I already put up 3 very detailed posts discussing and reviewing the entire 23 episode series that rocketed Mahira Khan to international fame. But those were really for people who had already seen the show and wanted an in depth discussion. Or were never planning to see the show, but still wanted to know exactly what happened. But what if all you care about is getting a quick sense of what made Mahira Khan so appealing to the Raees producers that they just had to cast her in this role? Then, this is the post for you!
Humsafar, to start with the absolute basics, is a Pakistani soap opera. It is in Urdu, which is a language almost identical to Hindi. Think like modern English versus Victorian English, that close. Urdu is a little more formal than Hindi, and has sort of pretty old-fashioned vocabulary words in it. I am not fluent in Hindi, but even I could hear the difference in the pronunciation and the way sentences rolled off the tongue. Most of the classic film lyricists (like Javed Akhtar, for instance) were Urdu poets and the lyrics were written in that style.
(Sahir Ludhianvi who wrote this and the lyrics for dozens of other films in the 50s, 60s, and 70s was arguably India’s greatest modern poet.)
The Pakistani TV system generally attracts more talent than their films. Although that has just barely started to change recently. There might be some really specific reason for this that I don’t know, but generally it feels like it is because the Hindi films from India are so popular (even when they are banned in theaters, VHS tapes and then DVDs and now streaming versions are always being snuck across the border) that there really isn’t a space for Pakistani film to flourish.
However, TV is a different story. From the minimal reading I have done, Pakistani TV had a bit of a golden era back in the 80s with strongly scripted stories featuring interesting characters in modern relatable settings. This went away for a while, but has come back with a blast in the past 5 years or so.
The “Pakistani Soap Operas” are not really soap operas as we would know them in America, and are really really different from the ones you see in India (which last for hundreds of episodes and have minimal relationship to reality). In my Humsafar detailed reviews, I kept comparing Pakistani shows to BBC mini-series, and I am sticking with that. They are contained stories, lasting a couple dozen episodes, written and planned out in full in advance.
(Like this, but with a romantic background instead of criminal. Or maybe The Fall is romantic? I guess it depends on your definition of romance)
American TV has just recently started to embrace this format as well, with shows like American Horror Story and Fargo. A limited number of episodes and a contained story season by season has all kinds of creative advantages. For one thing, you can pull together a really really good cast. Actors who may not be able to commit for a full open-ended run of a regular TV show, but are excited by the idea of digging in and spending longer with a character than they could in a film, will suddenly be available.
For another, you can tell a full story. Netflix recently released their TV show version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which thrilled the fans of the book series. Because the books are so interrelated and complicated, dividing them into separate films was never going to be able to fully capture the experience. American films are often the equivalent of what would be a short story if it were written down. There isn’t a lot of time for backstory or character growth or any of that, you only have 90-120 minutes for everything. Instead of backstory and characters, they fill in the time with action sequences or jokes or whatever. It’s a fine format, but it isn’t the best way to tell certain kinds of narratives.
(The Avengers was a fun movie, but can you imagine a novelization of it? It would be 3 pages of dialogue, and then 20 blank pages representing explosions and people running)
Indian film, because of the longer running time and, more importantly, the intermission, can tell these longer stories. Indian film also delights in flashbacks, internal monologues, and fantasy sequences. All of which are narrative techniques familiar from novels or other longer narrative forms.
Pakistani soap operas take this one step further. No songs or fantasies necessarily, but flashbacks, internal monologues, all kinds of techniques to let the viewer fully experience a rich narrative. And to let the actors really soar and challenge themselves in presenting their characters.
So, who is Mahira Khan and how did she rise to this challenge? Mahira’s family is from Delhi, they migrated after Partition (so her natural dialect should be close to Shahrukh’s). She grew up in Karachi and then went to LA for school. In LA, she worked at convenience stores in minimum wage jobs, just like any other college student. She also fell in love and had a love marriage against her family’s wishes. She and her husband had a son together and were together for 8 years before getting divorced in 2015. So, in terms of life experience, she brings something that we haven’t really had before in a Hindi film actress.
