His vocals traverse borders through to India and Bollywood, travelling into territories unexplored by Pakistani artists: Trinidad, Hong Kong and Bali are just three of the places Atif Aslam has recently performed at sold-out concerts. He is touring the US with 15 different gigs as we speak. Not even a decade into his career, this firebrand has hit another high with his first film appearance, cast as the voice of moderation in Bol.
Atif Aslam’s fame is at an all-time high but he prefers to remain deeply grounded. He drives from Lahore to Islamabad alone; that sense of control over his life is what he wants to hold onto. He may be staying at the Serena hotel in Islamabad, as impossible to access as Fort Knox because of its tight security, but he is just as approachable as the next guy at the gym. But he is not the next guy at the gym. He is Atif Aslam and the consistent stream of fans asking for photographs is proof of his fame. He puts smiles on girls’ faces and pride in young boys’ eyes. They all want to be like him and he wants them to know that they can. If his journey began on a mini-bus to college only to continue on a jet plane to Trinidad then anyone’s dream can be realised.
Q. What would you say is the demographic of your fan following?
A. Statistics say that I have fans in the bracket of two to 60 years. I have two million fans on Facebook. I’m more popular than Pervez Musharraf. That’s a huge fan following. It’s also a tremendous responsibility.
Q. As a celebrity in the industry, what responsibility do you feel you have?
A. I’m not making hospitals or schools, if that’s what you mean, but I am doing my own thing and I don’t want to talk about it. People who follow me take me seriously.
Q. And the message you hand out is…
A. That it’s not impossible for anyone to be a star. You just need dedication. I’ve had ups and downs in my career and people have always urged me to give up singing. But I didn’t. I try to make a difference everyday. I want my fans to connect to me, to relate to me. I try to keep my life as normal as possible.
Q. How can you lead a normal life when you have fans following you around for autographs and pictures all day?
A. My dad, being the perfect dad, pushed me to live life the hard way. Changing buses to get to college or standing in the heat has made me tough. At times those days seem like a world away but I can still relate to them. My family helps me stay grounded. I hardly take them to my concerts as I don’t want them to relate to this world. They are my home and I want them to be there to pull me back when they need to.
Q. But life has turned around for you.
A. It has. It was always easy for me to go on a date before becoming a star. That has changed now. It has become very difficult for me. I have had a steady girlfriend for two to three years but not before that. I couldn’t handle it two years ago. I’m a people’s person now. In fact, I’m public property.
Q. What’s the message in Bol?
A. Well, women’s rights. Talk about respect. Talk about what we’ve been doing to our families and talk about the biggest problem on our hands — population control. My friend, who is a teacher, thanked me for taking his class to watch the film. One of his students, a 17-year-old boy, had the same story as Saifi in the film – and so many children do – and he had never spoken about it. He started talking about it after watching Bol.
I didn’t want to do commercial films but I did Bol to create awareness and give back to society. People are relating to the film. Teenagers aren’t complaining that there is no masala in the film. They relate to me and my music. The message in Bol has changed their thinking.
Q. But many have a problem with the character you play – Mustafa – because he leaves Saifi at a truck stand when truck stands are infamous for paedophilia.
A. When Mansoor gave me the script I asked him the same thing. A shot has been cut, which would have made things a bit clearer. But I think Saifi’s drawings could only have come to use at a truck stand. You have to understand that Mustafa is not Atif Aslam in the film; he didn’t have access to the National College of Arts (NCA) and prestigious art schools.
Q. But Atif Aslam does permeate the character of Mustafa with his music.
A. Yes, but he’s not a star.
Q. What are you doing for the elevation of music in Pakistan when there seems to be very little hope?
A. There’s always hope. Bands are not ready to give up. They tell me I am their hope as I have kept music alive for so many people. I’m working with Duff McKagan (a former Guns N’ Roses bassist) and will release that music with a big bang. My album will be out by the end of this year or early next year. I’m not in a hurry. I’ve also hired Mekaal Hasan as a sound engineer and that has elevated my sound quality. I’m one level up.
People have been approaching Tips [an Indian music company] and me with film offers but I think I’m a very immature actor and there’s tremendous room for improvement in my acting skills. If I like a script, I’ll do it but I’m happy with making music right now. I never want to do Indian Coke Studio. In fact even in Pakistan, I’m bored of Coke Studio. It’s becoming dull. What I want to do is go around the world – to places like Brazil – and perform there as well as mix hybrid genres of music.
Q. What is the most interesting place you have performed at?
A. I enjoy concerts around the world. Bali is a place where no Pakistani musician has ever been. We’ve performed there. We went to Hong Kong, where South Asians are elusive. Our concert was a sell-out and they stood and danced throughout it. I’ve been told that not even Shahrukh Khan or Akshay [Kumar] gets that kind of reaction.[CREDIT: AAMNA HAIDER ISANI]