Instep Today

Riding Solo

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 10, 20

Life is a Highway

Singer-songwriter, lyricist and actor Umair Jaswal’s wedding to prominent actor Sana Javed is news that became trending topic on Twitter this week. Though obviously pressed for time, in between nuptials and everything that comes with it, Umair kept his commitment for this interview and spoke straight from the heart.

Our story begins, however, not with his marriage (sorry, folks) but with the Easypaisa-backed travel series, Raahi, which Umair hosted and wrote with ace director Zeeshan Parwez, helming as director. Umair is also the creator and producer.

The show is described on Jaswal’s website as “a journey of dreams, discoveries & many destinations”. With his motorbike in tow, Raahi took one year to direct and explore various territories and offered musical segues. In terms of corporate-backed shows, Raahi has come across as a breath of fresh air.

“I ventured into writing; it’s my first time writing for a project. I usually write my own lyrics. The transition has been interesting,” Umair began talking about it.

Raahi, he admits, is very close to his heart. “It was conceived in 2017 while I was riding somewhere up in the mountains. When Zeeshan came onboard, we tried some writers who could write for us.” But soon it became clear that the words had to come from Umair. “We, then, decided that I would write it; I recorded something that came from the heart and sent it to Zeeshan. He loved it.”

I do wonder how Umair managed to pull off Raahi while being a full-time musician? Raahi was close enough to his heart that he knew that it meant losing out on some projects to make room for his 3-year-old dream as it culminated into a reality. “I knew that if we did this right, we would be in a very good position with the platform; it can be something people can look forward to for years to come.”

For Umair, the best part of the show was connecting with people. “It’s the heart, essence and soul of the show. The show is not about me but the people who were featured on it. In all honesty, they brought such beautiful perspective to the whole thing. People in Pakistan are beautiful. We have gorgeous landscapes and we have a history but there are also incredible human beings who have equally incredible stories to tell. We wanted to share those stories and those people with the world.”

Visiting various places in Pakistan via Raahi also gave Umair a richer perspective. “I think people should try and make some time and get out and that’s the whole idea: to get lost to find yourself again.”

For Raahi to really work, perhaps the most important thing was to clear out all preconceived notions. It was a learning experience, a great one, and his perspective about the people changed completely.

“I went with an open heart. The people of various territories surprised me. The people of Balochistan changed the way I think. Balochistan is untapped; it’s the most beautiful place in Pakistan. And we have so many misconceptions about Balochistan that are just wrong, especially that the people are unpatriotic. They are more patriotic than anyone else I’ve met throughout the journey. We’re told it’s a dangerous place and you’re not welcome there but it is completely the opposite. They’re hospitality will put your hospitality to shame. You’d be surprised how they go out of the way even with the little they have. People have suffered a lot and it has changed the way I think. There is a truth out there for all of us. My truth can be different from yours but we have to go out to find it.”

Raahi, Umair Jaswal’s baby, didn’t shoot from the hip.

“We had a research department; we had to be historically accurate, factually correct and while you can never be 100 per cent right, it had to be done. I learned so much along the way. You can’t control the show while you’re on the road. It’s a show that writes itself. I was taking notes and recording audio-logs.” Umair watched the footage, took his notes, audio and written and so came the writings.

The Way I Am

Coming from a big family that includes six brothers and one sister, Umair confirms that he is related to Lux Style Award-nominated Saba Jaswal, who is married to his brother, Yasir Jaswal.

At 32, Umair Jaswal is also sorting things to release what will be his first solo album. As Raahi began, Umair confesses that some of the music (from a solo album that was made last year) transitioned into the show. “We were trying to find a way to release it when Raahi happened and some of the music was released through it. We will be releasing more music through Raahi and write music designed just for the show,” reveals Umair.

He further notes about a solo album release, “We’re in a very weird time because of Covid-19. We haven’t been able to play live shows this year. I believe in releasing music when you can take it live; the kind of music I play is something you mostly feel and enjoy when it’s played live. So, for me to release an album right now and not be able to perform live or be on the road with a live audience is equal to wasting these songs away. That’s why we are not releasing the album right now; I don’t know what the future of the solo album will be; we really don’t know because we’re seeing a second wave (coronavirus) coming back. When will public events become safe and possible?”

As Umair considers potential solutions to releasing his ready-to-release debut album given coronavirus, in the meantime, he will be releasing more singles via Raahi and platforms such as Coke Studio, where he appeared last year with an original single to great success.

Video Killed The Radio Star

For someone like Umair Jaswal, there is also the field of acting. In Pakistan, it is not the golden age of TV but television is the most important aspect of pop culture. It beams in our homes and the number of YouTube hits a drama generates (more often than not) surpasses new music videos from even established artists.

Umair Jaswal, who is not a stranger to acting, took a U-turn after starring as the male lead in Sarmad Khoosat-directed period drama Mor Mahal that ran on Geo and took a nosedive upon arrival. We haven’t seen him on TV since then. Why? After all, it is a safer bet than music, particularly at a time when musicians such as Jaswal feel the industry needs to operate based on a set of guidelines - in terms of consumption, live/audio engineering, the business of music publishing and the rights of artists.

“This is a tricky question,” laughs Umair. “After Mor Mahal, I was offered 28-29 projects and I couldn’t do any one of them. Not to take away from any of those projects; they were beautiful projects that did well but I couldn’t see myself playing those characters. Also, I really need to be involved (on a spiritual level) with all the projects that I do.”

“It’s not just work for me; it is something very deep-rooted. It has to be an expression of my soul and my heart. I see television as a medium for women. Dramas are written for women and the ones written for men are productions that are owned by men: big actors and the projects are tailor-made for them and that’s why those projects shine. Other than that, I honestly see very little work that leaves an impact or at least for me but that hasn’t stopped me from doing other creative ventures and Raahi is one of them.”

He’s also looking at three scripts for the coming year and though excited about all three, it also depends on his schedule.

Taking a shift from all other questions, we discuss the predicament of life in the limelight. Umair and Sana are married but speculation about their relationship has been in existence long before that. Privacy, however, is sacrosanct to Jaswal.

“There are a lot of speculations about my personal life and my marriage but I would say that it’s something that I’ve kept personal for a very long time. I try to keep my personal relations very private. Everything else is for the people to enjoy and be engaged with but personal life is personal life. I like that barrier!”

Looking back at his humble beginnings, from the rock group Qayaas to now, Umair concludes that “Qayaas was a time in my life when I was very angry. I was politically charged and in my twenties. I wanted to talk about things that I really wanted to say but as you grow older, you learn from your mistakes and you do make a lot of mistakes. The success is in seeing the bigger picture; it was me talking against the system and there was social-political commentary going on and the music was very aggressive. But as I matured, my soundscape changed and went through many sounds, so I can’t say one particular genre is my genre. The sound of Umair Jaswal goes beyond one genre. Acceptance came to me, I think. The perspective of love, music and life changes in a decade and that’s how I’ve changed. I really believe that when I look back at that Umair Jaswal, he wanted to change the world by saying all these things but the Umair Jaswal of today wants to make a change by changing himself. Change begins with us, if we let it. Raahi is my metamorphosis after so many years of being in the industry. I’m grateful and instead of looking outwards, I’ve started looking inwards. When I see the world differently, I say things differently and they connect on a different level.”