Mahira Khan is undeniably Pakistan’s most beautiful superstar. But take away the mascara and lipstick, and she remains as beautiful a person. For there is more to Mahira than aristocratic looks – she’s also a loving mother, an avid traveler, a focused actor and a woman of strength and substance. In a candid conversation with leading journalist and media producer, Fifi Haroon, she opens up about her crazy schedules, nocturnal awakenings, her desire to see the cities she flies by, food obsessions, and most importantly, the love of her life, her son Azlan. 

 Mahira Khan and I are WhatsApping again.

“Hey. So I just got done with a 24-hour shoot spell!”

How do you tell a woman who never sleeps to not sleep after that?

Tomorrow? “Dubbing :/”

Day after? “She’s still dubbing,” laments her manager Sahar. “She’s been up two nights.”

Somewhere in between the various undertakings that make up an Eid release, we try to squeeze in what are supposed to be two interviews – one for Destinations and the other for my regular gig at the BBC at producer Momina Duraid’s production headquarters in Karachi’s Clifton. But Khan and I end up spending the first hour gossiping and catching up about sun-filled days and starry nights.

“Guess who?” “No!” “Reallllly?”

So one interview it is, and the other one moves into tomorrow/the day after/the next week territory and more WhatsApping.

To call Mahira Khan a busy woman is like calling Speedy Gonzales merely frisky. Even her film titles are made up of superlatives. Eid is nigh, and she is running on chai (tea) and bouts of anxiety. Because Mahira Khan is a 24/7 superstar but with impending deadlines around every corner one who can’t afford superstar nakhras (tantrums).

Mobeen Ansari

She is known to have a strong work ethic and the younger lot of girls from Maya Ali to Zara Noor Abbas speak about her in reverential tones. Even Meera who never held back from savaging her in public statements seems to have now softened. Occasionally, you hear the claim that Khan is sometimes a “selfish actor” whose focus is on her own performance. But then you wonder if that is indeed a negative. Sarmad Khoosat who is a close friend and directed her first drama serial calls her his Madhuri. And Asim Reza insisted she do a special appearance in his second film when she dropped out reputedly because of date issues. It must be difficult to wake up to all that adulation and have live up to it constantly but if you’re Mahira Khan that’s your lot.

The film that Khan is banking on to bring back the box-office love and one that is going to be in direct competition with the film she left is director

Ehteshamuddin’s Superstar – the story of a superstar played by a superstar. And one that looks to be a modern Abhimaan of sorts, scripted by rising second-generation ingenue Azaan Sami Khan. Apart from the lovers and jealousy angle is it a case of art emulating life with the lines between the frames and the cut themselves blurred?

When a teary-eyed Khan smirks and says “Lo main bann gayi superstar!” (So now I am a superstar!) in a dramatic scene from the trailer the words ring rather true to life, almost as if Khan is chiding her detractors on Twitter. And like all stories of ambition and dreams, love and disillusionment you begin to wonder how people will distinguish between Mahira Khan and the film’s aspirant Noorie. Especially if Khan succumbs to her tendency to retain what are now identified as Mahira-isms – that endearing flick of her hair or the questioning smile. After all, her fan base have had immense difficulty separating the actor from Khirad, her debut role in Hum TV’s seminal drama serial Humsafar, Which is why Pakistan’s original sweetheart can’t smoke cigarettes with other superstars or wear white dresses without reprimand.

Today Khan is in casual jeans and a t-shirt. Face scrubbed clean if a little piqued from long shooting spells. Still, she is a startlingly beautiful close-up in a way few stars are when all the magical filters are stripped away. Yet her beauty while being Mahira Khan’s greatest asset for many is also what limits her sometimes from taking major risks in her career. When she has not played true to type, as for example as a rape survivor in Verna, Khan has divided her fans.

But for now we decide to talk about other things. Like Mahira Khan the mother, the traveler, the workhorse, the woman. A little time off from the larger issues and invariable nervousness that accompany a major film release and an attempt in the middle of great expectations to laugh a little and talk about the lighter side of life.