Mahira started in entertainment as a VJ and interviewer on MTV Pakistan. My very very little knowledge of Pakistani popular media tells me that MTV Pakistan and the Pakistani modern popular music scene in general is a big deal and one of the areas (like TV shows) where the Pakistani citizenry prefers homegrown talent to imported talent from India (in fact, Pakistani music is so good that sometimes it flows the other way, artists and songs coming from Pakistan to be used in India).
(Coincidentally, this song popped up on my Saavn shuffle just as I was writing this. Great soundtrack, taken from Pakistani pop songs)
After getting known in this platform, in 2011 Mahira was cast in a supporting role in a Pakistani film and in a couple of soap operas, including Humsafar. Humsafar ended up being a massive record breaking hit both in Pakistan and, eventually, in India when it was broadcast on the Indian satellite channel Zindagi.
So, what is Humsafar? It’s a pretty simple story. Our heroine, Mahira, is from a middle class family. When Mahira’s mother gets sick, her wealthy uncle takes them to live in his house and, eventually, swears to marry Mahira to his son so that she will always be taken care of. Mahira’s aunt is not happy about this arrangement, she feels it is “beneath” her son to marry some one with such a humble upbringing. She would rather her son marry his childhood friend and maternal cousin. The son, Fawad Khan (this is the role that helped make him famous too), is initially not happy either, feeling emotionally blackmailed into agreement by his father and resenting his shy and quiet wife. But as time passes, Fawad’s mother comes around and Fawad comes to fall in love with his new wife, to appreciate her beauty and intelligence.
And then, TWIST! In totally soapy way, Mahira is framed as unfaithful in an elaborate scheme masterminded by Fawad’s mother. Fawad’s mother prevents her from reaching Fawad to explain herself and throws her out of the house.
5 years later, Mahira returns because her child (hers and Fawad’s who Fawad didn’t know about but believes is his own thanks to blood tests and birth certificate) is sick and needs treatment and she demands that Fawad use his money and privilege to help them. While Mahira and her daughter live in Fawad’s house during treatment, Fawad comes to love her again, eventually begging her to return to the marriage even though he still believes in her infidelity. Mahira refuses because he still believes her unfaithful.
Finally, Fawad learns the truth thanks to a series of clues and an old letter he finds and brings Mahira home again and confronts his mother. Meanwhile, the ex-girlfriend kills herself, and Fawad’s mother goes mad. In the end, Mahira and Fawad finally come back together and form a happy family with their daughter, who is now cured.
I said “simple story” and then I went on for like 5 paragraphs. But remember, that’s 5 paragraphs to cover every major event in a 20 hour TV show. Spread out that way, really nothing much happens episode to episode.
At least, nothing much in terms of “dramatic events!” What is happening, and what draws you in, are the internal changes. Mahira goes from a quietly proud independent woman who does not want her mother to ask for help, to a young woman broken by grief, to a wife so in love with her husband she is can’t articulate it, to a hysterical wrongfully accused wife. And then, in the second half, she further changes into a mother who will do anything to save her daughter. What is most remarkable is how her different “4 years later” character is still recognizably the end result of her earlier self. Now, she is able to speak up for herself and have a job and run a household and all of that. But you can still see the same pride and insecurities that were there formally.
What makes it really interesting (and addictive!) is how those changes come about through her interactions with her husband. When Mahira is first married, she is too shy to even talk to him. But after gentle encouragement and compliments and questions from her husband, she slowly starts to open up. Over the course of 10 episodes or so, we see how the love he has for her is transforming her into a better stronger person. And in the second half of the episodes, we see how losing that love has broken her and reformed her into something else.
Something else that isn’t there in a bare bones summary are all the political statements. The show touches very very gently on the class and power and gender divides in Pakistan. It’s not just a “oh happy rich people who only have to worry about marital problems” show. We also see how Mahira loses her job because she is taking too much medical leave to care for her daughter, how another character essentially sells his soul for a chance to study in America, how Fawad’s family are able to skate through life without worry about anything while those just a little below them struggle for rights as basic as housing. And most of all, we see how the life of a woman is restricted, whether it is Mahira unable to demand her rights from her husband, or even the “evil” woman, Mahira’s mother-in-law, who has no way to object to her son’s marriage. It’s not done in such a way that it will hit you over the head with their points, but after finishing the show, I felt like I understood a little more what it is like to live in Pakistan today and what could be improved.
