It was raining when Mahira was being driven along the French Riviera for her first appearance on the Cannes red carpet. It was pelting mercilessly and this star, already at the edge of her nerves because of a last minute wardrobe crises, felt the stress mounting. "Just smile," Olivier, her bodyguard kept calming her. He had done this countless times over the years. "You’re gonna go and smile," he gently directed. "Smile, take two steps, turn around and smile again."
Easier said than done.
"I remember we were in the car and it was raining," Mahira flashed back to the moment. "But I felt like God was watching. We pulled up and the clouds cleared up; suddenly there was no rain. Umbrellas were removed. I got out of the car and cameras - hundreds of them – started clicking. I heard them call out Jane Fonda’s name and I knew I was after Jane Fonda and before Sonam (Kapoor), who was right behind me. I didn’t know what would happen and if they would even call out my name and I turned around and looked at Sonam, asking, ‘what do I do?’. I just looked at her nervously and she said, ‘Smile baby, you got this’. And that was it. I truly believe that if she hadn’t been this kind to me at that exact moment, my morale would have fallen. Then I heard, ‘Mahira Khan from Pakistan’. I can’t explain that feeling. In Pakistan I’m Mahira Khan but when I leave this country my first name is ‘Mahira Khan’ and my second name is ‘From Pakistan’."
"This isn’t something I had wished for," she said. "But then when this happened I realized that there are certain things that God gives to you and they are amazing. They make you feel so grateful. I could have never imagined how it would feel. It was amazing. I felt so empowered and strong. That feeling that people had my back."
Let’s turn time back a bit. It was October last year, at the PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week in Lahore, when Mahira Khan was announced as L’Oreal Paris Pakistan’s official spokesperson for Hair Care. The Cannes Film Festival, at which L’Oreal is a major sponsor, was earmarked as her first global appearance. Mahira therefore left for Cannes last week, for a three-day trip to the festival, which was incidentally all about women empowerment this year. With Cate Blanchett as jury president and women who made strong convention-defying statements on the red carpet and conducted inspirational conversations on festival panels, Cannes this year was a pivot for women in a post-Weinstein world.
Mahira and I met two days after she returned. It was late and she was visibly exhausted but even completely washed out, dressed in a white chikankari kurta that (she pointed out) she had been wearing for our last three meetings, she looked exactly like the person who had flashed that 1000-watt scarlet smile on the Cannes red carpet. I wanted to know everything: the conversations, the statements…everything. But first of all, I needed to know what exactly had happened to her dress! She posted, the day of her big appearance, that her original choice of dress had gotten stuck in customs.
"That whole day was surreal," she recalled. "We all went to bed really late and woke up at 6am on 2 hours of sleep. We were waiting for this one dress. And I kept looking at my stylist, my manager, the whole L’Oreal team. I kept asking, ‘Is it here?’ and they kept lying to me. There was no back up. Everyone was involved; even my bodyguard kept reassuring me that it’s going to come. At 3pm Seher (Mahira’s manager) told me that we had to go down for makeup because at 5pm we had to be out. I said, ‘look at me and be honest’ and she said, ‘It’s not coming’. That’s when I went numb. I told myself that I had to wear another dress and walk out feeling confident. Nothing else mattered. That last minute we went to Alberta Ferretti and I fell in love with this gold dress. But everyone voted for the black. Amar (Amar Faiz, her stylist) wanted me to go for the black. He felt it was Hollywood; it was old school glamour so we decided to go with simple, classic. I told Amar that I want to do the red lip; that’s my thing."
Did she feel, at any point, that the ethnic element in her Cannes wardrobe needed to be stronger?
"I actually wanted to wear a Pakistani designer on the red carpet," Mahira explained. "But then I thought that it had to be ‘a look’, a couture look. If I had to wear a local designer, then my first preference would be to go to Bunto Khala and she would have designed something magnificent.
But she would need time, and she said that to me. Would it have been right to wear a gown by a Pakistani designer? No way. That’s something I knew. Anything I wore by a Pakistani designer would have to be a statement full of our kaam. It would have to be a couture piece. So Amar came on board and my first dress was a Jean Paul Gaultier dress, which was insane. It was black and it was pure drama; a vintage archival piece.
"If you ask me I would have put in one more desi look, a take on the shalwar qameez maybe. But I’m glad I took Elan, and that Mehreen and Menahil sari and then Zara Shahjahan. Look there’s always next year and I think I know what I want to do next year. I’m already excited about that."
