About eight months back, in March 2021, it was cold and frighteningly dark outside Shamsi Studios in Karachi — a popular shooting location for commercials, film and television — and, quite frankly, the ambience made me wonder why I was out there, in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of the night.
Inside, however, the setting couldn’t have been more different. Packed with enough bodies to raise the room temperature to an almost muggy level, the set was alive with the sound of music.
Azaan Sami Khan’s music.
You might have already seen 'Ik Lamha’s' lavish music video, whose set I was visiting that day. The song was initially set to debut months ago, but was pushed back to December 25.
It is a starkly melancholic, filmi offering that, in Azaan’s own words, is inspired from a portion of his life. The song is a part of Main Tera, his debut album that was conceptualised right after his soundtrack stints for Parey Hut Love and Superstar; it too, had taken its sweet time getting made during the coronavirus pandemic.
Azaan had shared the songs of Main Tera with me after they were recorded. After letting the songs grow on one’s mind — as all good albums tend to do — looking at 'Ik Lamha' come to life was a gratifying experience.
Azaan, dressed in a tux with a slickly styled hair-do, crooned in front of the camera. With little wiggle room on the floor — and the fear of stumbling into the frame — I snapped a picture from far, far away. One could have sworn they were in the thick of a grand movie production, complete with a lost-in-thought director Mohammad Ehtashamuddin, who was designing shots in his mind (he had also directed 'Main Tera’s' music video).
Azaan Sami Khan’s latest song 'Ik Lamha' is inspired from the singer-composer’s own life, which is why he wanted to include it in his debut album rather than hold it back for a film soundtrack
Ik Lamha is set in 1964, at the grand nightclub Roma Shabana (inspired by a real life nightclub of the same name, though the real one was decidedly less grand) where Azaan sings his bleeding heart out. It’s a sad number about unfulfilled love.
“We’re going to create a computer-generated version of the old city for the song’s opening,” Azaan had told me then. His last music video, 'Tu', starring Mahira Khan, also boasted a lot of visual effects. The effects for 'Ik Lamha' were done later at Wijdaan Studios, also in Karachi.
Standing with Azaan on a balustrade overlooking the shots that were getting ready, an assistant from the production guided my eye to a series of replica paintings (he mentioned Sadequain by name, amongst others). The production designer had gone the extra mile, the assistant said. You might not even have noticed the details in the video.
Despite being young and ambitious, Azaan had little acting experience at this point (remember, the song was shot months before his acting stint in the Hum TV drama Ishq-i-Laa) — however, even then he had a clear idea of what the camera required from him: a dash of filmi performance sans any hamming.
His co-star had much more experience in the craft. Overdressed in the way that the eye went directly to her, and her glistening, embroidered yellow suit, Maya Ali flashed a smile in my direction and began posing for the camera, making a heart with her hands; happy and relaxed at one moment, her expression changed to anguished heartache as soon as Nigah Hussain, the choreographer, gave her the cue.
About an hour later, Azaan and I had sat down to talk. In an era of little originality, remixes and singles, why make an album, I had asked. Like Icon’s last experience with Azaan, a string of answers, connected by an overall thought came my way:
“Because, I feel it is every artist’s duty to give their listeners an authentic, genuine body of work,” he started.
“Other than it being my first album, it was never about chasing a hit,” he said. “By chasing a hit, this is what I mean,” he elaborated: “My job is to give at least two or three songs that will help promote the film…
“Unfortunately — or fortunately — in Pakistan, soundtracks serve mostly as a marketing tool. That’s a tragedy, but it is true. Luckily, I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great directors who allowed me room to flex my creativity but, at the back of my head, I know that a hit is what’s required.”
Azaan took a quick breath.
“I feel, when we look back at the 2010s, maybe 40, 50, 100 years from now, the way we look back at the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, I feel our era will be considered a very dark time for music in South Asia.”
After developing a habit of delivering singles — and not entire albums — the music industry is happy only delivering remixes, he explained.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with remixes, what I’m saying is that everything became about chasing a hit. When a producer gives me three-and-a-half minutes to deliver a hit that is going to define me for the next three or six months, it’s my job to try to make the catchiest song, but not necessarily the best song.
“I would throw all the tricks into it to make it work. But then I’m not trying to give my listeners the best of me. I’m trying to hook them. It’s almost like a drug. I don’t believe that you can connect with an artist from a single,” he added.
Azaan has nine songs in his album Main Tera — some of them, like the title song, 'Tu', 'Ik Lamha', 'Jadugari' (whose music video will be shot soon) — were, arguably, more commercial in nature, he said.
“There are other songs that aren’t as commercial, yet they have ‘a’ audience — and that’s the beauty of an album. An album will have that one song, that may be for somebody, but not everybody.”
“I wanted to make something that is more Azaan,” he continued.
“When I’m scoring for a soundtrack — whether it’s for a drama series or a film, for me, the story is about those characters. If I tried to exude my own personal emotions on them, then I would not be being honest to those characters. But this album…this is me.”
Overlooking the set, almost lost in thought, he mused: “I have been told that there are songs in the album that feel more filmi and would be better suited for a movie’s soundtrack than an artist’s album — 'Ik Lamha' being one of them — and that they should’ve been held back.
“But 'Ik Lamha',” he continued, “is a song that I have written about a moment in my life. That’s why it’s important for me to put it in the album.”
“I needed to do something that was very different from my film soundtracks. I would have become repetitive, and I wanted to do this — and now that I have, I’m yearning to do a soundtrack, because I’ve found the album to be very emotionally exhausting. Each song comes from a certain place of my life, it takes me back to that place of happy and not-so-happy memories.”
Turning a shade melancholic, Azaan rejoined Maya on the stage with the right mood. On the word “action”, he wiped a tear from her eye, twirled her to the end of the stage, and then slowly parted her hair from the back. The shot — and the 10-or-so retakes from different angles — were pitch-perfect, like Azaan’s song.
Ik Lamha was released on YouTube on December 25, 2021
Originally published in Dawn, Icon, January 2, 2022