The actor gets candid about his song Uth Jaag, Pepsi BoB and going on a new direction.
The actor gets candid about his song Uth Jaag, Pepsi BoB and going on a new direction.

Once a rockstar, always a rockstar. The season finale for this year’s Pepsi Battle of the Bands (BOTB) featured performances by the show’s celebrity judges, and it set the stage for Fawad Khan to showcase his musical mettle.

Amidst zigzagging laser lights and intense electronica, Fawad came on stage and started off with a chant, slowly building up to a reverberating youth anthem. With 'Uth Jaag', the once EP frontman-turned-actor reminded the world of his musical prowess. It may have lain dormant for some time but it was, ostensibly, still very much there.

And now that he has unleashed it on stage, was this an indication that Fawad may be venturing into new musical directions? “Yes, I may be,” he concedes when I pose the thought out loud to him. “This could be the direction that I would want to take should I pursue music in the future.”

Will he be delving more towards music in the future though? Fawad doesn’t confirm. The actor and singer has always been careful with his words, not fond of making big declarations and analytical to the core. And as we sit down to talk about his latest song, I prepare myself for plenty of in-depth observations and wise words, derived from his experiences as a star who continues to have a huge fan following in Pakistan, India and even round the world…

With a well-appreciated new youth anthem in the season finale of Pepsi Battle of the Bands behind him, the singer-turned-actor-turned-singer analyses his past successes and failures but remains cryptic about his future

'Uth Jaag' — the making

“I have always loved the era of electronic music. Depeche Mode remain one of my favourite bands,” Fawad continues.

“Even in the EP days, I would toy with all these concepts but I didn’t have the tools back then to implement them. Last year, though, I began reorganising my studio and I invested into a range of esoteric electronic equipment. And now, when I had to execute this song, I chose to bring together all these sounds, hoping to create music that was ambient, that resonated with the route that I would like to explore.”

It is a route that, based on the rave reviews on the internet, is being appreciated by fans. 'Uth Jaag' is driven by sheer, powerful energy and this can be attributed to the amalgamation of the diverse electronic music driving it forward.

Credit, however, also goes to Fawad’s strong vocals and the lyrics. Longtime music aficionados are comparing the song to those from his EP days — the days when TV dramas and, later, Bollywood, were yet to lure Fawad into hero territory, and he was the lead singer of a hard rock band that belted out loud, rhythmic, head-banging music. Younger listeners are simply appreciating the unique alternative sound, so completely different from the commercially safe, soft filmi songs that local musicians often put forward.

Did Fawad deliberately want to create a song that was reminiscent of his work with EP? “I just think that people may feel that the song is similar to EP’s songs because roughly 45 seconds of it were composed nearly a decade ago. The hook-line 'Uth Jaag Naujawan' was already there. I just took it out of this buried pile of unused compositions and began working on it. Most musicians will tell you that when they write, there is a beauty to writing a song’s lyrics first, and then composing the music to it. Here, Xulfi [his former band mate from EP and producer on the song] and I were writing most of the lyrics later, which is trickier.

“It was while I was recording one of the BOTB episodes that I figured out the theme that I wanted to follow with the song. It was going to be a conversation between man and time. Xulfi and I just took it from there and built up the song. We wanted it to be intense; man tells time that you have ruined me [Mujhe torr kar ghutnon pe giraya] and then time talks back, that I also taught you how to get up after falling [Tujhe gir kar uthna bhi sikhaya].

“There’s also a lot of chanting in the song. I think crowd chants can really be powerful, and had there been time I would have involved crowds of children chanting the chorus.”

Did he also come up with the concept of the laser lights that shot through the stage, adding to the song’s techno, edgy impact? “It was something that I wanted to do, yes. Naturally, I just wanted to make the song as dramatic as possible. The final song is very much a collaborative effort with the laser lights programmed by Hamza Awan and Sultan Raja.”