Over to the superstar…

So Mahira, take a quick pick – are you a homebody or a gypsy?

I would say I’m a gypsy at heart even though in practice I’m a homebody. My mother always says agar isko gaari chalani aati (if she knew how to drive a car) she’d be on the road or on the highway.

What – you’ve never learned to drive, that too in this day and age?

I did for Ho Mann Jahan and then left it at that. Mujh se nahi hota. (I can’t do it)

What scares you about taking the wheel?

Hmm, I really don’t know but driving scares me.

I’ve interviewed you so many times so I can’t believe there are still some surprises left – but ere we go again!

(Laughs) I know, we’ve talked so much and yet we always find more to talk about. So, yeah, I think by nature I’m a gypsy and a malangi (bohemian). Like I don’t like staying in one place for too long, but I am a homebody in the way that I don’t like going for dinners or anything. I don’t like going out at all.

You don’t like socializing? But I see you on the red carpet all the time.

Oh, that, of course. But that’s like once in a while. Otherwise, I don’t like socializing so much. I like being with my own set of friends, which are mainly my childhood friends. Eating chaat, having daal chawal (lentils with rice) at home. I like being home more than anywhere. Especially when it comes to food I want that space to be mine so mein araam se khaoun (so I can eat in peace).

Daal chawal is a lot of carbs. Isn’t that a no-no for glamorous heroines?

(Chuckles) Take a look at me! Does it look like I don’t eat carbs?

Come on Mahira you are quite svelte…

That is because of good genes! On Superstar’s set Bilal (Ashraf) used to just have boiled chicken. And, you know, I was telling my manager Sehr that the reason why me and Bilal initially did not chill too much is because he just wouldn’t eat. I like to eat and I bond with people over food. That’s my, you know, thing. Aaj set pe kya aa raha hae – nihari ayegi ya biryani? (What food are we getting on set today – is it going to be nihari or biryani) Abhi bhi (Even as we speak now…) I’m eyeing the food that is sitting there.

Where does it all go?

No idea but I’ve never been one to work out. I guess I got lucky. But it shows also, you can’t get away with everything. Like I’ve got a chin hanging and you can see it in the dances. I’m not like some of the other girls who look so bloody good. I don’t have a toned body. I should but I don’t. I’m a lazy person like that. I don’t like going to the gym.

I don’t think people really look at your body on the screen Mahira. I think people look at your face a lot more…

If you say so! There was a point where the Parey Hut Love team was deciding which song I should do for the guest appearance in the film. So a classical song or a dance number with a choti choli (cropped top). And Asim Reza was like “Dekho Mahira, haan hum ye baat accept karte hain ke chehray se nazar kum hat ti hae magar ab wo time agaya hae ke kuch hum body ka karein taakey hum aur bhi dikhayen, sirf ye na dikhayen.” (Look Mahira, we accept that it’s hard to take our eyes off your face, but it’s time now we focus on other things) So I was like yes, yes Asim. Shukar hae (Thankfully) I didn’t do the choli number!

So the shaadi song, Ek Pal with Meera was in PHL because when you were doing the lead in the film they thought it would be fun to have you dancing with Meera…

Yes they wanted me to share the screen with her. And that’s been my biggest regret about not doing the film, that I could not be in the same frame as Meera jee because I think oh what a combo that would have been!

Mobeen Ansari

After all the things she said about you…

Yes, yes!

Moving on from Meera, what do you like to do when you go on holiday?

I was in L.A. right now for two weeks. I did not step out of the house. Azlan, my son, was there, lots of kids, all of that. Like there came a point when my friends, would plead OK man, let’s just go for dinner. But I would say no, how about we order in some food? I said, please I need some time off.

Because you probably needed to recuperate. The other thing is I know you don’t sleep. You’re a bhatakti rouh (wandering soul) till 3 a.m. in the morning when I get your WhatsApp messages.

