From Pakistan to USA
When Mahira was 16-years-old and had just finished her O-levels from Foundation Public School, she felt this uncontrollable urge to head to America. “I wanted to get out of here,” she said, “I was eager to get out of Karachi and live life abroad, on my own terms.”
Throughout high school and college in Los Angeles, Mahira worked odd jobs and her first stint was as a cashier at Rite Aid. “I had to do everything there: Mopping floors, cleaning toilets, running the till and shutting the store at night,” she says, laughing as she looks back at those days.
“Over there everyone works,” she adds, with a slight shrug. “Though my father was paying my college fees, I would make pocket money through these odd end jobs and it wasn’t a big deal.”
Having a 16-year-old live alone in the United States would be scary for most families but not for Mahira’s mom and dad. “I guess I would describe my family as liberal, even though my mother has a more conservative mindset,” she revealed. “My friends would only be allowed sleepovers at my place and they would share everything with my mother. Everyone knew that in my house little could go wrong with my mother staying up all night to keep a watchful eye on the girls.”
Mahira grew up in a joint family system with her paternal grandparents, dado and dada, living with them, and her phupho’s family and cousins residing next door.
Shifting to the United States, after having lived such a sheltered life, was somewhat difficult but Mahira was determined to make it work. “Looking back, it’s difficult to explain exactly why I was so adamant about staying in the Unites States but I really felt I needed that time to grow and explore,” she reminisces.
There were times when Mahira would be working two jobs, and would be drained by the end of the day. But the feeling of making it on her own is what liberated her and kept her going. “The one job that I hated the most was at Express,” she said. “All these fat women coming in, posing in front of a mirror and asking me questions like, ‘Are these jeans perfect for me,’ really got to me. I found that job super annoying.”
How Mahira Met her Husband Ali Askari
It was in Los Angeles that Mahira met Ali Askari, her future husband, and it was Askari who almost accidentally led her to a lifetime of being in front of the camera.
“I always knew that I wanted to be an actress, that I wanted to be in movies,” said Mahira, dreamily looking back at the years when she would tease her friends that one day they would have to stand in line to get her autograph. “It was just something I knew would happen.”
Despite her determination to become a film star, throughout her stay in Los Angeles Mahira stayed far away from the world of films. “The closest I came to the filmworld was being an usher at a film festival in L.A.,” she reveals.
How Mahira Became a VJ
Though money was scarce during Mahira’s college life, she and her brother would work long and tedious hours in order to save up the thousand dollars needed for a ticket back home. “Saving up every penny in order to buy a ticket was the biggest challenge of the year,” she says.
It was during a vacation back home, when Mahira went to pick up Ali Askari from MTV, that she ran into the man who would change her life just like he had changed so many other lives before her: Ghazanfar Ali. “MTV was new and upcoming at the time, and Ali Askari was working there when I met Ghazanfar sahib,” remembers Mahira.
It was a meeting Mahira wasn’t likely to forget: Ghazanfar took one look at her and said: “Come and become a VJ!” Shocked and eager to head back to the United States to finish college, Mahira simply laughed and said, “I don’t think so.”
But Ghazanfar Ali persisted, Ali Askari helped him and Mahira ended up saying yes with the understanding that she would only stay on till her vacations.
“I really began enjoying it,” confesses Mahira. “I had never done anything like this before and so it was an experience, and every day was just so much fun with all of us hanging out together and just figuring out things as we went along.”
Ali Askari Proposes to Mahira Khan
It was during the early days of MTV that Ali Askari proposed and, much to the chagrin of her father, the 21-year-old said yes. “My father was definitely against this decision of mine and thought I was throwing my life away but it felt right to me and so I did it,” she said.
It was a time of great changes for Mahira. The young girl who had fled to the United States to carve out a life for herself had discovered that the life she really wanted was waiting for her back home.
Life as a VJ
“It was when I became a VJ that I realised how much I enjoyed interacting with people, sharing their experiences, and playing the music they wanted,” says Mahira. “Being a VJ was a completely new experience and it was all about figuring it out.”
