A lot has been said about Mehwish Hayat. About her string of successful films, about her screen presence, her singing, dancing, her style, her being outspoken, bold and most recently, her Tamgha e Imtiaz. She’s taken it in her stride, riding the ebb and flow of success as it comes with its fair share of highs and lows. The highest point in her career is, however, that Mehwish is box office gold and has never delivered a dud. It’s this very Midas Touch that must have Wajahat Rauf banking on her in his upcoming Eid release, Chhalawa. The film also features Azfar Rehman, Zara Noor Abbas and Asad Siddiqui along with several other talented artistes but it’s Mehwish’s name that will ring the tills at the box office.
She looks more than confident at Wajahat Rauf’s house, beaming as he and his wife Shazia host a Gaming Night for the cast and crew of Chhalawa. Happy to beat the boys at Mortal Kombat, Mehwish has to be pried away from the screen for interviews as the evening also turns into a bit of a media junket for the film.
I dive right into the deep end as we sit down for an informal chat.
We start with talking about Chhalawa; many people are saying that her upcoming movie looks very similar to Punjab Nahi Jaungi. How does she feel about that, I ask?
"I think I am one of the main reasons for it to seem that way," Mehwish feels. "I was the main lead in PNJ and then the haveli and wedding and setting is similar so it is natural that there will be comparisons. Maybe the genre could be the same and the fact that this film is again based in Punjab. But just as Load Wedding was different than PNJ, Chhalawa is different from both of them. So many films are made so there may be some similarity somewhere but the technique and story is different and I am satisfied with it."
Is there anything in Chhalawa that will surprise Mehwish Hayat fans?
"I think ‘Chidiya’ will surprise people. The song is great and it will surprise everyone."
Wait, isn’t ‘Chidiya’ that steamy dance number that has her cast in a potential item song again, I ask her? It is. And while Mehwish and Wajahat insist on calling it a "performance based song" there’s no denying the fact that it is as racy as it can get. Considering that Mehwish’s bold moves (in her first dance number, ‘Billi’ for Na Maloom Afraad) earned her the reputation to be potentially too risque for our cultural sensitivities - because we obviously slept our way through Punjabi and Pushto films circa the ‘80s and ‘90s - I ask her whether she hesitated for even a second. Personally, I’m delighted that she’s taken the bullies by the horn.
Where does she get the strength to deal with them?
"I get my strength from my family; they are my support system," she responds. "I am very spiritual - believe it or not – and I believe that when you listen to your heart it never misleads you. I know that I am not doing anything wrong and am answerable to God and my family so I don’t care what other people think or say about me. And God has given me fame and respect as well and I have done well so far. After all, I am an actress; I’m not a spiritual leader/healer, I am an entertainer. Our veteran actresses such as Shabnam and Zeba have done all of this in the past and received a lot of love and respect.
"In this day and age when social media is so accessible there are misconceptions and everyone feels that they have to say something about everything," she continues. "Judging an actress by the characters she portrays on TV or film is absolutely wrong because that is not me, it is the character that I am essaying. We are entertaining people and that is not an easy job. If people don’t have anything positive to say they might as well stay quiet but then again everybody has an opinion. I have learnt that you cannot please everyone and you should never focus on it either. You can be the juiciest, ripest peach in the world and there would still be someone who doesn’t like it. You should believe in what you are doing and people will eventually understand."
She just compared herself to a juicy peach, I point out and she bursts out into laughter, in that trademark Mehwish Hayat style. Style and persona is what she’s got oodles of; it is what sets her apart from the many other pretty albeit forgettable faces around.
While most popular actresses play the conservative card to win over fans, Mehwish is someone who’ll post a picture of herself in a dress and caption it, ‘Does it look like I care?’ It’s this very attitude that irks her critics.
We talk a little more about ‘Chidya’ and Mehwish tells me that she starts preparing for a dance number weeks before filming it. She does go on a strict diet to look her best on screen and she makes sure she gets five to six hours of rehearsals a day to ensure she’s confident on camera.
