Reinvention, he feels, is the only way to stay relevant at a time when attention spans are short and an artiste’s shelf life brief. The rest, he feels, is silence.
here is a reflective calm to Atif Aslam today. It may be a guise, as there’s nothing calm about the last six months of his life but he’s in Shakespearean mode, thus there is method to the madness. This madness comes from the fact that he’s everywhere. He’s on TV and in film. He’s on stage, in the studio and even in stadiums. He’s on your airwaves and on video. He’s in pop, rock, the serenity of qawwali and the disruption of hip hop. Everywhere, he says, is the only place he wants to be.
Who is Atif Aslam today? He’s Sang e Mah’s Hilmand, Prince of the fictional town of Laspiran. He’s a man who spends his days and nights by his father’s grave, planning and plotting to avenge his murder. He suspects his uncle, now married to his mother, and thus within him dwells a hatred for them both. Driven to par-madness, revenge is the driving force in life, which he lives in angst and addresses in lyrical verse.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hilmand is a character that was written to be so complex that it would challenge the most seasoned of performers. And yet it was the only character Atif agreed to perform in 16 years, since his film debut in Bol.
“When I did Bol, I wanted to act,” he says as we catch up over the phone. Home for Atif these days is both Dubai and Pakistan and I’m relieved to catch him in the latter, on a break from work. “I wanted to try it out. But at that time a lot of my scenes didn’t make it to the final cut; they were deleted. I was a little disappointed but took it as a learning. I realized that it was barely a performance and later I wondered why I even did it. But we got two good songs out of Bol and I got the experience of working with Shoaib Mansoor. After that it took me 16 years to decide that I wanted to do it again.
“I have been getting acting offers all these years but I was waiting for something special. I wanted to do something crazy. I was initially skeptical as to why they wanted to cast me. But when I read the script I knew that this was something I wanted to do. It was poetic, there was a rhythm to it. I felt a lot of the character was close to me.”
Had he read Hamlet and was he aware of how complex the character was?
“I actually haven’t seen Hamlet and when I asked, I was told not to,” he says. “So I had to tap into my inner Hamlet. It wasn’t easy for me; it was tough to set the level of madness in the character. The monologues were long and complex, often they were tongue twisters, and it was difficult to do it for the first time. I looked within and found the poet and the philosopher and just enhanced those qualities.
“I’m not revengeful though,” he laughs.
Atif has fit the role so perfectly that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. He’s a thinker, a man who is philosophical and he is enigmatic. Hilmand is a character that the audience has fallen for hard, which is ironic, as his friends and family had advised him against it, he shares.
“I was scared, I was nervous and I questioned whether I should do it or not,” he says. “Everyone I met, from my family, to my industry, to my friends…everyone said I shouldn’t do it. I was the only one adamant that this is something I want to do. I didn’t want to regret not trying. I was unsure of how it would turn out but then the feedback started rolling in and I realized that people are loving it.”
Did he agree with critique on the near-perfect disposition of a character that lived in the wilderness? “Whatever he goes through will throw him off track and his appearance will eventually get disheveled. But yes, I think right now he has too much hair spray on hand!” he laughs again.
Because of the vacuum created by the pandemic, what Atif did find on his hands was time, something he used to make his TV debut and also to create a diverse sonic identity. One does look forward to listening to his contribution to the soundtrack of Sarmad Khoosat’s upcoming film, Kamli. But he wanted to step out of his comfort zone and reinvent himself; that vibe shift came with ‘Raat’, he points out. ‘Rafta Rafta’ and ‘Ajnabi’, that followed, were signature sounds but after navigating through ‘Cricket Khidaye’ with Faris Shafi and ‘Agay Dekh’ (with Aima Baig) for PSL’22, ‘Go’, with Abdullah Siddiqui, threw him into a completely new orbit.
“I’d been making music for 16 years and it was high time for me to move on and do something else,” he says. He turned around his identity as a pop/rock musician who’d a penchant for ballads and a love for qawwali, to a completely new genre: hip hop.
“I think I’ve been very daring in the kind of music I’ve been making,” he confessed. “I believe in giving the audience a contrast. On one hand you see me as Hilmand, all poetic and lyrical and on the other hand you see me rapping. Hip hop wasn’t easy but I got into the zone. You may wonder how someone doing qawwali would represent hip hop but that’s what the creative space does to you.”
The creative space kept him busy, and once travel advisories eased up, he restarted his tours, performing at Harrogate, England and the Coca Cola Arena in Dubai this year. He’s up for a major US tour in May and June. And on stage, the tributes he made to Lata jee made headlines. “I have a lot of respect for every musician of the world and I’ve grown up listening to Lata jee. She has been a part of my life,” he says, adding that relationships once made cannot be damaged by divisive politics. He’s heartened to see Bollywood stars like Tiger Shroff and Akshay Kumar constantly send him testimonials; he’s trended in India more than a dozen times since the ban on Pakistani artists. “People know my voice,” he says, “even if my name is removed from credits.”
The last one year was all about creating new identities, forging new sounds and working with new heads. Atif was already on Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Coke Studio and Velo Sound Station, but then came the cricket anthems and the collaborative work with Faris Shafi, Abdullah Siddiqui, Talal Qureshi and Maanu. How did he feel about the new generation of musicians he was working with?
“I love it,” he says without a pause. “I think new talent should be embraced. We should be delighted with the talent we have and we should encourage it. This is the only way we’ll be an industry. These boys are amazing and all they need is a little direction, which they’ll figure out. Abdullah Siddiqui is amazing. Take Faris Shafi, for example, he was in his own experimental phase before Cricket Khidaiye and had he toned it down before, he would have done much better. Make your way to the people first and then convince them with what you’re passionate about. He’s great and writes great rap and I don’t think we have anyone like him.”
What now was his advice to the new generation of musicians?
“I think the industry is picking up on its own pace and doing really well. All we need is to get rid of the divide culture, which unfortunately exists even today. I don’t why; it could be because of the corporate sector where people get too competitive. That needs to end. What everyone needs to believe is that content is magic. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. Every artist is on Spotify but the audience keeps shifting unless you keep giving them something new. Collaboration is the way forward. Lyrics needs to be better. Most of the young boys tend to get stuck in writing the same kind of lyrics over and over again and don’t experiment. We used to release albums that people listened to for a year. No one listens to the same music for a year anymore. Times have changed and these guys have it tough.”
– Atif Aslam portraits by Shahbaz Shazi