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The storyteller

Azaan Sami Khan wants to tell stories, through various mediums, from music to writing and as an actor. In this interview, he tells Instep about his ultimate goal. Read on to find out…

The storyteller

Azaan Sami Khan, the son of Zeba Bakhtiar and the very controversial Adnan Sami Khan, is a young polymath. Having written the screenplay and directed the music of Superstar and the music of Parey Hut Love, he is the most sought after name in film music right now. Azaan has also composed the soundtrack of the upcoming and highly anticipated drama serial, Ehd-e-Wafa.

Azaan – as well as the cast and musicians like Ali Tariq and Jimmy Khan (featured on PHL soundtrack) – have already arrived at Asim Raza’s Vision Factory Films office in Karachi, when and where we meet.

We dive straight into his relationship with Mahira Khan, cast in both Eid films, and which appears to be quite special. Azaan admits he shares a special relationship with the star.

“She’s a big part of my life; I have great love and respect for her,” begins Azaan on this unusually hot afternoon. “She saw whatever in me before anybody else did. She was the first person I played my music to, outside my family, when I was working on Superstar years ago. She heard it and she was the one who pushed me to pursue music seriously. I’ll always be grateful to her because she believed in me before even I did. That will always hold a very, very special place.”

A mild observation of Azaan says he should be an ego maniac or arrogant at the least but he is neither. He’s just a 20-something with a lot to offer to the film and music world. But Azaan didn’t get here because of his famous parents, or nepotism – we’ll get to that – alone. He has talent, merit and passion that played a role.

Both PHL and Superstar released at the same time and both are doing well. If the credit belongs to the actors, directors, crew and cast, some part of that success is due to Azaan’s unforgettable music in both films.

We discuss PHL first, which writer Imran Aslam has described to me as “my big fat Pakistani wedding” with nuanced messages but mostly a film that entertains people.

As music director, Azaan can take credit for PHL alone but he doesn’t.

“A lot of people worked on this film; Asim Raza (sahib) has written most of the lyrics,” he quickly interjects. Most curious about the eastern instruments and how they are encoded in PHL music, Azaan says that it is a misconception that instruments like the shehnai, sarangi, sitar, rubab, dholak and so on are old-school instruments, which is leading to their extinction.

He adds: “For me, the thing was (a), they are not old-school and (b), when we talk about acoustic sounds, we think playing a guitar would make it one. But those are also acoustic instruments; I wanted to get a cinematic sound that was our own even though by our own, they are equally India’s instruments. They’re subcontinental.”

‘Morey Saiyaan’, which Azaan co-composed with Zeb Bangash for PHL, features Mahira Khan and Sheheryar Munawar but the song is not your average love song.

“Zeb (Bangash) is one of my favourite singers in Pakistan at the moment and the scary thing was that it wasn’t initially on the list of songs we were going to do. Such songs are iconic songs. For me, it was scary because melodically it was so simple and (Sanjay) Bhansali saab has had such songs; essentially court songs and a courtesan performs. And all such songs are melodically very simple; it was important to keep the melody simple yet retain grandeur. And the easiest thing is to complicate it so that required a lot of work before the final melody. But I’m happy Zeb collaborated on it and brought a lot to the table. The idea was to make a song that reaches an iconic level.”

As a music director, Azaan notes that making music for a film requires casting in a sense. Someone with a good voice may not fit the moment where the song enters the narrative. For example, for the song ‘Behkna Na’, many singers auditioned but it was the young Ali Tariq (making his playback film debut) on whom Azaan settled. He also wanted a fresh voice and not one that had been featured in multiple films in recent times.

From our conversation, it is obvious that with PHL, a larger-than-life film, and Superstar, an intense romantic drama, Azaan’s aim was to create lasting music for both. Minus one song from Superstar (‘Dharak Bharak’) and minus one song from Parey Hut Love (‘Balma Bhagora’), Azaan Sami Khan as music director has lived up to his aim, whether he knows it or not. And for someone so young, tackling two distinctive films, that is an unfathomable achievement. If young people like Azaan Sami Khan continue to make music, Pakistani film music will become competitive in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, within the industry and beyond.

