with a slew of hit films to her credit, has fans who are especially pleased when she makes an appearance in desi-gear and haters who will never forgive her for dancing in item songs.

Saba Qamar, another actress who often weathers the mercurial moods of the Pakistani populace, observes, “Yes, people only want to see us in a certain way, validating their notions of how a woman should be. But I can’t really be bothered by such perceptions. I make my own choices — I refuse to pretend to be a ‘pyaari beti’ [sweet daughter] just because that’s the persona that my country loves the most.”

In fact, recently, local social media even decided to school Turkish actress Esra Bilgic of Erturgrul fame, when she posted an image of herself on Instagram in a short top. How could she have known that she would rile up the sentiments of Pakistan’s tempestuous Muslims who preferred to see her all covered up the way she was on TV? They did proceed to inform her of their ‘religious’ opinions in a multitude of online comments.

Insta-success: be ‘good’ and let your life be an open book!

Who, then, does Pakistan love and rarely trolls? Drama actresses — and twins — Aiman Khan and Minal Khan are widely loved. Aiman, in fact, is currently the Pakistani actress with the highest number of followers on Instagram. Her repertoire of work is limited, but she’s a social media pro. The cyber-world trails along with her, wherever she chooses to go, sharing in her life’s special moments, from her wedding (to actor Muneeb Butt) to her baby shower, birthdays, family get-togethers and media events. Aiman is also the quintessential ‘good girl’, married, with a beautiful baby girl (Amal). Both she and her sister Minal have often talked about following certain values and the importance of family.

“I don’t think I would want to dance if I ever worked in a movie,” Minal Khan tells Icon. “It would go against my principles. Both Aiman and I are fortunate that we are so well-loved, and I think that’s because we aren’t very different from the personas that we have on TV. Fans don’t like it when actresses have completely contrasting public and private lives.”

Director Nadeem Baig, whose work frequently jumps from the glamour of the cinema screen to the domestic tearjerkers that are the heart of Pakistani drama, says, “The digital age has changed a lot of things. Earlier, stars were enigmatic and unapproachable. I remember waiting to read the entertainment column which would come in the paper once a week, where a journalist would visit a film set and talk to the actors. Now, fans appreciate it when they can stay connected to their favourite stars: what are they eating, wearing, how will they celebrate Eid? Social media has removed the aura of mystery, replacing it with relatability.

“In the past, there was definitely a perception that once a girl marries, she could no longer be a heroine,” continues Nadeem. “The roles offered to film actresses particularly were of desirable women. Now, the roles have changed. Most well-known actresses refrain from accepting roles that objectify them. They want to play substantial characters.”

Stylist Nabila, with three decades of experience of working with Pakistan’s many stars and starlets, observes that the Pakistani mindset tends to aspire towards a certain kind of girl. “Unfortunately, this usually means that she is pretty and fair, and that she conforms to a certain mindset: the well-mannered, good girl who takes care of her children, her husband and her in-laws. It is sad that, in all these many years, very few female role models have been of ambitious women who have overcome barriers and set benchmarks. 

“Today’s stars may be able to publicly acknowledge their family lives but, yes, in the past, actresses would often keep their children a secret. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, heroines would try to maintain that they were young and unmarried by making their children call them ‘baaji’ [elder sister].”

Does an actress’ popularity really ensure that any project that she does is a success, however? Does the fact that she is active on social media and, moreover, a ‘good, family woman’ according to desi norms, guarantee that her movie will be a hit? Film star Reema points out that this is not always the case. “If an actress overexposes herself on social media, people will no longer be curious to see her on the cinema screen. They won’t be in a rush to buy tickets to see her movie. When I was a leading heroine in Pakistani films, I would wrap myself in a big chaadar when I went to Lahore’s Liberty Market. I didn’t want people to see me doing something commonplace, such as shopping. This is something that many of today’s actors don’t understand. Yes, they may be able to earn through internet endorsements, but they lose out on their star power.”

Nevertheless, perhaps the audience’s perception of a star has changed. Nazia Ejaz points out that, “If you’re not on social media, you’re not relevant. Your audience enjoys seeing the many facets to your life, from the glamorous red carpet pictures to the no make-up selfies.”

Those facets are particularly appreciated when they adhere to societal norms. The conscientious mothers that juggle the work-life balance are well-loved. The girls-next-door are looked upon with a benevolent eye. Their lives and their value systems make sense to the Pakistani audience. These women don’t need to pretend to be young and single in order to feel coveted.

This same audience turns vicious any time an actress doesn’t fit into their notions of morality. She cannot let the audience know that the three-piece blingy shalwar kameez can be quite stifling. Or that she likes to party out with friends, late into the night. Or God forbid, puff on a cigarette every now and then.

It’s a difficult high-wire act — to be Pakistan’s sweetheart.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2020