She credits her early learning and development as a television personality to Ghazanfar Ali, the man she refers to as a genius. “Oh my god!” she exclaims when asked to describe how it was working with one of the most enigmatic television producers in the country. “In this industry there is nobody who is as competent at spotting talent and developing stars as Ghazanfar.“
Exactly a year after Mahira was launched by MTV, she left the channel and joined Geo television’s youth channel, Aag. “I think I had done everything I could possibly do at MTV and so I was eager to try something else,” she said. “Geo asked me to do Pakistan Idol and I thought that was an exciting and unique opportunity.”
Of course Pakistan Idol never happened and so Mahira ended up staying home and getting extremely bored till Aag television put her on air for Weekends with Mahira.
First Acting Offer
“The time that I left Indus television and sat at home, doing nothing basically, was a huge low point in my life,” she said. “Being in front of the camera is addictive and I was left just sitting at home and staring at the walls after having been in front of the camera, five times a week.”
It was during this time that she was offered a role in what seemed like a brilliant play Malaal, by Mehreen Jabbar. “It was going to be shot in New York and I was really looking forward to working with a director as intelligent as Mehreen Jabbar and I couldn’t wait to get started,” she says.
But a week before she was supposed to fly off to America, Mahira discovered that she was pregnant. “I couldn’t do the play anymore and though I was ecstatic about being pregnant, I was really bummed about missing the play,” she recalls.
When her son was a couple of months old, Shoaib Mansoor called her up and said he wanted her to act in his next film. “When you get a call from Shoaib Mansoor you are like, ‘Oh my god! Is this for real?’ But instead I told him that I would think it over and call him back.”
The next day she said yes, and soon Mahira,with her parents, baby and breastfeeding pump in tow, made their way to Lahore. Shooting for Bol was stressful because every two to three hours Mahira had to disappear to pump milk for her son, who was being looked after by her parents.
First Big Break
And if Bol was something Mahira had been eager to do, Humsafar was almost an obligation she felt she had to fulfill.
Momina Duraid, the head of Hum TV Productions, had offered numerous plays to Mahira but for various reasons they never worked out. “I felt I owed it to Momina as I had promised her that I would work on a play with her,” says Mahira.
It was only once she began reading the script in detail and the filming process started that Mahira realised what a phenomenon Humsafar was going to be. Based on a sweet and simple story of love after marriage, the play thrives on the subtleties of the relationships between the three main characters played by Mahira, Fawad Khan and Naveen Waqar, and has developed a cult following.
“I think Humsafar is one of those plays where somehow everything worked out,” says Mahira. “It happens rarely but when it does, it’s magic! We were talking about this the other day and while we all might go on to do other great plays, there isn’t going to be another Humsafar.”
For now Mahira is inundated with scripts for other serials but she knows it would be next to impossible to surpass the success of Humsafar, which is why she is taking her time to figure out which project to say yes to.
“I am also a mom so things are never that easy,” she says. “I had to say no to a project in which almost the entire Humsafar team is involved simply because I couldn’t travel abroad for two months and leave my son behind.”
But looking at her trajectory, one is certain that something will work out for Mahira. Something always does.
Actress Mahira Khan writes obsessively. Everyday she fills
page after page of her journal, writing letters to her two and a
half-year-old son Azlan…just in case she dies, you know. “You never know
what can happen” she says.
In her journal she chronicles the thoughts that spill out of her head
at an excessive, incontrollable rate. It is in these pages this former
bubbly VJ, and now breakthrough star of the most popular drama serial in
Pakistan, is struggling to figure out what on earth is going on.
