Rock stars are rarely human. They’re more often creatures of odd behavior, reckless beings that thrive on rebellion whether it’s sex, drugs and rock n roll, tattered jeans and objectionable t-shirts or general misdemeanor. That’s their appeal. Things are ‘visibly’ more civilized for rock musicians in Pakistan but even then you expect to encounter an uncomfortable level of arrogance and attitude when you walk into a rocker’s zone.
Umair Jaswal’s room, however, smelt like a Hollister outlet. Dressed in fashionably ripped jeans and a serene aqua shirt, white high ankle sneakers and a couple of trendy leather bands and beads twisted around his wrist, he was more model than musician. You almost expected to hear the surf and sea gulls keowing in the background. Certainly more approachable than your average celebrity, Jaswal also appeared to be more human than most rock stars. Suffering dust allergies and therefore a disappointingly nasal voice (disappointing because it’s always interesting to connect the voice to the music you’ve been hearing) he apologized and explained how Karachi climate always did this to him, which is why he always flew in a night before a performance or recording and got it over with before the allergies could attack. Moving to Karachi, I guess, wouldn’t be the best career choice for him.
Not that his work is limited to any one city. Born and raised in Islamabad, Umair Jaswal is one of seven siblings: six brothers and one sister. Two of the brothers – Uzair and Yasir – we know and the rest of his siblings are happily settled all over the world. Umair started his career as vocalist for former band Qayaas and found the higher road to fame with Coke Studio. There was the Qayaas debut with Atif Aslam, ‘Charkha Naulakha’ and then there was the conflicting ‘Sammi Meri Waar’ with Quratulain Baloch; conflicting because of the love-hate relationship people had with it.
“Nothing was so bad,” Jaswal laughed when I asked him how he dealt with the wrath of the people. “If anything, there was the hatred of the ‘keyboard warriors’ and I have never seen one of them come up to me in person and say anything bad. I’ve seen nothing but love in reality. Social network is like a world in which reality doesn’t exist.”
Interestingly, last year Jaswal signed up for a bigger form of fantasy when he auditioned for TV serial Mor Mahal and was given the lead role. From rock star he transformed to Nawab Asif Jahan and traded his jeans for angarkhas, turbans and jewellery.
Why, I asked, did most of Pakistan’s musicians end up on television?
“I had no aspirations of being an actor,” Jaswal explained. “I had been getting calls from all channels for the past four years but I never wanted to act because honestly speaking, I could not relate to anything on TV. Even when they called me for Mor Mahal I refused at first. I had no aspirations to act. Sarmad Khoosat was the first reason I was interested. Then Sarmad Sehbai was a plus. I agreed to audition.”
This was early 2015. Qayaas had dismantled and Jaswal was thinking of pursuing his career as a geophysicist; he has a Masters degree in geosciences and his father is a geoscientist so he tends to gravitate to the subject, pardon the pun. However, after incessant persuasion from GEO TV he agreed to audition very half-heartedly. Two cups of tea and a couple of cigarettes later he was offered the lead.
“I went back and thought about it,” he remembered. “I’m blessed to have great friends like Bilal Lashari and my brothers and I discussed it with my close knit people. I thought I could do films but not television simply because I could not relate to TV. But I agreed to do this for the experience. I did the two-week workshop that everyone did, that taught us acting, dialect and then they sent me this huge script. My Urdu is good but even then it wasn’t easy.”
Jaswal’s only acting experience at that time was Yalghaar, which he considered a very safe place because it was an action film with very limited dialogues. There was no pressure to perform because he knew that Shaan, Humayun Saeed and Adnan Siddiqui had the actual responsibility to act. Mor Mahal was different and initially very challenging.
“When they gave me those costumes I was like, ‘shit, my fans are going to kill me for these clothes and this jewellery!’” he admitted. “It all looked like stuff women wear. But it boiled down to my new year’s resolution: I would not say NO to anything, I had resolved after Qayaas.”
Mor Mahal came with a unique set of challenges. Umair was not allowed to watch anything remotely similar to the serial; he was forbidden to watch Mera Sultan because Sarmad wanted him to bring individuality to the Nawab’s character.
“This couldn’t be Umair Jaswal,” he told himself. “It had to be Nawab Asif Jahan and even my vocal tone changed. I scaled it down. My body language changed. I worked really hard and it paid off. I memorized the script and I observed and listened. And Sarmad (Khoosat) allowed me to play the character; he trusted me.”
The second challenge was staying in that frame of mind for that duration. Film and TV projects aren’t usually so long and Jaswal had worked so hard to adapt to the Nawab’s mold; he stayed fit and grew his beard to a certain length and style, refusing to use prosthetics. Staying in the Nawab’s mold meant not performing as a proverbial rocker.
“I had signed up for a concert before Mor Mahal’s shooting began and I had to honour it,” he recalled one interesting anecdote. “So I had to leave shooting for the concert and performed in front of 70,000 people. When I came back my energy had changed completely. I was not Nawab Asif Jahan; I was Umair Jaswal. My tempo changed completely. Sarmad told me that this is the exact reason why I couldn’t afford to perform while I was shooting and I took that as great advice. I stayed away from it thereon and it helped. So far I’m reading good reviews and let’s hope people feel the same way after 45 episodes.”