Ali Zafar, unplugged

March 22, 2020

As Ali Zafar’s ‘Mela Loot Liya’ created ripples through this season of PSL, Instep spoke to the actor and musician about the song, traipsing between music and film, and what road he would be traveling up ahead…


n this exclusive interview with Instep, conducted before the pre-COVID-19 quarantine period, Ali Zafar spoke about his latest hit track, why it was created, and whether this sort of music - that sounded as if it belonged to films, offered innovation. As Ali Zafar’s new direction continues to be predominantly cinema, followed by music, one wondered whether this is the direction the musician and actor would be taking in the future...

Instep: Why did you feel the need for ‘Mela Loot Liya’?

Ali Zafar (AZ): It came from the heart and it was dedicated to the fans because it was made for the fans; it didn’t have any corporate backing or sponsorship. We were contacted by multiple sponsors who wanted to come onboard and sign up with me but I did not because I purely wanted this to be an initiative to give back to the fans. I am who I am because of them and they wanted me to make a song. The intention is very important.

The song speaks about Pakistan, my homeland, which has gone through a lot of troubles, and cricket and this occasion is one thing people look forward to celebrating. It is a time to rejoice and PSL is one such moment, and if I can give something to the people of Pakistan and my homeland, something they can relate to and enjoy, then as an artist, for me at least, that becomes my foremost priority. I’ve also had people comment that if you want to show the face of Pakistan internationally, then you should show this music video and song because you have to understand that this is probably the first time ever that a song became so anticipated. Proof of this is how people from all over the world in just 2-3 days, from schools, colleges, men, women, girls and boys got together and made the effort to learn the dance step. Getting together and recording it. We received videos in 1000s in such a short time. That speaks volumes of what we are capable of as a nation and what the youth can do. All they need is somebody to motive and inspire them to do something productive and come together for a great idea, which is what the intention behind ‘Mela Loot Liya’ was. This is not my song, as I keep saying; it’s everybody’s song and it’s for my homeland, the people of Pakistan and my fans. I wanted to make something that could be used for cricket or for any other sport.

Instep: The production value of ‘Mela Loot Liya’ is a lot higher than many music videos, almost akin to a film song, given its scope. The song itself could walk right into a film (any film). Does that not concern you?

AZ: No, it doesn’t concern me because I am a film person; I’m also an actor and I love cinema and I guess people see me as an actor and a movie star. To talk about the production value, honestly, compared to previous big production songs, made in 5 or 6 or 7 crore rupees, this is probably the cheapest song done in a budget of under Rs 200,000. There were no professional D.O.Ps, there were no lights whatsoever; everyone was onboard pro bono like the dancers who came from different cities to be a part of the song; I actually hadn’t even fully planned the video because we were pressed for time. I made a call that everybody just come with your equipment or cameras or DSLRs and semi-professional, amateur people and I called the dancers and it was like one big party (NCA) where we shot together. Similarly, I got a call from College University Superior and went there and danced with them and used the footage.

We don’t usually reveal this but in inner city Lahore, Learning Hub is a foundation that Ali Zafar Foundation takes care of; these are children who are dislocated – and we don’t often reveal this duty to privacy reasons - some of them are children of sex workers who we rehabilitate and provide education to. They had prepared the song so I went there and danced with the children. Everything happened like magic. It all came together in such little time.

We didn’t have an editor and somebody recommended a guy and he was up for two nights continuously. The grading guy came and worked till 5 am on a Sunday in such little time. So, yeah it looks like a big-budget movie song but it was done on a shoe-string budget.

It shows you don’t really need big sponsors and big budgets to do something amazing. I’m not saying I’ve done something amazing but if it seems amazing to people then all you need is good intentions and good people coming together with the right heart and with a great idea anyone can pull something off.

It’s why I keep telling aspiring musicians that you don’t need to wait for someone to come and sponsor you and take you; just pick up your cameras, go out there, put your mind to it and create something that you want to and if it’s something interesting, it’ll happen.

It is why I have launched Lightangle Records to facilitate, guide and mentor young aspiring musicians because with my experience, I can guide them how to navigate through their struggles. I’ve been through it myself. It’s the least I can do, given what I’ve been blessed with. To help and be some sort of guide to people who are in that phase of their life where I was when I was 18 or 20.