Yeah, I don’t sleep. Some days I don’t know how I’m still standing.

But you can’t keep burning the candle at both ends forever.

I am seriously burning the candle at the moment with Superstar. But then again, I went to a friend’s wedding in Istanbul recently and I majorly partied there. I had been working like a dog for Superstar and it was like four days off in the middle of a very tight schedule. And I totally switched off. I turned off everything; deleted apps, you know, my usual distancing. I didn’t want to open anything. I used to just do a check on Azlan back home because I was away. And those four days I had an absolute blast.

Azlan is going to be ten soon; so he’s gearing up to be a little man! And soon he’s going to come home and tell mama he has a girlfriend.

(Grins) Well, he has a “special” friend.

How sweet! Who does he look like?

Just like my ex-husband Ali. I think there is something of me, maybe the eyes.

If you remember there was a time that Azaan Sami Khan used to look just like his dad Adnan Sami. And I used to think what a strange thing for Zeba to have a son who looks just like her ex!

I love it! It’s great. I have Ali but I don’t. It’s amazing.

Are you still friends with your ex? I think it’s important when you’ve got a kid to continue to communicate.

Yes, we are very much friends. I think we have both worked really hard together to come to a place of genuine respect, love, and understanding of each other. And I think a lot of credit goes to, of course, me and him, but also to our families and his wife.

You mentioned that you had great fun in Istanbul. Is that one of your favorite holiday spots?

No, no – I like going to L.A. Because I grew up there. I mean that’s where I feel at home. I was 16 or 17 when I moved to L.A. so I lived there for quite a while. I was going to college and doing two jobs alongside that. So I was I living a typical American life. It was not at all what my friends had who went for college from Pakistan were doing. I lived a very quintessential American teenager’s life, which was paying rent, trying to make ends meet, all of those things. I was shuffling between jobs all the time.

This must have been a great change for you from what you were used to here – were you ever a spoiled brat?

Oh, I was totally spoiled by every single person in the house. I was born after eight years of my parents being married, so I was spoiled by my daada daadi (paternal grandparents), mother, father, everybody. And then me going to L.A. actually really changed things. That was a big shock to my system and a reality check.

Do you think it was good for you to get a taste of real-life while you were in the USA?

It was the best thing. Even today who I am and why people say I am down to earth, it’s linked to that time in Los Angeles. It’s because I’ve lived a very tough, hard life and I’ve understood what it means to work for a living. I value time and work and what others put into a project, whatever their role. I value the make-up artist’s time for making me look right. We’re all doing a job. I used to be a cashier who used to mop the floor and lock up the store. And I used to do it to the best of my abilities. It means that you know that even if you scale the heights, that you can mop floors, that you can do anything it takes. By the way, I still do that on set. Mujhey koi cheez khatak rahi hoti hae tau mein khud jaake fix kar deti houn (If something is bothering me, I go and fix it myself). Ye chota aur barra mujhay nahi samajh aata. (I don’t believe in these social hierarchies).

I think you need to eat all this food you’ve ordered. So it’s beef noodles and of course khatti daal and chawal, your perennial favorite.

All my food has mirchi (chillies) on the side. Give me anything that is chatpatta (spicy) and I will love it.

But name a sinful food that you eat? Do you like desserts?

I’m not a big meetha (desserts) fan but if I’m feeling sinful I order a lot of KFC. And it’s never small it’s always a Zinger burger with two pieces of chicken and fries. Or if I order a McChicken I will also get six nuggets on the side. That’s when I get my junk food cravings.

When you were pregnant what food cravings did you have?

When I was pregnant…God, it was so long ago it’s been eleven years. I used to eat a lot of ice cream. When I was in labour, and I mean full labour when the pushing has started I told Ali to get me an Ice lolly right now. Ali I want Mamma Mia! And Ali had to rush out of South City hospital to find it. Oh, I simply love Mamma Mia raspberry. So that’s my weird food cravings story!

Definitely weird! So when you had your son why did you name him Azlan? It’s an unusual name.

