Instep talks to the singer, songwriter and director who turned over a new leaf with music videos for Strings and Atif Aslam as well as the innovative Velo Sound Station 2020 as co-director in the last two years.
Oh, take the time to waste a moment/Oh, facing where the lines are broken/Oh, name your price to all this living/Oh, never ask to be forgiven.” - ‘Waste a Moment’ by Kings of Leon
Yasir Jaswal, who fronts the highly underrated music group Irtaash, is the older brother of prominent singer-songwriters Umair Jaswal and Uzair Jaswal. While Umair and Uzair are known for their music, Yasir (who has four more siblings bringing the total to seven) is known primarily as a director. It’s something he cherishes. His only sister – older than him – also sings, although not professionally.
“We all have similar interests and we try to listen to as much music as we can,” he recalls how the penchant for music began from a young age. “I think my parents were very musical. My mother used to sing a lot (though not as much anymore). It’s just how we were raised, I think.”
In addition to flair for music, as a child, admits Yasir, he always wanted to tell stories.
“I realized that I wanted to be a storyteller. When we were little, I’d gather everyone around and tell stories; when we played games, I’d design the game and what its narrative would be.”
While Yasir has Irtaash as a music group and admits that it’s something he loves doing, he confesses his focus has shifted over the years. However, not leaving his love for songwriting completely behind, Yasir has written and composed “a couple of songs” for a Shaan Shahid film.
Irtaash, however, is in the backseat. “I’ll make a song but I often don’t release it and I don’t make music videos of the songs because it’s not a path I want to follow. I feel you really have to put those long hours to do it right and I’m focused on too many things right now.”
“I saw it different/I must admit/I caught a glimpse/I’m going after it” -‘Yes, I’m Changing’ by Tame Impala
Though Yasir has directed (not all) but few music videos for brothers Umair and Uzair, the last two years have propelled him to a much higher zone. It began with directing ‘Sajni’ and ‘Raat Shabnami’ for Strings and was followed by co-directing the coolest new show on the horizon, Velo Sound Station (VSS) with Bilal Maqsood. He went on to direct a music video for Atif Aslam (‘Raat’) in the aftermath. Combined, these are his most prolific years. Yasir Jaswal knows it too.
Yasir’s passion for storytelling reflects in most of his music videos and what compelled him to make a film, Jailabee. His music videos are like shorts.
“I was born/I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up/And sing whatever song you wanted me to.” –‘Magnificent’ by U2
“I used to love music videos by Michael Jackson because they were like mini-films. My parents always focused on education but we’d watch films together. When we were younger, I’d be like who is this Steven Spielberg?”
He was amazed by Steven Spielberg, who has films such as Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and ET to his credit and was very prolific during this period of time.
“It was through Umair and Uzair’s music videos and the boom of DSLR that I picked up a Canon camera and learnt how it’s done. I couldn’t afford to go to film school; it wasn’t an option for me at the time.”
In Yasir’s mind, the idea was learning by trial and error. As we fast forward, Yasir now has music videos with the likes of Strings, Atif Aslam, Umair Jaswal, Uzair Jaswal and Amir Azhar to his name, in addition to a film.
“‘Sajni’ was full of colour but was band-meets-narrative while ‘Raat Shabnami’ was both sublime in its messaging and very sharp in its use of technology and narrative,” he explains. “‘Sajni’ was not about Bilal and Faisal but the whole band; I still added narrative ideas to it. For me, working with Strings was a dream come true. Umair called me and said, ‘Bilal bhai wants to talk to you, this is his number and give him a call.’ At that time Umair and Uzair were really pushing for my music. Even though I’m never confident about it, they’d tell me to send this or that song to Coke Studio and I was never sure.”
Yasir assumed it was the same reason; to send a song to a show.
“It didn’t even cross my mind what the real reason was.”
He met with Strings, who had done their research on Yasir, including watching his film, Jalaibee (2015). ‘Sajni’ was the first music video from Strings in at least six years and it was going to be the introduction to their new album, Thirty.
“I never thought they’d want me to direct a music video for them. I’m a narrative person who needs a story. I don’t want to do band performances. For me, it was a big deal. I mean, we’re talking about Strings. I did my own research on them because I like to know whom I’m working with.”
With experience in advertising, Yasir was exposed to artists and had seen his fair share of celebrities. Though Yasir doesn’t name names, he admits he was put-off by their attitude.
At first, he was afraid to work with Strings after what was told to him about Bilal Maqsood. However, Yasir took the plunge and it resulted in two terrific music videos.