(This random image of a Karachi street festival looks exactly like a street scene in the show. Much more than an image of the Bombay streets would remind me of a street scene from a Hindi film)
So, what does this mean for Raees? Well, for one thing, it means that they wanted a really good actress in the heroine part. I am reminded of Fawad Khan’s big break in Hindi films, Khoobsurat. His role wasn’t that complicated on paper, and he didn’t have all that much screen time (especially compared with the heroine), which is why he had to be perfect in the role. He had to convince us that his character had depth and feelings and internal conflicts. And that he was a worthy partner for the lead character, who had all that script and narrative support to make us identify with her.
(Basically he just did this the whole time, but somehow managed to convey deep internal conflict out of it)
Fawad of course pulled that all off handily. I don’t know if Mahira will, but the fact that they cast her makes me think that they wanted someone who might be able to pull off such an acting challenge. That her role may be small, but important. The kind of role that a leading Hindi actress would turn down, but which is too significant to risk handing to an untried and inexperienced actress.
For another, it might mean that they want Shahrukh’s heroine to age with him. Based on the plot description (rise to power of a bootlegger), it sounds like this film will cover several years in the hero’s life. And a few of the images in the trailers seem to indicate a variation in Shahrukh’s look as he ages. Mahira, in Humsafar which is her best known role, aged 5 years. Not through make-up or tricks, but by changing her attitude and mannerisms to reflect greater wisdom and experience. If the producers were looking for an actress that could convincingly portray a character maturing over time, then Mahira would be it.
It might also indicate a certain style of dialogue. This is a very very rough comparison, but you know how Shakespearean trained actors have a certain kind of precision and delight in how they say their dialogue? You can even see it in things like, oh, Dead Again where Kenneth Brannagh is playing an American. He still says his dialogue just so, and we can hear and appreciate every word for their full meaning. Anyway, that is what I was reminded of watching Humsafar. Again, I’m nowhere near fluent in Hindi, but I could understand so much more of the dialogue than I can in regular films. They weren’t slurring their words or adding an accent or blurting them out with emotion, it was all like listening to a poetry recital. Of course, as I mentioned, Mahira’s family is from Delhi so if she wanted, I am sure it would be easy for her to match her Hindi to Shahrukh’s. But it is also possible that the filmmakers want that kind of precision in her language and delivery. Certainly her one line from the trailer, “Battery sala”, is said with just the right tone and touch to it.
(You can also see some indications that Shahrukh will age in this trailer)
There are also the social touches to Humsafar. This is less about casting Mahira in particular, and more about going after the audience that would know her from Humsafar and therefore presumably enjoyed the original show. Gangster films in India are after a location for hidden social statements, about the state, about the rule of law, about justice and right and wrong and class and wealth and all sorts of things. Casting an actress most known for playing a character that gently questions the rules of society, asking why she should be ignored and persecuted just for her lack of wealth and her gender, that might indicate that Raees will engage with similar questioning of the rules of society.
And finally, I wonder if the producers chose her because they are aggressively going after the international audience? Not the NRIs (although them too, Zindagi is a satellite channel, so you can get it in your cable package anywhere and fall in love with Mahira and Humsafar), but UAE and Dubai and Saudi Arabia audience, which is of rapidly growing importance for the Hindi industry as they lose the traditional North American and Australian and British audience more and more to Tamil, Telugu, and Punjabi films. Humsafar was a hit in all those places, and Mahira become hugely popular. And of course Pakistan too. There are rumors that Raees may be the first film to breakthrough the Pakistan film ban, and if so, I am sure the producers will reap a great reward from that in ticket sales.
(Humsafar, dubbed in Arabic and broadcast in the middle east as Rafeeq-Al-Rouh)