One of Pakistan’s most popular and loved artists, Mehwish, aka “box office queen”, whose box office earnings are reportedly second to only those of Humuyun Saeed Image Credit: Supplied

Mehwish Hayat belongs to that tiny club of artists whose films hit-started the revival of the Pakistani cinema after decades of obscurity and institutional apathy. Mehwish Hayat is gorgeous. Very talented. And very successful. In no particular order. One of Pakistan’s most popular and loved artists, Mehwish, aka “box office queen”, whose box office earnings are reportedly second to only those of Humuyun Saeed. Recipient of 2019 President of Pakistan’s Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for her “contribution to the arts and Pakistani cinema,” Mehwish is a delightful amalgamation of versatility, genuineness, and humility.

An eloquent and a refreshingly outspoken speaker with startling stances on myriad issues that need individual and collective attention and action, Mehwish’s celebrity—a fascinating blend of mind, talent, and beauty—is her insignia to make the world a better, a kinder place. She speaks on human rights abuses, misrepresentation of Muslims and Pakistanis in mainstream media, and lack of diversity and inclusivity in cinema and television, and works for education for girls in Pakistan.

Ministry for Human Rights of Pakistan’s Ambassador for the Rights of the Girl Child, and Ambassador for the global charity Penny Appeal, Mehwish is happily busy with her global initiative, Women’s Leadership Exchange, with the brave hope and grit to “bring together thought leaders and noteworthy women to address issues that matter to women and find solutions through a manifesto for change.” Mehwish is also a member of the board of Pakistan National Council of Arts and the official Oscar selection committee of Pakistan.

For Gulf News, I asked Mehwish Hayat a few questions:

What have you been doing in the time of coronavirus?

The coronavirus lockdown presented me with an ideal opportunity to take a break and spend time with my family. My work had been so full on during the past few years I’d forgotten the big little pleasures of life—my mother oiling my hair, frying pakoras on a cold day. I’ve been playing, and beating, I hasten to add, my nephews in video games, and chilling with my sister, bingeing Netflix boxsets, simple things that I never have had time to do with my crazy schedule. I also realised that I had not gotten around to carrying out even simple renovations and decorating my room. Would you believe that there were so many boxes that still needed unpacking?

Professionally, the lockdown gave me an opportunity to take a really long hard look at my career and see what direction I wanted to take. I’ve been developing projects that I would personally want to do in the coming years. The scope of scripts and stories available to actresses in Pakistan is very limited, and the only way stories that matter to me are going to get told is if I do them myself. So, I’ve been working with some incredibly talented people on some amazing projects. I cannot wait to share with the audiences what I’ve been working on.

The closed signs on entertainment outlets, mainly cinemas, during the pandemic is a huge setback to the revival of cinema in Pakistan. What would it take for movie theatres to fill up again?

The pandemic provided a good opportunity for us to take stock and really rethink where the Pakistani cinema should go from here. There are a few big movies ready to go but I wonder if during the last couple of years the whole dynamic has shifted, and audiences are now more tuned into the vast variety of content available to them in their homes. It’s interesting to see that even in Hollywood the return to cinemas has been slow, and big bankable movies like James Bond’s No Time to Die have not performed at the pre-pandemic levels. So are the movies we have in the pipeline enough to entice audiences back to cinemas—I really don’t know. I sincerely hope they do; it would be a shame to lose all the hard work we’ve put into getting the industry this far.

Some of the most important actors of Hollywood and Bollywood have highly watched shows on OTT platforms. Why are Pakistani shows and movies, specially made for digital TV, non-existent on these platforms?

This is very simple to answer: our content is just not good enough. The global audience is far more sophisticated, and our content is too geared for the home market. Not that there is anything wrong with that but what works here does not travel internationally; our storytelling conventions and production aesthetics are too brash and melodramatic. It is worth noting that even the work from India that has done well on these platforms is a far cry from their regular commercial cinema and TV dramas. The aesthetics and storytelling are very different.

It’s not that we cannot do it. If a small country like Korea can top Netflix global charts, why can’t we? I’ve been watching a lot of international work in the past year, and I am amazed at the simplicity of the productions—it’s not just about having big budgets. However good we may think our work is, I cannot see any of our dramas or films working on these platforms. If we are to have the likes of Netflix and Amazon take Pakistani content, we are going to have to start from scratch with a totally different mindset and be a lot more professional. Our “challay ga” attitude will not wash in a global marketplace.

Did the pandemic-imposed standstill-ness make you rethink your approach to your selection of roles—from when you first started to the last film or TV show that you did?

I think I’ve become a lot more mature in my choices lately; I am not just doing roles for the sake of it. That is why I’ve not done any TV dramas since Dillagi. All the roles these days are variations of one theme. How many times can I play the crying bahu, the wronged wife or a woman in a love triangle? I need to be challenged as an actress, and I’ve not seen anything recently that has rocked my boat, so to say. Maybe being able to see the sort of work that people are doing around the world has inspired me to want more from the roles I do. Maybe it is time to spread my wings.

In your present state of mind, what is your role ideal?

The projects I’ve been developing represent my ideal roles to me, and that is why I’ve been putting my heart and soul into them. Unfortunately, I cannot say much at the moment but will reveal it all when the time is right.