Meesha Shafi is a bad ass.
She’s the deep and sexy voice that belts out classic Punjabi tracks while she’s enveloped in a contemporary and unique sense of style. She’s the actor who chose to play the powerful and manipulative Farrukh Zaad/Wazir Begum in Mor Mahal at a time when weepy women were raking in TV rankings. She’s the superstar who stays at an arm’s length from all her fans; Meesha is intimidating and her mystique is amplified by the way she shields her personal life from the public eye. We get to hear a lot of Meesha Shafi, thanks to Coke Studio, but she is a mystery. Ironically, she’s all the more intriguing for it.
A long and painfully slow drive takes us through Karachi’s thick traffic as we wade our way over to the Ramada Plaza Hotel, where a Coke Studio concert has brought Meesha to Karachi. She’s suffered over twelve hours of flight delays and has landed with a flu and fever, undoubtedly caused by a combination of smog and exhaustion. It’s not an ideal condition to be performing in and I am worried whether she’ll even agree to the interview or not. We’re scheduled to meet after her opening segment and I’m quite sure she’ll be ready to pack up and call it a day given her state. Amazingly, Meesha carries none of her feverish condition on stage as she belts out one Coke Studio track after the other; what’s more unbelievable is that this Karachi crowd of fans, that most definitely doesn’t understand a word of what she’s singing, sways to the beat like a serpent in trance. It is bewitched by this woman.
There’s a reason for this intrigue and awe. Meesha is a superstar that holds onto old school values of maintaining an essential distance between herself and her fans. She’s tough, aloof, intimidating and uncompromising when it comes to personal values and professional choices. Meesha has had a busy 2016, being the only female vocalist from Pakistan to have toured multiple cities of the US in summer. She’s had a phenomenal Coke Studio season and her concerts in Singapore and Dubai have extended her fan base. Moreover, Meesha has been a leading face and advocate for UN Women Pakistan’s ‘#BeatMe’ campaign. She’s the fearsome role model that women like me would want to see inspire 100 percent of Pakistan’s female population and as the night progresses, I’m even more anxious to crack the code that makes Meesha Shafi the iconoclast that she is.
I’m relieved, when I’m greeted with a warm hug, to know that I’ll be speaking to Meesha Shafi the woman merely an hour after she’s wrapped up her performance as Meesha Shafi the superstar. I’m also delighted when I realize that she genuinely is one and the same person.
Meesha Shafi really is a bad ass. Unapologetically and refreshingly so.
“It is very much who I am,” she smiles through her signature shade of deep ruby lipstick as she unbuckles her red Gucci Malin sandals that are lined with gold bullet-studs on the four inch curved heels. They look dangerous as her metallic belt, cinched at the waist of her velvet jumpsuit, catches their reflection. “What do I say? I am badass! People who know me, who are close to me, would vouch for that totally, and would also tell you that I hold myself back a great deal.” That is easy to believe.
Meesha has also held back on a career in film. She made a debut in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), followed by a small yet significant role in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). Her first appearance in a Pakistani film was as the RAW agent Lakshmi in Waar. That was also in 2013 and since then she has been heard on the soundtracks of Manto with ‘Mehram Dilaan De Mahi’ and Moor with the supersonic ‘Eva’. I wonder whether she’ll be making another film appearance any time soon.
“There are projects, but they’re not really catching my fancy,” Meesha says, without an iota of diplomatic ambiguity. “What is everyone making? I don’t want to do these films, sorry, I don’t want to. I don’t want to do plays that are masquerading as films, content wise I think that’s a bit of a thing.”
I point out that I feel she has been spoilt.
“I have been spoilt!” she agrees. “I said this to Mira (Nair); I even remember the day I said this. I was like, what, you’re just going to use me for this and leave! Where am I supposed to go after this? Back to what? But yes, I’m spoilt but that’s fine; I’m lucky to be spoilt.”
Aren’t you itching to do a movie, I prod further.
“No, the movie has to come for me to itch to do it. I wouldn’t want to do any of these movies.”
Meesha adds that the only film she loved was Manto, but she was happy with the way she associated with it (through music). The same applied to Moor and beyond these two, nothing. She mentions a very meaty role in a Vishal Bharadwaj film that she had to turn down because it was too risqué. Living in Pakistan she didn’t want to offend anyone’s values or sensibilities.
What about television, I wonder aloud. Meesha chose to play Farrukh Zaad or Wazir Begum in Mor Mahal, a play that was pivoted around powerful, progressive role models. That isn’t the kind of drama that pulls in the viewership, as ratings ultimately proved. Didn’t she feel actresses had a responsibility when it came to influencing women via the roles they play?
“People did not respond at a mass level the way they do when you have some sort of suppression or abuse or some sort of like ‘doosri shaadi karli phir ek mistress agayi’ that sort of thing or whatever,” she agreed while reminiscing the Mor Mahal dilemma. “We just don’t want to go there. We resist it so much; maybe it makes people uncomfortable because they have to then ask a lot of questions of themselves.”
How did she feel, knowing that she didn’t portray the ‘weepy woman’ and connect with her audience in that respect or on the level of popularity that most current actresses, happy to play regressive roles, thrive in?
