This is Pakistan shining. Amidst all the negativity there are individuals who propel spirits and blow optimism into the daily drudgery of our lives. Music, film, fashion…these are all silver linings now. They are flashes that shine brightly and bring out stars from behind the dark clouds.
That said, stars today are no longer the glamorous, untouchable icons that they once used to be. Just like the Royals – who have transformed from being power houses of glamour and rich lifestyle a la Princess Diana to Top-Shopping, jeans and t-shirt new age Queens like Kate Middleton – twenty first century celebrities too want to be lifelike rather than being larger than life.
That holds true for Pakistan’s brightest star Atif Aslam as well as rising star Mahira Khan, both of whom come together in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol. They lend the film its desperately needed breathers and that couldn’t be closer to reality as we experience it everyday.
In Conversation with Atif Aslam
His vocals cross borders through India and Bollywood; they trespass into unknown territories: Trinidad, Hong Kong and Bali are just three of the places he has recently celebrated sold-out concerts. He’s touring the United States with 15 different gigs as we speak. Not even a decade into his career, this firebrand has hit another high with his very first film appearance, that too as the voice of moderation in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol.
Atif Aslam’s fame is at an all-time high but this is a star who prefers to remain deeply grounded. He prefers to drive from Lahore to Islamabad alone; that sense of control over his life is what he wants to hold onto. He may be staying at the Serena, which is as impossible to access as the Fort Knox, but for those who make it in, he’s just as approachable as the next guy at the gym.
Except he can never be the next guy at the gym again. He’s Atif Aslam and the consistent stream of fans walking up to him for photographs during this interview are proof of his fame. He puts smiles on girls’ faces and pride in young boys’ eyes. They all want to be him and he wants them to know that they can. If his journey could begin on a mini bus to college and end on a jet plane to Trinidad then anyone’s can.
What would you say is the demographic for your fan following?
Statistics say that I have fans in the bracket of two to sixty. I have two million fans on Facebook. I’m more popular than Parvez Musharraf. That’s a huge fan following, I’d say. It’s also a tremendous responsibility.
How do you undertake this responsibility?
I didn’t want to do commercial films but I did Bol to create awareness and give back to society. People are relating to the film. Teenagers aren’t complaining that there is no masala in the film. They relate to me and my music. The message in Bol has changed their thinking.
What is the message in Bol?
Well, women rights. Talk about respect. Talk about what we’ve been doing to our families and talk about the biggest problem on our hands, population.
My friend who’s a teacher thanked me for taking his class to watch the film. One of his students, a 17 year old boy, had the same story as Saifi in the film – and so many children do – and he had never spoken about it. He started talking about it after watching Bol.
That is an achievement but people have a problem with why the character you play – Mustafa – leaves Saifi at a truck stand when truck stands are infamous for paedophilia?
When Shoaib Mansoor gave me the script I asked him the same thing. A shot has been cut, which would have made things a bit clearer. But I think Saifi’s drawings could only have come to use at a truck stand. You have to understand that Mustafa is not Atif Aslam in the film; he didn’t have access to NCA and fancy Art schools.
But Atif Aslam does permeate the character of Mustafa with his music…
Yes, but he’s not a star.
You constantly talk about responsibility but as a celebrity how responsible are you?
I’m not making hospitals or schools, if that’s what you mean, but I am doing my own thing and I don’t want to talk about it. People who follow me take me seriously. I wrote about namaz being the only solution and a five year old wrote to me in joy that his parents approved. That’s my contribution.
And the message you hand out is…
…that it’s not impossible for anyone to be a star. You just need dedication. I’ve had ups and downs in my career and people have always urged me to give up singing. But I didn’t.
I try to make a difference everyday. I want my fans to connect to me, to relate to me. I try to keep my life as normal as possible.
How can you remain normal when you have fans following you around for autographs and pictures all day?
My dad, being the perfect dad, pushed me to live life the hard way. Changing buses to get to college, standing in the heat has made me tough. At times that time seems like a world away but I can still relate to it. My family helps me stay grounded. I hardly take them for my concerts as I don’t want them to relate to this world. They are my home and I want them to be there to pull me back when they need to.
But life has turned around for you…
It has. It was always easy for me to go on a date before becoming a star. That has changed now. It has become very difficult for me to pick up a girl and flirt around. I have had a steady girlfriend for two to three years but not before that. I couldn’t handle it two years ago.
I’m a people’s person now. In fact I’m public property.
What are you doing for the elevation of music in Pakistan when there seems to be very little hope?
There’s always hope. Bands are not ready to give up. They tell me I am their hope as I have kept music alive for so many people.
I’m working with Duff McKagan (former Guns n Roses bassist) and will release that music with a big bang. My album will be out by the end of this year or early next year. I’m not in a hurry.
I’ve also hired Mikaal Hassan as a sound engineer and that has elevated my sound quality. I’m one level up.
People have been approaching TIPS and me with film offers but I think I’m a very immature actor and there’s tremendous room for improvement in my acting skills. If I like a script I’ll do it but I’m happy with music right now. I never want to do Indian Coke Studio. In fact even in Pakistan I’m bored of Coke Studio. It’s becoming dull. What I want to do is go around the world – to places like Brazil – and perform there as well as mix hybrid genres of music.
What is the most interesting place you’ve performed at? The most successful?
I enjoy concerts around the world. Bali is a place where no Pakistani has ever been. We’ve performed there. We went to Hong Kong, where South Asians are elusive. Our concert was a sell-out and they stood and danced throughout it. I’ve been told that not even Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay gets that kind of reaction.
It’s no secret that Junaid Jamshed’s rejection of music scarred Shoaib Mansoor enough to take the topic up in both his films. You come across as moderately religious and perform naats for commercials every Ramazan. So what’s your take on music and Islam?
As long as I’m not harming anyone it’s perfectly fine. Drugs and sex would push me down the wrong road; I would waste away. One has to control relative evils that are stereotyped with musicians but otherwise I feel there’s nothing wrong with music.
Even the mullahs relate to me. A man with a very long beard walked up to me at a petrol pump last night and said that his wife always wanted to meet me. You’d think he wouldn’t let his wife talk to another man.
I’m setting a new standard for people. They haven’t seen a star this big and I want them to also see the balance I maintain.
(Atif Aslam was talking to AHI at the Islamabad Serena)