Atif Aslam talks to Instep about how his life has evolved around work and family and how important it is to maintain a distance between the two
Atif Aslam, by all descriptions, is Pakistan’s most celebrated artist today.
It’s a simple case of mathematic. With a massive following of over 18 million on Facebook, 466K on twitter and more visibility than any single artist in the country on Instagram, where 791,000 fans trail him, he is collectively the most followed celebrity on social media. In fact, his popularity equals the rest of the music industry, combined. And that’s just cyberspace. The constellation of his concerts shine all over the world, from popular destinations like India, Dubai and the USA but also places like Lagos and Budapest, where very few Pakistanis have ever performed on such a scale as he has. He’s in Pakistan today but is flying out to Los Angeles at 5am tomorrow morning, straight after concert, on a tour that has seen him perform live in eight mammoth shows in nine days.
Settled, calm and successful, he no longer carries the restless energy that he did ten years ago. He has ‘been there and done that,’ he refers to his initial hunger for fame. And he talks of newfound fame as something that scars and scorches and something that he doesn’t ever want to go back to. That’s all in the past. Atif may be on a journey to unparalleled heights - who knows where life takes him next - but he’s already managed to assimilate unprecedented stardom for a Pakistani artiste and he’s aware of it. It’s obvious in his lazy smile and the confidence of his casual posture. It’s more than that, obviously when he pelts out one hit song after the other on stage.
We meet in his hotel room, two hours before he is scheduled to perform and while Atif loves to talk, he keeps his voice low and controlled, to protect those precious chords that have carried him on to where he is today. He nurtures a sense of spirituality beyond his rock star status; when he talks, it appears he is grateful for his success but at the same time aware of his abilities that have allowed him this success. He epitomizes the oxymoron of being an arrogant saint, if there ever was one.
And ‘Tajdar e Haram,’ an ode to the Prophet (P.B.U.H.), was the biggest hit of 2015.
"It was a huge thing for me," we begin talking. "It felt like God really wanted me to do it. Sabri sung it so well a long time back and it was a very tough job because the qawwali was 21 minutes long and we cut it down to ten minutes. Bilal and Faisal were worried about how we would air it so I told them to let me make my version of it. I compiled it, keeping in mind that we will get criticized for it but I really don’t care about that. All by the grace of God it went well and it’s the most requested song today."
‘Tajdar e Haram’ is the most requested song, even beyond Pakistan. It plays in Hindu households all over India and in Lahore, Atif shares, there are young Christian boys who work at the petrol pump he frequents; they begin their day by playing the qawali out loud. What does he take away from it?
"Long time back, before I even started off with my career, I had my share of hard times in my life and school days," Atif reminisces. "For me the Durud Shareef was one thing that used to help me get out of every problem, petty to huge; I had full faith in it. I’m not able to practice so much but I am a very religious person at heart."
It’s this reverence that Atif carries on stage; deeply imbedded beneath the impresario that incites screams from hysterical fans is a man who has found confidence in his faith and spirituality. And he’s possessive of ‘Tajdar e Haram’, "reciting" it only when the audience is sober enough to give it the respect it deserves.
"I am very possessive about this qawwali," he agrees, smiling.
Atif is also very possessive about his private space. He may be the focal point of social media obsession in Pakistan, but he has clearly put a distance between professional and personal spaces.
"Why would I want to put up pictures of myself going to the bathroom, having breakfast," he asks? "There should be distance and some personal space. I try to interact with my fans on Instagram by replying to them personally and I post funny things on Facebook as well. I think social media is just a tool to update people about yourself and to introduce new things. If I post something on social media after 10 days I make sure it’s entertaining as opposed to posting something inane everyday."
Atif is wary of social media, careful to use it as opposed to being used by it and he feels the same way about the industry at large. People believe Atif Aslam is inaccessible and for most part of it, unaffordable. He laughs at the innuendo of a 10-million rupee demand for performing at a private concert.
"Yeah that’s true," he says in a way that it’s impossible to decipher whether he’s being serious or sarcastic. "But look, I have managed to get the music season back in action. Look at the Coke Studio season this year," he refers to ‘Tajdar e Haram’ and Mai Dhai, who he holds in very high regard. Just recently, at the success concert of Ho Mann Jahaan’s soundtrack, Atif - scheduled as the grand finale - made a quick trip to the stage when she was performing and paid his respects.
