Mahira Khan has been on the top of her game for almost a decade now and even when her films haven’t done as well at the box office as expected, her star hasn’t faltered. We catch up at the turn of the year, as she’s celebrating her 9-year-old son, Azlan’s straight A report-card. Mahira’s ability to detach from the clamor and look on is perhaps her most endearing quality; it’s also her biggest strength. It has helped her through her toughest times, through Raees, Ranbir Kapoor, Verna and the criticism - both personal and professional - that came with them in 2017.
"I learnt that no matter how high up you go it takes a second for things to change. I realized that no matter how low you go or what people think of you, it takes a second for you to go back up," she shared as we began talking. "I understood the concept of izzat aur zillat a little better. To me, everything in my life came crashing down, so it’s when God wants, he maintains the izzat and it’s in His hands. When I look back, I’ll get a sense of what happened years later, as of now, one must never lose hope."
2018, for Mahira, was a year of hope. She took out time to work on her philanthropic endeavors. She visited Afghan refugee camps in Karachi and KP as ambassador for the UNHCR and was on a fundraising drive for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, visiting the Facebook and Google headquarters in Los Angeles to raise awareness for a cause she’s devoted herself to for a few years now.
"2018 was a hope for just a better year. I think I was glad that 2017 was ending; I was happy, but very consciously did not take up any acting projects since last year," she elaborated. "I realized it was more difficult than I thought; I thought I’d be resting and that I needed a break, but unfortunately, it never is. You have commercials and all your other contracts, so I did a lot of that, but I feel my soul has not been satisfied this year (2018), at all. In 2017, no matter how bad it had gotten, I’d worked on Verna, Maula Jatt and Saat Din Mohabbat In (7DMI); it was a full year."
Mahira’s highlight of the year was undoubtedly representing Pakistan as the L’Oréal spokesperson, at the 71st Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year. "It was an experience of a lifetime," she recollected.
Mahira also made her website debut with Mashion, described as a go-to destination for a modern-day Pakistani woman to get her daily dose of just about everything. The portal happens to be the upshot of Khan’s blogging days, post-college in LA, where she penned her thoughts on food and wardrobe.
"I think if I had more time on my hands, I’d fully get into it as a personal blog but what I could do was have a platform for women. Initially, when my brother and I were talking about this, I looked around and there wasn’t one portal where there’s content just for women," she said. "You don’t come to Mashion for pictures or news, but specifically for skin care, the best hair or the issues; what you do if you have PCOs etc. Eventually, I wanted to be a big data base that’s like calling a friend. I’m slowly building it, I’d like to sell under it, but that’s the future; it’s what I’m trying to do with it."
Last year was also about movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which flourished all over the world and even played out closer to home, across the border, where multiple influential men were called out for their predatory behavior. Having been in the industry for years now, Mahira reflected on the situation, from where she saw it.
"The conversations that have been held are great, there’s better understanding of sexual harassment and abuse, the power of abuse," she maintained. "On the flip side, I do believe that any movement that comes into being should be tolerant, where we’re not quick to judge. We don’t listen, we get into arguments; we either are calling out victims or abusers, but all so quickly. The most important thing is conversation and that’s what brings about change."
Steering the conversation back to films, we spoke about Mahira’s 2018 release, 7 Din Mohabbat In and the fact that the film fell short of expectations and had a lackluster critical response.
"Yes, absolutely (it did). I heard it opened well, as far as business goes, but what makes you sustain at the box office is when it clicks with the audience, so somewhere, that connection was missing. Something went amiss for sure and I don’t mean to say that about anyone involved, it’s just that sometimes you work really hard, but it doesn’t look as planned," she noted of why the film may have faltered. "I always knew it could go either way but I wanted to experiment, I wanted to dabble in comedy, never in my life have I done that. And I wanted to work with different people, to get a flavor more independent directors."
The strongest flavor in her life right now is Bilal Lashari’s The Legend of Maula Jatt, in which she plays Mukho, Maula’s love interest alongside a stellar star cast comprising Fawad Khan as the iconic Maula Jatt, Hamza Abbasi as Noori Natt and Humaima Malick as Daaro. Now as the mega Punjabi-language feature nears its release on Eid-ul-Fitr, one wonders what the journey has been like.