Hit or miss?

But while 'Uth Jaag' may have been received well and hints at a bright musical future for Fawad — should he choose to pursue it — his last musical tryst, 'Khel Deewanon Ka', the anthem for this year’s Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket series was not quite a success. The song was criticised by cricket and music fans alike. Given this past experience, was he worried about how his song for BOTB would fare?

He thinks about it. “I wasn’t worried because of my HBL PSL experience,” he concludes. “But yes, I will always worry about every project that I do, and that’s quite natural. A lot of people may not have liked 'Khel Deewanon Ka' but even that was part of a learning curve for me. It’s hard to realise it at the time because you’re just so bothered by the negativity but, in retrospect, you understand that failure is just part of the process. You can’t be on a winning streak all the time. It’s only when you lose out that you appreciate the successes more. Also, it’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t work out,” he smiles.

With this latest song, he could have aimed for safer, more conventional music but instead he chose to delve into hardcore rock, a genre that doesn’t always work with local audiences. Why did he choose to experiment? “Firstly, there is no way of defining something as commercial or not. Sometimes the most alternative projects become successful and thereby become slotted as ‘commercial’. Having said this, I would rather create a song that I’m content with, and that 10 other people are content with, than work on something that I don’t like, composed just to appeal to a huge audience.

“Unfortunately, all of us are ultimately dependent on a pay cheque, and balancing viability with creativity can be a tricky juggling act. But it’s far more important to just be unafraid and step forward with what you want to do. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. All decisions cannot be made on the basis of commercial concerns.”

“A lot of people may not have liked 'Khel Deewanon Ka' but even that was part of a learning curve for me”

His words ring true particularly when one looks at his acting career. Fawad’s acting trysts have been few and far between simply because he is reportedly very picky about the scripts he signs on to. It is common knowledge that a large number of recent dramas and films that proceeded to become huge hits — and miserable flops — were initially offered to Fawad. They trickled down to other actors later.

In the meantime, Fawad paved his own path, becoming a judge for BOTB and acting in the movie The Legend of Maula Jutt, which made massive waves with its trailer at the beginning of the year but is yet to announce a confirmed release date. Does he regret turning down projects that could have brought more commercial and critical acclaim his way? “I have never regretted not signing on to a project but there have been times when I have regretted doing a project,” he says.

Which projects, I prompt. But of course, Fawad won’t say. Instead, he typically diverts towards yet more analysis. “I have also enjoyed a lot that I have done,” he says. “I enjoy comedy a lot. I still have fears about going out of my comfort zone but as I get older, I think I’m becoming more open to new ideas.”

When is The Legend of Maula Jutt releasing? “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Why, though, does he not refer to it — as well as to his other projects — via his social media platforms? Fawad is extremely reticent on social media, usually sticking to the principle of letting his work ‘speak for itself’. “I don’t feel that it is really necessary, although sometimes I do put up links. I’m — fortunately or unfortunately — not very fond of the internet. I would revert back to a flip-phone if I could,” he quips.

I switch back to the topic of BOTB — which is, after all, the official raison d’etre for this interview. Does he agree with the general critique that the show’s latest season was not as good as the past ones? “I don’t understand what this critique is based on,” he points out. “There has been no proper constructive feedback. Of course, there is always room for improvement and, overall, we have shorter attention spans now. It takes more time for us to appreciate a new act.

“But I think that the show has stayed true to its main purpose. It has introduced new music and new artists, and some of them are completely untainted from commercialism. From jamming sessions in their homes, they have emerged into the spotlight via BOTB.”

BOTB has also kept Fawad Khan in the spotlight, while he ponders over the right project to do and the directions in which he wants to steer his career. It has kept his fans sated while they wait for him to take over cinematic screens again.

But one song on the BOTB stage — fabulous as it may be — is not enough. Fawad needs to do so much more. One would want to see him do so much more.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, September 15th, 2019