Trust Atif Aslam to never let his fans down. Just when the Pakistani music icon’s worst critics had begun to think that he was becoming repetitive — what with his many Bollywood-inspired melodies — Aslam drops a video that is sure to herald a new chapter in his glorious career.
By his own admission, ‘Ajnabi,’ out now, has “a very contemporary sound” — something he hasn’t attempted before.
The cherry on the top is actress Mahira Khan’s appearance in the video. Interestingly, Aslam and Khan reunite on the screen after a gap of almost 10 years — they last came together on Shoaib Mansoor’s 2011 blockbuster, ‘Bol’.
For Aslam, ‘Ajnabi’ is a little milestone in his journey towards reinventing himself. Last year, he won over his fans when he recited ‘Azaan’ (the Islamic call to prayer) amid the pandemic, as a way to seek God’s forgiveness and blessings. He followed it up with ‘Asma-ul-Hasana,’ which was produced by composer Xulfi for music series Coke Studio. As of September 2021, his rendition of ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ for Coke Studio’s season 8 has crossed 325 million views on YouTube.
One of the country’s youngest recipients of the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan government’s fourth highest civilian honour, Aslam was also awarded a star on the Dubai Walk of Fame in 2019.
For his next project, Aslam is returning to acting. Again, he looks at it as part of the process of self-exploration. Titled ‘Sang e Mah’, the TV drama is a sequel to 2016’s Pashtun family saga, ‘Sang e Mar Mar’, and pairs him with Kubra Khan and Hania Aamir.
In an exclusive chat with Gulf News, the ‘Dil Diyan Gallan’ singer talks his heart out…
Your latest music video, ‘Ajnabi,’ featuring Mahira Khan, is the talk of the town. Critics are calling it a very un-Atif-Aslam-like song.
‘Ajnabi’ has a very contemporary sound. It’s not filmi; it’s very pop. In that sense, yes, it’s quite a new sound for me. But then I’ve always liked to experiment with my music. I’m always looking out for fresher sounds.
The lyrics are also very unlike my regular songs. Consider this: ‘Main ghar se jo nikla dukaan se khwabon ko lenay, toh band thi/Lag rahi mujhe thand thi’ [I left home to shop for my dreams, but it was shut and I was cold]. It’s basically a narration. The lyrics are by me, while Ahsan Pervez Mehdi and I co-wrote the composition. Asim Reza has directed the video. He put up some great-looking sets. We shot it in Karachi.
How was the experience of working with Khan after a decade since your first film together, ‘Bol’?
It was great. For me, Mahira will always be my first leading lady. Mashallah she’s seen tremendous success in all these years. When I told her that I wanted to do the song with her, she was game for it.
The ladies in your music videos have always been special. Earlier this year, your video, ‘Rafta Rafta,’ featured Sajal Ali, while you’ve also worked with Bollywood stars like Ileana D’cruz in your videos. Do you pick and choose your leading ladies?
Well, Ileana, I think, was the label’s [T-Series] choice. And Sajal was my wife’s recommendation. But ‘Ajnabi’ was definitely made for Mahira only. I had decided that already.
In recent years, you’ve shown a proclivity towards motivational music too, what with qawwalis like ‘Tajdar-e-Haram,’ ‘Wohi Khuda Hai’ and ‘Mustafa Jaan e Rehmat’. Last year, you recited Azaan, too. Can we say that you’re exploring your spiritual side now?
I think I always had a spiritual side, but I never really expressed it. Last year, amid the pandemic, I recited the Azaan because I remembered that whenever an epidemic broke out in the early days of Islam, the people would say the Azaan from their rooftops. This was meant to repel the evil forces of nature.
After Azaan, I was approached by Coke Studio to make something along the same lines, and we produced ‘Asma-ul-Hasana.’
What inspires you to write/compose your songs?
Many things, actually — from good music to good notes, a good conversation, good piece of writing, art work, history etc.
What does making music mean to you at this stage in your career?
For me music is now about exploring new genres. In the beginning, it was about putting my guts out there, then it was about getting accolades and sustaining it, but now it’s about inventing new genres.
Do you follow a riyaz regime?
No. Though, I should. But I guess I never felt the need [for it] because I’ve been doing pop mostly. Riyazat is meant to strengthen your vocals and surs. It’s about how you follow your ustad’s instructions in practising the ragas and perfecting the bandishein. There’s a specified time for each raga. To some extent, all this is important to satisfy the ustads and music connoisseurs who would not forgive you for a single off-note, but today’s music isn’t about riyazat, it’s about creating relatable music. What matters is how beautifully you can do that.
Having said that, I do work hard on my vocals before recording a song as difficult as, for instance, ‘Tajdar-e-Haram.’