Mahira Khan writing Journal
“These days the pages have so many emotions crammed in them,” says
the actress, sitting in a cosy café in Zamzama on a chilly Karachi
evening. “But I think one that really stands out, is that I’m desperate…
willing to do almost anything to find an answer to the questions that I
Mahira is seated in a corner booth, her clear hazel eyes scanning the
menu. Despite her raw beauty, she is just not the kind of celebrity who
demands to be noticed, someone who sits with the air of entitlement one
would assume an immensely popular actor would have. In fact, she almost
seems to shrink into her clothes, a seven-year-old peach-pink georgette
kurta. She is smiling, but there is something startlingly vulnerable
about her. She is not one of those women who look as if they’ve just
stepped out of a salon: her long hair is uncombed, she doesn’t have a
speck of makeup on her porcelain skin, and her eyebrows are still trade
markedly un-plucked. She still looks stunning.
She says she’s starving, and orders the first sandwich the waiter
recommends — all she wants to know is whether there will be ample fries
with her meal. He assures her there will, and scurries off with a goofy
smile on his face.
For the first few minutes of our conversation, it is obvious that
Khan goes through a silent struggle with herself, of whether she should
talk about what she “should”, the way Pakistani girls do to convince
boys they are good girls, parents that they are innocent, and
journalists that they are cool and confident. Or to just shed the facade
and tell it how it really is — which is, in all honesty, not that
great. Luckily, today the truth wins.
“The past year has been nuts,” she explains with a sigh. “I’ve lost
two very special people in my life and I’ve seen two friends go through
the worst times of their lives because of it. I’ve been struggling to
give time to my family, and I’ve seen this sudden fame which I just
can’t really sort of enjoy,” she says.
A pretty heavy statement coming from someone who has recently hit a career jackpot most actors can only dream about.
Mahira has struck it big with her latest drama serial “Humsafar”,
based on a novel written by Farhat Ishtiaq and directed by Sarmad
Khoosat, creator of sitcom “Shashlick”. And we’re not talking about just
any big, but instant-recognition-by-Pakistanis-world-over,
moral-policing-aunties-scrutinising-her-every-move big. For most people,
Mahira is simply Khirad, the small town girl with stellar principles that she portrays in “Humsafar”.
It was the kind of success she hadn’t anticipated, especially because
she had already worked in much larger productions like Shoaib Mansoor’s
blockbuster Bol, and with award winning directors like Mehreen
Jabbar, on drama serial “Neeyat”. While making “Humsafar”, Mahira and
the director never spoke about the people who would watch it, and
whether they would like it or not. When the show swept the ratings, Khan
was in shock. “I still call up Sarmad or Fawad or my producer and we
laugh,” she says with a smile, “and we’re like ‘Dude! Can you imagine?
Can you actually imagine?’”
Before “Humsafar”, Mahira was lost as an actor. On the sets of Bol,
Shoaib Mansoor didn’t give her much direction, preferring to let her
be. Mehreen Jabbar taught her how to discipline herself as an actor, but
it was Khoosat who gave her the faith. “He would sit with me during the
times I would doubt myself, and tell me, ‘You have no idea what you can
Despite all this support and encouragement, the months spent shooting
the serial were some of the most trying for Khan personally. If it’s
true that Pakistani drama ratings are derived from how hard someone can
cry, Mahira was the best choice for the role of Khirad. Besides losing
loved ones, the burden of constant shoots and media attention took a
toll on her family life as well. “When all my time is being spent out
shooting or on the phone, that’s when the problem comes in and yes, that
has had an effect on my closest relationships.”
For the irrepressible former VJ, trying to get into the character of
the reticent, almost stilted, Khirad was a constant personal battle. At a
time when Khan could only think about defending her right to spend so
much time at work because it was something she really wanted to do, she
just couldn’t wrap her head around why Khirad embodied a tattered
punching bag in the first half of the serial. “I would wonder: ‘Who is
she yaar?’” she says with an annoyed and quizzical look. “When will she
stand up for herself?”
The cosmopolitan actress is a far cry from the poor country cousin
she portrays in the drama serial. Possibly the worst financial crisis
that Mahira has dealt with in her real life was during her time at
college in the US when she worked two jobs to meet ends meet, but as the
shooting progressed, Khan took Khirad’s character and made it her own.
