Last Friday morning, many – but thankfully not all – Pakistanis woke up to the most shocking news they had heard in a long time. Mahira Khan, one of the top actresses from the country, may have a personal life that doesn’t match their moral standards. And to make it worse, her life is probably more interesting than their own.
Mahira was clicked somewhere in New York, smoking a cigarette with Ranbir Kapoor in a short dress that bared her (what I think is enviably chiselled) back.
Initially, I was not a huge fan of Mahira Khan. But eventually, she made a place in my heart with her elegance along with a string of effortlessly stunning performances on TV and the big screen alike. When she was cast opposite Shah Rukh Khan – I was ecstatic. On top of all this, she went through a divorce and became a single mother – something she handled with her trademark grace.
Mahira is the flag-bearer of a new generation of actresses that emerged in the mid- to late-2000s when private TV channels started focusing on entertainment through TV dramas.
These women were mostly from the educated middle class of Karachi, had modelling and TV experience, and were relatively young. But how did this wave differ from the Pakistan Television classics that emerged in the Seventies and the Eighties? This time there was far more content, content that varied in tone and presentation. The directors and writers were free to play with even more complex situations and characters. Above all, there was a lot more freedom to express.
Pakistani actresses float in a precarious space. They obviously become household names but unlike other cultures, like say India, these women are deemed unsuitable to become role models in any sense of the word. Acting isn’t considered a profession for respectable (“shareef“) women, and not a few would treat it akin to prostitution. Many Pakistanis also suffer from a tragicomic version of a Madonna-whore complex – women in the glamour world are admired and despised at the same time. In the 1980s, a renewed campaign against music, cinema, and dance was launched by Saudi-sponsored religious figures. There was a severe crackdown on the industry, and many producers went out of business.
But a less public and more lethal kind of entertainment emerged.
Theatre. A new genre of Punjabi theatre became popular – one which included sexual innuendos, songs full of double entendres, and actresses (who were never lead heroines) willing to do, by Pakistani standards, “vulgar” scenes. Indeed, many of the actresses in Lahore’s film industry (called Lollywood) belonged to the famous red light area not far from the studios.
Women who become stars in Pakistan are usually acutely aware of their status as the “other women” in this culture. Therefore some of them hedge and create an alternative, more pious identity. During TV interviews, they say their prayers and read the Quran. One famous actress in Pakistan kept saying her marriage was organised by her parents and, on the wedding day, gave an interview that she will only do what her “susral” says now. Sometimes they cross over to the religious side and one comes across headlines such as Celebrities who left Showbiz for religion.
A stage actress, Nargis, famous for her sensual dances, went on a pilgrimage and was transformed. She left the stage for some time and started preaching. Small-time TV actresses like Sataesh Khan, Sara Chaudhry and Urooj Nasir followed. Many leave the film or stage after marriage.
A string of male stars and singers have also been “born again”. Why would one leave the entertainment world after becoming more religious unless they too, fully or partially, once perceived it to be sacrilegious? Why would actresses establish their Islamic practices on TV unless there is a notion that their pasts were un-Islamic, if not for them then certainly for others?
Yes, life as a female public figure has always been tricky in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto went to great lengths to maintain an ambiguously non-sectarian, conservative and pious reputation despite being “westernised” in real life and being the leader of an ostensibly socialist party. Her entire look was caricatured to make her look masculine and asexual. Many female politicians have taken inspiration from that look. There is a certain kind of look “electable” women carry- head and body covered to the extent that even the last traces of their feminine aura are concealed (or at least, it is believed by most that a bonafide attempt in that direction has been made.) Women politicians who are glamorous are usually on reserved seats.
Basically, if a woman wants to become imprinted positively in the Pakistani public memory she needs to have a nun-like image.
One would think TV anchors or actresses are immune, but they are not. Meher Abbasi, a controversial news anchor, who started her show in slick western suits, has also now returned from a pilgrimage and embraced the head-scarf like several other women in the public eye. Abbasi, like Mahira Khan, has had private photos and videos leaked. Reham Khan, Imran Khan’s ex-wife and also a TV host, also went through a similar transition after marriage. This is their personal choice, yes, but to what extent is this influenced by the immense social pressure they face?
Pakistan’s popular culture is not only obsessed with women and their bodies but also ill at ease with it.
The average Pakistani man perhaps exists within a conundrum – he doesn’t want to see a boring woman – like “my wife” and “my mother” – on TV; rather he wants to see a performer and her charisma, her arms and attraction. But he is uncomfortable when she is doing the Ramzan transmission because a woman with her character isn’t worthy of that. Many women too share this worldview, unfortunately.
Yet the TV channel promoters know that what sells and would still prefer “the modern woman” over any grand old matron talking about the Holy Quran. Everyone in Pakistan seems to be in denial of the fact that the women they see on the screen are complex characters who can’t be simply boxed one way or the other (Madonna or whore). Yet the reality is that the super-competitive glamour world has its own culture, and people rightly or wrongly resort to drugs, promiscuity, alcohol or smoking to “de-stress”.
TV plays today have women-centric plots and complex themes that include infidelity, childlessness, and other human failings. Mahira Khan, like many mainstream actors, became typecast too. She often plays the battered girl-next-door-cum-lover/wife. But even an oppressed heroine has a very honest and upright character that conforms to all the middle-class and “Islamic” values. A woman who foregoes these values – decides never to marry, becomes a drug addict, leaves her husband, commits adultery or some other crime will repent it dearly or meet a befitting end with poetic justice. No one leaves her husband and lives happily ever after. No one drifts away from Islamic family values without paying heavily. Mahira doesn’t often play grey and flawed characters. But maybe they are not offered to her either, given her “innocent” looks and public image now.
Mahira is now a powerful cultural icon of new-age Pakistan. This is precisely, why she was in a big soup last week. So far, she has a spotless reputation in her fraternity. Her position isn’t under threat because she has many high-profile upcoming projects. Hopefully, this upheaval will help her become more of herself in the public eye and shed this fantastic but almost inhuman image of perfection.
I want to emphasise, as many feminists and rationalists have already, that it’s her body and her life, but the debate is so petty. A large country is feeling betrayed by Mahira’s limbs and tobacco consumption. A nuclear power that’s nonetheless not a very safe place for women to live in shouldn’t argue over a “hickey”. Unfortunately, that was the case here, once again.