It’s refreshing that a women-centric show like Churails was conceived by a man, says actor Mehar Bano
Karachi-born Mehar Bano hails from a family that didn’t have much to do with art and it was obvious she belonged to a different breed. Dabbling with filmmaking, dancing, and theatre, the actor was the apple of everyone’s eyes as she debuted with the popular show Daagh at 18 that went onto earn several international nominations, but she never let fame consume her. Having built a strong footing in the Pakistani television industry and later entering films, she is known for being vocal about her views and calling a spade a spade.
She’s particular about the way women are represented in shows and opines that the South Asian entertainment industry has a long way to go before it shuns its conservatism while approaching female characters. Her next, Churails, to stream on ZEE5 Global’s Zindagi from August 11, in which she plays Zubaida, was extra special for the same reason, given how it breaks several stereotypes about the portrayal of women on screen. In a conversation with LetsOTT.com, Mehar discusses her role in the show and why she holds it so close to her heart.
What has the role of OTT platforms been in representing women and their concerns through the content?
I believe streaming platforms have given the liberty to portray women and their concerns in a different light. The advent of streaming platforms has allowed women to express themselves better and to be represented better on a global platform, as opposed to what we are conventionally used to seeing on South Asian television. Television hasn’t done justice in portraying reality as is, restricting them to be one-dimensional characters, more like how the men in South Asia want them to be seen. They are seen as a subservient, subjugated lot. They’re either extremely generous and cruelly evil. It has been very detrimental to how women are viewed in this part of society. Streaming platforms like ZEE5 have come up with content where the portrayal of women has been progressive and has got to mirror their real problems. For an actor, it’s a dream come true; women are being portrayed just the way they have always wanted it to be.
Why is it that shows revolving around women are conventionally issue-driven and the content featuring men is more light-hearted and not as intense?
I genuinely feel women have been subjugated a lot and it took a lot of years for content-creators to understand the issues they're going through; it took so late for it to be a trend across the world to tap into their concerns and begin addressing them in their shows. Any show or film involving four men would probably be frivolous, revolve around the action segments and probably male camaraderie, excepting a rare example like 3 Idiots that had a genuine story to tell. The market has been dominated by films featuring men that are lighthearted, easy to stomach and digest. This is the reason why Churails had to come out. A lot of women across the world want to be viewing something they could relate to, how they could stand up for themselves, fight the patriarchy and not be a doormat. We need men to view this show as much as women because they also need to be told that women are not pushovers and they need not be showcased as a mere object.
Is Churails a lot about the fact that women are always being dictated about what they’re to do or what they shouldn’t?
Oh yes, and there is a myriad of issues that the show is trying to address. Say, a woman is required to be caretaker of the relationship, hold it together despite the relationship going haywire. She is always the person who is expected to make a lot of sacrifices. The man is always seen as the financial provider for the family. Churails tries to debate gender stereotypes and how it creates a power dynamic within a relationship. The woman is not on an equal footing as the man and it would be interesting to see in the show how the dynamic changes when the woman takes control of her situation. It’s not something we see every day; either in web shows or television.
As someone who has constantly advocated for better female presence among filmmakers, what do you think is largely responsible for their underrepresentation in Pakistan?
It’s unfortunate that female filmmakers are underrepresented in the industry because there’s a real dearth of voices to tell stories from a different standpoint. It stems from the fact that they haven’t been given as many opportunities as men; the stats say it all. It’s the men who’ve mostly got to tell the stories of women. There is no debating about the fact that there are great male filmmakers out there, but it’s way more difficult for female filmmakers to find their way in cinema, excepting a rare name like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the two-time Oscar winner. Female filmmakers who set out to make fiction have a bumpy road ahead, it’s not only because of lack of opportunities. It’s also difficult for a woman to be treated the same way as a man on the sets. The majority of the cast and crew in the business is so used to listening to male filmmakers that female storytellers are often looked down upon. The environment created is difficult for a woman and they need to work harder than a man to make their presence felt.
That said, did your director Asim Abbasi surprise you with the way he looked at women in Churails?
Asim has this rare quality of empathy in him, it’s something male directors often tend to lack but essentially a quality you should have. He’s grown up around women with varied interests and is really in tune with the problems they face. His portrayal of women has been the closest to reality amongst content that has come out of Pakistan. I have been working in the industry for 8 years now and I have never enjoyed so much on a set. I have done a lot of indie films but I never got to play a character that required so much of my time and hard work; it was a role so true to life and for that to have been conceived by a man was extremely refreshing.
He truly made an effort to dwell upon their concerns and to have written a show around four women, bringing together an ensemble cast was a bigger pleasure. Neither of us (actors) has had the pleasure of doing something so female-centric. The patriarchy and the conditioning that women cannot coexist while coming together for work and that it would turn into something horrifying were myths that were busted on the sets. The script was about sisterhood, camaraderie, unwavering loyalty and it was a vibe that translated onto the set too.
What was it like to enter the Pakistani entertainment industry at 18?
I entered the industry with a television show when I was simultaneously completing my A levels. The show went onto be nominated for the Oscars and my father didn’t want me to fall prey to vanity and was very particular about me getting educated before I pursue a full-fledged career in the entertainment industry. I took a break immediately and didn’t get to enjoy fame, I ideally should have. I got everyone to delete my accounts and the content about me on the internet. I went to college and returned to the industry. It wasn’t a struggle for me because I never took it to my head at all.
The environment in my home was very conducive to education and it didn’t give me any vibe that I was a budding talent. I didn’t even go to the award show that I was nominated for. I am still the same and I like to remain grounded as a person. I feel stardom changes you because I’ve seen a lot of people around me transform that way; I am not judging them here. Once you believe that you’re a very important person, your growth is stunted and I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to think of how people admire me so much and I consciously stay away from social media.
Do you feel nervous, probably for the first time in your career, that a global audience would be watching your work?
I was tensed even when I was preparing for my character. The fact that we’re about to be viewed globally on a ceremonious platform like ZEE5; the pressure truly got to me. As a cast, we started preparing for this many months before the shoot had commenced. I had to take boxing lessons. I was so scared with self-doubt that even when a scene had ended and the director had called cut, I would obsess over how bad I’ve done and wondered if I could have done anything better.
However, there was someone more anxious than me. It was my co-star Yasra Rizvi, she had a copy full of notes that she would constantly refer to. That kind of passion and hard work truly rubbed off on us as well. We all wanted to up our game; there was no set like this where we were as charged up. It’s embarrassing to say that; but it also tells that we have never been given opportunities to work so hard and get characters so powerful, fully realised that they needed effort to be put into them. We finally got something that was so much bigger than us and we wanted to give it everything.