Rohail Hyatt and crew are back with a fifth season of Coke Studio this summer; the first episode aired on May 13 and featured performances by Atif Aslam, Bohemia, Hadiqa Kiani, Humayoon Khan, Qayaas, SYMT and Umair Jaswal. Performers from previous seasons, including Meesha Shafi and Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad join musicians Bilal Khan, Chakwalis, Overload and Tahir Mithu for this instalment of the Coke series. For the first time, at midnight on May 12, the show’s producers decided to release videos of performances prior to the episode’s transmission on May 13, allowing millions of fans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to instantly share and comment on (and thoroughly dissect) this season’s performances, without crashing the show’s official servers.
His vocals traverse borders through to India and Bollywood, travelling into territories unexplored by Pakistani artists: Trinidad, Hong Kong and Bali are just three of the places Atif Aslam has recently performed at sold-out concerts. He is touring the US with 15 different gigs as we speak. Not even a decade into his career, this firebrand has hit another high with his first film appearance, cast as the voice of moderation in Bol.
Atif Aslam’s fame is at an all-time high but he prefers to remain deeply grounded. He drives 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 hotel in Islamabad, as impossible to access as Fort Knox because of its tight security, but he is just as approachable as the next guy at the gym. But he is not the next guy at the gym. He is Atif Aslam and the consistent stream of fans asking for photographs is proof of his fame. He puts smiles on girls’ faces and pride in young boys’ eyes. They all want to be like him and he wants them to know that they can. If his journey began on a mini-bus to college only to continue on a jet plane to Trinidad then anyone’s dream can be realised.
Q. What would you say is the demographic of your fan following?
A. Statistics say that I have fans in the bracket of two to 60 years. I have two million fans on Facebook. I’m more popular than Pervez Musharraf. That’s a huge fan following. It’s also a tremendous responsibility.
Q. As a celebrity in the industry, what responsibility do you feel you have?
A. 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.
Q. And the message you hand out is…
A. 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.
Q. How can you lead a normal life when you have fans following you around for autographs and pictures all day?
A. My dad, being the perfect dad, pushed me to live life the hard way. Changing buses to get to college or standing in the heat has made me tough. At times those days seem like a world away but I can still relate to them. My family helps me stay grounded. I hardly take them to 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.
Q. But life has turned around for you.
A. 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. 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.
Q. It’s no secret that Junaid Jamshed’s rejection of music scarred Shoaib Mansoor enough to deal with this issue in both his films. You come across as moderately religious, performing naats for commercials at Ramzan. So what’s your take on music and Islam?
A. 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.
Q. What’s the message in Bol?
A. Well, women’s rights. Talk about respect. Talk about what we’ve been doing to our families and talk about the biggest problem on our hands — population control. My friend, who is 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.
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.
Q. But many have a problem with the character you play – Mustafa – because he leaves Saifi at a truck stand when truck stands are infamous for paedophilia.
A. When 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 the National College of Arts (NCA) and prestigious art schools.
Q. But Atif Aslam does permeate the character of Mustafa with his music.
A. Yes, but he’s not a star.
Q. What are you doing for the elevation of music in Pakistan when there seems to be very little hope?
A. 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 (a 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 Mekaal Hasan as a sound engineer and that has elevated my sound quality. I’m one level up.
People have been approaching Tips [an Indian music company] 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 making 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.
Q. What is the most interesting place you have performed at?
A. I enjoy concerts around the world. Bali is a place where no Pakistani musician 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 Shahrukh Khan or Akshay [Kumar] gets that kind of reaction.
Bol has turned VJ Mahira Khan into an actor and, therefore, a star of another world. She is suddenly a role model known to everyone, piquing their curiosity as to which role she will undertake. She is very clear about the figure she wants to cut: one of no glamour, no fuss and no pretence. She wants to continue wandering around in jeans and a T-shirt. She wants to convey a strong message that women in films can be real.
Real life for Mahira is her family: her childhood love of a husband Ali who is working on creating Pakistan’s first animation series for television. Family is also her 20-month old son Azlan, who accompanies her on foreign shoots. And, of course, her friends – Feeha Jamshed being one of her closest – for whom she has also sacrificed mid-term exams for they are inseparable. She is a role model for the modern Pakistani star: beautiful, confident and great at multitasking.