In 2014, you had the rare chance to work with Peter Gabriel on ‘Bol Ke Lub’ and ‘Mori Araj Suno’ for the Hollywood film ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. Any international collaboration that your fans should look forward to? Do you have an agent working in other industries for you?
No, I don’t.
I don’t know. Maybe, because I am not the sort of person who’d approach anyone for work. I believe that if they like my work, they will approach me nonetheless. And, by the grace of Allah, that’s how it’s been so far. When I was contacted for ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, I couldn’t believe my luck — they were the same people who had previously recorded [music] with [the late] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sahib. For me it was an incredible part of my journey as a musician. Similarly, [2005 film] ‘Man Push Cart’ came along, and, later, the opportunity to perform on stage with Slash.
Return to acting
You are returning to acting after a gap of 10 years. After ‘Bol’, it seemed that the idea of acting never excited you. What has changed now?
The reason why I did my first film, ‘Bol’, was because I wanted to try myself in acting. Also, [‘Bol’] had a very relevant social message, and on top of that, it was a Shoaib Mansoor project. My catch was that I was getting to do the music for the film. I always knew that it wasn’t the lead role; in fact, it was one of the minor characters with limited screen time. I knew that they had hired me just to add production value to the film. So, when the movie came out, and people loved it, everyone wanted to know why I had accepted such a cameo.
I was never averse to acting. All these years, I was waiting for the right script, as they say. So, when ‘Sang e Mah’ was offered to me, and I read the script, I had this instinctive feeling that this was what I wanted to do. You can say that ‘Sang e Mah’ is in a totally different league. Also, I play the lead [in it]. Besides, Saife Hassan is directing it, and Mustafa wrote it.
Were you thrilled at the prospect of acting in a TV drama?
Honestly, before I read the script [of ‘Sang e Mah’], I was a bit sceptical. I thought ‘why should I do [a TV drama]; mazaa nahi ayega [it won’t be fun]’, things like that.
In all these years, did you get many offers of acting? Maybe, from Bollywood also?
Offers bilkul aati rahi hain [offers were coming in], but they were invariably the boy-meets-girl kind of love stories that don’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t do films or TV for the heck of it, or for money.
Today, if you ask me, I am eager to explore the acting business. When I went to the set [of ‘Sang e Mah’], I didn’t know that the first thing they record is a master shot, then they take your solos, and then the two-cuts etc. I wasn’t exposed to this kind of filming before. I salute all the actors in the business, who literally toil every shooting day, despite not being paid too well.
Would you say that this is also part of you wanting to reinvent yourself?
Were you at any point apprehensive about the fact that ‘Sang e Mah’ has an ensemble cast?
I definitely had butterflies in my stomach. After all, my co-stars are all such seasoned actors. But the best part is that they are all very nice to me, and they have all actually taught me a lot of things. I mean, though they’d say their lines in their own way, and I’d say dialogues in my own way, but just watching them perform is a learning experience. At the end of the day, I look at it as a challenge.
How challenging is the character you play in the drama serial?
Oh, it’s very, very challenging. It’s not a joke at all!
Have you seen the prequel to ‘Sang e Mah’?
Yes, I have, and I liked it a lot. I also liked its OST.
What kind of preparation did this role require of you?
For one thing, I had to unlearn quite a lot of what Atif Aslam knew, and gain fresh knowledge of things. I didn’t go for any orientation sessions, but I started watching a lot of movies, with a critical eye, and I started talking to a lot of actors. I would have long discussions with my director. Main ghuss gya iss mein [I just plunged into it].
Saife Hassan is a wonderful director. He is very helpful. Obviously, like every good director, he has a selfish interest in extracting the best performance from each and every actor on the set. That works for me! There have been times when I requested him for another take because I thought that I could better my previous performance, and he obliged gladly.
Would you say that acting is a ‘specialised’ field?
Definitely. And, like I said before, I have a huge amount of respect for all the actors more than ever.
Have you been following Pakistani TV dramas lately? Do you agree that it has become painfully monotonous, in terms of themes, storylines and characterisations?
I can guarantee one thing: ‘Sang e Mah’ isn’t run of the mill!
Do you have offers from digital platforms?
After I signed on ‘Sang e Mah’, offers began to pour in. Perhaps, everybody thought that Atif Aslam was now open to acting so let’s get hold of him. But I haven’t said yes to anyone, nor do I intend to, because I want to focus on one thing at a time. I want to see if I can pull this one off.
What is the status of ‘Sang e Mah’?
We’ve just begun shooting. It will take a lot of time to finish.
For the longest time, your elder brother, Shahbaz Aslam, managed you. Is he still looking after your career/PR?
No, Shahbaz is not managing me now. He got married, moved abroad, and is into another business. And I don’t have a PR team. I manage my social media accounts by myself.