She was also excited about the meaningful conversations she had at Cannes. Contrary to what people felt, she wasn’t getting dressed and photographed everyday for the heck of it. There were workshops and panel discussions and interviews to sit through. In three days Mahira interviewed with the Associated Press TV (UK), BBC Radio (UK), ISHQ, a Rendez-vous video segment for L’Oréal Paris, a Beauty VS cinema video segment for L’Oréal Paris, the Worth It Show, also for L’Oréal Paris as well as interviews with Gulf News, Reuters, India Today and Anupama Chopra. The schedule was packed and it was relentless.
Mahira told me about the Hotel Martinez and the even more iconic Glam Room, where everyone got ready everyday; conversations basically start there. She spoke about her conversation with Jane Fonda, who looked amazing at 81. She wouldn’t give her advice, saying Mahira had to chart her own journey. "I wanted her to tell me something, one thing, just one piece of advice. She wouldn’t say, insisting that I had to do my own thing until I told her she was my birth sister," Mahira laughed when sharing. "That’s when she said, ‘Okay, one piece of advice: stay strong.’
"There were panel discussions on the #MeToo movement, on women empowerment," she continued. "We had a great talk with the Marketing Director of L’Oreal and so many great models, including the one who first said the words, "I’m worth it". We spoke about choices, careers, parents, children and working in the industry. Jane Fonda said that her entire life people told her she’s beautiful but it was in her 60s that she actually believed it. We talked about being accepting of who we are, flaws and all and not living with the pressure of what others wanted us to be. (She refused to conceal the surgical scar on her back for this reason.) We can be anything. It was important to believe."
Mahira said she met these women everyday and kept wondering what they had in common. She finally realized that these were women who wanted to see the bigger picture, just as she did. There was nothing small or petty about them.
"I knew because I think I’ve cracked that too," Mahira said. "I knew that they were being generous and supportive. I knew it because I do it by default too. I know that by lifting each other and supporting each other we’ll have a big industry. If today I’m going to Cannes then it will open doors for others." She corrected a reporter, who at a pre-Cannes press conference in Karachi, addressed her as the first female actor from Pakistan to go to Cannes. "I told him that Armeena Rana Khan was the first female actor from Pakistan at Cannes."
‘Me Too’ was also a big conversation at Cannes this year, I pointed out. Were there rules and regulations that she felt could be implemented in Pakistan, in terms of controlling sexual harassment and gender inequality, both burning subjects?
"The one thing we have to understand is that, and this is the most important thing, this happens world over," she replied. "We’re actually in a very good place in which we don’t have to blame our system or our this or that. It happens in first world countries; it happens everywhere. There is a problem and the root is universal. The same problems exist and so the same solutions are being implemented here as well. And I think we’ve been very quick and fast to pick up on it. Actually I would not have thought that the Me Too movement would trickle down into Pakistan so quickly. But it did and we should be proud of that. Women are talking and that’s something we never used to do; it’s something we were afraid of doing.
"What we can do as far as harassment is concerned is push for implementation of proper laws," she furthered. "In the work place and even online, there should be laws against harassment. And they should be implemented. You can’t send somebody abusive messages and get away with it. It’s harassment. A woman should not feel that there are no laws at work and that she can’t tell her boss if she’s being harassed or worse, if she does she could lose her job. No. It should be very clearly stated that if a woman complains of harassment then it will be taken seriously, proper investigation will be done and the harasser will lose the job, not the harassee. Women have never spoken because of two reasons: the shame attached to it and power. The person in power will always get away. That can only change through implementation of laws."
Mahira spoke of empowerment, of supporting others and contributing to the overall elevation of the industry. People are people and you can’t look at the 2% or 3% on social media, she said. She was looking at the bigger picture and she was coming from a place of empowerment. What did she plan to do with this newfound empowerment, I asked?
"I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing," she said. "I’m going to cancel out the noise and focus on things that are positive. I’m excited about my films. I’ve done such extreme work this year. The past year and a half, post Raees, I was not in a good place. I allowed the noise to seep in. I was being broken in slowly; I allowed people to break me. And when you’re broken you’re vulnerable. I think I’ve just gotten my self back a little bit and I feel good. I want to keep this feeling for as long as a can. I don’t want to deal with noise and negativity. I want to focus on the positive. There are people who have consistently picked on me but I’m so glad that I never reacted, even when I wanted to. Because the most important thing is supporting each other. It is elevating and it’s the only way industries grow. We serve the bigger picture. Cannes was an experience of a lifetime and I hope more girls from Pakistan get to experience it."