“I don’t like it when people call me QB,” I’m told when I meet Quratulain Balouch for this interview at a café in Lahore.
I find this young artist with the powerhouse vocals, best known for being the voice behind the soundtrack of the super-hit television drama Humsafar, curled up on a couch in the corner with a thick book in her hands. She’s dressed comfortably, no make-up, spectacles balancing on her delicate nose and her hair in a massive pile on top of her head. She looks smaller and very petite in person. But when she speaks, her voice comes out strong and commands attention.
And that book she’s reading? “Twelve Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson,” she informs me. “I only read when I’m travelling. And I’m travelling right now... I’m away from home.”
Why doesn’t she like being called QB? “Because Qandeel Baloch was also referred to as QB,” she explains. “I don’t feel comfortable with people referring to me with those initials.” Quratulain found the backlash that the social media personality received online after her murder in 2016 very disturbing. “They were constantly taunting and making, like, certain jokes that I just couldn’t stand,” she said. “So, I started asking people to just call me by my first name. Qandeel Baloch was a reflection of the society. She was speaking her truth.”
If not QB, then what? I discover that Quratulain wasn’t always Quratulain. What’s her nickname at home? “Sherry,” she smiles. “Because my father first gave me the name Shaheera. When my sister was born two years later, he named her Noorulain and [re]named me Quratulain but Sherry stuck around. So, I’m Sherry with my family but I don’t like any of my friends calling me that because it’s a little personal.”
But what does Shaheera even mean? “I don’t know!” she laughs. “Someone famous!” On the other hand, for anyone who’s curious, Quratulain means the ‘soothing coolness for the eye’, or idiomatically, ‘apple of the eye’.
“But being famous puts a lot of pressure and responsibilities on you. And I’m still not willing to take that responsibility. I don’t want to be an idol. I don’t want to be an ‘inspiration.’ I actually don’t. I’m a mere human being. I’m also learning.”
Although she was born and bred in Pakistan, Quratulain relocated to the United States when she was around 17 or 18-years-old for a few years, returning to the motherland in 2011. “I was an awaaragard [wanderer] figuring out what I wanted to do with my life,” she laughs. “Nothing conventional for sure, but anything that reflected who I am. I was put through with great people while I was working with an NGO that did relief work in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Kashmir.”
It was while working with that NGO that she met other prominent members in the music industry, such as Ali Noor, Ali Hamza, Mekaal Hasan etc. Once, while interacting with Ali Hamza, Ali Noor and their grandfather, she was asked to do a little impromptu performance. Up until this time, none of these people had ever heard her sing.
How did they react? “They were very surprised because they were not expecting… kehte hain na chhotaypacketmein barra dhamaka! [you know how they say, ‘a pocket rocket!’]” laughs Quratulain.
Later, it was a cover of Reshma’s Ankhian Nu Rehn De that she had done and uploaded on YouTube that got the band Jal’s attention. Next thing she knew, she was in Coke Studio collaborating with them on their song Panchhi in 2011. “It was very intimidating,” she confesses. But she put her head down and focused on her performance. Her performance got her national attention.
But the more popular she got, the more she retreated from the limelight. She spent a couple of years, sometime between 2016 and 2017 in self-imposed seclusion. “To be put in a spotlight like that from nothing really put a lot of pressure,” she says. “What I’ve learned is that whatever you do, especially when it comes to creative expression, it has to be done with pure integrity because if it doesn’t connect with you, it does not connect with people. That’s why, when I went into seclusion, I was just trying to connect with myself because I was depending too much on external forces.”
But what was the trigger? “Betrayal and dubiousness of people,” she said. “They’re something else to your face and something else behind your back. The entertainment business is very tricky. I didn’t know what the pros and cons were initially but now I’m more aware of it. Which is why now my social circle is mostly those people that don’t belong in this profession.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” she adds quickly. “But being famous puts a lot of pressure and responsibilities on you. And I’m still not willing to take that responsibility. I don’t want to be an idol. I don’t want to be an ‘inspiration.’ I actually don’t. I’m a mere human being. I’m also learning.”
“We [women] also have credibility. Like men feel they’re entitled to do anything they can, so are women. But there’s cultural conditioning that prevents us from believing that,” she says.
