Gihana Khan hasn’t received any death threats, but she’s worried they’re bound to come. The 21-year-old Afghan actress is set to star in her first Bollywood movie, Mumbai Mirror, in January, and even though she has never set foot in Afghanistan, the Sweden-born Khan is worried about how Afghans will react to her role. “I will be the first Afghan girl to appear in such a film,” she told The Daily Beast in an exclusive telephone interview from Mumbai, where she now resides.
Over the past five years, several Afghan actresses and female singers have been killed as a result of their professions. Threats are routine, and sometimes-close relatives even shun them if their work violates the country’s strict behavioral strictures.
The risk is high for Khan, but so too is the opportunity; many think Mumbai Mirror could be her big break. Cast in the leading female role, Khan will star alongside Bollywood A-lister, Sachiin Joshi. The film’s producer, Ankush Bhatt, cast the relatively unknown Khan because he was looking for a new face after superstar actress Mallika Sherawat stormed off the set in a salary dispute. Khan’s last name, which she shares with some of India’s biggest stars, is a major asset, and her sultry good looks fit the bill. “I am proud of my Afghan look that got me the part,” she says. “The producer told me he wanted a new and different face in this film.”
Khan’s journey to the Bollywood big screen is a winding one. In the early 1980s, not long after the Soviet invasion, Khan’s father immigrated to Sweden, and later married a Spanish woman who converted to Islam. Both mother and daughter speak fluent Persian, but Khan—who also speaks English and Swedish—says she feels totally Afghan. “We live as Afghans in our Swedish home,” she says.
Khan trained to be a nurse, but she knew her real calling was for acting. Her parents have been supportive. “My Afghan father encouraged me to come to India and Mumbai to pursue my acting career,” she says. ”My parents don’t mind what I am thinking and doing.”
After just a year in India, her sojourn seems to have paid off handsomely. And despite her fears about how Afghans will react, Khan hopes that most will be proud of her; that they’ll judge her based on her performance and not the country’s strict moral code. “I’m sure many Afghans will be proud to see an Afghan girl for the first time on the Indian big screen,” she says. “I have been receiving lots of love and praise on social media.”
Khan is also realistic. She knows her role is bound to stir up controversy if not anger in Afghanistan, especially among conservatives. In Mumbai Mirror she plays the part of a woman who works for a sleazy Mumbai dance bar owner, an underworld don, who has close connections to some of the city’s corrupt police. In the end, she helps an honest cop (played by Joshi) break up the corruption ring. But in the process, Khan shows more skin than many Afghan’s deem appropriate.
The Taliban, among other Afghan militants, will oppose the film not only for her performance, but also because it’s Indian. They see India as a country that is backing the Afghan government in its fight against militancy.
Most Afghans, however, are expected to love Mumbai Mirror. Indian movies and soap operas—even the highly censored versions that are often shown in local cinemas—are widely popular in Afghanistan. Even though the Taliban banned movies and television shows in the 1990s, bootlegged copies of Indian films on videocassettes were all the rage and vendors sold them all over Kabul.
In the end, Khan hopes her role in the film will elevate the status of women in Afghanistan, a country with a long patriarchal tradition. “Although I have never been to Afghanistan, I know it is a dangerous place, particularly for women,” she says. “I would like to tell Afghans to treat their women like gold.”
She also hopes the movie will break new ground for Afghan actors and actresses, who could have a future in Indian films. “Afghan women are beautiful and Afghan men are charming,” she says. “They could have a chance to star in movies like me.”
That is, unless the Taliban have something to say about it.