February issue 2009
A Musical Standoff
Among the nominees for the Best Singer (male category) at the Screen Awards 2008 held in Mumbai, were two Pakistani singers: Atif Aslam, for his hit number ‘Pehli Nazar’ in the multi-starrer Race and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, for ‘Teri Ore’ inSingh is Kinng.
Under normal circumstances, both Atif and Rahat would have flown down to Mumbai for the awards ceremony. But these are not normal times. The Mumbai carnage has put paid to any travel plans Pakistani artists may have been harbouring of crossing over.
Shakeel Ahmed, the well known comedian who did two stints of Comedy Circus for Sony Television and won an award, and also has a tremendous fan-following, had to leave India overnight when his attempt to return to shoot the programme was scuttled by right-wing Hindu elements, who roughed him up and forced him to leave. Madeeha Gauhar, who was to perform Bulleh Shah at a theatre festival in India, was warned not to attempt to do it, once again, by India’s right-wingers.
Comedians, singers, pop stars, bands and theatre artists (besides cricketers) have all fallen prey to the backlash of the terror attacks. But the brunt of the backlash has been borne by the music industry.
Prior to the terror attacks, Pakistani recording artists and bands were seen on Indian channels, in commercials and on the pop charts. Acts like Fuzon and Jal, and singers like Shafqat Amanat Ali were the absolute darlings of the Indian entertainment industry, until that fateful day in November.
Pakistani artists now face an unofficial ban on travelling to or performing in India. Some argue that this development portends well for our record industry, whereas others fear that this ban will simply prove to be the final nail in its coffin.
There are two kinds of acts that make it big in India. One is the kind associated with movie deals from Bollywood, whereas the other is associated with record labels and music videos. Some acts, like Strings, even go on to sign deals with various brands.
Jal has enjoyed tremendous success in India as a pop band. Gohar Mumtaz, the band’s lead vocalist, says, “There are many singers out there who counted on Indian movie projects and deals, which now might not come through due to this ban.” However, he adds, “Jal doesn’t depend on such deals. As a band, we’ve made a name for ourselves. We’ve been getting offers to perform in India, but for security reasons, we can’t take them up yet.”
A Pakistani artist who has been associated with Bollywood very closely is Shafqat Amanat Ali. He quickly established himself as a singer in his own right, after leaving the band Fuzon. He sang ‘Mitwa’ for the Indian film Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, which topped music charts in India for weeks and he was also the voice behind the critically-acclaimed song, ‘Yeh Hausla’ from the Indian film Dor. He has also sung for the films Hello, Mumbai Cuttings and Aashayen. Regarding the ban and the subsequent backlash, he comments, “I have not been informed that any of my work has been recalled or taken off the shelves. All of my ongoing projects have been put on hold for the moment.” He adds, “We’re waiting for things to cool down and settlements to come through; the Indian masses realise that terrorism is a global problem and Pakistan isn’t responsible for it.”
And what about the record labels? Shafqat answers, “They’re very unhappy that this has happened and understand the sentiments of the general public. Much of the anger and tension is focused around Mumbai, whereas there isn’t as much anger in the rest of the Indian nation.” There are many people who agree with Shafqat that India is a viable market for Pakistani bands. However, not everybody believes that India is the final frontier for Pakistani music.
John Louis Pinto, better known to the masses as Gumby, is a musician in his own right and plays the drums for other acts — Jal is one such act that uses his talents on their albums. He has a completely different take on what has happened. “In a way, the ban is good for our music industry, because now we will concentrate on our own selves rather than be inspired by outside influences.” Though Gumby himself is not directly affected by this ban, he is of the staunch belief that India is not the only place in the world to make it big. “We’re Pakistanis and we should announce that to the world by being Pakistani. Somebody once told me, ‘You need to grow where you’ve been planted,’ and to me, that strikes a chord. We should continue to make good music not because it should be big in India, but so that it is big throughout the world.”
But Shafqat Amanat Ali doesn’t think so. “Competition is what makes us stronger and if we compete with India, which is a stronger and better market, it will make us stronger and we will make better music than them. And it’s not an issue about money. There are many Indian filmmakers who produce movies on small budgets.”
Gumby’s statement, however, is echoed by some other artists who agree that Pakistani acts shouldn’t be dependent on India for their creative outlets. Artists like Ali Haider, whose hit ‘Purani Jeans’ struck a major chord with Indian audiences in its time, agrees with Gumby. “Although India is a better market, it is a market that takes advantage of the Pakistani artist. If you look at what an Indian singer earns and compare it to what a Pakistani singer is paid, the difference is staggering. Our industry should take notice of this and learn a lesson. We don’t need the Indian stamp to tell us we’re good or bad as artists.” Regarding the ban, he states, “I think India is being incredibly hypocritical at this moment in time. We’re still showing their channels, their movies, their songs, everything. And I think they’ve underestimated us.”
Haider’s album Jaane Do and his contribution to the soundtrack of the film Osama were to be released on Valentine’s Day. But both projects are currently on hold.
Gohar Mumtaz seconds with Haider’s sentiments: “If you look at any Pakistani music channel, you’ll see Indian songs. If you see any movie channel, you’ll see Indian movies, so why have they banned us when we have done nothing?”
Through the kaleidoscope of views of musicians, one thing appears clear: the Indian market is definitely important for Pakistani musicians, who have great difficulties performing in their own country. Whether it is the unstable political situation or uncertain times, in recent months, life has been tough for the Pakistani performers. The number of concerts has dwindled and one only hears of performances in small places like cafes.
While the future is uncertain, one thing is for sure: the Indian music industry doesn’t depend on us. To them, this ban means nothing more than a simple switch that can be flicked off, without any consequence.