Meeting Aiman Muneeb and Minal Khan gives me a glimpse into how Pakistan’s next generation of celebrities operate. The girls are show business’ most popular twins, and they know it. They’re both beautiful, energetic … and certainly know their way around their cellphone cameras.

We pause to take pictures during the course of our interview, and I’m riveted by how they slightly change their poses with every click, knowing all the right angles, making sure that every picture comes out perfect. Even while talking, one of them takes out her camera and makes a small video or takes a picture. Shortly after our meeting, the little snippets are floated out on Instagram. They’ve figured out social media down to a science — when to post, how to post, what camera filters work best — and for someone like me, it’s actually quite enlightening.

It’s also what makes both girls the two most-followed celebrities in Pakistan on Instagram, surpassing their peers as well as a prodigious line-up of seniors. At the time at which this article was written, Aiman’s followers exceed a whopping 7 million, while Minal isn’t too far behind with over 6 million. Of course, Instagram popularity cannot be considered a benchmark for acting prowess, but it’s certainly an additional revenue stream for today’s celebrities. A big part of both girls’ lives constitutes working in collaboration with different fashion and lifestyle brands, being part of various photo shoots, and then uploading the images on their social media platforms. In addition, they recently launched their eponymous online clothing range, Aiman Minal Closet, and also frequently promote their own collections.

Do the clothes sell? “They always do! Why do you think all these brands keep coming back to us?” smiles Minal.

Credit for this goes to their immense star power and their ability to carry clothes well. But there’s more to the elusive popularity code that the twins have cracked so well: they are, most significantly, relatable. Aiman and Minal have mastered the balance of being the quintessential ‘good girls’ while simultaneously exuding glamour. They have a large circle of celebrity friends, but their Instagram feeds particularly feature images with their family — mother, brothers, Aiman’s actor husband Muneeb Butt and their beautiful one-year-old daughter Amal — accompanying them on vacations, shopping trips and media soirees.

Pakistani showbiz’s most popular twins, Aiman and Minal Khan, seem to act and think alike. They have mastered the art of exuding star glamour and raking it in on social media, while simultaneously remaining the quintessential darlings of a conservative society

They model a plethora of local brands but have a decisive penchant for three-piece shalwar kameez, making it a point to ‘never wear sleeveless’. They will talk at length about acting roles that excite them but are not very inclined towards cinema because, according to Minal, most movie actresses have to dance and dress a certain way, which she is not comfortable with. In a world where actresses get trolled frequently, social media tends to spare Aiman and Minal most of the time. They are Pakistan’s definition of ‘good girls’, through and through.

Poster girls for Pakistan

There has, however, been talk that Aiman’s massive social media following must consist of fake, purchased followers, given that she put her career on hold when she got married last year. Does it make her angry? “It made me angry but I also found it funny,” she says. “I was on Instagram back when people didn’t even know about it. I actually made accounts for many of my fellow celebrities. I’ve just been around for that long, which is why I have so many followers.”

Minal adds in, “Even I sometimes ask Aiman how her social media following increases so rapidly.”

“I really don’t know,” smiles Aiman. “Perhaps people just feel that they understand us better.”

They may be basking in popularity, but this hasn’t deterred Minal from recently taking on a very negative role in the drama Jalan. She plays a psychotic, evil, husband-stealing, younger sister in the drama which has been racking up heavy ratings on ARY Digital. It also just endured a spate of controversy when it temporarily got banned by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) on the basis that its content went ‘against the ideology of Pakistan…’

“People have been really hating my character, Nisha,” Minal grins. “It’s great that another drama of mine is airing simultaneously, which has somewhat balanced the audience’s perception of me.”

Had Minal expected that Jalan’s subject matter would be considered so offensive that it would get banned, albeit temporarily? “Not at all,” she says. “It’s not a story that hasn’t been told before and my character’s envy and psychotic behaviour has been treated very intelligently. I was so excited to play a negative character with so many shades to it and, when the ban was announced, it made me very tense. We had all worked so hard on it, and now it was at risk of getting discontinued altogether. Social media these days can be really vicious. Everyone’s a critic and inclined towards negativity. On the upside, people have really been appreciating my acting.”

Curious to know the fate of the nefarious Nisha, I try to get a hint about how Jalan ends. “No one knows that!” Minal laughs. “The drama’s final episode still has to be shot, so even I’m still on tenterhooks. But regardless, I’ve learnt from Aiman to never reveal the ending of my dramas.”

“You kill the excitement when you let people know how the story ends,” says Aiman. “When I used to get a drama script, I would get Mama to read the first five episodes. If she liked them, I would do the drama. But I’d never show her how the rest of the story unfolds!”

‘Mama’, their mother, evidently plays a pivotal role in both girls’ careers. “She reads my scripts too. I only sign on to the stories that she says have potential,” says Minal.

