Anupama Chopra (AC): Azaan, you had lots of relationships in India because of your father. You spent your teen years here, going back and forth, but I was very intrigued to read that you were an AD on Kalank. How did you get that job and what did you take away from that experience?
Azaan Khan (AK): It was amazing. There was this writer, Hussain Dalal, who was a friend of mine. He's worked on really great movies. So when I was writing scenes for Superstar (2019), I would share them with him and I would be like, 'Yeh koi achchha hai? (Is it good or bad?)' He was very kind and he helped me out. I was in Mumbai and I felt that this looming air of: Maybe I should get into acting, I should give it a shot. I was excited about it, with the ambition that I would one day be an auteur and write, direct, act, maybe make music for some film. So I thought I should become an AD because today it's obviously not just a 'hero', it's a 'protagonist'. In South Asia, a protagonist has a big responsibility on his shoulders. Much more than, maybe, in the West. It is almost as if the protagonist has to carry the film on his shoulders, which is a very South Asian concept. So I wanted to go and work on a big film and see what it was really like. So Hussain bhai spoke to them, I sent in my resume. Abhishek Varman was the director and he was kind; I met him, he allowed me to work on the film. I was there throughout the prep. And then we shot the songs. I shot about 30-40% of the movie and then I had to come back because a film I was doing a soundtrack for was releasing – Parwaaz Hai Junoon. But it was an amazing experience, I learnt a lot and it taught me a lot of things. The advantage of having been an AD is you have a lot of respect for every other job that's happening on set. If you're an actor, maybe you just don't know (of these jobs).
AC: And (cinematographer) Binod Pradhan apparently reprimanded you for doing something?
AK: I spent a lot of time with him – he's a legend, he's so cool and just a master. I want to mention here that I had spoken to him when I was writing Superstar because he had shot my father's music video 'Tera Chehra'. So, in that sense, I knew him and I had contacted him for Superstar. That was in 2016. I was like, 'I am writing this film and I want you to shoot it.' He was like, 'Sure, I'll come, it'll be fun, khaana khilaana (just feed me).' We were shooting in the day and he asked me to stand in for a scene. There was a big Matte Box on the lens and I was fixing my hair while looking into the camera. I was like, 'Nobody is looking at me, the actors are late, let me fix my hair.' Then he called me and said, 'You have to earn a living from this equipment your whole life, learn to respect it. It's not a sheesha.' And that resonated a lot.
AC: You're not just balancing between parents who don't live together, but you're also balancing between countries. You identify Pakistan as your home, your father lives in India. How have you done it with such grace, and how do you just stay out of trouble?
AK: I keep telling myself that I just make songs or work in the movies. There are many more important people and jobs out there in the world. So it's that realisation. As far as politics is concerned, I respect everyone's opinion, but it's not something that I am really well versed in and can really have a strong, informed opinion about. I don't know enough. Even when it comes to music, I'm still learning about it. If I just politely do that for the rest of my life, I may get somewhere, instead of dabbling in areas that I don't know much about. There are way more confident people doing it.
Mahira Khan (MK): The other day someone was asking me what happens there, if the people there are the same as the people here, if the sets are bigger there. I said, 'Everything is on a bigger scale, but they know how to adjust and so do we.' I don't think anybody does it better than a desi. Things are just the same, it's crazy.
AK: Even with 'Tu'. I was going to the shoot so I made sure to finish all the release materials a week before leaving. And still, an hour before the release, someone was screaming at somebody and telling them they forgot something. I was like, 'Only desis do this.' Nowhere else in the world will you see someone at Warner Brothers screaming at somebody 30 minutes before Inception (2010) comes out saying, 'Hey, you forgot to send this file.' But we love it regardless. I haven't planned a way to balance it, I just say it how it is. My parents and I love both countries. They both made choices, I respect them. I may have my opinions but I try to be as true to all of it as I am. And anyone who listens to music or loves the movies – I hold them in the same place in my heart regardless of where they are.
AC: In terms of social media, which for artists here seems to have now become a sort of double-edged sword, what is it like for stars like yourselves in Pakistan? Mahira, you've talked about trolling in your earlier interviews, but how do you handle it? Do you just see it as part of the job, do you get affected by it? Here, Aamir Khan quit social media, Ranbir Kapoor has never gotten on it, Saif Ali Khan has never gotten on it. How do the two of you handle being famous and being on social media?
