People sometimes refer to you as Pakistan’s A.R. Rahman, I said to Sahir Ali Bagga in a conversation recently. “Then I guess that makes A.R. Rahman India’s Bagga!” he laughed in response.

Bagga is one of, if not the most, prolific music producers and composers in Pakistan. It’s hard to fully list the amount of work he’s done in the past 20-odd-years but, of his recent work, there are the soundtracks for drama serials such as O Rangreza, Khaani, Khudgharz, Ghar Titli Ka Par and films such as Jawani Phir Nahin Ani, Punjab Nahin Jaungi, Bin Roye, Dukhtar, Jeevan Hathi and Azaadi.

He’s worked with all of the major names in the music industry — from Jawad Ahmad (he produced his debut album) to Sanam Marvi, Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan and, most recently, Aima Baig and Momina Mustehsan. He’s also composed most of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs (“At least those that are major hits in India,” he adds).

Born and bred in Lahore, Bagga speaks with a thick Punjabi accent and has a wicked sense of humour. He’s quite candid about his views and seems to lack any pretence. He’s very proud of what he’s achieved so far but communicates that more with excitement than with any hint of arrogance.

“I think A.R. Rahman is very good, but his rating is the same as mine,” he says candidly. “None of his songs have gotten 500 million hits. My song with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Zaroori Tha, has crossed 500 million views.” (To be absolutely accurate, at the time this interview went into print, Zaroori Tha had around 470m views on YouTube.)

“Similarly, my song with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Main Tenu Samjhawan Ki, is about to reach 1 billion views,” he adds with a hint of pride. The song came out in 2010 as a part of the soundtrack of the Indo-Pakistani film Virsa and became hugely popular.

Later, Karan Johar ‘bought’ the song and adapted it for his 2014 film, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania with Rahat’s vocals replaced by those of Arjit Singh and Shreya Ghoshal. While both versions are very popular, I wasn’t able to find the track with a billion hits.

Although well-known in music, television and film industry circles, only recently has Bagga started to become a household name — mostly through his performances as a singer, in addition to writing and producing the songs, on shows such as Coke Studio.

As a person who has always shied away from the limelight, why has he decided to come out now?

“I used to be very shy, I still am, I just couldn’t,” he says over a series of phone and video calls from Norway, where he is currently on tour. “Also, I don’t want to take names, but I’ve worked with so many singers — big names — who would sit in my studio and lie in interviews. Bohat jhoot boltay thay [They would lie a lot.] They would take credit for my compositions, in my studio, to my face,” he chuckles.

“None of AR Rahman's songs have gotten 500 million hits. My song with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Zaroori Tha, has crossed 500 million views,” says Bagga.

While he is keenly aware of the injustice done to him, I sense he also wants to give the impression that he harbours no feelings of resentment. “I would stay quiet for the sake our friendship. Plus, I’m from a musician family.” (Bagga is the son of well-known Pakistani music composer from the 1970s, Amjad Hussain.)

“Back then, we faced a lot of financial difficulty and we had to run our household with whatever we could make. This is why [I kept my mouth shut].” He also has a reputation for being a workaholic and had no time for ‘self-promotion’.

Times have changed since he was a drummer for the band Jupiters — which is credited with having launched the careers of both Ali Azmat and Jawad Ahmad. Bagga joined the band in the late 1990s. Due to his experience in playing and producing with his father in film music, Bagga was one of the few people who was well-versed in using the R8 drum machine.

According to him, “it was very much in use in the film industry and later music bands started using it as well.” He was playing as a sessions musician with three different bands until Jupiters decided to take him on as a full-time member and that’s where he met Jawad Ahmad.

Later, both he and Ahmad left Jupiters because of some serious intra-band politics. “We left the band and made an album which had a song that I composed for the first time, called ‘Bin Tere Kya Hai Jeena’. That’s where it all started. From drumming, I got into composing songs. They became big hits. After that everyone — Abrar-ul-Haq, Shazia Manzoor etc —started coming to me for their music. So, I kept making more and more songs.”

