Umair Jaswal, rock star of the new generation, has traded his denim for traditional regalia in Mor Mahal. He talks about his TV and film debut, music and why the music industry needs unification.
Rock stars are rarely human. They’re more often creatures of odd behavior, reckless beings that thrive on rebellion whether it’s sex, drugs and rock n roll, tattered jeans and objectionable t-shirts or general misdemeanor. That’s their appeal. Things are ‘visibly’ more civilized for rock musicians in Pakistan but even then you expect to encounter an uncomfortable level of arrogance and attitude when you walk into a rocker’s zone.
Umair Jaswal’s room, however, smelt like a Hollister outlet. Dressed in fashionably ripped jeans and a serene aqua shirt, white high ankle sneakers and a couple of trendy leather bands and beads twisted around his wrist, he was more model than musician. You almost expected to hear the surf and sea gulls keowing in the background. Certainly more approachable than your average celebrity, Jaswal also appeared to be more human than most rock stars. Suffering dust allergies and therefore a disappointingly nasal voice (disappointing because it’s always interesting to connect the voice to the music you’ve been hearing) he apologized and explained how Karachi climate always did this to him, which is why he always flew in a night before a performance or recording and got it over with before the allergies could attack. Moving to Karachi, I guess, wouldn’t be the best career choice for him.
Not that his work is limited to any one city. Born and raised in Islamabad, Umair Jaswal is one of seven siblings: six brothers and one sister. Two of the brothers – Uzair and Yasir – we know and the rest of his siblings are happily settled all over the world. Umair started his career as vocalist for former band Qayaas and found the higher road to fame with Coke Studio. There was the Qayaas debut with Atif Aslam, ‘Charkha Naulakha’ and then there was the conflicting ‘Sammi Meri Waar’ with Quratulain Baloch, conflicting because of the love-hate relationship people had with it.
“Nothing was so bad,” Jaswal laughed when I asked him how he dealt with the wrath of the people. “If anything, there was the hatred of the ‘keyboard warriors’ and I have never seen one of them come up to me in person and say anything bad. I’ve seen nothing but love in reality. Social network is like a world in which reality doesn’t exist.”
Interestingly, last year Jaswal signed up for a bigger form of fantasy when he auditioned for TV serial Mor Mahal and was given the lead role. From rock star he transformed to Nawab Asif Jahan and traded his jeans for angarkhas, turbans and jewellery.
Why, I asked, did most of Pakistan’s musicians end up on television?
“I had no aspirations of being an actor,” Jaswal explained. “I had been getting calls from all channels for the past four years but I never wanted to act because honestly speaking, I could not relate to anything on TV. Even when they called me for Mor Mahal I refused at first. I had no aspirations to act. Sarmad Khoosat was the first reason I was interested. Then Sarmad Sehbai was a plus. I agreed to audition.”
This was early 2015. Qayaas had dismantled and Jaswal was thinking of pursuing his career as a geophysicist; he has a Masters degree in geosciences and his father is a geoscientist so he tends to gravitate to the subject, pardon the pun. However, after incessant persuasion from GEO TV he agreed to audition very half-heartedly. Two cups of tea and a couple of cigarettes later he was offered the lead.
“I went back and thought about it,” he remembered. “I’m blessed to have great friends like Bilal Lashari and my brothers and I discussed it with my close knit people. I thought I could do films but not television simply because I could not relate to TV. But I agreed to do this for the experience. I did the two-week workshop that everyone did, that taught us acting, dialect and then they sent me this huge script. My Urdu is good but even then it wasn’t easy.”
Jaswal’s only acting experience at that time was Yalghaar, which he considered a very safe place because it was an action film with very limited dialogues. There was no pressure to perform because he knew that Shaan, Humayun Saeed and Adnan Siddiqui had the actual responsibility to act. Mor Mahal was different and initially very challenging.
“When they gave me those costumes I was like, ‘shit, my fans are going to kill me for these clothes and this jewellery!’” he admitted. “It all looked like stuff women wear. But it boiled down to my new year’s resolution: I would not say NO to anything, I had resolved after Qayaas.”
