Atif Aslam sings a single note in his distinctive voice and it has crowds cheering.
They sing along with him, the young and the old, male and female, their cell-phones invariably held aloft, recording videos to be shared on social media later. They know the lyrics to the songs, the old ones dating back to the 'Aadat' days, the Coke Studio blockbusters and the latest hits from Bollywood. They stay standing, for an hour or maybe more, riveted by the magnetism that is distinctly Atif Aslam.
We don’t have too many stars like him in today’s fickle social media age — the sort of stars with fan-bases that are not restricted by gender or age, who churn out hit after hit, whose popularity transcends Indo-Pak cross-border politics to the extent that Bollywood keeps reaching out to them despite the risk of bans and controversy. Atif is a rare entity: a bonafide musical superstar.
He knows it — and yet, he doesn’t seem to obsess too much about it. “I have a crazy work schedule, I don’t eat good food and I often work through nights but I am just doing what I love,” he explains why he continues to look young.
Singer Atif Aslam has a huge fan following on both sides of the Wagah border. He is just as sought-after a vocalist in India as he is in Pakistan. The superstar crooner opens up to Icon about how he sees himself and his journey
Unlike many of his peers, he isn’t too focused on his looks. He currently has a beard because he ‘doesn’t feel like taking out the time to shave’. He confesses to clicking ‘terrible selfies all the time’ with his fans but doesn’t care because “it’s all right, we can’t look good in every image.”
Beyond the star, he’s the father of a four-year-old boy who prays with him at night and listens to a live rendition of 'Tajdar-i-Haram' before sleeping. And he’s the obsessive musician who has just returned from recording several film songs, is about to set off for his annual US concert tour and is planning to record a new single. “Making music is what drives me,” he says, “not awards, not internet fame, not even exorbitant amounts of money. My fans call themselves ‘Aadeez’ and they are the most loyal lot. I make my music for them, I love them.”
But even at this pinnacle in his career, there is also much that Atif does not love. Icon sat down with the singer for a heart-to-heart conversation. Excerpts follow:
Icon: You’ve lately been in the news because of India’s ban on Pakistani artists. You were not given credit for some of the Bollywood songs that you had sung recently and then Salman Khan insisted that only you could sing a song that he had penned for his upcoming movie Race 3. How does it feel to be one of the very few whose career remains unscathed by Pak-India politics?
Atif: Work is work. I just want to sing good songs and they may be for projects on either side of the border. Even the fact that I wasn’t given credit for some of the songs that I had sung didn’t matter. My fans knew that it was my voice singing those songs. Despite politics, I was approached to sing for Race 3 because the makers are appreciative of my work, not because of contacts that I had forged or parties that I go to in order to network with the right people.
Icon: But don’t you think that it’s unfair when you’re not given credit for a song that you have sung?
Atif: All I know is that I have many fans in India and it would be unfair to them if I stopped singing good songs that were offered to me. There are many other things that are unfair. I can’t keep protesting against each and every one of them.
Icon: For instance, you’ve occasionally pointed out that the local awards system is unfair.
Atif: Local awards are completely flawed. Everyone who attends the ceremony gets an award. An artist may have been number one all through the year but may not win simply because he or she couldn’t make it to the ceremony or isn’t friends with the ‘right’ people. Unfortunately, our masses are too gullible to see how flawed the system is. They equate the winning of an award with genuine success and that’s just very discouraging for up-and-coming artists.
Icon: So winning awards isn’t important to you anymore?
Atif: No. But there was a time, when I had just started out, when I thought that I would win awards and make my family and my country proud. It’s only now that I realise that it’s just an opportunity to give a speech and how there are no standards or credibility to awards ceremonies. I’d rather enjoy how my fans respond to my work and face to face appreciation I get from people around me. I’d rather revel in real success rather than be happy with getting ‘likes’ on Instagram that I have paid for or an award that I have gotten because of good PR.
Icon: Is this the reason why you weren’t part of the Lux Style Awards (LSAs) ceremony this year, even though you had hosted the event last year?