“I kept her herself, very desi and chup chaap, but then Khirad became
me. And I’m going to take a little credit for that,” she adds smiling.
According to a regular drama critic, ‘Drama Buff’ who writes for
dramapakistani.net, Khan’s performance in “Humsafar” was far superior to
her acting in any of her previous roles, where it was at times labeled
“wooden” and her presence disparaged simply as the “eye-candy” of the
production. Drama Buff says, “In “Humsafar” Mahira was great for the
role because she looks innocent and is a strong, independent woman at
the same time, this way she played the “victim” well and could also
stand up for her character.” He adds, “Still some scenes were difficult
for her to pull off, but if she continues working with good directors
and tries to emote more she is on her way to becoming a really talented
And Khan is willing to do all it takes to get there. She reads every
single review that is published or posted online, and is extremely self
critical, “If I find a piece where there are 10 good things about me and
one bad, I obsess about the bad,” she explains. Mahira, more than
anybody else, is aware that she has a long way to go. “When they
introduce me on talk shows, they always say something to the effect:
‘Now please welcome the very pretty Mahira Khan,’” she shouts, her voice
booming in a parody of the announcer’s stage voice. “I won’t be happy
until they say ‘Now please welcome the brilliant actor Mahira Khan.’”
The curse of beauty is something Khan has been compensating for her
entire life. Ever since she was in school, and had blossomed into a
beauty — one that boys, girls and teachers alike were smitten by — Khan
tried to downplay her flawless magnetism. “Even when I was young I was
always conscious about it,” she explains, “I always felt that if I
downplay my looks I can prove myself in other ways.”
Fellow students remember her in her Foundation Public School uniform,
her thin sash of a dupatta trailing on the floor behind her, hair
strands straying out of her pony tail in disarray, and her pillowy lips
chapped in the dry winter air. Even then, she stood out amidst rows of
other girls in the monotony of beige, white and pony tails.
As she grows older though, she has begun to question this resentment.
“How can I be embarrassed by myself, and something that I have? I
should be embarrassed about other things that I lack. I’m not proud of
my Urdu, so I should work on that, but I shouldn’t consciously remove
the makeup from my face so I can look real in front of the camera. I am
coming to terms with the fact that I have to stop being apologetic.”
And maybe she has. The pink kameez she’s wearing is shorter than the
cut off length fashion trends today would dictate. Mahira, who is
usually on trend, explains that it holds sentimental value: it was
something she wore when she had a fight with her now husband, Ali
Askari, 7 years ago, when both of them were in college.
She may be one of the most adored actresses in the country right now ,
whose childlike innocence, girly sophistication and flawless looks many
look forward to watching in the evenings in order to forget the
tribulations of their day. More so than before, many are also supporting
her struggle, as she evolves serial-by-serial, film by film, into a
mature actress, and a strong human being. Mahira is grateful for this,
but has decided not to pretend that she knows what she is doing. “I had
it all figured out a while ago,” she says. “Now I’m trying to find it
again. I am at a point where I am reassessing everything in my life. I’m
full on with my hands in the keechur, trying to figure out things, you know?”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.
The marital life of famous
Pakistani actress Mahira Khan could come to an end in the upcoming days
as the star actress had demanded divorce from her husband.
Mahira was happily married on July 13, 2007 to Ali Askari. The couple has a cute baby girl and a boy named “Azlaan”.
According to sources, the quarrels
between the wedded couple had reached its peak in last couple of weeks
and instead of intervention from the family elders and friends the ties
were still not improving.
According to family sources, misunderstandings started between the couple after Mahira’s husband asked her to leave showbiz.
Mahira Khan got the fame from Shoaib
Mansoor’s hit film ‘Bol.’ The actress had also performed in several
drama serials but her serial ‘Hamsafar’ was a blockbuster.
Mahira along with her children had
shifted to her mother’s residence. The star actress was no more
interested to continue the marital life, they added.