“And if I worked in a drama that Mama said wouldn’t be good, and it actually did flop, she would be the first to say ‘I told you so’!” laughs Aiman.

Aiman talks in the past tense about her career. She had a busy roster, lined up with major dramas, before she got married to actor Muneeb Butt last year. Why did she stop working? “I had my daughter,” she says, “and I thought that I would work after Amal’s birth but then, I just didn’t want to. Dramas used to be shot between 10am and 10pm earlier, but now there’s no schedule. I see Minal coming home much later in the night, and even working Sundays. I would miss out on Amal’s most special years if I got perpetually busy with work.”

Does she miss acting? “I used to, initially, but both Minal and I started working when we were very young. Our lives would always be extremely hectic. I’m enjoying the peace and time that I can get now.”

Curious to know the fate of the nefarious Nisha, I try to get a hint about how Jalan ends. “No one knows that!” Minal laughs. “The drama’s final episode still has to be shot, so even I’m still on tenterhooks. But regardless, I’ve learnt from Aiman to never reveal the ending of my dramas.”

“I actually envy her,” chimes in Minal. “I’m at work while she’s relaxing!”

Does Minal also think that she’ll follow in her sister’s footsteps, putting her career on hold once she ties the knot? There were recent rumours that she may be announcing her wedding soon. “Not soon,” she corrects me. “And I don’t really know how things will work out for me after marriage.”

This is certainly a time when Minal’s work is getting noticed more than ever before. Projects with prime production houses and star ensemble casts, coupled with her social media clout, have meant that she always has interesting roles offered to her. She has also been coming into her own, proving her acting mettle in these roles. Given how she has been applauded for being convincingly evil in Jalan, does she have a possible award on her mind now? “I’ve never really thought about awards,” she says. “I have different goals, focusing on my family, my personal life and acting out roles that I enjoy. Awards have never been a consideration.”

“We’ve both never really focused on awards,” adds Aiman.

Twin act

Their answers, I tell them, are so similar that it seems as if they are two sides of a coin. I’d read about twins acting and thinking the same way, and Aiman and Minal could serve as prime specimens of this phenomenon. They share their food, like the same clothes and sometimes even answer simultaneously. For instance, we discuss professional competition with their peers. Both girls claim to have never felt intimidated by their fellow actresses’ success. “I feel happy for them,” says Minal. “What is meant for you will come to you.”

Aiman adds, “It’s better to just focus on your work.”

I broach tricky territory when I mention Aiman’s wedding last year, which stretched on for nine events that were all extensively covered on social media. Saba Qamar, at the Hum Style Awards, even made a quip about how the world would end but Aiman and Muneeb’s wedding wouldn’t. “That was funny!” laughs Aiman. “We had so many plans for the wedding. We went on vacations for our shopping and had different themed dholkis. Somehow the pictures leaked out. There were so many bloggers who gate-crashed the wedding.”

Right on cue, Minal adds, “What could we do? We couldn’t stop the guests from taking pictures, and both Aiman and Muneeb have so many fans!”

Yet more events followed their infamous Instagram wedding: a baby shower, a vacation up in the Northern Areas and, last week, Aiman’s daughter’s first birthday. Event planners, venues and dress designers were generally tagged in the social media coverage, which hints at sponsored collaborations. It’s a practice adopted by most celebrities all over the world, and the girls find nothing wrong with it. “People love the pictures. They love being part of our happiness,” says Minal.

“I did hate our recent trip to the mountains,” she adds, referring to recent breathtaking images both girls had shared of a family vacation. “We got so tired by the long drives, baby Amal got ill and Aiman had to cut her trip short.”

I couldn’t tell in the pictures, I tell them. “You can’t believe everything you see on social media,” smiles Minal.

How does Aiman feel about being married to a popular TV drama hero with a considerable fan following? “I don’t feel insecure,” she laughs. “I really admire how Muneeb puts his heart into whatever he does. When he’s doing a role, he really focuses on it. Some time ago, he wanted to launch into YouTube, and that’s all he did during that time.”

“Muneeb is great for advice,” Minal smiles. “I call him when I need a genuine opinion. I’m also a bit scared of him. I think that’s out of respect.”

What’s in store for the twins over the next few years? Minal is looking forward to building her acting repertoire. Aiman may not be acting for now but she is working with her family on their clothing label. A big part of their daily lives is devoted to brand endorsements on the internet which tend to be quite lucrative. For Minal, these sponsored posts are an additional source of income, but for Aiman they continue to bring in revenue, despite her having taken a sabbatical from acting.

That’s the fringe benefit of being a star in today’s world. That’s the beauty of social media clout — especially if you’re well-loved. Especially if you’ve cracked the ‘good girl’ equation.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 27th, 2020