Can celebrities change the world?

August 25, 2019

Can celebrities change the world?

Mehwish Hayat has been in the news for all the right reasons. Interestingly, she’s been in the news for everything but her artistic endeavours, even though her last film, Chalawa, released to good numbers in June this year and her dance number, ‘Gangster Guriya’ from the film Baaji sizzled through summer. The actor’s star power, however, has been shining on causes much more serious and politically inclined than a simple rom-com.

Mehwish Hayat was honoured with the Tamgha e Imtiaz, one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the government of Pakistan, in March 23, 2019. It was all uphill from there and through the noise, chatter and criticism that usually accompanies a successful woman’s rise to power, Mehwish rose like the perfect celebrity ambassador for all forgotten causes.

She took up the plight for Hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, and spoke about how it was being neglected these days; she spoke about its revival, resulting in the National Hockey Championship Semi Final and Final being broadcast on GEO Sports. Earlier this month, Mehwish visited Sukkur and spent time with the girl’s hockey team, playing with them and creating the perfect optics to draw attention to their neglected circumstances.

"There are many causes that are close to my heart but I don’t want to spread myself too thin and so I’ve decided to focus on three," Mehwish spoke to Instep, upon her return from Bradford. "One is the revival of hockey; I want to see it return to its formal glory and masha’allah ever since my involvement we are seeing progress."

Much needed attention to the cause really did pay off when the Sindh Government granted the Pakistan Hockey Federation 100 million rupees for reviving the sport. "The renaissance of Pakistan Hockey has truly begun," Mehwish tweeted in support. "Let’s keep the pressure up & momentum going. We will get Gold in Tokyo 2024."

After making the right noises in favour of the government’s ‘Clean Karachi’ campaign and then against India’s human right’s violation in Kashmir, Mehwish landed in Oslo, Norway on August 4, to receive a Pride of Performance Award from the government.

"How does this matter to me as an actress," Mehwish questioned in her acceptance speech, after elaborating how Pakistan has been in a state of conflict since its inception. "Shouldn’t I just do my films and move on? Well, I cannot do that. I feel tremendous responsibility. Cinema is a very powerful tool and has the ability to change peoples’ minds." She furthered how Pakistan’s portrayal as backward terrorists in Hollywood had had a profound effect on mindsets. Serials like Homeland, for example, had built an image of her country that she at least did not recognize. Well spoken, beautifully dressed in an ivory ethnic outfit, Mehwish put out the right visual as a progressive brand ambassador for peace.

"Our neighbours, who have one of the biggest film industries in the world, could have used their collective power for peace and to bring the countries together," she continued in her Oslo speech, speaking of India and Bollywood’s role in divisive politics. She said she understood that given the relationship between the two countries, generating anything but anti-Pakistan propaganda could be seen as being unpatriotic but that artists had to see beyond nationalism and take a stand.

Moving to movies being made in Pakistan, she furthered that instead of making films for Pakistan, it was time to make films about Pakistan, and work towards showing a better picture, the real picture to the world. It was time to counter the propaganda.

"I want to change the perception of Pakistan in the west because the way we are portrayed is devastating and I think someone has to take a stand," Mehwish spoke to Instep as this being one of the three causes close to her heart. "Films are a powerful tool and they really affect the way people think about us. I have launched a one-person crusade to counter this. We must be presented fairly and we need to use our power to change the way we are perceived."

Somewhere around the same time that Mehwish was in Oslo, Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra, who also happens to be a UN Peace Ambassador, let her carefully constructed guard slip and behaved in a very condescending way when a Pakistani girl attending a Beauty Con summit in Los Angeles asked how she justified her position as UN Peace Ambassador when she herself had tweeted in support of war. Priyanka’s reaction to the question went viral, she lost millions of followers and despite the fact that the UN ruled in favour of her this Friday, allowing her the liberty of having a personal opinion, she lost face.

Mehwish was asked, by CNN, to write about the situation.

"Rather than use her position as a US-based celebrity to broaden what it means to be an Indian celebrity, she (Priyanka Chopra) has fallen into the same jingoistic role that her fellow countrymen are forced to adopt at home," she wrote in the middle of an opinion piece that urged global peace ambassadors to think beyond their nationalism.

This triggered a series of interviews and Mehwish was in the global spotlight, interviewing with Sky News and BBC World and with global newspapers and channels covering her. The last article she wrote was for Euro News. She was in the UK when she announced her association with Penny Appeal as Brand Ambassador and announced that she would be raising funds to build five schools in Sukkur, Sindh. She spoke about education as one of the three causes she would be taking up.

"Education is another cause very dear to me," she reiterated when we spoke. "I have been appointed by Penny Appeal as their international ambassador and I’ll be raising funds to rebuild 5 schools in Sukkur. For this I’ve taken up the very difficult challenge of running the London marathon next year and I hope I’m able to achieve the target."

We’re in the age of influencers and celebrities are our biggest influencers. Their voice is heard clearer and louder than the voice of an activist or a politician, for example, and they have the power to change the way we think, whether it’s through their work or through their philanthropic commitments and social or political views. So it is actually great that Mehwish has risen to prominence as one of the few stars from the world of entertainment, that too a woman undeterred by society’s expectations of how she should behave or dress (she’s been consistently rebellious in her ways). Did she sometimes feel like she was the chosen one, selected for this cause of branding Pakistan better?

"No I do not consider myself to be the chosen one, in any way," she laughed when I asked. "These are issues I’ve been speaking about and which I feel strongly about. I’ve been speaking of these issues all year, at the UN last year, at the Filmfare Middle East Awards and then recently at the Peace Conference in Oslo. I think it has all stemmed from there. I am really, really fortunate to have global media platforms like Sky, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera give me the opportunity to represent my country."

It has been delightful to see a young, glamorous brand ambassador, especially a woman, rise to global prominence for the right reasons. Wrapping up our brief conversation, I asked Mehwish how important it was to have good will ambassadors from the film industry?

"It is important to have ambassadors in every field," she replied. "It’s just that we have huge fan following and what we say resonates with the people. I think we’re fortunate to be afforded a platform where people listen to us and we should use that platform very responsibly. I’m privileged to be an ambassador of Pakistan. That said, we are all responsible; we all are Pakistan’s brand ambassadors when we are travelling."

Can celebrities change the world?