Instep: Up until Jhoom, the music you made had a narrative. There was gradual progression, innovation in songwriting, the melodies. A studio album can be very personal if you are writing about personal things. But barring ‘Rockstar Romeo’ (in which you were spoofing your own self, also something personal), now you’ve done 6-7 Hindi films. You have sung for them, composed for some and movie music is situational. It’s film music. Now you’re doing an album. Do you think that studio album will suffer an identity crisis because it will neither truly offer your narrative or that of a film?

Ali Zafar, at a concert, onstage.

AZ: I don’t think about so many aspects; it is good observation on your part but that’s not how my mind works. It works simply. Whatever comes to you naturally, you need to put it out there. I don’t think about so many aspects because that is you feeling fear, right. Fear is the only emotion that will stop you from achieving greatness. For some reason or the other, we’ve been trained to fear the repercussions of things and hence, we stop ourselves doing many things and taking initiative. I don’t fear. If I feel this is something my heart is feeling, this is the melody that’s resonating with me; this is the song I need to sing or say, this is the poetry I need to write, I just do it. I put it out there and then just leave it to people to consume.

Instep: In today’s time, there is a huge focus on numbers and whichever song has the most hits is therefore the best. But innovation is not connected to numbers; awards don’t validate talent. A great song can get low numbers. A mediocre song could get 700 million views. That is the world we live in. For you, what matters more: is it about getting numbers or awards or is it about something else?

AZ: I’ll answer generally and personally. First, we need to reverse and rewind even more. What is the criterion of success for a human being and, for an artist? That varies from person to person. One person may feel extremely happy not releasing his work and just creating it and putting it in his own home, be it a sculptor, a painter. He might be very satisfied. Another artist might feel successful if a song does 50 million hits. So, criteria of success can be different for each person. And hence, each person strives to achieve that in their own way.

I wouldn’t judge either one. As long as you’re happy. And if somebody’s working hard and marketing to create those numbers and is happy and successful then good for him. I am no one to judge.

For me, there has to be a balance of both. The reason is that in this day and age, fortunately or unfortunately, we are living in a capitalist era. Capitalism drives its own mechanics. The criteria of success has become numbers in terms of your bank account, wealth. You are gauged by material success. Whenever the criteria becomes material, then it becomes a corrupted sort of criteria for any society. The same thing is happening with social media numbers, whoever has as many likes or this and that, they are validated more than the other. To me personally, the criterion of success is simple: how happy or content are you inside your heart.

Instep: What else are you working on besides jingles or ‘Mela Loot Liya’? Teefa in Trouble 2? Are you working on your studio album as well as film projects? Have you thought about taking break from one to do the other?

AZ: I always work on multiple projects at the same time because I don’t focus only on acting or music; I like doing both. I’m working on Teefa in Trouble 2 and two other films at the same time. I’m working on a concept album, which is primarily Sufi. I’m working on singles which are quintessential pop songs. I’m also working on writing songs for new artists and helping them out in releasing their stuff.

Instep: Do you think you will be stretched thin with all of the above?

AZ: I like to work hard. I am a workaholic. I feel, in this small little life, whatever work that you can do, the better it is. There are 24 hours in a day; you can sleep for 6 or 7 hours. For the rest of those 18 hours, I like to be on my feet; workout and be in that creative zone.

Instep: Do you think you will break new ground with your music. Is that something you think about? Does innovating on some level as a musician, is that a criteria to you or whatever comes in the moment?

AZ: There comes a time when you don’t think of this anymore. Because you’ve made your space and a legacy in a way; you’ve put your songs out for the last 17 years, people have heard your music and your songs are there. Then you do things for fun or positive good reasons. As an artist, my job and my livelihood and my being is to create. That’s what I should be doing. If I start thinking of the response and reactions, I wouldn’t be able to create at all. This is what happens to many artists…

Instep: I’m not talking about response or pandering. Do you believe you are breaking new ground with the music you are and will be putting out – now?

AZ: Breaking new ground is a vast and vague term in itself.

Instep: Growing as an artist?

AZ: For me, groundbreaking is how deeper you can penetrate someone’s heart and soul and as many people to connect with your message or whatever you’re trying to say, whether it’s ‘Mela Loot Liya’ where people are rejoicing and dancing or whether it is a song about connecting to God in isolation. Both are songs about human dimensions that we live in. So far, I have done some ground breaking stuff. The fourth album is about the inner journey of the last 2-3 years that I’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into the layers of my own soul and I have experienced things that are very hard to describe but can only be felt. Music is the only way through which I can make people feel what I have gone through.

Ali Zafar, unplugged