Mehwish recently landed the role of Aisha in Ms. Marvel, a Disney+ production, that marked her debut in Hollywood. Helmed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an award-winning Pakistani filmmaker, the project puts Pakistani artists on the forefront, affording them the opportunity to represent authentic Muslim culture to the world through a compelling story. Uncover more about Mehwish Hayat’s experience working abroad as she unveils another exciting project to hit the shelves in the coming months!
Mehwish, what is the future direction of Pakistani cinema?
MEHWISH HAYAT: I think we as an industry find ourselves at a crossroads. I’ve been saying for so long that we should be looking beyond our borders and making films/TV series about Pakistan, rather than just for Pakistan. I am always hearing complaints that international media platforms are biased against our projects; that is simply not true. The real reason is that our projects may be great for domestic consumption, but let’s accept that they are not good enough for the international market. We can and should be selling our projects, but we need to change our storytelling tactics and aesthetics. If a small country like South Korea can produce the most watched series on Netflix, why can’t we?
You worked on the hit Disney+ series Ms. Marvel. What was your experience like?
MH: What can I say? Marvel is the biggest film franchise in the world and working with them was an amazing experience. The whole process was so professional, and all the artistes were so well looked after. This meant that all I had to be bothered about was my performance. There were no last-minute hassles in trying to find an outfit or waiting for someone or something to turn up. Shoots were meticulously planned, starting on the dot and finishing on time.
What hit different about being on-set for an American production compared to Pakistan’s?
MH: Of course, you can’t compare the scale of a major Hollywood franchise to our local productions, even if our projects are helmed by the biggest producers. Yes, there was a lot working on Ms Marvel that really opened my eyes to how slick and streamlined the production process was. A big budget really helped, too. But at the end of the day, once the director calls action, it doesn’t matter whether it is a web series, a Pakistani film or a multimillion-dollar Hollywood project. My relationship is with the camera and that remains the same regardless of the budget or where I am shooting.
How was your character in Ms. Marvel important to the storyline?
MH: I played the role of Aisha, who is Kamala’s great-grandmother. Aisha is a djinn, a supernatural being who is key to Ms Marvel’s origin story, and becomes more visible as the series develops. As Aisha says, “The world has a way of making people feel small. We are connected, each of us to those that came before.” Aisha’s story unfolds in an episode that is set 75 years ago at the time of partition. At the heart of this episode is an amazing love story. What really appealed to me about Aisha was the sense of love that she felt for her family and the sacrifices she ended up making. For Aisha, nothing comes before family, not even her life.
Are you satisfied with your performance as Aisha?
MH: As an actress, I can only give each role my best. Ultimately, it is up to the viewers to decide whether I have succeeded or not. As far as Aisha is concerned, I am overwhelmed with the love that viewers around the world have expressed for her.
Seeing the success of the show, what lessons can Pakistan’s TV/film industry learn from a unique project like Ms. Marvel?
MH: I think that the biggest lesson our industry can take from Ms. Marvel is that the global audience is ready to watch and enjoy stories about our world if they are well-written and produced. Ms. Marvel has got us a foot through the door. Our industry should have made efforts to bash that door down all these years. There are so many stories from Pakistan we need to be telling the world!
How does Ms. Marvel promote Muslim culture?
MH: When a culture is portrayed in a particular manner, even though it may be fictitious, that narrative becomes the mainstream view. Muslims have been portrayed as people creating differences rather than building bridges and promoting mutual understanding. In this context, you can’t begin to imagine what Ms. Marvel means to Pakistan! For once, there is a mainstream show that is depicting our country and people as we really are.
How did it feel to work with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy? What makes her a good storyteller?
MH: Sharmeen embodies the best qualities that one looks for in a director. Her journalistic background in documentary filmmaking makes her an amazing storyteller! Sharmeen knows how to make each frame count and ensures it is relevant to moving the story forward. It is often cliché to describe a director as an actor’s director. In Sharmeen’s case, it really holds true! Working with her was a collaborative process to find the heart of my character. Above all, what set her apart from other directors was her attention to detail to all the small nuances she brought to the scenes, making the series as authentic as possible!
Any fond memories working with Iman Vellani?
MH: I was totally blown away by Iman! She is such a bundle of energy who lights up the room the moment she enters. She is so charismatic both on and off-screen. I couldn’t believe that Ms. Marvel was her first role! She was such a professional and brought so much to the role of Kamala. I really can’t begin to think of anyone else in that part. Iman made the character her own. Take it from me, she really has the most amazing acting career ahead of her!
What new projects are you working on?
MH: For many years I went with the flow and let life take me wherever it wanted. I now have structured my life a little more and have a game plan of where I would like to go. I have definite aims in my career and in the philanthropic work I have undertaken. There are a lot of exciting things in the pipeline, and I don’t want to jinx them by saying anything at this stage.
That said, I’ve written a series of six children’s books about The Adventures of Penny the Prayer Bear, which will be out in a couple of months. I think that just like Ms. Marvel fulfills our culture’s void today, young Muslim children were crying for books that wanted themselves and their culture represented. So, when Penny Appeal, a major international charity, asked me to write these books, I jumped at the opportunity!
Do you feel that artists are channeling their social media power the right way to voice support for victims and/or social causes?
MH: I think that as celebrities, we have been afforded a platform and are responsible for using it wisely. I will always use my social media channels to raise issues that I feel strongly about, even if it goes against popular belief.
However, my feeling is that in some instances, tweeting is not enough. That’s why in the case of recent floods, I launched a global appeal to raise funds and appeared on many international channels to take our message to the world. I am so thrilled to say that we raised several hundred thousand pounds. I will ensure that these funds are put to good use because I am accountable for the money I raised.
Do you feel that social media is a platform to advocate or advertise?
MH: Why can’t it be for both?
Any final thoughts before you conclude the interview?
MH: Yes, I’d like to leave readers with a final thought. Believe in the power of your dreams and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The idea that I’d be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was something I thought I wouldn’t even dare to dream about! I knew that I was capable, but how does a girl from Karachi go to Hollywood? So, dreams, however outrageous, can come true as long as you believe.
INTERVIEW: HAIDER RIFAAT
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