Humsafar came much before Zindagi Gulzar Hai... three years, in fact. It was the first show in three decades that became that big a success. If you see Humsafar and then the other shows, you will find that every show has a jhalak of Humsafar. It changed television in Pakistan. All the people linked to it became overnight successes. Better shows started coming about. Marketing concepts changed. There was more effort in television as people realised how big TV could be.
It must have been heady...
For me, it was like a debut film becoming a super hit. I am a private person. I like to go to a mall and buy a book. Suddenly everyone started coming to me. Now that is a part of my job... but after a success like that, it becomes so difficult to choose the next project.
You are such a pretty woman. Did beauty become a hindrance to the recognition of your acting talent?
Believe me, I faced that after Humsafar. The articles used to introduce me as the beautiful Mahira ... blah blah. The acting part was very little. Earlier, I used to be very bothered by it. That’s why I took up such a different role in Shehr-e-Zaat (a 2012 TV series). People said: ‘What are you doing? You need to go on playing that pretty innocent girl for a while’. I said: ‘No, I already have’.
It must have been tough handling the demands of stardom and work with a two-year-old at home....
I am one of those rare actors in Pakistan who has decided not to do more than one project at a time. There have been times when I have worked 18-20 hours at a stretch. It is worth it if the project is good. My husband is from the advertising industry. He understands. My family is very nonchalant about my career and how it has panned out. Of course, they are happy. I think they want to keep me grounded. To them, I am still the kid with the runny nose!
Let’s talk about Khirad in Humsafar.
Khirad is closest to my heart. We have a lot of crying women in serials. But despite going through so much hardship, Khirad is so dignified. For me, to play that role was calming. But at that point, I was just having fun and reacting to what my director told me. There was no method to what I was doing. Today I have method. Humsafar is about two similar people from different backgrounds who get married. The marriage takes place because the uncle promises to her dying mother that he would marry Khirad to his own son. She is from a small town and they had never met. Then this amazing love brews between them very slowly. You see it in how they talk to each other.
Is marrying one’s cousin still a done thing in Pakistan?
It doesn’t happen much anymore but it’s not a taboo. The twist is when everything falls apart, they separate and then meet after very many years.
At that point, was Fawad Khan a big name?
It was a turning point for him also. Of course, Fawad was very popular. He had already done amazing work. But hota hai na, one big project makes everyone look at you? It was almost embarrassing when we became such big names. It was that for him too. I would say his performance in Dastaan (a 2010 TV show) maybe was better.
As a one-film-old newcomer, were you nervous acting opposite a star like Fawad?
(Giggles) Not at all. I was like: ‘Hey, what’s up!’ I had just come from college, and who is a star and who isn’t wasn’t a big deal. I was in Pakistan till I was 16 and my higher studies was in Los Angeles. I also worked there. I have sold everything from massage chairs to pashmina shawls to ice cream. Once you have held a mop in your hand, you think of everything as a job. It helps me in my acting.
What did you study in LA?
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to act. But I didn’t want my mother to kill me! So when I went to the US, I kept changing my major. First I did chemical engineering, then psychology. But what I did mostly was watch films. I would work and then volunteer in film festivals. I had tasted independence and didn’t want to come back soon. I had part-time and full-time jobs. I put myself through college. I am who I am because of those seven years.
You got married in 2007 and your debut was in 2011. In India, marriage is supposed to diminish a heroine’s glamour quotient. What is it like in Pakistan?
I have done things which are out of the ordinary. I was 21 when I got married. I am 29 now. In India and Pakistan, they tell us (actresses) not to get married. Of course, people’s priorities change after marriage. But it depends on the way you lead life. I was veejaying when I got married. I had just moved back from the US. I saw Madhuri (Dixit) in Ram Lakhan on a pirated VHS cassette chhup ke with my cousins. Madhuri was singing O Ramji and I thought: ‘Why am I not on the screen?!’ I enjoyed seeing Waheeda Rehman and Kareena (Kapoor) too, but the childhood fantasy began and ended with Madhuri.
Are you open to offers from Bollywood?
I would love to work in Bollywood. Someone like Fawad has done that. If the offer excites me, I would jump at it. Ranbir (Kapoor) is brilliant, so is Ranveer (Singh). You have directors like Vishal (Bhardwaj), Imtiaz (Ali) and Karan Johar. Indian cinema is changing and there is so much happening.
Finally, Fawad is a rage among girls in India. What is he like to work with?
If someone says anything good about Fawad, it makes me happy. He is exactly what you know about him. He is a great guy. I treasure and respect our relationship. The way he conducts himself and has gone into Bollywood — I admire him a lot for that.