Having charmed her way into the hearts of millions, Mahirah Khan has risen to great heights of fame in a relatively short time. Here, she reveals her hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities and what it’s like to be Mahirah.
The first time I met Mahirah was at Ather Shahzad’s Lahore studio, the day of the shoot. She was supposed to fly in a day earlier from Karachi for the interview but her two-year-old son, Azlan, had fever and she didn’t want to leave him until he felt better. So here we were trying to cram an outdoor shoot and an in-depth interview all in one day.
I walk in to find she is already there, on time, chatting away with Shahzad, her hazel eyes inquisitive and excited. In distressed jeans and a T-shirt, she looks more slender than on television and infinitely more beautiful. Over hair and make-up, she starts spilling stories about Humsafar, the phenomenally popular drama serial that swept the ratings and had us glued to the television every Saturday night with boxes of tissues. “While making Humsafar, we had absolutely no idea that it would become such a huge hit,” she says with a smile. The fame and frenzy that followed was like nothing Mahirah had experienced before, even though she had worked in much larger productions like Shoaib Mansoor’s blockbuster Bol, and Mehreen Jabbar’s drama serial Neeyat. “Dude! Neeyat didn’t do so well and I got terrible reviews. Many people said I can’t act and would never work again,” she confesses.
Swivelling on a chair, Mahirah is brimming with infectious energy. Suddenly, while applying eye shadow, Shahzad says, “Mahirah, waisay tum nose job karwa lo. You are so beautiful but darling you need to get your nose pinched.” He nips her nose with two fingers and moves his body away from the mirror she is facing. Unfazed, Mahirah giggles and says, “I know. One of my directors said, ‘Look Mahirah I should be able to shoot you from all angles but yourrrr noseeeee…’,” she laughs out loud. Charming and down-to-earth, she continues to smile throughout the tiring shoot, trying to zone out her phone that never stops ringing. But I catch her mind wandering off at different moments throughout the day. There seems to be a gulf between what is happening around her and what is going on in her head.
Six hours later when we lay deadbeat sunken in sofas, she says, “All my life I have been told I am perfect and can do no wrong. I have always had this good girl image. One of my closest friend’s said to me recently, ‘I don’t get it. You have lived life on your own terms, done everything a rebel does but you continue to be labeled a good girl.’ I really don’t know what it is but trying to live up to such high expectations is scary. If failure was mine alone, I wouldn’t care. But I am scared of disappointing my loved ones and those who believe in me. With more fame and accolades come more insecurity and deliberating every little decision. I never used to be like that,” she admits. Mahirah has always lived life on her own terms and moving alone to Los Angeles at the age of 16 is a testament to that. “The truth is, I followed Ali (her husband) to LA where he was studying. I liked him since I was 14 and at 15, humari baat pakki ho gayi thi. Obviously, we were both too young but when he moved, I convinced my parents to let me go study Chemical Engineering at a community college. I went there alone and then my brother joined me. ”
Her brother Hassaan says, “Mahirah and I shared our fondest moments in LA, when I was at high school and she was at college. She has always been like a third parent to me and while I was looking for a good time, she was looking out for us. She is probably the biggest party pooper I’ve ever known.” Life in LA was not as peachy as Mahirah had imagined. “I was working two jobs and studying so my life was more difficult than most of my friends. In the seven years I was there, I never once partied. I didn’t grow up in that sort of environment so I was a bit of a prude.” Mahirah tranferred to the University of California, Irvine on a scholarship but when both her paternal grandparents passed away the same year, she dropped out of college and moved back to Karachi. “It was an impulsive decision but at the time I just wanted to run home,” she confesses.
Mahirah admits that her parents spoiled her, perhaps because she was born eight years after their marriage. “They were ready to adopt when I was born and then came my brother Hassaan, a year and four months later. We are like twins. He is my ultimate weakness,” she says. Mahirah grew up in a joint family and remains very close to them. “Growing up, my mother and I were inseparable but over the years, my father and I have grown closer. These days, Ama and I are constantly arguing over Azlan because when I have to travel for work, she takes care of him. It’s really tough to leave him sometimes but my mother and my in-laws are a great help,” she says.