"There are a lot of expectations and I just want people to know it’s going to be a Maula Jatt and Noori Natt extravaganza basically," Mahira clarified, as to not raise peoples’ expectations of her role in it. "It’s been in the making for years, for Billy (Bilal, director), Ammara (producer), Fawad and Hamza, because I play a very small part in it. I used to come and go, I was an honorary guest there, I’d come in for two-days, shoot my scenes and go off for two-months."
Having lived all her life in Karachi and acquired her higher education in the States, speaking Punjabi was nothing short of a Herculean task for her, but she credits co-star, Hamza Abbasi for helping her out.
"It’s like a French girl speaking Punjabi, I used to go there and say I’m doing a foreign-language film," Khan burst into laughter. "I have to say I was very nervous and I told Hamza I couldn’t do it, but he convinced me by promising to tutor me. And he lived up to that, he would come on Verna’s set and sit with me for hours, and so we prepared this one, long scene, which was also my first and everybody was expecting I’d mess up, but the first take went amazing. And I got all over-confident after that, so I never sat down with him again, but Hamza really kept at it. He’d come to the sets of Maula, even when he didn’t have scenes."
Taking on the role of Mukho Jatt, originally essayed by late film-star Aasia, despite having her fair share of struggle at the language, Khan recalls her experience of mounting the epic-saga fondly. "I honestly wish I had a bigger role, because I don’t think I’ve enjoyed myself on any set this much. Mukho is very cute, but a badass too. Mukho is just a lot of fun, in a very intense film. But you know who’s completely badass? Daaro. It’s such a good role and Humaima is great in it."
Mukho also romances Maula and that brings Mahira with Fawad Khan, together on celluloid seven-years after their sensational hit, Humsafar.
"It’s also one of the reasons I was iffy. It’s not a romance so it’s not about Maula and Mukho," she explained. "Which is why all our fans should know this is not what they’ve been waiting for, there’s no twirling or barish. But it can be something else, which they didn’t expect, even if it’s for a little bit we’re on-screen; it’s both of us back together, which is a huge thing. I hope that somewhere, we’ve done justice to what they’ve given us."
"I look at Maula Jatt as a superhero genre, the ultimate of good vs. evil fight," Mahira said about the film at large. "I think that’s what The Legend of Maula Jatt is; taking a story that appeals to everyone, regardless of class, creed or language, and putting it on celluloid."
It also won’t be her only appearance on celluloid this year.
Though Mahira opted out from the leading part in Asim Raza’s next, Parey Hut Love, she has shot for a cameo in Turkey and is looking forward to the film, which releases on Eid-ul-Azha. "Parey Hut Love is Maya and Sherry’s; I’ve just made a little appearance. I couldn’t do the film and that’s when Asim asked me to do this," she explained. "It’s a very different role I have to say, very unlike me. Every character I’ve played, I’ve identified with, but I can never be like Reena. I think Asim has made the film with all his might, he’s gone all out this time and it has all the ingredients. The songs are beautiful, I love them!"
Entering 2019, Mahira already has another film in her kitty. Ehtishamuddin’s Superstar will feature Mahira alongside Bilal Ashraf. Revolving around the idea of stardom in Pakistan, Mahira plays an actress on-screen.
"It’s a romance in its essence, but it’s a story about faith, failure, success and two people who meet each other at a strange time, basically wanting the same thing out of life, but how they want it is very different," she disclosed the basic premise of the film. "It’s a passion project. People ask me why I’ve taken it up, but I can’t help it, my heart is in it."
Even though Superstar seems intriguing, the film had signed on Mahira years before it was officially announced, undergoing major transition in its crew and plot. Despite the fact that one would see Mahira in a new avatar, her selection of films has been peculiar, if not entirely absurd. She’s been experimenting and testing waters, turning down many of the major commercial flicks that have come her way. What is that she looks for and what makes her refuse the best in the business?
"Maybe I should do one of the big films, everybody tells me that day in and day out. But to be fair, at the end of the day, I’m an artist. I don’t think in terms of numbers, sometimes I wish I did because I would’ve done them and enjoyed them," the superstar herself suggests on a parting note.
"I look at who I want to work with, people with a vision that I want to be a part of. Films like Load Wedding and Punjab Nahi Jaungi had great characters, and I do want to work with these giant filmmakers, and I will. I’ve just been walking the less travelled path. Or maybe it’s what Asim (Raza) says to me, I like tough love. If it isn’t tough, it’s not love. But honestly the truth is that this is my journey, I go by instinct. And I just hope that somewhere, I manage to leave some amazing work behind me."