Bagga’s work isn’t limited to Pakistan alone, he has done a lot of work for Bollywood as well, and is familiar how international and industry politics affect cross-border collaborations. In 2012 several Pakistani artists who had contributed to the Bollywood film Cocktail were denied visas to attend its launch in India.

Do issues like this make it difficult for him to collaborate on cross-border productions? “Not for me. I can talk on the phone, listen to the idea, create the song here and send it there. But for the singers it’s a problem jab halaat kharab hotay hain India aur Pakistan ke [when the situation is bad between India and Pakistan],” he says.

“India has such a strong film industry. Whoever says ‘India needs us’ [our talent], we need them too. That’s why we go to India to work,” adds the musician.

“Sometimes we [producers] get flack as well. Like, there was an Indian composer Adesh Shrivastava, he’s passed away now, he was very much against me. Then there is Abhijeet the singer, he’s very much against Pakistanis working in India. Uss ne bohat kaam kharab kiya hai. Sab ko pata hai, woh to bohat hi bolta rehta hai. [He’s ruined things a lot. Everyone knows about it, he keeps mouthing off.]”

But the reality of the situation is that our domestic film and music industry isn’t big enough to sustain a full-time career in music. “India has such a strong film industry,” he says. “Our language, music, culture is all quite similar so it suits us to work for that industry. Whoever says ‘India needs us’ [our talent], we need them too. That’s why we go to India to work.”

And that’s why it’s important to develop talent in our local industry. He laments that the same “ginnay-chunnay loag” [select few] end up hogging all of the lead roles in major film productions and soundtracks as well.

“We need new people,” he says, “an industry doesn’t grow without them. You have a big industry when there are many people working in it, not the same four people over and over again. Until then, we can’t even think about comparing ourselves to anyone else.”

Bagga may have worked with a lot of established names in the industry, but he’s also worked with a lot of new blood. Last year, in Coke Studio, he collaborated with Aima Baig — whom he’s worked with on a number of occasions — including on one of the season’s more popular songs, Baazi.

Although Aima Baig had been working in the industry for a couple of years until then, after Baazi, her star really started to rise. She has since been featured on the soundtracks of Na Maloom Afraad 2, Verna, Saat Din Mohabbat In, Jawani Phir Nahin Ani 2 and Teefa in Trouble.

Aima Baig giving Sahir Ali Bagga two thumbs up after recording their song Baazi.
Aima Baig giving Sahir Ali Bagga two thumbs up after recording their song Baazi.

“Aima is better than most of the women singers in the country right now,” says Bagga. “She’s good, she has a fresh new sound. Every singer needs to have a strong identity, when it comes to their voice, whether they sing folk, classical or pop. She makes it her own. She’s God-gifted and gives any song her own colour.”

Bagga has returned to Coke Studio this year on a collaboration with Momina Mustehsan on a ballad titled Roye Roye. Personally, I feel they’re a bit mismatched both vocally and visually — while Aima Baig has a very powerful voice and can hold her own, Mustehsan comes across as somewhat awkward and frail compared to Bagga’s stronger performance in the song.

But Bagga feels his collaboration with Mustehsan has been received favourably by audiences. “It’s gotten a very positive response,” he says. “It’s on top of the list.” It was on number 4 on Patari Charts at the time this interview went into print.

We haven’t seen the last of an Aima Baig and Sahir Ali Bagga collaboration though, they’re due to return with a second song this season called Malang.

After this, what’s next? “My plans are the same,” he laughs. “The more singers we have, the bigger our music industry will be. I want to make the industry bigger — both music and film. If it doesn’t happen in the next five, six years, mein mulk chor doonga! [I will leave the country!]”

As a final question I ask him what it feels like being in Norway. “You know when you’ve been running and running and finally manage to catch a breath? That’s how I’m feeling in Norway. It’s very peaceful here,” he responds. “Also, it feels good to have so many fans here. There is an entourage of cars in front and behind me. Mein hairaan ho jata hoon [I am amazed] … am I even worthy of all this?”

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 9th, 2018