In an odd picture at the Karachi premiere of Teefa In Trouble early this year, singer-actor Ali Zafar could be mistaken for standing next to his wax statue, the kind Madame Tussauds has on display. That’s the sort of likeness he and his younger brother, Danyal Zafar, a model and musician, share despite a nearly 15-year age difference.
Where most people are likely to judge Danyal, who entered the pop music scene of Pakistan last year with a coveted Coke Studio song (Muntazir, with Momina Mustehsan) and as a guitarist on Julie, is his upbringing in a privileged household amongst well-connected individuals, unlike Ali who had to struggle his way up.
He even had the chance to debut in movies with Yash Raj Films, Bollywood’s premier production house. (That Danyal had to forego Qaidi Band, the directorial venture of Ishaqzaade filmmaker Habib Faisal, when relations between India and Pakistan soured circa October 2016, and later the film proved to be a washout when it was released with a different cast, is another story altogether.) And, to think that his budding career is already being looked after by one of Pakistan’s most prominent PR firms.
It’s only when you meet the 21-year-old in person, and get talking, that you realise how remarkably humble he is, eager to shed all the trappings of being a star sibling and “experience anonymity” (his own words) and “learn life’s important lessons” by dipping his toes in.
Currently finalising the release date of his first single from his long-in-the-works album Ek Aur Ek 3, Danyal confesses to have followed his heart and not the trends. It even got to a point where he scrapped his entire song list, and started working from scratch. He’d spend countless hours in the state-of-the-art studio in the Zafars’ bungalow in Defence, Lahore, doing soul-searching. Listening to the likes of John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd helped to inspire him “to discover my own sound.”
He is also pursuing a degree in Business Administration through London University’s external programme. “Distance learning makes it convenient for me to carry on with both school and [music] work,” he says in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid! Excerpts follow…
Your fans expected you to debut as an actor in films, maybe in your home banner, Lightingale Productions. But you surprised everyone by announcing your album.
I think that because I was introduced as a model in a [TV commercial], which was before the Coke Studio song, people started assuming that I was aspiring to be an actor. But I’ve been into music for as long as I remember. In fact, acting was going to happen only by default: I was at the New York Film Academy for a year-long course when I got a call from Yash Raj. They were casting for Qaidi Band. I had just finished a semester in Screenplay, and rushed to India.
You must be thanking your lucky stars because Qaidi Band tanked at the box office.
Flops happen, but one thing that I am extremely indebted to [director] Habib Faisal for is the amount of knowledge he has on filmmaking, character development, and script writing. I learnt a great deal by merely talking to him. This, combined with what I had learnt at the [New York Film] Academy, helped me when I was co-scripting Teefa In Trouble.
I’ve some fond memories of the time spent in Mumbai. I learnt to read and write Hindi, I was a bit bulky so I lost up to 6kg of muscle for the part [in the film].
What kind of a film would be your dream launch?
I don’t know. I was offered a film in Pakistan but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I would want to do something that is fresh and original. It has to be something that really speaks to me. But I want to concentrate on music for now.
Coming back to your album, it has an intriguing title: Ek Aur Ek 3. Tell us what it signifies.
Almost a year back, I was jamming with a friend and we made a melody whose punch-line spontaneously became Ek Aur Ek Teen. It sounded quite unique. In the next couple of minutes, I had decided that this would be the title of my album also, because this was purely me — blues, R&B, blues rock, and fusion of a lot of Pakistani and Middle Eastern sounds. I can assure you that it’s very fresh, especially in terms of music arrangement and guitar, all of which is done by me.
We’re going to put out the video soon. It’s directed by Abdullah Harris. He’s done an amazing job. The [female] model in the video is going to be a surprise. [Grins]
Was it tough to seek out your own sound?
Oh, it’s been a long and tough journey! When I was trying to make music, I was mostly doing generic things. So, I wasn’t content. I could have played safe and carried on because such songs are often big hits, but then I reminded myself that I’m in a position where I could take risks. This was immediately after Coke Studio and Muntazir. I actually scrapped an entire album I had prepared, consisting of six songs.
