Mahira Khan did something audacious. Once. Unawares.
Wearing a little white backless dress, she was spotted by a camera, smoking with Indian heart-throb Ranbir Kapoor. She furrowed her forehead in indignation upon realising she was being spied on. Awkwardly holding a cigarette, on the curb of a New York street, she sat in a setting that resembled a classic Hollywood scene, in an outfit that could be a throwback to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic billowing skirt from The Seven Year Itch.
The photo threw her amid the maelstrom of negative publicity — with detractors accusing her of being disreputable and showing disrespect to her country. It was perhaps the first instance when Mahira, otherwise Pakistan’s down-to-earth sweetheart, was caught in a personal controversy.
It did not happen when her Bollywood debut film, Raees, got stuck at the censors against the backdrop of escalating Pakistan-India tensions. Nor was it the case when her film Verna, based on the taboo subject of rape, was released towards the year-end; no scene in the film crossed the line to hurt the ‘sentiments’ of its Pakistani Muslim viewers.
Nor was it deemed objectionable when a magazine selected her as the fifth sexiest Asian Woman (she has been on the list for the third year in a row since 2015). Even though we have been consistent in damning people by mere association – she was, after all, in the same list as Bollywood’s hottest women such as Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone – Mahira bagged this honour unscathed. (She discreetly tweeted afterwards, “this time I think I’m just going to ... run with it.”)
It was the inadvertent dabbling in tobacco smoking, barebacked and barelegged, that upset us so much. Social media did with the floated image as it is known to do: it threw the photo up in cyberspace, caught it back to rip it apart from every angle; attacking, deriding, downright humiliating the celeb in question. The paparazzi of the digital age were hard at work.
And it is really they who have to be lauded for turning the episode into Mahira’s ‘provocative’ or ‘salacious’ act of the year. She did not intend it to be that way.
We can make such a conclusion based on not who Mahira is as a person but on how Mahira has formed her public personality: saying nothing to shock anyone ever, doing nothing to offend the society she lives in. You will hardly find anything in her words that verges on controversial. In fact, even when she supposedly took a stand for social justice, her words were tepid and vague. While receiving her award (Best Film Actress for her film Ho Mann Jahaan) at last year’s Lux Style Awards – held in Karachi about a week after Mashal Khan’s brutal lynching in the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan on allegations of blasphemy – she dedicated it to her country and fans, saying: “What I feel we do deserve is a country where we have some sort of equality for every single [human being] no matter what they believe in or what they don’t believe in.”
She did not name any names, nor did she allude to the lynching. She did not even utter the words ‘blasphemy’ or ‘religion’. Unlike her, fellow actor Ahsan Khan got up on stage with the request to the entertainment industry to work together to overcome societal problems: “A lot of incidents which we hear [about] everyday, like Mashal Khan’s, [happen] because our society is not educated and television is the best medium we can [use to] educate people and it is our moral duty ...” Another actor, Faysal Qureshi, showed solidarity with Kashmiris at the Lux Style Awards 2016, when he was onstage to pick up his award: “I’m dedicating this award to all the Kashmiris who are sacrificing [their lives], bearing torture and pain. This is for all of them.”
Tact and ambiguity can perhaps go hand in hand. And the star that dazzles the public’s eyes with her open smile and round eyes only makes herself more likeable because of her tactfulness in responding to criticism or, in interviews, to questions that prompt her to take a stance. She is often seen as a role model for strong women and participates in campaigns such as the drive for breast cancer awareness (for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre). With an effortless grace, she exudes honesty in her public appearances and delivers messages that, weighty or not, still strike a chord with her audience. Perhaps it is this non-confrontational, easy-on-the-eye public persona that makes Pakistanis view Mahira as a likeable and relatable star despite her advancing global fame.
Last year was meant to take her fame to yet another height. It was to open with a bang for this VJ-turned-television-actor-turned-film-star. Mahira was co-starring with Shahrukh Khan — in a long and high leap from local hero Fawad Khan on the small screen to none other than the king of contemporary Bollywood on the big screen. Playing Asiya, the wife of the lead character in Raees, she commanded as much attention as she had done while performing the role of a wronged woman in her most well-received television serial Humsafar.
Instead, her Bollywood debut film’s eagerly anticipated release was marred by delays and bans (slapped on by the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association) on any Pakistani artistes working in India and the Indian entertainment industry. The overlapping of art and politics created a sensitive situation but Mahira knew that the best course was to keep silent rather than appear on news channels to hold forth about the unfairness of the ban. When she did give interviews in the media in order to promote Raees, she only lamented that everybody would not get to see a film she had worked so hard for.
Our girl returned to Pakistan as if it had all been just a dream. Even after appearing alongside a larger-than-life Bollywood actor, she was seen again in television commercials. Soon, she threw herself into director Shoaib Mansoor’s latest venture Verna.
Seemingly written only for the character Mahira performed, Verna, as a result, did not flesh out other characters. She was offered a privileged position which she did justice to despite the tumultuous and tenuous plot of the befuddling film that failed to please critics and make a mark on fans.
Verna, too, faced uncertainty concerning its countrywide release as censor boards initially objected to some of its contents. Again, it was not Mahira’s name that was dragged in the mud. Her poise and soft-spoken professional persona seemed to have shielded her personal image from the vitriol of those unhappy with the film.
In another of her 2017 performances, she let her guard drop – just a little – but still managed to stay above the fray. It was an Urdu rap song that she performed at the Lux Style Awards (which she has been winning for numerous years now for both television and film). In it, she took a dig at her critics asking them if they wanted to compare themselves to her, they should think again. “Kuch actresses ne kaha mujhe acting nahi ati/Kya aap ki bhi filmein hain 100 crore kamati?” (Some actresses said I lack acting skills/ I wonder if their films also make 100 crores?).
It floored her fans but made many others wince. Her supporters lauded the brazen spunk she showed albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way, but before the critics came out with their barbs and spears trained at her, she added a few more self-congratulatory lines. “Fierce full-time mom, part-time superstar, kyun ke rakha hai maine industry ka myaar” (Fierce, I’m a full-time mom, part-time superstar/Because I have maintained a standard for the film industry).
Suddenly everyone seemed to agree.
The writer is a journalist and editor with daily Dawn.
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.