It’s not the first time that he has been on the front page and it certainly isn’t the first time he’s made headlines. In a country with few celebs and even fewer stars, it’s quite common to repeatedly find yourself in papers. But when veteran actor Javed Sheikh referred to him as the biggest star in the house at the music launch of Actor in Law recently, he wasn’t just being courteous. Atif Aslam is, by all means, Pakistan’s biggest superstar. It was evident at the music launch in Karachi where a hysterical crowd of gatecrashers could be seen, roaring, pushing and shoving one another just to catch a glimpse of him, be it on their phone cameras or for those late night dreams. All this is enough evidence to justify his star status.
However, despite being Pakistan’s most celebrated artist, Atif comes across as an outsider. It could be a detrimental effect of becoming a global superstar early on in life or because most of his work revolves around Bollywood, or just the fact that he is not a self-promotional, self-obsessed, social media fanatic like a chunk of our new age celebs. Whatever the reason, Atif is famously private and for the most part, inaccessible. After all, it took almost two years and a certified blockbuster for makers Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza to finally muster up the courage and ask Atif to lend his vocals for their next film. If Atif didn’t have the desire to meet their cast member Om Puri one fine day, God knows how long the two would have had to wait for the moment to arrive.
“When I found out that Om Puri was in town, I wanted to meet him right away because I am a huge fan. There I met Fizza and at the very first instance she told me that she wants to complain about something,” he shared the details of their meeting with the press. “I asked her what the issue was and she said that she had messaged me to sing a song for Na Maloom Afraad through someone but I never got back to her. And though I actually did not receive that message, I decided to change her perception right there and then.”
In that respect, waiting a good 40 minutes to interview him seemed like no big deal (to their credit, the PR was apologetic). Frankly, I was prepared that I was not going to get much out of him other than a command performance and was even warned of getting drearily generic answers. Stars can be imposing and peculiarly silent but then one can be forgiven for expecting a completely different person because none of the above happened.
Atif Aslam looked sharp, almost photo-ready, dressed in an ink blue suit, an expensive, crisp white shirt and puffed up, slicked back hair. His voice was characteristic of a mysterious charm and particularly soft, so much so that I had to control myself from putting the recorder close to his mouth and the fact that he chose to stand and answer my questions didn’t help my case either. That said, in the short time that he managed to spare, Atif was open and forthright about his take on the music industry, awards and more. His approach was far more casual than expected as if he had escaped all affectations that come as part and parcel of fame and fortune – even a penchant for shining, sparkling trophies.
“I’ve been in the field for 12 years and awards don’t matter to me anymore,” Atif responded to ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ being snubbed even as a nomination at the LSAs this year. His reiteration of Ghulam Farid Sabri’s iconic qawwali attracted significant flak from qawwali puritans but still got over a million hits within a day of its release. The song went on to become the biggest hit in Coke Studio’s history and made it to every playlist in Pakistan and beyond. Yet it failed to get a nod in the LSA’s Song of the Year category. While this may have left Atif fans in frenzy, it seemed to have done nothing to make Atif feel even the slightest bit irritated.
“I’ve been nominated a gazillion times in India and in Pakistan. But if it’s your presence that matters for getting an award at the award show, then it holds no credibility for me. It is more rewarding when fans tell me that they truly understood the meaning of ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ when they heard me sing it; when Javed Bashir calls and tells me that he heard it playing at his Hindu friend’s place; when even a non-Muslim can relate to it. These awards don’t matter, the real award is to be able to create something for yourself,” he continued.
As far as creating something is concerned, there have long been whispers of an album being in the works and the fact that it was his biggest complain from the local music industry – the lack of opportunities in it to create an album – right at the start of our conversation (“I wish… I wish we get the opportunity to release albums like Jal Pari,” he had said), one wonders what’s been holding him back all this while. “I am ready with it but it’s a lot of work. It’s like having your own baby that you don’t want to share with people just like that. You really want to make sure that it’s marketed properly and that people have the right access to it, which is why I am waiting on it but I won’t let it stale.”
Meanwhile, Atif has had a full plate with Bollywood songs that range from the usual romantic ballads like ‘Tere Sang Yaara’ from Akshay Kumar’s Rustom to a soulful acoustic for Tiger Shroff’s A Flying Jatt. We’ve also seen him on Coke Studio on and off, over the years, but after delivering one of his most prolific performances on the show last year, Atif has decided to sit this season out and watch it turn over a new leaf from afar. Unlike the usual format, this season will see multiple producers working with artists on at least a song each – a kind of format that can be credited to ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’s’ creation. In what was a telling revelation at the time, Atif told media that the song was co-produced by him and Shiraz Uppal and not Strings.
“Last season, Shiraz and I co-produced ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’. I had the chord formations and structure that I shared with Shiraz, who added the final touches to it. I then made Strings listen to it. They initially wanted to change it but the version they came up with wasn’t as appealing to me, or, I felt, would’ve been to my audience, so we decided to go ahead with the original one,” he explained the scenario whilst reflecting on the upcoming season and the question that lingers on many a mind that is it finally time for Coke Studio to reach it’s inimitable end. “I don’t know if they picked up the idea for the season from there or drew inspiration from the Indian Coke Studio but I do know that Bilal and Faisal have a good sense of music so this season should be particularly interesting. Also, while it’s sad, Amjad Sabri’s posthumous appearance is what’s going to make it really worth it. It’s the edge they have this season. That said, the next season of the show should probably be its last season.”
Looking back at his illustrious career, Atif sure has a lot to smile about. He has lived it all – a touch of paranoia and anxiety as an emerging artist, flourishing in front of the audience to settling down into a relaxed, established celebrity father and son who doesn’t let off his guard too soon and maintains just the right amount of privacy. He has a fan following that outnumbers many of his contemporaries’ by a mile and he has remained true to his skill set unlike others who started moonlighting as actors when it all got a bit too challenging. If you’re wondering about the many rumours that surround his acting stint, Atif hasn’t signed any project as of yet. What could he possibly want more?
“The point is not to get the fame or the publicity, I have enough of that already. The point is to outdo yourself, break your own boundaries and do something that you’ve never done before,” he pointed out. “This is exactly why I chose to do ‘Dil Dancer Hogaya’. I not only wanted to contribute to Pakistani cinema but also do something unique and interesting. The song offered me that, it was quite different from the usual romantic love songs and it intrigued me to be a part of it. Also because it’s related to Michael Jackson in more than one way.”