I do get a ‘Beedi’ vibe from what I’ve seen of ‘Chidya’ I point out.
"The song is quite similar as far as the music and beats are concerned but it’s been choreographed by Wahab Shah and choreography wise and shooting wise it is quite different and entertaining," she clarifies.
It is bound to get its fair share of criticism, I point out.
Social media is very unforgiving when it comes to beautiful and successful women who aren’t apparently afraid of criticism, aren’t afraid to be themselves and then end up getting an award as prestigious as the Tamgha e Imtiaz as well. People rarely question the achievements of male artistes; does she feel there is misogyny in the industry and there’s a gross imbalance? When it comes to treatment of women, what needs to be changed?
"I think the situation for women has become quite better as compared to 10 years ago; strong roles for women are being written now," she says. "Our industry is so small and within the industry I think there is a lot of support, unity and we understand each other’s problems. Take for example the recent controversy around my award. Not just female journalists and actresses but also male celebrities spoke up in my favour. So there is support, there is understanding. It is the people outside the industry that are unable to comprehend the dynamics and think that we have forsaken our morals and values. But industry insiders know that that is not the case. If there is something wrong or there is harassment, it is everywhere and I don’t think there is any misogynistic mindset within our industry," she defends her people. "Those who give negative feedback should be brought to our sets to witness the kind of work we do and I am sure it will be an eye opener."
"People need to understand and respect our work, which is not as easy as it seems," Mehwish continues, passionately. "We not only put in a lot of hard work but we keep up with our image, our standard, our inner self as well. We are under constant scrutiny and pressure. Our veteran actors were blessed because they had peace of mind. But now social media, although it is an important tool and we need it, has become a monster. We need to be a little humane and kind towards everyone. We have become so opinionated that we don’t realise that we are hurting someone’s feelings and when you bully someone via social media you are actually attacking them emotionally and mentally."
Has she ever felt bullied?
"Yes, I did feel bullied when all of this happened," she says about the vicious attacks on her character post her Presidential Award. "Before this I never paid heed to anything but when this happened I was like damn, this can actually affect someone. I broke down into tears, I was shattered. What I did was I spoke up about it to protect myself. Thank God the entire industry supported me."
Taking the conversation back to a lighter mood and back to Chhalawa, we talk about the film and other projects in the pipeline. Mehwish isn’t someone to sit idle, waiting for work to come along; she’s someone who likes to stay busy and busy she always is. If it isn’t touring the USA on a music tour or recording a web series, it’s reading films scripts and/or looking for engaging TV projects.
Mehwish has, previously, shared great chemistry with Humayun Saeed and Fahad Mustafa; I wonder what kind of equation she has with Azfar Rehman, who was also her co-star in Wajahat Rauf’s web series, Enaaya.
"Working with Azfar was a joy ride," she’s quick to respond. "We are like jigars (best buddies) and while doing romantic scenes we used to burst out in laughter. Our friendship goes way back (10 years) so we understand each other and that helps a lot and I’m sure the chemistry will show onscreen as well. I am glad I will be seen with someone other than Humayun and Fahad. I think it is a nice break," she says.
You have tried your hand at everything – television, music, web series, film - and yet you are anxious to do more and it seems that you are never satisfied. There appears to a restlessness inside you, I point out.
"Yes, I am restless," Mehwish agrees. "I now want to try my hand at direction. Whatever I have learnt I want to experiment with that. I am the sort who doesn’t like to rely on others for anything but acting is something where an artist is dependent on the director. So now I want to take the director’s chair.
"The thing is that I am never satisfied; I’m never happy and I don’t understand why I am like that. I am always my best critic; I watch my work very carefully and criticise my work – I think my anxiousness helps me to strive for more and put in more effort."
So what is she putting her efforts into after Chhalawa?
"Let’s see. Right now there is Chhalawa and other than that there is a big surprise," she concludes with a smile.