Mor Mahal came with a unique set of challenges. Umair was not allowed to watch anything remotely similar to the serial; he was forbidden to watch Mera Sultan because Sarmad wanted him to bring individuality to the Nawab’s character.
“This couldn’t be Umair Jaswal,” he told himself. “It had to be Nawab Asif Jahan and even my vocal toned changed. I scaled it down. My body language changed. I worked really hard and it paid off. I memorized the script and I observed and listened. And Sarmad (Khoosat) allowed me to play the character; he trusted me.”
The second challenge was staying in that frame of mind for that duration. Film and TV projects aren’t usually so long and Jaswal had worked so hard to adapt to the Nawab’s mold; he stayed fit and grew his beard to a certain length and style, refusing to use prosthetics. Staying in the Nawab’s mold meant not performing as a proverbial rocker.
“I had signed up for a concert before Mor Mahal’s shooting began and I had to honour it,” he recalled one interesting anecdote. “So I had to leave shooting for the concert and performed in front of 70,000 people. When I came back my energy had changed completely. I was not Nawab Asif Jahan; I was Umair Jaswal. My tempo changed completely. Sarmad told me that this is the exact reason why I couldn’t afford to perform while I was shooting and I took that as great advice. I stayed away from it thereon and it helped. So far I’m reading good reviews and let’s hope people feel the same way after 45 episodes.”
In conversation with Umair Jaswal
Umair Jaswal has been in the picture for almost a decade but he hit the circuit only last year; ‘Sammi’ was the second biggest hit to emerge from Coke Studio and his movie debut in Yalghaar and the physical transformation he underwent for the role went viral. There’s obviously much more to Umair Jaswal than meets the eye; his political and religious views, his relationship with his fans and his take on the music industry at large. Here are extracts of our conversation…
AHI: Are you not part of Yalghaar anymore?
Umair Jaswal: I’m not part of Yalghaar anymore. The film has been on the floors for three years and I was in it from the beginning and I’m thankful to Dr Hassan Rana, the director, who pushed me to act. But Yalghaar is a huge project and it was facing a lot of inevitable delays. Unfortunately I had to choose. I could be a supporting actor in one project, with about twenty minutes of screen time or I could sign up for a project with a big network in which I played lead. I asked them and they understood; my departure was very friendly. I had shot several scenes before I left and I’m not sure whether they’ll be retained or edited out of the final film.
AHI: You started with action in Yalghaar and have done period drama in Mor Mahal. What kind of roles would you like to do next?
UJ: The comfort zone would be action films but I would like to work out of my comfort zone because outside the comfort zone is where the magic happens. I’m blessed to have such a huge project as my debut but I’m cursed as well because nothing this big is going to be made any time soon. Some of the offers I was telling you about were from some very great filmmakers but I’ve had to say no. I’m still not sure whether I can act or not. I’ll go through the first 15 episodes of Mor Mahal and then decide if I want to pursue it or not. But whatever I do must be content driven. The content should be really strong.
AHI: You speak of strong content and social responsibility; how responsible do you think a celebrity should be?
UJ: I think of it in two ways: I believe that God has given us the ability to speak up and have influence. We have influence over a lot of people. When we say something, people listen. We can generate opinions but if one of us wants to do useless commentary, that’s up to them. If you want to share something good, that is also up to you. Responsibility as a celebrity should be such that you should not pick sides. For example, I share a lot of anti-PMLN posts but that doesn’t mean that I’m a PTI supporter. I say that I’m with anyone who is doing good in this country. When it comes to gay rights and feminism, I think you should practice what you preach, and that’s where you should leave it. These things are very personal. I don’t talk about anyone’s religion, or sect, or sexual preference. Who am I?
AHI: Don’t you think that playing the religious card is such an easy way of gaining popularity in this country?
UJ: I don’t want to name public figures, but they all do it. They know religion sells. You put religion on a soap and people will buy it. That is the sad part but we are to be blamed as well. My fault in this is that I did not read up on religion. Why didn’t I take that authority so that I could openly talk about religion? The people here who become aalims etc, their worldly knowledge is so limited. You are supposed to take your faith and the world together, hand in hand. These scholars are taking religion into the darkness. My heart and faith says that in every human being there is a balance. You should know the difference between good and bad. For me, humanity comes first. You have to love everyone.