“Bilal is a very detail-oriented person. In the music videos, I’d give him a brief and then we’d discuss if it would work or not. It was during the shoot of ‘Sajni’ and the futuristic ‘Raat Shabnami’ that our chemistry developed and the fear converted into a friendship. Bilal and Faisal were so amazing during both music videos.
“I don’t make ads. I have a side business, and I believe in the power of music. I have a restaurant chain. We’re opening the ninth outlet. So, it was never about earning but about putting everything in the project(s) I take. Strings took that gamble with me with ‘Raat Shabnami’.”
“I got a notion that says it doesn’t feel right/Got the answer in your story today/You gave me a sign that didn’t feel right/ So don’t knock it/don’t knock it/you been here before” –‘Notion’ by Kings of Leon
Yasir then went on to co-direct Velo Sound Station with Bilal Maqsood; it featured a slew of terrific artists, both emerging and well-established in music. But as it turned out Bilal and Yasir were like Ying-Yang and that showed in Velo Sound Station’s overall direction, look and collective vision.
As Yasir recalls, the idea behind the show ultimately began with Bilal. What was made clear to him is the aim was to not create another Coke Studio-inspired music TV show.
“Velo is Bilal’s brainchild. I was writing my film when Bilal called me. At first, I declined because I didn’t think I was capable of it. And he was like ‘No, just drop everything and come. You’re doing this’ and I was like, okay.”
Meticulous in his approach to anything he takes on and never quite satisfied with his own work, Yasir says about VSS: “It was a new beast for me. We wanted it to be different from every other platform. Bilal’s vision was very clear on that.”
Yasir notes that each song was treated differently.
“Some things I disagreed on were taken out and some things that Bilal disagreed on were taken out. And every visual had to have some connection with the song. Bilal had a vision and I took the vision a little further. I was blown away co-directing this show. Even the artists were amazing to work with and the energy they brought was spectacular.”
“We could take it to the high seas/Echoing, echoing where do we stand” - ‘Echoing’ by Kings of Leon
Velo Sound Station followed the music video of Atif Aslam’s ‘Raat’, the country’s biggest music act.
“I’ve known Atif from way back. He knew about my work and came to me with the notion that he wanted to act in his music video for ‘Raat’. I told him I can’t do a Bollywood-esque music video but Atif said, ‘I want to act’ and both of us spoke about what ‘nights’ mean to us. When I told him the concept, he was super excited and said ‘this is exactly what I want to do’. I’m very happy with his performance in the video. Giving him several different getups and stories within the music video, and the way he acted (he loves to do this stuff), it was ambitious and clear that there is an actor in him. He wanted to be pushed out of his comfort zone. It was a courageous concept for him to do.”
As we segue to Yasir’s ultimate passion, telling stories, we end up on the subject of cinema. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many artists worldwide are choosing streaming sites and films have even ended up at the Oscars and the Emmys in one form or another. In Pakistan, just when cinema was beginning to grow after approximately a decade, the ban on Bollywood films and the global pandemic as well as lack of coherent policy hit cinemas hard. If this keeps up, the culture of going to cinemas will deteriorate once more.
“As soon as the pandemic ends, we’re jumping back into it.”
Do you think Pakistan will be available to get away from the pandemic any time soon? Economic impact is a different problem because it has hit all kinds of businesses. But in terms of cinema, others have the option of working with streaming sites. Where do you stand on this issue?
“I don’t know when the pandemic will end. Industries ahead of us, in Hollywood, Bollywood or China, have shutdown cinema(s) and we’re way down on the food chain. People can consume films on devices or in cinemas. At the end of the day, it depends on what you want to do as a filmmaker. Are you making a film for cinema audience or one that can be consumed via other platforms?”
“I’m a storyteller,” Yasir reiterates. “I love making music videos. I’m working on a short film project including some very offbeat ones. I’ve written a film and I’ve been talking to Shaan about it and the story is complete. But I’m always thinking of a streaming platform for which I can make something. After Jailabee, I had opportunities to do dramas for television but I didn’t do them. I think our drama industry might be huge and might be great but it doesn’t do anything for me,” he concludes.
I don’t know when the pandemic will end.
Industries ahead of us, in Hollywood, Bollywood or China, have shutdown cinema and we’re way down on the food chain. People can consume films on devices or in cinemas. At the end of the day, it depends on what you want to do as a
filmmaker. Are you making a film for cinema
audience or one that can be consumed
via other platforms?