Mahira Khan knows how to find her light, no matter the setting – even if it’s the popcorn party room at Cineplex Cinemas Winston Churchill in Oakville, Ont. The Pakistani film and TV star was in town this past Sunday to promote her latest film, Superstar, during a special screening, to the delight of hundreds of fans who thronged to see her and co-stars Bilal Ashraf and Ali Kazmi, as well as the film’s director Mohammed Ehteshamuddin.
Ignoring the sticky floor, kids’ tables decorated with yellow paper plates and napkins and a crowd of people who continued to stand outside the glass-walled room to catch a glimpse of her even after the movie started, Khan posed for the camera leaning on a lurid purple child’s-sized chair. Dressed in a white sari with a floral pattern by Pakistani designer Rehmat Ajmal, paired with a green jacket by Mango, her eyes dusted with glittering gold eyeshadow, Khan looked every bit as glamorous as the character she plays in Superstar.
Moments before, she was a picture of grace as she obliged an elderly fan who had managed to break the security cordon. Taking his cellphone out of his shaking hands and waving off her handlers who were trying to hustle him out of the room, she flashed one of her megawatt grins and instructed the fan to smile while she took the selfie. The man didn’t stop smiling as he left the room.
In a sense, it’s all a case of art imitating life imitating art. Superstar is about a theatre artist, Noori, who dreams of making it on the silver screen. She happens to meet the famous actor and film industry scion Sameer Khan (Ashraf) at an advertisement shoot and sparks fly. Sameer’s friend and up-and-coming director Shaan (Kazmi) casts Noori alongside Sameer for his project.
“What happens when their stars collide is actually the story of the film,” said Khan, 34, sitting down for an interview after the kerfuffle of fans, community media and video bloggers streaming Instagram stories somewhat subsided. The film follows the emotional struggles of the pair as one’s star rises while the other one’s descends.
Ever since she was a young girl, she wanted to be a film star, Khan said.
“Not even an actor, a film star,” she added, laughing as she emphasized the distinction. “I don’t remember anything else I wanted to do, because this was obviously a thing that my mother and father didn’t say – ‘Yes, very good, do it’ – I thought of lots of other different things to do. I will study psychology, I will major in chemistry. … But if you asked me, what was in my heart, I wanted to become a film star.
“I remember watching [Bollywood star] Madhuri [Dixit-Nene, who ruled the Bollywood box-office from the late 1980s through the ’90s] on screen and that was it. I was like: Wow! I want to do this.”
Khan did try going down a more traditional path, enrolling first for a chemical-engineering degree at a university in Los Angeles before switching gears to pursue psychology. Living abroad with no family except her younger brother, she worked several retail jobs to pay for rent or save up for the occasional flight back to Pakistan to visit family.
On one such visit in 2007, she said she was dropping off a friend at the newly opened MTV Pakistan office, when she caught the eye of famous Pakistani TV producer Ghazanfar Ali. Khan at first declined Ali’s offer to launch her as an MTV VJ; she wanted to complete her studies.
Besides, “in my head, there was this idea. I told Ghazanfar sahab, I don’t want to be a VJ, I want to be a movie star,” she said, chuckling at her naiveté. Nevertheless, she gave the gig a shot as a summer job, and soon became a well-known TV personality before starring in her first film, Bol, in 2011.
“What VJ-ing taught me was how to be myself. Because we used to go live [every day], how much can you act? Also, people thought I was weird. I had just returned from L.A., so I sounded different, I wore different clothes. I learned to be comfortable with myself.”
Whether in the role of Khirad in Humsafar (2011), a Pakistani TV drama that catapulted her into stardom almost overnight or in the role of Noori in Superstar, Khan often ends up digging into her own experiences.
As Khirad, she played a young woman from a village in Pakistan who is married off to her urbane cousin Ashar (Fawad Khan) when her mother dies, leaving her orphaned. Complicated family dynamics eventually see her bringing up a daughter as a single mother, until Ashar realizes his folly. Fans adored Khan’s portrayal of a woman confident of her convictions.
“That inner strength Khirad had, that’s my own,” Khan said.
When it came to playing Noori, who finds herself alone after achieving stardom, Khan said she could relate. There were many moments in Superstar when she suggested shots to the director, reflecting on her own experiences.
“This is a very personal film for me,” she said.
A single mother and one of Pakistan’s most popular stars today, Khan is often in the limelight – most recently when veteran Pakistani TV actor Firdaus Jamal called her a mediocre model and actor. Given her age, she should stick to playing motherly roles, he added. Jamal’s comments were quickly called out by Pakistan’s film fraternity as being disrespectful. Khan eventually responded through an Instagram post, thanking her fans by writing, “I read somewhere [what] ’Stardom’ in Latin means – thank you to the fans when it was lonely.”
She said: “The way people love me, I can’t put it into words. I don’t know what I have done that people love me like this.” That people feel they can lay claim to her “is amazing. But it also makes it tough. Because when people claim you, you carry their expectations. You carry your own baggage, but also theirs in some strange way. You feel like you need to make people feel happy, when this is something you cannot always do. But I love it. I love that they claim me. And they claim me strong.”
Superstar is now playing in cinemas across Canada
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