Shiraz Uppal wears at least three hats: he is a playback singer, a pop star and a music composer. Though he excels in all three departments of music, it is as a composer that he has become a force to be reckoned with.
Uppal’s first collaboration in Pakistan was 'Hona Tha Pyar' in Bol with Atif Aslam and Hadiqa Kiani followed by 'Karachi Se Lahore' (as Sur Darvesh with Noori). This was followed by the title track of Bin Roye and the song 'Ballay Ballay' in the same film. Then came soundtrack for 3 Bahadur and recent releases Lahore Se Aagey and Dobara Phir Se. His remarkable performances in Coke Studio and several concerts abroad are no mean feat either. How does he manage to do all of that?
“It just happens,” a carefree Uppal says as we get to sit down for an interview. “I am really happy that the film industry is back on its feet and people are recognising the film songs, something we lacked in the past. Indian musicians learned from our pop music while we looked down on it. Our music was much superior to theirs and if we want to revive the music industry, we must make good, listenable songs.”
Honing the future of Pakistani music
Uppal feels that Pakistan has a lot of talent. He himself discovered the talents of Zarish and Aima Baig. “While making a Pakistani film, we should engage Pakistani singers. Indian singers and I respect each other a lot and they love to sing for me, but my question is: who will make our people sing? Zarish sang 'Rabbi Ralli' in Karachi Se Lahore which won a few awards. Her career came to an abrupt end when she chose to settle abroad.
“Aima, on the other hand, has just started her career and the way she listened to my advice during our lengthy sessions for the soundtrack of Lahore Se Aagey she impressed me a lot.”
Uppal rubbishes the idea that his song 'Kalabaz' was inspired by an Indian song 'Ghagra' which enabled Madhuri Dixit to dance her way back into the hearts of her fans. “It’s a mujra kind of a song, which is the same in India and Pakistan. It belongs to the same genre as 'Ghagra' and 'Kajre Re' but isn’t the rip-off of any other song. We have made it a fast-track so that it’s both appealing and danceable.”
"I don’t understand why our media doesn’t cover us – maybe Meera’s sneeze is more important to them than my work with the maestro A.R.Rahman." — Shiraz Uppal
Uppal has been around for quite some time now and believes that being a senior has made him more responsible.
“I love to try new singers and that’s the reason why I went for unknown singers in Coke Studio. Strings respected my decision of not going with known faces and gave me a free hand. And I was able to give a few hits from their platform, including 'Tajdar-i-Haram' by Atif Aslam.” Uppal shares the details of Coke Studio with a twinkle in his eyes. “Some singers pick the song early, some pick late and some don’t pick at all… and for them you have to tweak the melody. I can’t reject them because they might have a good voice that might get better with time.”
Uppal on his own career
As one of the survivors of the now almost-defunct pop industry, Uppal believes that his decision to continue making music has helped him immensely.
“The end of pop music didn’t end my career. I went to Bollywood and came up with 'Roya Ray' which was praised by many. 'Rabba' was included in three separate albums, including Best of 2009 (as introducing Shiraz Uppal), Unkahi (his fourth album) and as one of the promotional songs for Aashayen. The song also won me a trophy at the Mirchi Awards too, for which I thank the listeners and those who believed in me.”
Uppal rubbishes the idea that his song 'Kalabaz' was inspired by Madhuri Dixit's 'Ghagra'. “It’s a mujra kind of a song, which is the same in India and Pakistan. It belongs to the same genre as 'Ghagra' and 'Kajre Re' but isn’t the rip-off of any other song."
Uppal does all the playback singing for his own compositions which in a way can limit his talent as a vocalist.
“No, it doesn’t. Music directors in Pakistan get insecure working alongside another music director, especially if he can sing. For our music composers, Shiraz Uppal the singer and the music composer are one and the same whereas if we look at Bollywood, they have Salim-Suleman composing for Vishal or Vishal-Shekhar composing for either Salim or Suleman. They even tweet about each other’s projects because they are professionals and secure individuals, unlike us. We must understand that no one is here to snatch work from the other. Until we realise that, we can’t move forward.”
And then there is the Indo-Pak friendship between Shiraz Uppal and the world renowned genius A. R. Rehman, with whom he did a tour of the United States last year apart from the One World Peace Concert and a number of songs.
“I don’t understand why our media doesn’t cover us – maybe Meera’s sneeze is more important to them than my work with the maestro. Until the arrival of A. R. Rehman on the music scene I was a fan of Alamgir, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Vital Signs in Pakistan and Kishore Kumar and R. D. Burman in India. But after 'Roja', I stopped listening to the rest. Rehman’s music grabbed my soul and I became involved in it like never before. I met Rehman for the first time in 2000 and we became friends. I am proud of the fact that he mentored me into whatever I am today. I first worked for him in Nayak (singing 'Shakalaka Baby') 15 years ago and that was followed by many songs including Raanjhanaa which he had composed with Sonu Nigam in mind but made me sing instead.”
Uppal has spent a lot of time in Bollywood as a music composer and a playback singer. In fact, since 2001 he has been part of many projects. He has a few genuine grievances towards the Censor Board as he believes that they ban Bollywood films that have his songs in them.
“Even when Indian films were being released regularly in Pakistan, the only ones that were banned were the ones in which I had sung a song. Dhoka had 'Roya Re' but it wasn’t released. Aashayen had 'Rabba'. 'Raanjhanaa' was all set for a release but it was banned at the last moment and I was left to explain the ‘Hindu boy-Muslim girl’ theory to Anil Kapoor who had given me the news. Youngistaan had two of my songs as did Laal Rang but they were never green-lighted for screening in Pakistan. The one film that did release – Le Kar Hum Deewana Dil – flopped badly at the box office!”
On Pak-India and music videos
Uppal thinks there isn’t much difference between the people of India and Pakistan who want both countries to progress.
“I have been to India many a time and believe me they aren’t different people. I don’t feel the difference whether I am in India or in Pakistan because the public doesn’t want us to fight. The few people in India who are vocal against Pakistan, such as Abhijeet, are the ones who want to make a name for themselves through such gimmicks. Artists can have boundaries, yes, but talent shouldn’t.”
Music channels in Pakistan – both radio and TV – have now started airing Pakistani songs for which Uppal is thankful.
“Many music videos were produced in Pakistan in the last decade but they weren’t aired properly because they were thought to be inferior to other stuff. Thankfully, now we have the margin to compete with any product from anywhere in the world, because there is a lot of talent in our country. During the blackout period, some of us made our mark in India as proud ambassadors of Pakistan. We didn’t become Indians unlike others.”
Uppal believes that the film industry will do much better in 2017 but doesn’t disclose his bigger projects.
“I don’t like to announce a project until it has matured. I am composing songs for Punjab Nahi Jaoongi.”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 12th, 2017