I believe that it’s an artist’s curse when you have to create under too much stress — when you want something that your heart desires and which also resonates with the masses. Somewhere, along the line, I lost my own essence. That period, of six to seven months, was very depressing. For the first time in my life, for many days I’d go to our [music] studio and not be able to create anything worthy enough. Then I stumbled upon John Mayer’s album The Search for Everything. I listened to it over and over, studying each and every sound that was used — the drum, the kick, the snare, the reverbs, etc. I moved on to Ed Sheeran, and then Pink Floyd and Jeff Buckley, who helped me find my sound.
The best part about Ek Aur Ek 3 is that when I made it, the people who saw its raw version didn’t quite get it. But I went with my gut feeling, and when the same people had a look at the final product, they were bowled over.
No one cuts albums these days; singles are the norm. What do you say to that?
One major reason why albums are passe is that they can’t earn you money now, because no one buys CDs these days, and everything is out there on YouTube etc.
So, when I was deciding between singles and an album, I was confused. Singles are spaced out these days, and I thought that if I followed the pattern I’d be forced to sit back at home, waiting for the response, and later look for sponsors, and then shoot my next video and release it.
Also, I have memories attached to the songs I’ve made, so I want to keep them. But the release is not going to be all 8 or 10 songs together. Most probably, I’ll drop a song every second or third month.
Right now, the music industry in Pakistan is thriving on corporate culture. Comment.
It’s a fact. You have Coke Studio, Cornetto Pop Rock, Pepsi Battle of the Bands, and the likes. I’ve nothing against them, but in the current scenario no new artist has a standing of their own. Cut back to the 1990s and even later, when we had bands like Vital Signs, EP, Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar who followed their heart. Unfortunately, my fellow musicians aren’t doing the same; they are so bound by the corporate dictates and by what the audience will accept or reject. Today, if you listen to a song by anyone, they all sound the same.
What is your bonding with Ali Zafar like? Do you turn to him for guidance in personal/professional matters?
Hell yes. I have learnt the meaning of hard work because of him, especially through the making of Teefa…. It’s not with a bias that I am saying this. Though I must confess that I got lazy in between, because of the privileges I enjoy, but every time I saw him I’d be reminded how he is 100 times busier than me and yet so humble. I do seek his guidance in certain matters. Largely, he encourages me to decide things for myself.
You have a PR agency managing your career. This is a luxury that Ali did not have in his initial days. Do you think this ‘privilege’ is going to be beneficial?
Well, that takes care of a lot of my unnecessary worries about presentation and marketing etc. But I honestly believe that there’s no great teacher of life’s important lessons than your own mistakes.
What is the one lesson that you’ve learnt from Ali’s career trajectory?
I’ve seen my brother rise from being nobody to the biggest superstar when Chhanno happened. So, whatever he was experiencing, I was also experiencing in a way, by merely watching him from close quarters — how he’d respond to his fans, the way he’d deal with media, how he conducted himself in personal matters etc. Later, when I began in showbiz, and if someone in the street recognised me and came up to me, I knew how to behave. I did not have to experience everything from scratch, like Ali bhai did. Then I told myself that if I wanted to achieve something, I must start at a place where no one knows me. I wanted to experience anonymity, for my personal growth.
For somebody your age, you’ve got a great physique. Tell us about your fitness regime. Also, we’ve heard stories about you being fat-shamed in your school days?
[Laughs] Fat-shamed yes, only to that extent where I started wearing loose clothes. What really pushed me to start gym was Brad Pitt’s Fight Club. The day I watched that film, I pulled a dozen crunches, and I ran, and played football like crazy.
You recently clipped your long, layered hair. Are you going to keep experimenting with your looks, a la Ali?
Well, I keep running in circles. I grow my hair really long, and am loving them, but then they outgrow that ‘point’ and I begin to hate them. So, I cut them short. Again, I get nostalgic about my long locks, and begin to grow them back.
Do you follow whatever is written about you in social media?
Yeah, I do. But I’ve a simple rule in life: follow your heart; whatever people have to say, they’ll say. There’s too much noise around us these days, there are blogs that will post anything for clicks.
What about the news of your linkup with Momina Mustehsan?
Again, this is one drawback of being in the limelight: if a guy and a girl are seen together, our immediate conclusion is that they are dating each other. Coming back to your question, Momina and I are just good friends.
Just to make it official — are you single/dating someone?
I am very much single. [Laughs]