I pushed the heavy doors to find myself in a vast loft-like apartment at the far end of which stood the thin, dusky Mathira, dwarfed by the scale of the room. Covered from top to toe in an embroidered shalwar kameez she looked decidedly more understated from her image as the cleavage-baring siren of Vibe TV. Silent figures danced behind her on a large, LCD television as she wrapped up her conversation with her assistant. On the far left corner of the room tripods and spotlights facing a drab beige wall waited to be the mute backdrop to Mathira’s oomph.
Though all dressed up for a shoot this was not the Mathira I had expected. Did I expect to walk in on her gyrating around the room seducing men in Arabian thawbs? I can’t be sure, but considering the kind of name she has carved out of controversy it would have been less surprising than this waif-like woman shrouded in fabric up to her wrists and ankles.
[quote]’This good budget could get me a Gucci or a Chanel'[/quote]
As we (my interview companion and I) snuggle into the leather sofas, mostly as a shield against the air conditioning that is on full blast she walks up to us and begins talking languorously in her sing-song voice that occasionally breaks out into broken Urdu quite charming in its foreignness. She asks us which publication we are from. ‘The Friday Times’. It doesn’t seem to ring a bell so I hasten on to the first question:
‘How do you view your place in the Pakistan entertainment scene, Mathira, as a crusader against conservative values or just an entertainer doing her job?’
‘I am just a person who gets good work, with that good work comes good budget, and I say yes, this good budget could get me a Gucci or a Chanel and this and that, so let’s go for it. Go ahead do it, come back home like a good girl and then leave the rest up to the press’
‘So it isn’t some kind of fully formed ideology where you want to challenge Pakistan’s conservative notions…’
‘Oh please! I’m not at all challenging anything. If I was, I would be challenging my school teacher…’
‘To say that I’ll get an A’
We all break out into bemused laughter. Curiously, this is a theme she returns to pretty often during the interview, perhaps some deep-seated desire to still find validation in authority figures, a desire not uncommon in people outside prescribed social pales.
‘Fame. I’m not a dog behind fame’, she continues, in an odd literal translation of the Urdu phrase, ‘I may be a bitch but not in terms of fame. To be honest, a lioness doesn’t know what to do. If you bring her from the jungle she will still scratch the sofas. I used to be an animal down there…’, down there being a reference to her Zimbabwean heritage.
[quote]’I’m not at all challenging any conservative ideologies. Just doing my work'[/quote]
Born and brought up in ‘Africa’, as she calls it, Mathira moved to Pakistan at the age of 15, after her parents’ divorce. She says she is 21 currently and I feel a rather juvenile urge to ask her her age again a couple of years into the future.
‘Tell us something about the Indian film you’re working for’
‘It’s good. People are seeing me with a very different image over there. They are not labelling me, like how I am labelled here. In Pakistan when I started acting a lot of directors said you can never act, aap ki Urdu sahee naheen hae (your Urdu isn’t good). But when I applied in Bollywood, they said, you have a good face, features acha hae. Acting nikalvaana director ka kaam hae (making you act is the director’s task). I cannot tell you yet who the hero is because I am not the one who can make that announcement, all I can say is that I am playing a more cute than sexy role in that movie, and that I am really enjoying the professionalism of the Indian film industry.’
‘Are you afraid of being typecast as just the sexy siren?’
‘No I am not. Right now you see me fully clothed. Origins has hired me to be their brand ambassador and I am modelling their shalwar kameezes. Any brand that hires you creates a new image for you. It’s the same for each new film. Vidya Balan started off doing bold roles but did very diverse ones later. It’s just a matter of the kind of script you pick. If you take a script like a bimbo, then you have to look for a serious script later. Look at Sunny Leone. It’s not like just because she starred in Jism 3 she is now just a porn star. India has been casting her in other roles. She is doing four films.’
‘Where do you view yourself on this continuum? Would you say you are anywhere near being a porn star?’
‘You can only become a porn star if you do that work, and I haven’t. I haven’t even done any nude shoots. I had things on you know. I had a cap on. Or Chanel 5. Or a radio.’
‘Where do these things get published?’
‘Oh. Around. One was for a fashion diet magazine. The other was something I did for New Year’s when people said the world was about to end, so I thought, ‘Chalo, mujhe dekhtay huay jaao.’’ (Get an eyeful of me before you die). The second controversy a lot of people highlighted was when I wished President Zardari happy birthday. It was a small, passport-size picture. Not a biggie.’
‘So is there any kind of work you wouldn’t do?’
‘I personally say no to all ‘mera baby bara ho gaya’ Cerelac-type ads. That is just not something I am interested in doing’
This reminds me of the Josh advertisement that sparked a great deal of debate some time back. What does Mathira feel about that?
