Atif gets candid

Atif Aslam is a mega star and no one knows this better than the crooner himself. He descends Brando style from his heavy bike to meet for this interview. While I couldn’t take my eyes off his tan suede boots lined with fur, Atif took off his gear in slo-mo, savoring the buzz his arrival was causing.

Riding high on the success of Doorie, Atif is still upset as to how his Doorie effort has been inviting brickbats from music critics in Pakistan. Even though Pakistanis love all things Bollywood, our alternative music scene is a different ball game altogether. Atif Aslam, for his Pakistani music fans will always be the definitive voice that made ‘Aadat’, ‘Woh Lamhay’ (as he sang it on Jalpari) and ‘Mahi Vey’ songs an entire generation continues to sing. To his legions of Pakistani fans, Doorie remains a wishy-washy Bollywood juke box churn (which we will dance to, nonetheless).

Ultimately, Doorie is not what die hard Jalpari fans expected from Atif. While his powerful vocals make the album a chart topper on both sides of the border, his cult following here at home feel betrayed by Atif’s switchover from his classic raw sound to club remixes. Then there are the terrible videos directed in India which have done nothing to aesthetically project Atif’s potential. He is our soft rock wonderboy and the Indians have reinvented him as a chocolate hero. Give us the edgy Atif any day!

Atif insists that Doorie isn’t exactly targeted for his fans who know him even before Jalpari but is rather the launch of Atif on an international (read Indian) level. Released worldwide by a telecom conglomerate, Atif has made a conscious effort to establish himself as a singing sensation for a wider audience. But why not be true to his original sound?

“I started off when I was 17 and I never thought I would be this big,” Atif confesses. “When Jalpari came out, its raw sound was revolutionary. When I was in India, I received a fantabulous response performing in cities like Pune, Mumbai etc which was a great experience. They (the Indians) respect talent but they cannot understand what I had been doing here. Even here, only a select audience actually understands what I am singing, not the masses. Touring internationally made me think that I should take my music global by releasing it worldwide. I collaborated with a lot of people and thought up a plan for a commercial album, which is not my type of music; which is not ATIF. I just wanted to explore that side of the music. When I composed and wrote these songs for Doorie, I kept in mind that this album has to be commercial,” he explains with the ease of an artist genuinely hungry for a wider audience. Atif strived for mass appeal and recognition and via Doorie, that is exactly what he got.

“Doorie is a commercial hit in the UK, Canada, and USA; it’s everywhere now. So the first Pakistani artiste is basically out there in the world. Not just in India,” he says.

And then abruptly he remarks, “I knew that people were going to criticize me like anything. There was this journalist, who wrote a critical review about my album Doorie. That what is this album and why is it like this? I felt glad about that, because she was so concerned about my album. She criticized it completely and the next week Channel V declared Doorie the best album in India. I want to tell my critics that I’m doing it my way,” he insists. Atif is averse to criticism, because to him, the success of his plan to make it big is perhaps bigger than his music integrity. In that, he speaks more like a manager than a musician.

“Doorie has brought along an international change and Aadat was limited to Pakistan and to a small circle of people at that. After Doorie, I am getting offers from places like South Africa. No Pakistani artiste has ever been called to South Africa.”

However, Atif with all his stardom, could not gain complete control over his album or the way he was projected and he admits this readily. “When the album Doorie was released I was consulted on all the inlays, on what picture should be there, the designs etc. The write up however wasn’t to my temperament at all. And if you see the heart-shaped logo with the caption ‘In this lifetime or the next’ that was so cheap! I wanted the logo be removed, but it wasn’t. Even in the video, there was a girl and you can put her in a sensuous way but at the end of the day you can’t tell the director what his job is!” Atif’s volcano rumbles, but he is still proud that he played the game and got what he wanted out of it.
The director Kuki Gulati may have extremely poor taste, so ditch him! Why go along, make C-Grade music videos, hug the girls, or did the editor morph those scenes? “Yes, I was hugging the girls,” Atif admits. “I think that was a requirement because the Indian audience can never accept my ‘stupid’ ‘Mahi Vey’ video or my ‘stupid’ ‘Rangoun Mein’ video. They have a different concept about a pop or a rock icon. He has to be a heart throb. Girls here can’t sit on motor bikes, in India girls ride them. It’s a different culture altogether. They (my Indian videos) are for an international audience. However you can see the weird expression I had in the last scene of the song ‘Doorie’ when I’m hugging the girl.
People have said that it looked like I had played an Inzamam innings and was run out.” Atif laughs, then sighs softly, “Personally speaking I don’t want to associate myself with any of the people out there. But eventually if I don’t put in a girl in my videos, people would think something’s wrong with me.”