Q. How did you find working with Atif Aslam?
A. Atif keeps denying it but there was a lot of quarreling. But he is amazing. I keep telling him that he’s God’s favourite child. He touches something and it turns to gold. He’s great and he’s sorted.
Q. Would you have made any changes in Bol?
A. I feel that they should have made the love story a bit stronger and I wish that I had been slapped at least once. I’m the only one in the film who doesn’t get slapped and my friends came out of the cinema saying that I never cooked, I never cleaned and I never got slapped around. All I did was scale walls.
Q. Where does an oppressed girl find the confidence to sing at an open concert?
A. That was the only place I disagreed with Mansoor’s vision. I wanted this girl to sing in her shalwar kameez and dupatta. I didn’t want to give out the message that to sing, play the guitar or pursue your dreams you have to change who you are.
Q. Your second acting experience after Bol was with Mehreen Jabbar.
A. I shot Jabbar’s [television serial] Niyat in New York this March. My second acting experience was very different from my first.
A. I learnt how to act with Jabbar. Mansoor treated me like a baby; Bol didn’t depend on me. Niyat is different and I play the central role of an immature girl studying for her masters at Columbia. It’s a complicated, urban love story and in a way too close to reality for comfort.
Q. Does the immature girl reflect your own personality?
A. No, considering I dropped out of a full scholarship at UCI [University of California, Irvine] to get married.
Q. Has working with Jabbar spoilt you?
A. Once you’ve worked with MJ [Mehreen Jabbar] you have to unlearn everything she’s taught you. She pushed me to stay natural whereas other directors push you the other way. She grilled me. She had a tough time taming my eyebrows that she said had a life of their own, for instance. I’m only doing two series; the other with Sarmad Khoosat, who is Irfan Khoosat’s son, and thankfully both my directors are gifted in their own way so I’m lucky.
Q. You have also done the Lux advert with Meera, Reema and Humaima. Are you the next style and glamour icon?
A. I’m constantly told that I’m unstarlike and that I don’t have the attitude that it takes to be a star. I’m constantly told I need to be more like Meera or Reema or Iman and I’ve thought about it. I spent a day giving this some serious thought. And the answer to your question is no. Why can’t I, the next generation of film actors, change the way people think of film stars? That is my responsibility. The reason we were taken for the Lux campaign was because we were all cast in a film. That’s it. Even a two-part role makes you a film star and overnight you’re a third-world celebrity. It’s stupid. So I thought about it and take it upon myself to change the perception of what a film actress in Pakistan should act like, think like, speak like and dress like. But I’ve decided every once in a while I’ll turn up in a gown with coiffed up hair and fake eye lashes.
Q. How do you want your fans to perceive you?
A. I’d rather people were curious about what I have to say rather than what I am wearing. We’re not living in the fifties anymore. We have to come to terms with the fact that stars nowadays will be different. They will not have that enigma about them because there’s no way the media will let them be. I would like to be true to myself. I’d like to be a role model for the youth so that they can connect with me.
Q. What is the strongest message for you in Bol?
A. That would have to be stereotypes. My favourite character in the film is the brother and I wish he hadn’t died and that they showed a solution to that problem. But for me the film is about stereotypes. The biggest message in Bol isn’t about women’s rights – it’s far from a feminist film – it’s about killing stereotypes and stopping oppression on a daily basis. It’s a gutsy film.
Q. Was it difficult to act in a gutsy film?
A. It was difficult to act. Atif and I had it the hardest because we had never read lines before. Even the kids in Bol were theatre actors and experienced. We had to work much harder.
Q. Did the hard work affect your personal life?
A. Oh yeah, absolutely. I did the film then I took up the serials but after completing them I’ve decided that I won’t take any more serials till October. I want to put Azlan into a schedule. I can’t do what someone who is single would be doing.
Q. Is it worth it?
A. It’s worth it as long as I know my child isn’t suffering which I don’t think he is. There are days when I go back and I know he needed me and I wasn’t there. When you work for more than eight hours a day you return and get the ‘silent treatment’. They look at you differently.
Q. Is it just the child or the husband too?
A. Of course it’s the husband as well. They can be much more difficult than children. A man is a man is a man. But because he’s the creative type, he has his own dreams and he understands mine. And we’ve been together since I was 14 and he was 16. He understands me.