Atif: I don’t have a problem at all with attending the LSAs but I wasn’t part of this year’s ceremony because I didn’t agree with the way child abuse was hyped on the platform. It would have been better had they raised funds for a cause. It just seemed like a publicity stunt that I couldn’t be part of.
Icon: You just said that social media fame doesn’t matter to you and yet, you are reasonably active on Instagram and Twitter. Why do you opt to post a picture after every few days?
Atif: I am not obsessed with social media fame but I do think that it’s a great tool by which I can stay in touch with my fans. If I don’t post something after every five days or so, they get anxious that something’s wrong with me! I enjoy reading their comments and getting their feedback.
My online fans are, in fact, so active that an Indian composer once complained about them to me! He had written a small post about working with me and my fans started asking him for details about the song. When he didn’t respond, they started cursing him for not replying. I laughed and told him that he needed to tell them about the song!
Icon: Speaking of new songs, will we be hearing you sing in the upcoming season of Coke Studio?
Atif: It’s all undecided right now. I am not sure.
You are a Coke Studio veteran, having worked with director Rohail Hyatt as well as with Strings. Who did you enjoy working with more?
Atif: I definitely enjoyed working with Rohail more. I hope he comes back into the spotlight again.
Icon: Do you think Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi will be able to do justice to the platform as Coke Studio’s new show producers?
Atif: Let’s see. They may bring interesting new sounds to the show. I liked Ali Hamza’s 'Tinak Dhin' from last year’s Coke Studio. It reminded me of the beat that old Amitabh Bachchan songs used to have.
Icon: Last year, you were a major part of the music show helmed by the ‘other’ cola drink: Pepsi Battle of the Bands. Considering how focused you were on guiding young new bands and how popular you were as a judge, why are you not part of the show this time round?
Atif: Perhaps I was an extremely popular judge according to the fans but not according to the show’s makers. Perhaps I was too expensive for them. It’s their call, it’s their show.
All I know is that I have many fans in India and it would be unfair to them if I stopped singing good songs that were offered to me. There are many other things that are unfair. I can’t keep protesting against each and every one of them.”
Icon: Given your career graph, doesn’t it get you down when you still have to contend with industry politics?
Atif: No, it doesn’t. The industry can choose to ignore my work if they want but my fans won’t. If my colleagues don’t want to talk about the success of 'Tajdar-i-Haram' they don’t have to, but the video still did break records by crossing over 100 million views on the internet. The sad thing is that we won’t ever be able to create stars in Pakistan if we keep fighting like this and trying to pull each other down.
Icon: You’ve worked in India quite frequently. Do you think that it’s different there?
Atif: It is. They are more humble there. It’s a big industry capable of earning big profits. They are not trying to pull each other down because they understand that by working together, they can reap more benefits.
Icon: You seem to be quite humble yourself. In a world rife with self-promotion, don’t you think throwing starry tantrums are necessary so that people don’t take you for granted?
Atif: To every rise, there will be a fall and one day, we all have to die. I don’t believe in unnecessary unreasonable behaviour but I don’t let people take me for a ride either. I will be rude to people who will suddenly accost me and ask me for random shout-outs for their various organisations. As a professional, I find such encroachments disrespectful. At the same time, I am always there to help young musicians should they need advice. I extend support to young fashion designers who want me to wear their clothes. There was this one time when I bumped into these young designers in an elevator and they told me that they had been trying to connect with me for years and hadn’t been able to. They were so enthusiastic that they wanted to take my measurements right there and then! Eventually, they designed something for me and I wore it to show my support.
Icon: So you don’t charge for endorsing brands or attending an event?
Atif: I charge the established labels and major events. It’s a precedent that I have worked hard to set. As artists, we add value to an event and we shouldn’t attend for free simply because we are guaranteed some vague-sounding award. We are worth more than that. I wish all artists would realise this because it has taken years for me to make the corporate sector realise that it is important to pay artists for attendance. When they go for free, they simply discredit their own hard work.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 15th, 2018