Electric blue is the colour of the evening inside the groovy soundstage that has been set up at Studio 166 in Korangi industrial area, Karachi. A pantheon of young musicians have just got their breath back.
At the close of the recording of the auditions episodes of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Pakistan’s latest reality show, eight bands have made it to the finals from a pool of 30-plus contestants, who will now battle it out for the big win.
As the show enters its first episode of the ‘real challenge’ on August 13, the audience — which is believed to fall in the 18-40 demographic — will be included in the voting process.
Up until now, judging the entries was only the prerogative of the show’s expert panel which included a bespectacled, spruced-up Fawad Khan and an even-keeled Meesha Shafi, both extremely popular musicians-turned-actors.
Farooq Ahmad, former vocalist of the alternative rock band Aaroh, joined them briefly during the audition stage. The other stars expected to serve as judges in future episodes are pop prince Atif Aslam and former Vital Signs bassist Shahi Hasan. Singer, model and actor Ayesha Omar hosts the show.
Pepsi BOTB is, hence, powered by mega star wattage. Fans of Khan, in particular, are delighted to see him back on-screen, having last seen him in Karan Johar’s 2016 blockbuster Ae Dil Hai Mushkil; if you discount a few random appearances in a deodorant commercial here and a cola ad there that is.
Ironically, these stars are also the prime reason why BOTB is facing criticism from different quarters. The general consensus is that none of the judges chosen for the job qualify, barring Aslam who alone has been making music consistently over the years. While Khan had a brief stint as a vocalist in Entity Paradigm (or EP), a metal-rock band of the early-to-mid 2000s, Ahmad left Aaroh many moons ago, and Shafi is best remembered for her sporadic Coke Studio acts, chiefly Jugni, which aired in 2010. Hasan is involved in the production of jingles only.
According to Frieha Altaf, the CEO of Catalyst & Catwalk, the company managing the show, these celebrities were brought on board because of their popularity and appeal among the youth. Besides, both Khan and Ahmad are BOTB alums from season one, aired in 2002. Ahmad’s Aaroh won the title by a small margin over Khan’s EP. So, it’s more like a homecoming for them. “Fawad Khan is the heartthrob,” she tells Gulf News tabloid!. “He is also the hope and motivation factor for current contestants. Atif and Meesha are well-known musicians. Shahi was associated with the show previously also.”
Altaf reveals that the stars shall also be performing solo in the show, which should be an added attraction for the audience.
About the format of BOTB, Altaf says there are eight episodes, of 60 minutes each; two for auditions, five for the shortlisted teams, and a grand finale.
Andrew Bromley, a British director of photography, has been flown in especially to shoot the show with an ambitious 14-camera setup. He is joined by Nick Collier whose credits as DoP include X-Factor. The show is helmed by Saad Bin Majeed of Green Chillies, who earlier directed Pakistan Idol.
The initial two episodes, which were focused on auditions, have received a mixed reaction from the audience. Whereas #PepsiBattleoftheBands has been trending on social media, with most people gushing about Khan’s looks, there are clearly those who have found the show boring, some even hinting that the singing competition shows fatigue. London-based Pakistani journalist Fifi Haroon’s tweet read, “Just saw the first episode… Hmm......Who’s directing this,” which got Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to comment tongue-in-cheek, “That hmmm sounds ominious!!” Fifi added, “It’s bland, listless.”
Later, she elaborated, “Poorly edited. No proper back stories so no empathy with bands. Various elements shot in total isolation. Doesn’t gel, no lustre…”
The critics largely blame it on the stale format. Talking to Gulf News tabloid!, noted cultural critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha says, “Pepsi is 10 years too late. When the last season [of BOTB] went on air, the reality was quite different; we still had underground and mainstream music happening at the time. From mid-2000s on, the bands started to whittle away for all sorts of reasons — political, social, and security. Besides, today, we are talking about a different generation — not even the millennials but generation Z, the kids who were born in early 2000s or late 1990s. The dynamics of understanding and listening to music have changed all around the world. No one listens to albums or CDs now; they listen to singles and stream videos. BOTB, in my opinion, has failed to capture the imagination of this new generation.”
He comes down hard on the architects of the show: “Pepsi and Pakistani music go back a long time, so I am surprised that they picked up an idea that is done to death. Even in the West, the charm of reality shows like American Idol has been exhausted. Given the kind of investment that they have made, Pepsi could’ve come up with something more original.”
“It’s good that they are trying to revive the culture of bands, but I don’t see it happening. If you look at the auditions’ episodes, the quality of bands is pretty bad. My fear is that often the worst contestants end up as stars. I don’t want to discourage the players but my point is it will take time before we can create bands like Vital Signs,” he added.
Aslam agrees on the fact that the music scene in Pakistan has been missing “for the past 8-9 years” but he is hopeful that “the kids who weren’t encouraged to make music shall start doing music now. And if another season of Battle of the Bands happens, they’ll be able to participate in it.”
For critics, it is hard to predict BOTB’s success, also because this is traditionally the season of Coke Studio, the one music show that is known to log the highest ratings every year around this time in Pakistan. As Paracha puts it, “If they think they are producing an anti-thesis to CS, that won’t work.”
Again, Aslam is sure that “any comparison with any other music show would be unfair, because here we are dealing with amateur bands.”
When asked as to what kind of a band is he rooting for as a judge on the show, Aslam says, “I haven’t set myself a hard-and-fast rule; I am looking at a band that sounds good and unique and is also versatile, even within the genre they play in, be it rock or metal.
“I don’t think there’s a Simon Cowell on the panel,” he chuckles. “The show’s just started, and we’ve to rebuild our music industry. So, I am not really criticising anyone for the sake of criticism; I am giving them positive feedback and inputs, and I am trying to correct them and help them polish up their act.”
Meanwhile, the eight lucky finalists are gearing up for their first major performance this Sunday. Award-winning designer Ismail Farid has been hired to groom and style them for the night. Our fingers are crossed.
—Usman Ghafoor is a journalist based in Lahore.