Bilal Ashraf, Mahira Khan and Azaan Sami Khan promoting Superstar abroad.

Bilal Ashraf, Mahira Khan and Azaan Sami Khan promoting Superstar abroad.

We continue to talk music, before Azaan opens up about his upbringing.

Your Wildest Dream

Born to Zeba Bakhtiar and Adnan Sami Khan (with the latter opting to become an Indian), though Azaan has spent time with his father in India and recalls that he has friends there, he chooses to work in Pakistan and calls it home. What he shares with his father – when it comes to political views for instance – remains between them but he is clear about his Pakistani identity.

Though the term nepotism has been attached to Azaan, he considers it a privilege, a blessing and admits there are those who struggle to get a foot in the door so he not only acknowledges but thinks of it as a responsibility that he takes seriously. Superstar and Parey Hut Love is what he has done with that privilege as people remain entertained. And he’s not done yet.

Moving back to Azaan’s work, in addition to making music for Parey Hut Love and Superstar, Azaan has also written the screenplay of Superstar – a film which has earned its protagonists the compliment of performing to their fullest as well as good reviews.

Over the course of years, Azaan has learnt to edit, produced a film before turning to music direction as well as writing and is now heading towards the big screen as an actor in an upcoming film. With so many aspects of filmmaking before him, I ask him, which one is the closest to his heart.

“My love is for storytelling,” he answers. “I’m very passionate about storytelling and having grown up around filmmakers and storytellers; what fascinates me is how each area contributes to the process. Whenever I watch films, I realize that it’s completely a team effort. It is not about one person shining; it’s about several things coming together to make one thing solid. To me those aspects are exciting very much and for me it’s about how I could contribute in my own small way to each one of those.”

“In Superstar I didn’t write alone; I had incredible dialogue writers, script doctors and honestly, the screenplay of Superstar was an idea that I wanted to pen down a certain way and because I was doing songs for it, it was very organic. I’d have a tune in my mind, a melody that could translate into a scene or a moment so the screenplay was born like that.”

Coming back to the question of what is his focus at present – given his many skills – Azaan admits it is to be a performer.

“It’s not like I want to work as a screenwriter only,” he says. “An idea comes, whether it is vivid or comes through a song, a melody or score or just an idea. I put it down but my focus, right now, and most of my life, has been to develop myself into a performer, a composer and an actor.”

As for comparisons between the music of the two films – Parey Hut and Superstar, it’s something Azaan had known because both were coming at the same time.

“My biggest worry, personally, was not about comparisons between the two because they both came from a very different place. PHL is maybe a more developed album because I made it after Superstar. PHL work was more recent; Superstar’s compositions were made a couple of years ago and fine-tuned recently. With PHL, I find less rough edges technically whereas I see an innocence to Superstar’s music. Superstar is more personal for me; PHL is more growth.”

Azaan admits to the fear and feeling of letting so much music out of his system, in one go.

“I’ve lived with some of these compositions for years and they have been a big part of my life; I felt empty in a good way, which happens when that much music comes out in one go. I now feel that when I sit down and compose, it’s coming from a very new place because I exhausted whatever thoughts and feelings I had that went into these albums (including Parwaaz Hai Junoon). I haven’t really developed that skill set yet where I can purely compose just from a place of the project; I compose from a personal place so I do feel a little empty; it’s also very exciting because I want to see what I do next and what it sounds like. But I do feel a certain chapter has closed.”

On a final note, talking about the privacy around his children, Azaan admits that he has chosen to keep his personal life as private as possible.

“I grew up, not in the time of social media, but there was its own way of spotlight that this is this person’s kid. It affected me in different ways, in school or when I would go out because people would recognize and realize that he is this person’s son; you just start being treated much nicer. And people are nicer and kinder to you and while I’m grateful for it, I do think that in my teen years I had taken it for granted and I just don’t want them (my children) to feel that, and it’s my duty as a father to protect them as much as I can until they reach an age where they understand. Now it’s not even a one-generation thing; it is a two-generation thing. I don’t want them to get affected in a negative way where they start taking things for granted and I want them to develop as good people with good values and after that, they can choose what they want to do.”

Maheen Sabeeh

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