Pakistani superstar Mahira Khan has made an amazing global impact since her acting debut in acclaimed film Bol (2011).
Since then, the gifted actress has balanced winning performances on hit TV serials like Humsafar with high-profile films that have broken box office records. She has been voted the sexiest Pakistani on the planet for the last two years and is looking forward to a number of major projects, including 2017’s most anticipated Lollywood film Verna.
Pakistan’s most in-demand leading lady is kickstarting a dream year by starring opposite Shah Rukh Khan in big-budget Bollywood film Raees, which is out now.
Gangster drama Raees, along with Verna and other projects, are sure to prove big steps in the remarkable journey of a Pakistani star who has become a powerful role model and an impressive international ambassador for her country.
Eastern Eye caught up with Mahira for a free-flowing conversation about life, work, Raees, starring opposite Shah Rukh Khan, future hopes and more.
Can you remember the first time you realised you wanted to be an actress?
I have wanted to be an actor for as long as I can remember. But I would say, and I have said this before, I was greatly influenced by the film Ram Lakhan and seeing Madhuri (Dixit). I was very little and remember thinking, this is what I wanted to do.
And then as I grew older, I watched more films and dramas. I just knew this was where my heart lay.
What was it like to face the camera for the first time?
To be honest, it’s a very vague memory but I do remember being nervous. It was when I was a VJ for MTV Pakistan. (Laughs) I remember my chin was trembling and my voice was shaky. But once I went live, it became okay after a few minutes.
Did you ever imagine being so successful?
I dreamed of cinema and films, but how successful they could be wasn’t on my mind at all. I just wanted to be in films and play different roles. That was the dream.
Which of your roles has given you the greatest joy?
Each and every one of them has given me great satisfaction. It sounds clichéd, but I really do mean it.
Playing Khirad (from Humsafar) was an escape and perhaps closest to my heart. Falak from Shehr-e-Zaat was me pushing myself beyond what I found easy to do and it gave me immense pleasure. Of course, I also enjoyed playing Shanno from Sadqay Tumhare, and Bin Roye was probably the most taxing, but really rewarding. Ho Mann Jahaan gave me breathing space from all the heavier roles.
Now with Raees, I’ve tapped into a different side of myself and is something we are not used to doing in Pakistan. I had to unlearn a lot and that has taught me a great deal.
How does TV compare to working in cinema?
TV roles last longer so you are working on the show for a while and get immersed in the character for longer. With films, it is a lot more exaggerated, for the lack of a better word. The scripts for film and TV are written differently so you approach it like that. Otherwise as an actor, it’s really the same and you give it the same level of commitment.
You are very much in demand, but how do you select your projects today?
I’ve always been very picky and like taking a break after I finish a project. When I do get down to choosing, it depends on the script and the director. Something has to strike me about the role I’m being offered and if it makes sense with my personal obligations, I say yes. But I have to admit it takes me a while. (Laughs) I’m not good with saying yes easily. I procrastinate and think too much.
Is there any genre you prefer?
As an actor you have to be open to all genres, but I do like romances. I would also like to try something light like a comedy, maybe.
What has the whole experience of working in Bollywood been like?
It’s been surreal. Apart for the fact that I’ve learnt so much, I’ve made some amazing life-long friendships.
What is your Raees co-star Shah Rukh Khan like to work with?
He’s selfless, he’s kind and like a teacher at times. He will help you when you falter and really encourages you when you are making an effort.
Does the fact that the film has such high expectations put pressure on you?
(Smiles) Yes, it does. The expectations are scary and make me nervous, but at this point I just wish and pray the film is released peacefully. It’s a labour of love of the entire crew and cast. I just want the world to watch it and hopefully enjoy it, Inshallah.
Who else in Bollywood would you love to work with?
There are so many great actors and directors in Bollywood I would love to work with. I love the work of filmmakers Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Mani Ratnam, Karan Johar and so many others.
Can you see yourself doing projects in the west like Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone are doing?
I’m an actor so I can see myself doing projects anywhere in the world, really. Obviously there are my own limitations as a performer that can hinder where I go and what I do. So yes, if the opportunity comes and I feel it’s right for me, I would love to take it.
Which other confirmed projects do you have on the way?
Currently I’m working on Shoaib Mansoor’s next film Verna and am reading other scripts. There are some really interesting offers on the table, so let’s see.
You are a gifted actress, but what is the secret of a good performance?
(Laughs) If we knew the secret, everybody would be good. But if I had to answer this, I would say honesty makes for a good performance. If you can say your lines with honesty, then half the job is done.
Do intense emotional scenes ever affect you?
You pour your emotions into a role and connect with those felt by the character, so yes, they do affect you and can stay with you long after.
What are your passions away from work?
I like listening to old Hindi songs, old Pakistani Sufi music/ghazals and really love poetry. Also when I’m done with work, I like just being with my family and close friends.
Is it difficult to balance family and work life, considering you are so much in demand?
Yes, it is, but I give my family priority. They always come first and always will. Work does often suffer because of this, but then that’s the choice I’ve made and I like it that way. (Laughs) I do wish we had more hours in a day, though.
How did it feel being named the sexiest Pakistani Woman for 2015 and 2016 in Eastern Eye’s popular list?
(Laughs) That too, twice in a row. I feel shy about it – I never looked at myself as sexy.
Tell us something about you that not many people know?
I take catnaps on set because I can’t sleep at night. I eat like a champion and love food. I’m a rice person, so give me daal chawal any time any day. I’m a party pooper, according to my friends.
Oh, and I don’t suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) at all. (Laughs) I also don’t get half of these new terminologies and abbreviations people use these days.
What are your hopes for Pakistani cinema?
I hope we can stick to making films. I hope that we make the kind of films that drive people out of their homes to come to the cinemas. I really do hope the ‘revival’ is real, continues and we don’t look back at it as just another good phase for Pakistani cinema.
What inspires you?
Literally, everything inspires me. Strangers inspire me most really. People watching, listening to a good song and a random conversation with somebody on a flight can be inspirational. So I get inspired easily.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
A friend just asked me that – she asked why we make films. Tell me another job where you can create another person, their life and destiny? I love that I am part of the very thing that made me believe in love, hope and dreams. That thing, which made me see life from another person’s perspective, someone else’s tragedy and achievements. Cinema gives me that. It continues to be the first love of my life.
Raees is in cinemas now.