“I’ve been through times in my life when I found myself in situations where I was that woman, the proverbial ‘weepy woman’,” Meesha opened up. “(It was) very early on in life, before I entered the industry or the professional leg of my life. So I’ve been through it, I’ve experienced it, and because of that experience I came out being very, very sure of what I don’t want. And that’s just not who I ever want to be again, ever. I see it as a good experience, as a learning experience, and it taught me a lot about who I am.”
Meesha continued, speaking of bad relationships and that one “asshole” in everyone’s life, who had the capacity to make or break a woman. She was fortunate to be surrounded by exceptionally strong people in her family, the most pivotal being her mother, veteran actor Saba Hameed.
“Yes. My mother and also the lesser-known people in my family I’d have to say,” Meesha explained. “My mother is a product of the family at large, you know. It was largely my mother of course but I had other, very encouraging influences as well. I was surrounded by feminists. I was taught a lot about myself very early on. What I’m willing to be okay with, and what I’m not willing to be okay with. What a woman can do and how much she can do. And how ridiculous it is for her to be held back, just because some man, and it can be a father a brother a husband, a son, some man somewhere thinks ‘itna karo bus is se zyaada na karo’ you know? Kisi bhi cheez mein. Don’t exercise your freedom, in whatever. So I guess until and unless I went through it personally I was maybe taking for granted how much freedom I was born in. I wasn’t born into any kind of restrictions.”
And how lucky are you to have a man in your life who imposes absolutely no restrictions, I asked her. Meesha married fellow musician Mahmood Rahman in 2008 and they have two children together. Meesha is fiercely and infamously protective when it comes to talking of her personal life but she opened up at the mention of her husband.
“He doesn’t even think like that, you know?” she indulged me in some rare insights to her life. “That kind of thing doesn’t even cross his mind. But if you were to, for example, reverse and bring him into my life earlier…and you know I see women who are with really nice guys who they take for granted and go off later on to marry someone who is then cutting them down and holding them back. Holding them back, more importantly. So yeah anyway, it’s not so much about what men can do; it’s just as much about knowing what you can do and then not letting anybody hold you back. I attended a feminist comic con in Lahore, it was at FC College, and somebody in the audience asked me why being a feminist is being anti-man? Or being man hating? And it’s not; absolutely it’s not. Which is why not being the weepy woman is very closely connected to the men in your life. Because just as many as there are men who suppress there are so many who champion also, the freedom of women.” Mahmood, to his immense credit, is obviously one of them.
Do you think being married and having kids makes it a little easier for you, the way you are, or does it make it tougher? Being a badass, being in the public eye, does marriage give you a kind of shield?
“I definitely do think it does,” Meesha replied honestly. “I realized that some years ago, and I was grateful for it because I don’t feel as vulnerable and it gives me a lot more confidence.”
Confidence is an understatement. Meesha Shafi is downright intimidating and I wonder whether it’s a bridge that she enjoys or is eager to change?
“I’m completely okay with intimidating people,” she says, very candidly and without an inch of arrogance or attitude. I’m not necessarily aiming to be a girl-next-door. I feel like if you’re truly yourself then acceptance will come from other people, and it’s not the other way around. It’s not when you’re trying to be like them that they will accept you; that’s just a recipe for misery. And I think a lot of people do that, the whole ‘log kya kahein ge.’ We’re tuned to think of that and then make choices, and I can’t live like that.”
Meesha doesn’t want to be the girl next door and she also doesn’t want to be a social media star; the obsessive need to shield her personal life from the public eye acts as a natural barrier between her and her fans. She’s not someone who will self-promote on social media; I have hardly ever seen her in a selfie. She’ll post one cerebral picture of her doing yoga by the riverside but that’s about it. There’s no obsessive, compulsive social media disorder that’ll keep her virtually connected 24/7.
“I don’t like the voyeuristic nature of social media, and the extent that it’s gone to,” she echoes the thought. “I have personal spaces – physical and figurative – that I don’t want people to view. I don’t put up pictures of my house for example, or my children. I cherish that privacy, it just means too much to me to put it out there and have people say stuff about it and get upset and angry and rant and so on and so forth. You’re setting yourself up, obviously, and it can only go in one direction. And there are things that I’m possessive about, it’s as simple as that. They have nothing to do with my work either.”
Work is what defines Meesha Shafi and it’s amazing that this modern, twenty first century rock/pop star who wears style as her personal brand and has the image of a fearsome feminist adheres to old school values when it comes to her image.
“That is also something that comes with the conditioning I get that from my mom,” she agrees. “I always used to hear this from her that you don’t need to be everyone’s friend. Somebody on the screen, the silver screen or TV – not just me – is larger than life. So you are sort of spinning this magic and creating this fantasy, and it should be as such, it should not be so ‘oh look, I can be everybody’s buddy.’”
Talking about her past and bringing the conversation to the future, Meesha hints at big things happening in 2017. There won’t be a film in Pakistan but there are suggestions of bigger and better projects on international shores. Her music continues to rule the airwaves but, responding to increasing anticipation over a Meesha Shafi album, she responds, “You know that is something that I’m being asked a lot now. And I guess I should do it now. 2017 will be a good year for an EP is what I’m thinking.”