‘That people in Pakistan have relations outside marriage should not come as a shock to anybody, so there is nothing wrong with advocating a safe means to do it in a way that would grab people’s attention. And that was about the relations between a husband and wife and how safe contraceptives can improve a relationship. I think it was a very effective advertisement’
‘How was the Main Hoon Shahid Afridi experience? How comfortable were you playing the item girl?’
‘I did that because of Saqib (Malik) sir. I admire Saqib’s work and basically did it for him and Hamayun. It was good to see that the clothes I was wearing actually went on to the cinema. Yes, I had to share my song with someone else but that is not an issue. I believe that whether you are with a star or not with a star you should concentrate on your own work. The way Rajnikanth started was with a small guest appearance. He just ran in front of the hero and he just did that…his chashmay waala look and all of the hero’s work was overshadowed. People just went Rajnikanth, Rajnikanth. It’s about how heavy a presence you bring to the screen. Though I must say I had trouble dealing with the mosquitoes who decided my short clothes were an open invitation for them.’
‘Do you deliberately court controversy to create media space because it can be a successful tool for models and actors like you and Veena Malik?’
To be honest this Veena is someone I don’t know personally and I would never want to know. She is a completely different person from me. I don’t even want to mention her. If someone is important you mention them. If not I just choose to completely ignore them. I don’t like to be associated with people like that.’
‘You don’t think you are in the same mould as Veena?’
‘I am in no-one’s mould. I am in the mould of a girl names Mathira.’
Sensing some hostility whose background I am unaware of we steered the conversation to her confrontation with a Mufti on television, quite similar to the Veena Malik one that went viral. Mathira says the cleric had told her that her mother hadn’t taught her anything, which is what sparked off her ire.
[quote]’It is the responsibility of the other person not to stare if they see someone wearing clothes they consider revealing'[/quote]
‘Even the Prophet said that we should look down. It is also the responsibility of the other person not to stare if they see someone wearing clothes they consider revealing. Parents should allow their girls to wear the clothes they like. Because I believe children are like birds. If you cage them…as soon as you open that cage, they fly.’
‘How would you compare the Pakistani and the Indian film industry?
‘That’s like comparing an infant with an experienced old man. But the Pakistani film industry is improving. There are films like Waar being made now that are comparable to Bollywood…’
‘Did you go see Waar?’
‘Honestly I didn’t because of shooting schedules but I do want to. And Shaan, whenever he comes on to the screen he nails it, even if he is saying, ‘Oye Gujjara mayn tujhe maar doon ga’ he still looks handsome. At least Pakistani movies are managing to recover their budgets now…’
My friend interjects, ‘But some people say Waar was funded by the ISI…’
‘I don’t know if ISI funded it or not’, she scrunches up her nose, ‘I am too small for that. Honestly. I don’t comment on that, ISI or ICU or UCM. Paisa kahaan se aaya hae, meray ko kya? Film bane, film bikee, target poora hua, that’s all that concerns me.’
[quote] ‘In India they don’t label and stereotype me the way they do in Pakistan'[/quote]
Towards the end we move on to more me-myself kind of tabloid-ish questions:
‘Who are your favourite people in showbiz?’
Lots of people have supported me. Fareshteh Aslam, Fariha Altaf who introduced me on Lux as a performer. Hamayun, Saqib, Tapu. They are people who will never say anything negative. Tapu featured me in Tapulicious when I was really new and people were against me, but these people stood by me, so that was really sweet.
‘Who is your favourite Bollywood hero?’
‘Oh, too many to name. Neil Nitin Mukesh, I think he is a lovely guy. I am going to name people I have met and who I think are lovely. Abhishek Bachan. He is so humble and down to earth. He is a different type of a guy. Also Rajnikanth. If you meet him you will be inspired.
What do you do in your free time?’
Sleep. Alone. I like painting with my hands and spending time with my mother and hearing her scream, ‘Billi ki tarah paaon mayn kyoon aa rahee ho?’ (Why are you getting under my feet like a kitten)
‘What movies do you like?’
‘P.S I Love You. I watch it once every month.
‘So are you in love?’
‘Yes. I am seeing someone. He is a UK Bhangra artist, but he lives in Dubai. We meet whenever we can but mostly we keep in touch through Skype and texts throughout the day.’
We wrap the interview up with a few pictures with her when she asks, ‘Could you tell me the publication you are from again?’
‘The Friday Times? Najam Sethi?’
She doesn’t look like that name rings a bell either so I helpfully add, ‘He was the Chief Minister of Punjab during the elections.’ She looks heavenwards with an expression of deep concentration. I look slightly embarrassed. So does she. My friend adds, ‘Chairman PCB’.