Rockstars quintessentially ride bikes – preferably wearing a jacket. Umair Jaswal is one such rockstar.
He has always been an avid biker and in fact, loves his two-wheelers much more than a car.
“It’s a bond that many of us can trace back to our childhoods when we sat on our very first bicycles. A bond that progresses over time,” he tells me. “There is an ultimate sense of freedom when you ride a two-wheeler.”
In his newly launched web-series, Easypaisa Raahi, Umair chronicles his passion for bike-riding on video, fulfilling his dream to ride his way through Pakistan.
Three episodes of the series have released so far, trailing through most of Punjab, showing short snippets of conversations that Umair has with his friends, biking aficionados and people in marketplaces before widening to lush green shots of fields, muddy zig-zagging biking tracks and busy bazaars.
He’s the star of the show and he’s also the narrator, with his monologue playing out to the changing scenery.
It’s an engaging production – slick, picturesque, pepped up with quirky animations, historic references, diverse interviewees and a sponsor that is frequently visible but is usually not too obvious.
The duration, so far, has been deliberately kept short, according to Umair. “Digital content should be short, to keep the audience engaged,” he points out.
Perhaps following the same intent, Umair’s own narrations are also well-planned out – he’ll be sharing an anecdote or talking about a friend before, suddenly, making a thought-provoking observation.
Then, the story would quickly lead to an animation or a new locale. His tone is casual and friendly.
“I wanted people to understand the heart and passion that goes into biking,” says Umair.
“I have been reading the comments section and so many people, young and old, have told me that they have connected to the series. There are good comments and bad comments, but then there are entire heartfelt paragraphs that are written by viewers because they like something in particular. A lot of people are reminded of their bike-riding days while the younger generation feels inspired.”
But who exactly is Umair inspiring?
His main audience is, quite evidently, the millennial lot and a series like this could very well motivate the youth to get on to their bikes and cruise through the country.
But only a tiny fraction of Pakistan’s population is proficient in the language that Umair perpetually slips into – English. Umair may be selling an ebullient, enticing dream but it seems to have been spun particularly for the country’s English speaking elite.
“Given the opportunity to film the series again, I would probably want to do it all in Urdu,” accepts Umair. “It can still be entirely dubbed in Urdu.”
He continues, “As the episodes proceed, I will be riding the bike through the interiors of provinces. I think you’ll see a lot more Urdu conversation there.”
“I have made an effort to make the series more inclusive. The first person I meet is Zenith Irfan, a girl who rode her bike through the country. How inspiring is that!”
And yet, even Zenith and her mother conversed with Umair in English. “I can’t do anything if the people I am talking to just naturally begin conversing in English,” he points out.
Probably, the casual tone of the series has inevitably lead to English conversations, simply because it’s a language that Umair and most of his interviewees are comfortable with. It makes for interesting content – but it could have been so much more powerful in our native language, inspiring not just the privileged minority but the majority who don’t have the wherewithal of purchasing a heavy bike but would enjoy watching its journey, who may even be adventurous enough to take their own tours, in their more rudimentary vehicles.
More of Pakistan, less of celebrity culture please
I have another crib: three episodes down, Raahi has coursed through Punjab and Umair has been shown meeting his friends and dining with them.
Some of them are hardcore bikers and their recollections give you a whiff of the adventure attached to riding in the open air.
At the same time, the stories of the lands that Umair is visiting seem to recede into the background. There is very little about the villages that he is traveling past and even in Multan, his meeting with an aspiring singer and visit to the bazar flits by within the blink of an eye.
Initially, Umair had observed that the Islamabad to Lahore motorway did not allow motorbikers which is why he would be riding down the Grand Trunk Road, the age-old route that connects Punjab’s prime locations.
His travels, however, are not very visible. I would have preferred to see the gritty dhabas and the rustic villages along the way than zone in on the glossy Harley Davidson showroom that he landed into in Lahore.
“All that is coming up!” Umair promises me. “There were times when I just collapsed on to a charpayi and slept through the night.” These scenes, I think, will prove to be enjoyable.
He goes on, explaining the process that lead to the series, “I came up with the idea back in 2017 but it took me a while to research into how I would go about it and get a sponsor on board. There were all these places that I wanted to visit, people that I wanted to meet but ultimately, the story is written by the road itself. There were so many experiences that I had that I could create four more web-series out of the content!”
“I wanted Zeeshan Parwez to produce the series because I knew that anything I could imagine, this guy could animate it. And the animations have really worked not just in order to engage the audience but also at times when we are talking to people who don’t have video or photographic footage of their adventures. In a later episode, we’ll be meeting a mountaineer who has climbed the K-2 peak more than anyone else. He’s a porter at the K-2 base camp and he doesn’t have any video footage. That’s where the animations come in.”
For some of the audience, the show’s appeal may lie in the famous friends that Umair has been meeting so far and the fact that he, himself, is a popular rockstar.
A particular segment, where he goes plant shopping in Kasur with Ali Azmat, is entertaining, with the Junoon front-man bargaining and quipping in pure Punjabi.
For me, the more interesting aspects are the parts where Umair goes soul-searching, talks about slowing down life’s pace in order to appreciate smaller blessings, poses an introspective question to his audience.
There is a part where he says that he misses his mother. It’s a poignant, sweet moment. He has deliberately grown his beard and hasn’t bothered with his hair because, he explains, “when you’re riding your bike 18 hours a day, your hair is bound to go flat. I wanted things to look real.”
The web-series is great although maybe it needs a few additional doses of reality. We see enough of the rich and famous on social media, TV and in the social pages of glossies. In contrast, I would have enjoyed seeing Umair visit a market in greater detail or be in an extended conversation with a basic shopkeeper, a vendor down the road or a farmer cultivating his land.
Even if the focus of the series is primarily on bike riding, a bit more on the culture of the places he visited and the emotions that reign in the region could have added some much needed grit to the glamour.
Umair said to me, “It’s great that we’ve been getting all these foreign vloggers to come into Pakistan and tell their stories but we really don’t need to always have ‘gora validation’. We have so many young, promising kids within our own country, who, with the right support, could show how beautiful Pakistan is, to the world.”
Easypaisa Raahi is a case in point. It is a show that is shot beautifully but could be better – perhaps, in its successive episodes it will be better. It does make you want to get on a bike and roam the country. I think that, for Umair Jaswal, that’s a mission accomplished.