With her sultry looks and her slinky dance moves, the Pakistani actress who calls herself Meera won the adoration of moviegoers here.
But now she is afraid for her life. Her crime: The Indian news media reported that she kissed an Indian actor onscreen while starring in an Indian film. To top it off, the actor in question, Ashmit Patel, is a Hindu.
The film, Nazar, by the Indian director Soni Radzan and her husband, the producer Mahesh Bhatt, has not yet been released, but the report that she kisses him in the film, which hit the news media last month, has brought a storm of criticism.
Local news channels repeatedly flashed snippets of the movie: he leaning toward her, their lips coming closer, she letting out a heavy sigh. But then, since censors do not permit a kiss to be shown on Pakistani television, the picture turns fuzzy and the rest is left to the imagination.
Conservative Islamists are incensed at the thought of a Muslim woman kissing a Hindu. Some have called for an apology; others have filed a lawsuit, demanding that she be censured for an "immoral scene" - it is unclear what the court could do if it agreed - and still others have issued death threats.
Meera, who says she is 24, acknowledged in a telephone interview that she had kissed the actor, though she has indicated in other interviews that she did not. She denied, though, there are any "vulgar or bold" scenes in the movie. "It is a baseless controversy," she said in the interview from Karachi, the southern port city where she has been staying since her return from India on March 9. Her own actions in the movie, she insisted, were in keeping with what her character demanded. "Acting means freedom of expression," she added.
Trouble dogged her in India this week, too, as she landed at an airport in New Delhi on Wednesday, at the invitation of Bhatt, who also wrote the film's script, only to be told by the immigration authorities that her visa was valid for arrival only in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. She was detained for several hours, then allowed to stay.
Meera, who has starred in 56 Pakistani films since her start in the movie business in 1996, is no stranger to steamy scenes. Pakistani films, like Indian ones, are rife with suggestive song-and-dance numbers in which the heroine, sometimes wrapped in a wet sari, delights her audiences with provocative, hip-thrusting moves.
"Maybe they wanted me to work in the movie wearing a burka," she said, referring to the head-to-toe cloak worn by some Muslim women. "I have an open mind. I don't have to ask people what to do, what to wear, what hairstyle to keep."
Nevertheless, she and her family, who live in Lahore, say they have received countless intimidating phone calls in the last month. She has said she will not return to Lahore unless Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, guarantees her safety.
"I need protection," she said. "I am scared to go to Lahore."
The brouhaha comes at a time when a number of Pakistani actors have crossed over to the far-more-lucrative Indian film industry. While Bollywood, which is based in Bombay, thrives, Pakistan's industry, based in Lahore and called Lollywood, is on the wane.
Officially, it is illegal to show Indian movies in Pakistan's theaters, but there is a huge black market for them. People watch them on cassettes or DVDs, and Indian film stars are household names here.