Oh, there were so many names I had to choose from. I first wanted to name him Azad. And Ali was that sounds like Azad Kashmir. And then he wanted to name him Hunza. And I’m like, that’s like the Hunza Valley.

Mobeen Ansari

All these destination names!

And then one day we were just chilling and he said how about Azlan? And it just clicked. Remember Azlan from Narnia? The lion – that’s what his name means.

I don’t know what it is with you girls – Amina Sheikh named her daughter Mhysa from Game of Thrones. And now your kid is from Narnia!

No, really is that from Game of Thrones? But Azlan is like a proper name in Arabic too. It’s not just from Narnia!

In the spirit of discovery, where would you like to visit that you haven’t been before?

I have gone to literally every city in the world, but I have not seen any city in the world. Ironic isn’t it? I just touchdown, work and fly off. If you ask me did you like it, I wouldn’t be able to tell you as I haven’t actually explored any place. So when I take a long break from acting, that’s one of the first things I am going to do. I’m will go back to all these cities that I’ve only seen from my hotel room window but not been able to explore. I would definitely go back to Cannes and the south of France. I’d go back to Beirut. I’d go back to Paris.

But if you’re going to Paris you can’t take your manager with you. It’s a city to discover love…

Oh, I definitely won’t. Paris we are going with our respective partners or we are going alone. Actually I can tell you about a huge fantasy I have…

What kind of fantasies are we talking about?

No, not that kind okay! I’m talking PG fantasies. I want to be able to travel alone. Like take a suitcase, pack it and just leave. Just get the hell out of here. But alone though. I don’t want to travel with friends. I want to be alone.

That sounds very Garbo-esque! But where would you want to go with the significant other?

Wherever he takes me – I’d like to be surprised!

What are you wearing around your neck?

Oh this? It’s a palm tree I bought in L.A.. And then I’m wearing the word Haq in my chain because it’s one of my favorite words.

Why is this word important to you?

Haq means right in Urdu but in Arabic, in Sufism, Haq means faith. Like when you say, Haq Allah. I think faith is the foundation of your being. When your faith in yourself is shaken then you are all over the place.

Have you been able to hold on to a faith in yourself? Because sometimes you come across as a bit insecure.

I don’t know if I am insecure. I think I’m a doubter. I doubt and rethink. I would always think I’m not a perfectionist but over time I’ve realized I want to always fix things and that’s about perfectionism. So the reason I am doubtful is because I’m never happy with anything. I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done or how I’ve done it. So the next career step for me is either producing or directing because I just want to always put things right.

Faith makes you fearless. I really feel in the last few years my faith had sort of waned; I had stopped believing in myself. I had stop believing in my own powers. I tend to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. Myself I doubt all the time. I doubt the outfit I am wearing, my new haircut, my face. Raees made me more like this. I was like a little girl whose heart got broken. But even so at the end of the day I would say my faith in myself surpasses my doubt.

Do you have faith in your ability as a mother?

Absolutely. One hundred percent.

That’s so important because as a single woman parenting a child y ou need to be sure-footed. What have you learned in life that you want to pass on to your son?

I think more than anything he needs to know it’s important, to be honest. And to be kind. And even beyond that it’s important to be brave. Because he’s a lot like me. I get calls from my ex-mother-in-law saying ye bilkul tumhari tarha hae (he’s just like you). So I get that he’s a sensitive person, that he can be bullied. I get him. So from now, I want to teach him to be stronger, which my mother didn’t really do with me.

It’s a tough world outside so it helps to prepare your children. Has he inherited your artistic side?

I’m not saying this because he’s my child but it will blow your mind if you see his work. He does graphics, he paints he draws, he’s even doing a comic book. But of course, being an artist comes at a price and it will be the same for him. I look at Azlan as a person. Yes, he’s my child and only ten but he’s also his own person. And I admire this person so much. I tell him Azlan there’s so much that I look up to in you. So much that I learn from you. And he says “Same mama, same!”