As for the project that really made her a household name, the soundtrack of 'Humsafar', Quratulain relates how she almost didn’t do it.
“Coke Studio Season Four really put me in the mainstream,” she says. “Waqar Ali got in touch with me because HumTV wanted me to do a version of Abida Parveenji’s ghazal. I was overwhelmed and a little nervous. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Challenge ke baad [after] challenge! But then Waqar Ali guided me through the whole process of recording it and that was it.”
The response was equally overwhelming. “I’m still shocked!” she says. “I play gigs and the one song that everyone chants about is Humsafar. People are that obsessed with that song! Because the words are frikkin’ beautiful and I think Waqar Ali has done such an amazing job to capture the essence of it.”
'Humsafar' may have been the project that propelled her into a household name but, out of all the work that she’s done, which one does she like the most? “I think all of them,” she says. “Except for Laal Meri Pat.” The version that she sang for Season 10 of Coke Studio in collaboration with Akbar Ali and Arieb Azhar didn’t turn out the way they had originally planned it but that’s not the only reason why Quratulain has a problem with it. She feels she didn’t do her best.
Perhaps she’s being a little too hard on herself? “I am my own worst critic,” she admits. “It’s important for me to do better. I think it was two things: it was the frequency, because I was mentally somewhere else. I wasn’t fully present. And secondly, I made a mistake of not pointing out my scale, my key. But since I was not mindful, since I wasn’t present, I didn’t make that decision [to figure out] what exactly was it that was not right with my scale or which key I could’ve gone with.”
The project she feels impacted her the most on a personal level is when she sang Kaari Kaari for the Bollywood film, Pink (2016). It’s a film about a group of independent, urban girls harassed, stalked and assaulted and whenever they seek help from the authorities, they are turned away. Almost in retaliation for speaking up they are then framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Amitabh Bachchan plays a retired lawyer who steps in to help clear their name.
“I was signed with Universal and they wanted to have me on one Bollywood movie as a playback singer,” says Quratulain. “I had done one song previously with Amit Trivedi and thankfully it didn’t come out. This is why I have a very strong belief that jo bhi hota hai, behtari ke liye hota hai [whatever happens is for the best].”
“Pink's team shared the storyboard with me and I was sold on that. When they sent me the song and I heard the lyrics, I was like, ‘Holy sh*t! I have to do it. Even if you don’t pay me a single penny, I want to do this song!’”
Back to the film. “These guys were like, ‘Amitabh Bachchan ki movie hai!’ [It’s Amitabh Bachhan’s movie!],” she says. But Quratulain was more concerned about the song itself.
Does she get star struck at all? “No,” she said. “They shared the storyboard with me and I was sold on that. When they sent me the song and I heard the lyrics, I was like, ‘Holy sh*t! I have to do it. Even if you don’t pay me a single penny, I want to do this song!’”
Her inner critic kicked in on this project as well. “Because I was so short on time!” she says. “I was caught up with my collaboration with Noori [Pyar Wyar for Cornetto Pop Rock]. I had so much on my plate. I wish I had enough time to execute it the way I wanted to. But lyrically, it was one of the best things I’ve done.”
That contribution to the soundtrack of 'Pink' wasn’t just because of the social message the film carried. The story hit close to home. Before she even thought of dipping her toes in singing and her relocating back to Pakistan, Quratulain went through a series of deeply personal events that made her realise how society can work to rob women of their agency and how important it is for them to fight back and reclaim their space.
“I could relate to that whole concept of not acknowledging our voices,” she relates. Her faces flushes into a deep shade of pink and her eyes mist up as she speaks. “At one point, I didn’t have a voice. But we [women] also have credibility. Like men feel they’re entitled to do anything they can, so are women. But there’s cultural conditioning that prevents us from believing that. I think slowly, gradually, we’re opening up. There’s a greater acceptance of what women are capable of.”
What’s in store for her now? “I’m working on my own music,” she responds. “I’m trying to write but my vocabulary is lacking the right words I want to use to express myself. I’m also focused on my classical training.”
She’s already got a pretty strong voice. Has additional training made a difference? “Yes,” says Quratulain. “It’s expanded my range. I’m more aware of what I can do with my voice.”
On a personal level, where is she right now? “With myself? Exactly where I want to be,” she says with a smile.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 16th, 2018