This hasn’t been the first time that Atif has been singed by the Indian entertainment industry. Atif’s credits were chopped off the soundtrack of the movie Zeher for the song ‘Woh Lamhe’, and the movie’s music director and lyricist went on to bag an award for the song. “Eventually I had to pay the price,” Atif admits. But has he learnt a lesson? Judging from his recent Doorie, it seems not. India is too viable a market. “I personally think that is the market. Honestly speaking there was a slump here- that there was no label here; and that was intentionally done. My move was to release Doorie internationally, so that I could tell people that this is the first album that has been released all over the world. All the artists who are going to India will definitely boost other artists. I have referred a few Pakistani singers myself. The Indians don’t have the melodies or original music coming out. There was a time when R.D. Burman had such good melodies, lyrics and arrangements, that’s not happening now. Everything is run of the mill as they have to produce and produce that there is no original music anymore. That is why they are more interested in the original music coming from the Pakistani side- from Pakistani boys who are picking up their guitars.”

Atif adds, “Indians don’t have a market for pop songs. They don’t have any band. Bollywood markets so much for one movie that there is no space for any other type of music. But after my album became a best seller, a lot of people especially companies are interested in releasing new talent.” Atif’s eyes beam with delight. He has successfully marketed himself as a pop idol in India, when even Indian idols have burnt out shortly after their debut on the touted show.

When speaking of companies, could corporate sponsorship be far behind? Do we really need paan masalas to promote and brand music? He shrugs and replies, “In Pakistan, corporate sponsorship is really important, because the artiste cannot sell his album on his own. You need to be on the billboards, unless and until you product is very very big! Nowadays people believe that a song should have a good video; the guy should have a good presentation. You have to be on the boards to let people know that the album is out! You have to be on screen 24/7.”

If that is the case then why was Doorie out without so much as a whimper? With a mischievous smile, Atif confides, “Whenever there is a controversy there is hype and I love controversies. People will ask what the hell is happening; what is he doing? Why did he do this in this video and that video?” Atif begins to swing to the next extreme, “Other than that, like I said that this wasn’t my kind of music so I wasn’t interested in giving interviews or coming on TV for it. Now my second album basically is an ATIF style album and I am planning to release it. For that I will be giving interviews and press conferences. Because for that album, people themselves would create the hype. I want to do interviews for that album not for this. The Pakistani nation is such that which ever side you push them they go. If they see a song on B4U, they will say kia baat hai yaar! Eventually this is what has been happening, I have been their artist-of-the-month on Channel V, B4U, MTV and it was a record that when I went to India, I did 16 interviews for TV channels.”

But then why is Atif reclusive whenever it came to interviews of any sort especially in Pakistan. “Everywhere in the world, the artists get royalties for their videos. Here the channels ask the artist to come and do their show – a show which is branded. The channels are paid, who tell the corporations that they will provide the artist and pay the artist who actually doesn’t get a paisa. I’m strictly against this. I’m not doing TV shows. If my fans want to know why this is so, then they should know that there should be at least one to say that unless and until the artist is paid, we wont do your bidding. We are not just entertainers.”

Atif has more on his chest and he warms up to let it off. “A lot of changes are needed in Pakistan. There should be a Copyright Act that is actually implemented. And then people here need to open up their minds. There is so much criticism that it’s unbelievable. If someone is doing a good job, let him be.”

Switching gears, we turned towards to his new ventures. If Atif oscillates from disinterest to pride on Doorie then he is definitely passionate and focused about Hungami Haalat, his next album- the Atif style album. “It’s entirely different from Doorie. It has no commercial aspect. It’s just Atif, and I have sung my heart out. In Doorie I couldn’t be myself, except for certain minute areas like the song ‘Kuch Iss Tarha’ which is very close to my heart. With regard to the new album, I know how much hard work has gone into it, how much I’ve learnt and only I know how I wrote and composed the songs.”

Atif sums up his strategy again, “I will be doing more commercial music because my aim is that people be excited about my commercial side and then also lend an ear to my style of music too. I want an audience to my voice and then mould them to my style of music. And then let them know that listen this is me- and introduce my music all over the world.”

Atif vrooms off with his words ringing in my ears. He wants the world and India is his platform to get there. He may have sold himself short and stooped to Bollywood standards doing videos that have even made him cringe, but then again, he is hellbent on not being a flash in the pan alternative artist. He wants to sing his heart out, but he won’t settle for anything else than the world listening to him.