MK: I'm thinking about what I should say because I've been through a phase of being affected badly by it. As artists we are all vulnerable; as human beings we are [vulnerable], right? I mean 5 people may comment on a regular person's profile. We have hundreds or thousands of comments. We're told we're public property and this is just how it is, this is the name of the game, this what comes with it. So you're like: OK, fine, it comes with it. But I was lucky enough to see a few years of no social media. And then came Instagram, Twitter, which I joined very late. I enjoy speaking to my fans, I enjoy the feedback, but I don't give it the kind of importance that I've seen a lot of people give it. I've started to dislike social media as the years go by. We must use it in the right way. I do take to Twitter whenever I want to say something, even if I am stopped and told, 'Don't do that, you're going to get bashed.' If I truly believe something, I do it.
AC: Who stops you, Mahira?
MK: My mum, my brother, my manager. I had actually gone off Twitter, because, like you said, it's a double-edged sword. When I was growing up, the people I looked up to weren't just actors; they weren't just good at their jobs; they were brave people who spoke their truth, who had opinions and would say them. Dhadallay se kehte the (they would say it with full force)! And I used to love that, I still love that about a person. But now, artists or actors or singers are just told to shut up, to be quiet. You're told that you have to just do your job and that's it. But that's not what artists were. They brought the change, they could feel what was happening before everybody else. We are sensitive, we feel for things, we have a platform, we have voices. If I'm not able to say what I want to say, then of what use is being on Twitter? That's how I look at it. With Instagram, I feel like if I can't put out a real image or talk about the things that mean something to me then it's of no use. So I try. I try my best to stay as authentic as possible, which is tough.
AC: Is that what you do as well, Azaan? Do you want to be authentic? Or are there parts of your life you keep private? The kids don't appear on your Instagram account.
AK: When I was born, there was no social media, but everybody knew who was having kids. Pre-social media, I remember when my father's music released; I'd go to any video shop to buy something and they'd start playing 'Tera Chehra' or 'Lift Karaade'. It made me feel very important for no reason. I grew up with that, so I was clear that I didn't want my kids to have that because as a kid, I did take it for granted. I wasn't the nicest person to be around because I just felt special, whether in school or anywhere. My kids have friends because they're good people and not because of who their father is.
I do get affected by social media, which is why I try to stay off it as much as possible when I am working on anything. It influences me a lot. I can spend 6 months on a particular project and develop it a certain way, and then I'll open Instagram and I'll see someone else's piece, which is great and which all my friends like. And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm not making that, I'm making something else.' So I'll unnaturally start moulding what I'm doing. It affects the process a lot. I hope there's a day when I'm completely numb to it all, but that hasn't happened yet. The things that do need to be spoken about, I do like to speak about, but only when I'm not in that phase during which I need to be authentic to my work. I genuinely want to be known just for my work, that's something that I am very clear about. I don't want to be known for my personal life.
AC: The ban of Pakistani artists in Bollywood still holds, but thanks to the internet, thanks to streaming services, there is an exchange of stories, of music, of artistry. Are the two of you hopeful about the future, that things might change?
AK: We lived in a very different world 16 months ago and we're living in a very different world today. And I think that nothing can stop two artists from collaborating. If two people want to work together and God wills it to happen, nobody can stop that. A lot of people ask me about my aspirations; I said I want to do well, my ambition is to work with other great people. To answer your question, I am optimistic, I absolutely think things will get better, whether we are working on some international platform or not.
MK: Having experienced it first-hand, I look at it differently. It's just sad, when I think about it. We've all moved on; that's what we do – If we don't have this, we do something else. That's what happens. But I feel like a great, great opportunity for the entire subcontinent to come together and collaborate was lost. I think it might happen again, who knows?
AC: You're doing something on ZEE5, right?
MK: I am reading out one story for Sarmar. Actually, I was meant to do a lot; a lot of other series were offered to me. But I was genuinely scared. It wasn't, 'What will people say?' I was just like, 'I don't know if I want to go there.' They were great, there was some content which was amazing and which I didn't want to miss out on. I wanted to do something different, because digital does that for you as an actor. But I was scared and I have no shame in admitting it. Now I'm a bit more like, 'No, you can't let something that was political affect your choices.' I don't think I will do that anymore and I hope that we collaborate, even if it's on digital. Like Azaan said, when people who know their jobs and are good at what they do come together, it's magic.
AK: On this album, I've experienced this first-hand. My main focus was to use musicians who are experts in their fields. And there are certain things that are done better in India, there are certain things that are done better in Pakistan. The fiddle on 'Tu' is recorded by a fiddle player in London, but then the tabla and dholak were recorded in Mumbai. A lot of the qawwali background vocal tracks in the album were recorded in Pakistan. Each region has its own specialties and that won't change. So there is a loss in all of this if we can't get the best of everything.