Without doubt, Mahira Khan is Pakistan’s biggest star and A-lister. The 33-year-old actress, single mom to eight-year-old Azlan, former VJ and current sweetheart of the nation is conquering every stage she steps foot on. 2017 was a very eventful year for Mahira as she starred opposite Bollywood’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan. Raees was a box office hit and despite cross-border tension, bans on artists and political flame-throwing, Mahira managed to capture many hearts across the border. The same year Mahira’s film Verna released, a political thriller that centred around her character, Sara, who is victim of a rape. The film received a lukewarm response but it released at a crucial moment, as the world was debating and having heated discussions about victims speaking up against sexual abuse, along with the #MeToo having taken off in full force.
A few days ago, Mahira made an appearance at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, marking yet another important moment for Pakistan on the international stage. She was the first ever brand ambassador for L’Oreal Pakistan to grace the red carpet and Pakistanis around the world were overjoyed as she made her way to the red carpet alongside Jane Fonda and soon after Bollywood superstar, Aishwarya Rai. The Raees girl talked about how she took the responsibility to build an image of Pakistan at Cannes. “Whenever we travel outside our country, we give an exposure to other countries about our country and culture. Whether it is India or Beirut [Mahira was at the Beirut International Awards Festival in 2017], or Dubai for Masala! Awards – what we’re doing is saying, ‘look this is who we are.’ Whenever we go to another country, people there sit with us and talk to us about our films and the industry. Everything we say, therefore, helps the world see us in a more clear way.”
Heads turned and headlines were made. Pakistan was represented at Cannes by its biggest, brightest star. Joining the ranks of Hollywood’s finest and Bollywood’s best, Mahira represented Pakistan as its crown jewel in a very celebrated treasure trove. The actress wore international couture from the houses of Alberta Ferretti and Chopard. She attended the Chopard party in a sequined Nicolas Jebran number and had a sentimental exchange about her experience at Cannes with Victoria’s Secret model, Doutzen Kroes on Instagram. She got a kiss and a hug from Sonam Kapoor and Mahira and Aishwarya Rai bonded over their respective children. She was opening doors for her country, for women and for being the new face of a more understanding and tolerant Pakistan.
PR professional Fareshteh Aslam agrees, “For too long Pakistan has been in the headlines for all possible catastrophes you can imagine. Corruption, terrorism, devastating earthquakes, terrible floods and imbalanced politics. Here was a Pakistani woman, proudly walking down the world stage, couture-clad, wearing jewellery worth millions to the manner born. She was no shrinking violet either. She strutted, she posed and blew kisses to everyone, who applauded her wildly.”
Fareshteh also added that Mahira was “inherently stylish” and showed the world what “modern day Pakistan was made of”. Veteran actor and producer, Shaan Shahid was quick to point out that Mahira wasn't representing any film at the festival, but still received so much love and appreciation at Cannes. Pakistani-Canadian actress, Armeena Rana Khan, took her British film Writhe to Cannes and Adnan Siddiqi was there too for his appearance in the film A Mighty Heart.
Mahira was L'Oreal's first Pakistani brand ambassador to represent the country at the Cannes red carpet and Armeena showed her love and support for Mahira via social media. She said, "I think Mahira looked absolutely stunning on the red carpet. I’m so proud of Pakistani women getting their deserved place on the international stage. Here’s hoping more and more will follow suit." Television and film actress as well as L’Oreal Professional’s brand ambassador in Pakistan, Hareem Farooq extended her support and spoke about how Mahira was an inspiration. She is "someone I look up to as a senior," Hareem said. "She has made Pakistan proud and she is someone who inspires you to be a better version of yourself professionally." Mahira started off her career as a video jockey but she rose to astronomical fame with the play Humsafar that was written by Farhat Ishtiaq. Mahira also starred in a hit film Bin Roye that was also written by Farhat. About Mahira’s appearance at Cannes, Farhat said, “I’m so proud of her. Mahira is the undisputed queen of the Pakistani entertainment industry. She's taking Pakistan's name global with grace & in a dignified manner.”
Mahira’s videos where she spoke about women empowerment also made rounds on social media where she said that there was something ‘very empowering’ when women compliment each other. “When I was in Cannes, I spoke to so many people and there was so much that I did along with L’Oreal Pakistan’s team,” Mahira said, “And I kept asking people, hey did you have a picture of this meet? (laughs) Inshallah if I go next year – I will post pictures of what I’m doing rather than what I’m wearing! Next time that’s the effort I’m going to make.”
Mahira’s manager, Seher Hafeez, was also thanked by Mahira in her latest Instagram post that sent a shout out to all the people who worked with her during her appearance in Cannes. Seher pointed out, “It was a group of Pakistanis from different parts of the world, coming together to represent the country on a global platform. Mahira’s makeup artist Famida (Val Garland's team) and her photographer Shakeel Bin Afzal were both from London. Happy Monday, the videography team from New York and her stylist was Amar Faiz." Seher says. “And L’Oreal Pakistan team was extremely supportive, the best part was we shared the same vision. Whenever we’d ask for something or bring something up, they were extremely understanding. They went out of their way to help us."
Seher also divulged about the environment at Cannes and working alongside a very professional team which made everyone achieve precise and difficult targets with ease and smoothness. “A lot of work went into it, “Our days would start at 8 a.m. and end very late. We hardly got four hours of sleep and despite that, everyone was working in sync. The best part was that the international teams all understood what a big deal this was for us. They work with so many people and have been for several years – but it was endearing to see that everyone there understood the stakes and went out of their way to help Mahira and make her feel comfortable almost as though this wasn't the first time we were there.”
What was Mahira’s big takeaway, apart from her obviously being Pakistan’s brand ambassador from L’Oreal and representing the country in a positive way? “The takeaway was that I made a drop in the ocean. All the people there that I met, knew I was Pakistani and now if they ever go and talk to someone about us, they’ll say, ‘Hey, yeah. I’ve had a good experience working with people from Pakistan!’ And when someone sees my profile, they’ll also be lead and redirected to other profiles from Pakistan.” Cannes was also a way for Mahira to showcase Pakistani talent and art on the international forum as Mahira wore Pakistani designers Elan and Menahil and Mehreen during her stay there.
Sadaf Haider, a Pakistani critic and journalist based in the United States weighed in with how the image of Pakistan was helped by Mahira’s appearance at Cannes. “Mahira has created an opening for a new image of Pakistanis,” she says categorically. “Like it or not people in the West know little of Pakistan beyond the media induced stereotypes, and now they see the other side of Pakistan in this beautiful, intelligent woman. This isn’t just an actress attending a premiere. This is an important human connection to be made with a side of Pakistan their media likes to ignore.”
How does Mahira see herself as brand Pakistan in the future? “We, as a country, as brand Pakistan, are a melting pot of many opinions, representations, communities and people who are trying to make our country better each day,” Mahira tells me. “Whether it’s artists, actors, directors – whoever it may be – whatever it may be – we’re all doing our part to try and make Pakistan a better place. And that’s who we truly are. We mustn’t ‘create’ images, I feel. And we can’t sell lies. We must be true to who we are.”