"Mai Dhai is the real star, believe me," he says passionately. "I love her because she’s amazing; her voice is so amazing that whenever I listen to her it takes me into a different zone. Her voice has its own beauty. I feel that her voice is so powerful because she sings at those melas (carnivals) that usually don’t have any microphones. I love that kind of singing, which is really raw because there are no rules; you’re not trapped in a cage and you’re free to sing however you want. That is exactly what Mai Dhai does. I feel she should be a bigger star than I am."
Do you miss Reshma? Does Mai Dhai remind you of her, I ask?
"Yes definitely, there is some sort of a similarity in their voices," Atif says. "I had a very different bond with Reshma; I remember the whole industry stood up and gave a round of applause when we performed together (at the Lux Style Awards). I remember that she called me backstage and told me, in Punjabi, that the song you sang today… ‘Puttar tuh ajj mainoo jawaan kar ditta’ (son, today you have made me young again). This was a huge compliment for me and I was literally blown away."
There aren’t many people in the industry that Atif is as inclined to. Now that he lives between Dubai and Lahore, now that his work keeps him abroad as much as it brings him to Pakistan, there is an obvious disconnect between him and the music industry. He has no friends in the industry he works in, something he makes no bones about.
"There are no friendships in this industry, it’s just work," he makes no pretenses at all. "There are ‘friends’ who are there just when they need you. This is the maximum level of friendship in this industry, nothing more.
He talks of the trend of hiring PROs (Public Relation Officers) for media and event management and how they take advantage of the celebrities they represent. "PR Agencies in Pakistan and India work the same way," he refers to financial exploitation in cutting underhand deals. He refuses to fall into that trap.
"People can think whatever they want, it doesn’t really matter," he continues with the self-assurance of someone who doesn’t need to care. "If you think I’m unapproachable and that I don’t talk to anyone, good for me. For me, my family is more important, my music is more important to me. Why would I want to socialize randomly?"
Atif continues, talking about his family and how his wife and son give him a reason to live every day. "I’m so happy to have Sara in my life," he says. "She is literally my strength. She makes me a better person by saying that this is your career and this is the dream that you’re living."
What happens when a rock star - a hot, public commodity - gets married, I wonder aloud? Do the girls go away or does the wife turn a blind eye to them?
"I would say that the way of looking at girls changes," he replies, putting on a serious face. "First you used to get happy that girls are coming. Now you try to find the genuine fans that would actually appreciate your work and not your star power. Now it feels amazing when fans come up to us and comment on what a great couple we make. So I actually feel happy because I’m getting praised and indirectly Sara is getting praised too. The girls, of course, never go away and there’s always someone who want a selfie for Facebook. If something as small as a selfie makes someone happy then I don’t mind doing it for a fan."
He may be happy living and working within self-imposed walls but at the same time he is ecstatic about the growth of Pakistani cinema. Atif made a small appearance in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol several years ago and is open to acting even today if the right offer comes along. However he hasn’t signed anything yet, contrary to recent reports.
"I’m happy that our cinema is picking up," he says. "No movies were being made, so who did we sing for…for Punjabi films? I’m so happy that we won’t have to go anywhere else and sing. We’ll have our own industry with our own people."
Atif has sung ‘Dil Karay’ for Ho Mann Jahaan and he brought the house down when he performed at the film’s music success party this week. Contrary to what the singer says about the industry and relationships, there are certain alliances that he holds very high in respect, such as the one made with Asim Raza. Asim is the reason he came onboard and toiled a 25-hour journey from Istanbul to Chitral to shoot the attractive video.
We talk about music, television and why Hamza Ali Abbasi should be allowed his own opinion. He clarifies that Jal will never unite, even though newspapers have been suggesting otherwise. At the end of the day it’s clear that he’s a solo artist, a single, sparkling star in the constellation.
"This country has six stars," he corrects me. "Ali Zafar, Fawad Khan, Shaan and from television there’s Humayun Saeed and of course, Mahira Khan. The sixth…" he wanders off in thought…
The sixth would be you, I suggest.
"If you like," he smiles, knowing it all too well.