Filmmaker Anam Abbas, who forms one half of the music group, sits down with Instep to discuss their brave debut single ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’, the ideas behind it and not being apologetic for exercising feminism.
Anam Abbas is running late, navigating her way through the nightmarish Karachi traffic that erupts like a volcano you cannot avoid during peak hours of the evening. Nonetheless, apologetic about being slightly late, she arrives with a friend, Rooj, a member of the Garam Anday gang.
I, having axed the idea of conducting this interview in a coffee house due to the loudness that comes with it, invite Anam over instead and she makes no clap trap over it. As I learn through the course of the interview, she is too good-natured to do so.
Anam doesn’t have too much time, but she is not only accommodating but surprisingly forthcoming, funny and bold in what can certainly be deemed a peculiar time. She doesn’t dodge a question but recalls the birth of the song (‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’) as well as everything that has gone into the Garam Anday Project with as many details as she can recollect.
Not many artists make the cover of a national newspaper after releasing just one song – barring some exceptions – but it looks like both Garam Anday Project and their debut release have earned the slot on the basis of pure merit because they are an exception to the rule.
As you watch their video, while hearing the song, the scenes, the punk-meets-grunge sound and the words collectively jump at you, mostly for being (at least partially) truthful. A woman is constantly stared at by a man in a public space as she reads a book; a woman watches her brother being fed ‘boti’ as if he is the lord of the universe; four women being water-boarded, a woman in a face-covering burqa, sitting as a shot of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s agitator Khadim Hussain Rizvi is running on the television set. But this isn’t a bleak video. It’s also one that gives you hope, the greatest thing a song can accomplish and has a narrative. In the same video, we also see shots of the same women, the Garam Anday gang, reacting. The women in the burqa take an axe and literally break the TV, there’s a a shot of Aurat March 2018 graffiti being painted, an image of the late Qandeel Baloch, and the band itself, first holding dandas (sticks) literally and hanging out at public spaces including the beach, eventually running with their dandas. Beyond the anthemic soundscape, the lyrics are as sharp as they come and provoke you each time like a shot of adrenaline.
The video upon several views will emerge as satirical but also truthful, fantastical and comical – at the same time. Combined, the single and the music video for it, has emerged as a strong contender for song of the year, for critics across the board. It takes on toxic masculinity and is a statement against patriarchy that is drowning us as a society.
The birth of ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’
Relaxed and full of laughter, both Anam and Rooj make my job easy when it comes to interviewing an act for the first time.
“I’m a filmmaker and now I have a band,” begins Anam Abbas, with a laugh. As she reminisces, she tells Instep that though she presently lives in Rawalpindi, she lived in Karachi for a while for work.
“Prior to the song, I started my own web series, [called] Ladies Only because the projects I wanted to do weren’t getting financing. I shot two episodes in Islamabad and when I came to Karachi, I shot four episodes and for the last episode I needed girls.”
Anam notes that she knew no one in Karachi at that time. “A friend connected me to Sadia Khatri, who is founder of Girls at Dhabas. Through her, I met this community of women who are artists, who are feminists and who are people I can continue to work creatively with. That became my community in Karachi. For Ladies Only, for the last episode, I was looking for someone to do a cover of Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’.”
In Areeb Kishwar Usmani she found the second half of Garam Anday project. “She is a brilliant musician and an amazing vocalist. I had no musical background but I want to write and sing songs, but very like sort of in my car, when I’m alone, kind of thing.”
Anam had started Ladies Only primarily to do things she wanted to and as she recalls, “I had nobody but myself to execute them; that’s why I started working on music. Areeb just sort of changed everything because she has so much knowledge and just got what we want to do. The idea was to have a band that made good music but had comedy at the same time. Obviously, there’s history of punk music. That’s also angry political music so this was a merger of all that.”
As for the song, it remains a collaborative effort, according to Anam. For instance, in the credits, the lyrics are attributed to the Garam Anday gang. I ask her what it means.
“This was a very collaborative project,” she says. Rooj, a friend who accompanied Anam to this interview is part of the Garam Anday gang. “Rooj, me, Areeb and a bunch of other people would get together at my apartment and whenever there was free time we’d just chill and Areeb’s guitar would be there and we’d come up with the stupidest things we could think of – jokes, profanity and writing at the same time. Everyone had a notebook and we’d be scribbling and it all came together as the lyrics. It says gang in the credit because there were a bunch of contributors, one line came from one person, and I didn’t know how to credit everyone.”
Given that the song is truthful in some ways, satirical in others, I ask Anam whether the single is a satirical effort purely.
“Women don’t get a lot of chances to cuss and express anger. It’s super truthful; there’s truth and the reactions to those very real situations is fantasy,” says Anam about the larger meaning behind the song/video.
Adds Rooj: “The video is made with satire but its fantasy, how you respond in the video. It’s a bit of both.”
Musically, the song is very strong and features Basim Usmani of The Kominas on bass and is produced by the brilliant Haniya Aslam, whom Anam met in the beginning of 2018, and who was thrilled at the idea of the song/band.
When asked how it was put together, says Anam: “Even though I haven’t met them a lot of times and don’t know them too well, a) we got lucky, b) our worldview is similar.”
“It’s a bit blurry in my head now but it was like ‘ok, after I worked with Areeb, I was just like let’s make music together’. She is so talented I was like this is amazing. Those dreams of mine at 12, of being a rockstar, I was like it’s time now,” Anam adds.
“Everything is so collaborative, a friend suggested the name. We were trying to come up with a stupid name and thinking of options and a friend was joking with Bumbu Sauce four years ago and she told him that you guys are making music, you should have a song called ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’ so that’s how the song title was born. The second song, scheduled to come out, InshaAllah, after this single is called ‘Millenial Bahu’. We have demos ready.”
But, as Anam admits, Garam Anday’s debut single exists because no one was in it for profits or just fame.
“It happened because everyone was doing this for the love of the work and not any monetary exchange. I have no desire to make money off this song. In Pakistan, as is, how many musicians/artists make money from their art so it was just a nice working environment,” Anam says with clarity.
When posed with the question that the song will be seen as a feminist anthem and whether that brings a sense of discomfort (given the skewed views of feminism in Pakistan’s larger pop culture scene), Anam responds – despite being annoyed by the question she tells me, and I push her to answer anyway. She says without blinking: “We’ve been calling ourselves a feminist band. I don’t feel the need to apologise for any feminism I exercise.”
As for the music video, it was directed by Anam, but since she had to be in the video, other friends contributed in a couple of places. “People were helpful.”
The deeper sentiments behind
Now that we know how the song and the band were born, I, like most people, am only curious about one thing: the why.
“For a long time, I have detested Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Most people, who were watching what was happening last year, know this. I specifically wanted to release this song/video right now because of TLP and Khadim Rizvi being given so much ground yet again. (Since this interview, news reports allege that TLP has been briefly shutdown with Rizvi detained). It happened three years ago in Islamabad when they shut down the city and everybody was inside their homes. When the KKK or neo-Nazis in the USA, for instance, come out on the streets, there is always another side and they have died in the process. Same is the case with the UK. We are so afraid of them that no one will come out on the streets. Where is the other side? Everybody’s on Twitter? So when the Aasia Bibi verdict came, we could’ve taken three months with the song before releasing it and it is something very small to do but it’s important to do. It’s cathartic, it’s fun, it’s good to see women who don’t give a s***. We laughed during the shoot.”
– Pictures copyright: Garam Anday Project