AHI: You’re seen as a PTI supporter. Do you think Imran Khan can bring a change?
UJ: I don’t know. But we have to try him.
AHI: Do you think he’s also playing the religious card?
UJ: Everyone’s playing the religious card. Our anchors, politicians, our public figures.
AHI: Haven’t you been approached by a religious party yet?
UJ: I have been approached by two different kinds of groups but I wouldn’t like to name them.
AHI: Back to music: why is our music industry so scattered now? Why is there no unifying source?
UJ: We have to go back in time and see what was the golden era of music. It was the Musharraf era. Then Sheikh Rasheed did one thing that made me a huge fan of his. What he did was that he banned Indian channels. The benefit of this was that when those channels shut off, all these bands – Noori, EP, Karavan, even Ali Azmat, they all became big. We had our own content because we had our own channels, and they were bound to play our own stuff. And when our stuff was made, people could see music being released and videos being made. I started music at the most troubled time for Pakistan. I wouldn’t have concerts for a whole year, maybe even two. We would only do music in our studios. These guys have played 300 shows a year. That was the best time of Pakistan. Then the corporate greed came. They wanted to make money. The ban was removed. Channels like 8XM came into play, channels that just play 6% Pakistani content maybe.
AHI: Do you then think that Bollywood films should be banned?
UJ: I don’t think they should be banned. We like Bollywood. Don’t ban foreign content; just control it. PEMRA has made the regulations; they should follow it. We would have stars and musicians in Pakistan if there were enough dedicated platforms. People ask why Umair Jaswal doesn’t make music videos and I say because I know it’s not going to go on TV. It will be played for two days and then some Indian song will replace it. When I know that channels won’t give me airtime, then why should I throw money in a well? For me, it would be better to make songs for an OST. Or play my song in Coke Studio.
AHI: Don’t you think initiative like Cornetto Music Icons and Nescafe Basement are helping music?
UJ: We need to be independent. We should do our own concerts. There are problems with that as well. There are entertainment taxes and if someone is asking for 60% of your revenue, why would you arrange a concert? Concerts used to be a regular thing because people would make money off them. Now they are sponsored by brands. This is the last thread we are all hanging by. If this also goes then everything will end. Nobody wants to put in their own money to release music. Now we don’t even know how to release music. CD’s are obsolete. Online it’s very difficult to monetize it digitally. We all have heard pirated music all our lives but I’ll buy an original CD of a band that I really like. That is my contribution to them. As a fan, this is all you can give. People want everything for free.
I have a question from my fans: I’m doing everything for you, what are you doing for me? You don’t want to pay for tickets; you all want free passes. People come to corporate shows for free. If you call a C grade ‘international’ electronic artist, that show will get sold out for as much as 7000 a piece. For your own artist you can’t even spend even 500 rupees. You as fans did not push me to make music. Fans do not pay our bills but they judge us for everything we do. If we do an ice cream ad, they humiliate us for it.
AHI: Are you expecting negative feedback from your work in Mor Mahal?
UJ: We as a nation are negative. It’s very easy to criticize. People comment that the sets aren’t great but they were not there; they do not know the challenges we faced. People say ‘yaar, the extras aren’t up to mark’ but again I say, you were not there. You don’t know the real challenges. Pakistan sadly does not have an industry and there are no casting agencies. It’s not like Bollywood where an agency will provide you 500 students over night. Getting 50 people for a specific scene is hard here. People don’t realize the situation we work in.
AHI: What now?
UJ: A lot of people have approached me after Mor Mahal and I have rejected twenty-plus projects including films and television. But my honesty is that I want people to see my work and then offer me opportunities. I don’t want offers just because Sarmad cast me in this role. I want you to see what I can do. I want people to see 5 or 10 episodes and then opine on my work; even I will decide after ten episodes whether I have been able do it or not.
This article was originally published in Instep, The News on May 8, 2016