We start talking about childhood dreams, aspirations and the goals we set for ourselves. She says, “When I was younger, I had two dreams: to become an amazing actor and to become a dulhan,” her nose scrunches as she laughs uncontrollably. “Now I want to improve my acting and have another baby. Azlan gives me so much strength and happiness. I am dying to have a baby girl,” she says. Her friend Feeha Jamshed, the fashion designer, confirms Mahirah’s early obsession with all things related to weddings. She says, “Mahirah and I loved to dance when we were kids. In fact, we loved it so much that on weekends, Mahirah would host dholkis just so we could dress up in ghararas and dance, pretending to be preparing dance numbers for an imaginary wedding. After school, we would go to jewellery stores and act as if one of us was getting married so we could try on all the jewellery in the store.” I am instantly taken back to her days as a vivacious VJ on MTV and how much I enjoyed watching her show. “MTV Most Wanted was an instant hit with the youth and I really enjoyed it because I could be myself,” says Mahirah.
While we are on the subject of being accepted for who we are, I ask her how she remained so calm when Shahzad suggested she needed a nose job and she replies, “You know, the fashion world is always telling me I don’t use my full potential. They think I am not sexy enough, the clothes I wear are not revealing enough and my nose is not perfect enough. But I don’t care because I have to be true to myself.” It is clear that despite her sudden success, Mahirah has not lost sight of who she is and where she came from. While she is determined to follow her passion and is willing to work hard for it, she does not want to compromise on her principles. “I want to be an amazing actor one day but the most important thing in my life is my relationships with the people I love. They keep me grounded. Everything else fades away.” She pauses, takes a deep breath and says, “But these days, there are just not enough hours in the day.”
It seems as if Mahirah is going through a silent struggle with herself. “It’s so ironic that while my career has soared in the past year, personally I have been a mess. It was the toughest year of my life. Have you heard the phrase, kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahaan nahi milta? I’ve lost two very special people in my life and have been struggling to find the balance between work and family,” she says with a deep sigh. It strikes me then that Mahirah may appear carefree and unruffled on the surface but she is paddling like hell underneath. “I have been travelling for work so much that I have started to hate hotel rooms. They are so lonely. Time spent away from my family has affected my closest relationships. I have barely any time anymore to sit with my Nani, my parents and my extended family. That is something I cherish. My husband is afraid that the fame will pull me to the dark side like Darth Vader. He loves Star Wars,” she says as her voluptuous mouth breaks into a radiant smile. “The best of us fall for it but I don’t ever want it to get to my head.”
After the phenomenal success and acclaim she received from Humsafar, it was a difficult decision to choose her next project – after all, expectations are sky high and Mahirah is afraid of disappointing her fans and critics alike. But she has taken a leap of faith and started shooting Shehr-e-Zaat, written by Umera Ahmed and directed by the brilliant Sarmad Khoosat (the director who brought magic to the sets of Humsafar). “It is a non-commercial play and when I read the script, I felt the role instantly. I am playing a spoilt brat who has it all. She is superficial, materialistic and just plain badtameez. She can never fathom a tragedy and then lo and behold, something that she could never imagine happens to her, and from there on, she goes on a spiritual journey of self-discovery.” Mahirah plays lead as Falak alongside Meekal Zulfiqar who plays Salman. Fawad Khan and Mahirah’s flaming onscreen chemistry as Asher and Khirad will be a tough act to follow for Salman and Falak.
When I speak to Sarmad Khoosat about working with Mahirah again, he says, “Mahirah has a child-like quality and a purity which is rare. When I first met her I was like, ‘Oh no! This can’t be my Khirad’. She had an American accent and terrible Urdu grammar and worst of all she told me she wasn’t sure she could pull it off.” He chuckles and then continues, “But when I saw her on screen, I fell in love with her and wanted to adopt her. This may sound strange but what I like most about Mahirah is that she is not overconfident like most other actors. It is her unsure approach and passion for acting that makes Mahirah so novel and so adorable.”
Sarmad is spot on because the little interaction I have had with Mahirah, I feel she underestimates her own talent and is very hard on herself. For instance she says, “I hate watching myself on TV. I am very self-critical and know I have to improve my acting. I know I hold back and need to let go. I am not there yet.” Perhaps Mahirah’s humility and desire to constantly keep improving is what motivates her to strive harder and perform better.
Mahirah possesses so many seemingly opposing qualities – a child-like innocence in one moment and wisdom in the next, a startling vulnerability in one instant and then confidence and conviction. She exudes a refreshing liveliness and also an introspective intensity. She is fiercely independent and yet extremely dependent on her family and friends. She is casual and easygoing yet driven and ambitious. But the best thing about Mahirah is that she does not pretend to know it all or have it all. No matter what path she chooses or where she goes, it is clear that there is something special about Mahirah. She is a rising star and she will continue to soar.