Singer, songwriter, actor and fashion icon Meesha Shafi has no patience for fluff.
Indeed, everything about this Pakistani-Canadian multi-hyphenate — from her Instagram posts to her public appearances and music ventures — seem to make a strong statement, chiefly to do with women’s lib in an oppressive patriarchal setup, a reality she has faced up-close and personal.
Over the past over three years since she came forward with her allegations against pop star and actor Ali Zafar, Shafi has been embroiled in a legal dispute. It has put her through “relentless abuse and trolling,” she tells Gulf News in an interview. The rumour mill falsely projected her as having lost a coveted project or, worse still, as being convicted of defamation and sent to prison.
But, Shafi insists, she won’t let any of the “baseless propaganda” bring her down. Music and lyrics have afforded her a veritable emotional outlet. Eventually, “those undesirable experiences” have become fodder for her songs.
When she performed the evocative ‘Mein’ at the Pepsi Battle of the Bands (2018), it was evident that she had set out on a journey of self-exploration. Last year, she rapped for the first time in Coke Studio’s ‘Na Tuteya,’ a sassy and spirited Punjabi banger where she co-performed with the likes of Sanam Marvi, Fariha Pervez and Zara Madani. It became an anthem of feminism and has already crossed eight million views on YouTube.
Her latest, the pungently titled ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce,’ is an experiment in hyper-pop genre. Here, again, she celebrates self-love in women as obviating the need for validation from others. Though, she now does it with great fun, its broader theme serves as a well-heeled barb at social snobbery that is a consequence of what she calls “South Asia’s post-colonial identity crisis.”
In ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce,’ Shafi is her most playful, as she bounces off one hilarious line after another, in a crazy mix of Punjabi, English and Urdu — just the kind of lingo used by ‘desis’ from South Asia.
Her powerful vocals are put to effective use by Abdullah Siddiqui, while the video is a feast for the eyes as well as ears. It is largely set on the bed of an over-decorated and illuminated cargo truck where a gaggle of garishly attired models are seen having a blast while grooving to the beat of the song — bizarrely, over a pile of ripe mangoes.
It’s a mad, fun video, with loads of tinsel, colour and flamboyance, courtesy of art director Hashim Ali. Shafi’s own look is worth a watch.
While Awais Gohar directed the music video, interestingly, Shafi’s shots were filmed entirely in Toronto (where she is currently based with her musician hubby, Mehmood Rehman, and their two kids) by Nariman Ansari. Earlier, talking about how the two shoots were synchronised, the singer praised her director “who stayed up on video call at all odd hours to help us match the Lahore lighting while we were setting [it] up in Toronto.”
Here are excerpts from our chat:
Q. Tell us about the inspiration behind ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ and its funky video.
Meesha Shafi: ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ is about gender and identity politics. After experiencing relentless abuse and trolling for speaking my truth and being my authentic self unapologetically, I eventually decided to start trolling the trolls. And comedy is a fantastic tool/medium for having these conversations. I find it to be an effective way of bringing serious conversations to light and bringing serious issues to people’s attention.
The song and video are deliberately packaged in a loud, glossy way. This acts as a lure and draws the viewer into the deeper politics of South Asia’s post-colonial identity crisis. This hyper-pop genre, for which the music is produced by Abdullah Siddiqui, is the perfect sound for the above mentioned intention. The video is a celebration of our cultural heritage and everyone who features in it for what they stand for.
Q. ‘Na Tutteya Ve’ is another uplifting number you recently came up with, especially the rap. Tell us how you conceived it and how much did Coke Studio producer Rohail Hyatt contribute to the song?
MS: ‘Na Tutteya Ve’ was entirely written for me. Later, Rohail decided to have the lineup of the Coke Studio female artists perform it in unison. This was a very strong statement of unity, equality and harmony. I loved that the Coke Studio 2020 premiered with a feminist anthem.
The rap verse was my first time and it was amazing. Hip-hop/rap was born out of the need to reflect on socio political issues, and I believe that it’s a great way to express pertinent themes such as equality in a poetic yet empowering way.
Q. Your brother Faris Shafi is a known rapper. How much do you take after him as a musician?
MS: I don’t think we take after each other musically at all. However, we are both made of the same grit and sum of experiences. I am extremely proud of him; he is by far one of the most prolific lyricists of our time, and certainly the best in South Asian hip-hop today. We share a natural history which is as special and deep as it can be.
As you can see, music and self-expression, socio political commentary and freedom of expression are all very strong themes in both our artistic identity as well as personal lives.
Q. How do you describe your music? Can we say that Meesha Shafi has a signature style as a musician?
MS: My signature style is that I do not subscribe to a style. That is my signature.
Q. What are your views on the state of music industry in Pakistan?
MS: It’s an exciting time for indie artists in particular. I look forwarding to inspiring more female artists to write and produce music. That would make me very happy.
Q. Tell us about your future plans. Should your fans look forward to your return to Pepsi Battle of the Bands as a judge?
MS: As a philosophy, I like to live in the now. I don’t commit to my creative process or professional decisions through the lens of a telescope. Rather, I like to keep a sharp and magnified focus on the present.
Q. Any plans to return to acting — in films and/or TV/web shows?
MS: Yes. I have been going over some brilliant scripts after some time.
Q. You have an ongoing legal battle in your personal life. Is it affecting your professional life? How do you keep yourself motivated when the chips are down?
MS: I’m happy to say that none of that baseless propaganda brings me down anymore. I am fueling my creativity with those undesirable experiences and it gives me great pleasure to turn that confusion and pain into art.
Sometime back, when I was feeling the darkness of it all enveloping me, I sought comfort in the support of my friends and family, my two beautiful children, who have been a source of light and laughter throughout, and my deep spiritual connection with yoga and meditation. I have very strong faith in things always working out for me.
Q. Finally, what is the one lesson life has taught you that you’d forever be grateful for?
MS: I am very grateful for a lot of things. I do consider myself to be immensely blessed. And the most valuable lesson is that gratitude begets more things to be grateful for.