January issue 2012
Interview: Shahvaar Ali Khan
Shahvaar Ali Khan left a lofty, nine-to-five job to pursue his love for music. A native of Lahore in love with Mumbai, Shahvaar espouses that patriotism does not mean harbouring hatred towards India. His first single “NoSaazish, No Jung” is a peace anthem that draws inspiration from the words of political figures ranging from Gandhi and Jinnah to Imran Khan and Barack Obama. And his second song “Filmein Shilmein” is a sweet, nostalgic number that is featured in the Bollywood film Desi Boyz starring John Abraham and Akshay Kumar.
Newsline speaks to Shahvaar to find out more about this singer/songwriter who seemingly sprung out of nowhere and made instant waves in the world of entertainment.
How did you transition from the world of advertising to music?
The decision to return from Amreeka after Trinity College, giving up a plush corporate career in advertising and the company perks, was initially daunting to say the least. The world thought I had lost the plot! I remember the time when I decided to take a long walk back home after leaving my ad agency. Strolling on the sidewalk, I intently noticed the haggard expressions of the corporate souls driving in their SUVs and Corollas. I realised that I had made the right decision.
My friends often call me a chameleon and I think this descript is quite apt. For me, life is like a huge 70mm big canvas film, where I need to play varied roles in the pursuit of my diversified passions. I never left advertising for too long since I feel music, literature, advertising and talking to the neighbourhood paan waala all fuel my creativity and, more importantly, help me stay connected with the ‘pulse’ of my audience.
Are you the first person from your family to get involved in the arts?
Both my parents went to the National College of Arts but they still emphasised traditional education. I think they were also fighting an internal identity crisis — meandering between ‘artists’ and ‘Pakistani parents.’ Hence, I went on to become a double major in Economics and International Relations with a minor in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Connecticut.
However, the emphasis on art and culture was almost dictatorial in my house. We are the kind of family where no one sits without reading material — even at the dining table. Very nerdy! I remember the time when my father used to make my brother and me sit through Raag Rang on PTV late night. We used to yawn and complain, but I guess it was an acquired taste and we got into it eventually. I am indebted to my father and grandparents for instilling the passion for films and music in me. From my mother I think I inherited not only academic leanings, but also the perseverance to chase dreams. My mom is a professor at NCA now, and she recently graduated with honours in her Doctoral Programme at Harvard University. I have seen her all my life with a book in one hand and a chamcha in the handi in the other! To say that I am proud of my mother is an understatement; she is my mentor. Also, my younger brother, Syre, is my confidant and his critiques are always direct and unapologetic. These kind of wake-up calls are crucial for all artists.
You aren’t exactly a household name in Pakistan yet, so how did your song “Filmein Shilmein” get picked by Desi Boyz? What was your reaction to your song getting selected?
Ironically, I am more familiar with the way the entertainment industry works in Mumbai than in Pakistan, although I wear Pakistan on my sleeve! After commuting between Boston and Lahore during school, I went off to Trinity where I was a part of a desi gang at college. Many of my close friends were from Mumbai and included aspiring actors and now established stars such as Ranbir Kapoor and the director of Desi Boyz Rohit Dhawan. I was already interested in music and screenwriting and in the company of filmi friends who ate, slept and drank movies, I further cultivated my appetite for entertainment.
Now I make at least two to three trips to Mumbai a year, either to see friends or for work. “Filmein Shilmein” was instantly appreciated by Rohit Dhawan when he heard it over a casual dinner in his room, while I was in Mumbai shooting for my “No Saazish, No Jang” music video. He felt it was the perfect thematic fit for his movie and said, “Shahvaar I want this song for my film.” I was pretty elated, because in the film industry nobody risks their reputation for a relationship — entertainment is serious business. However, I took it as a humble gesture for my friend’s first film, rather than a ‘break in Bollywood.’
Your song “Filmein Shilmein” is very nostalgic both in terms of its lyrics and the style of music itself. How would you describe your musical interests and style?
I grew up on a healthy diet of the likes of R.D. Burman, Salil Chaudhary and Noor Jehan. All I endeavour to do is carry that soul forward, albeit with a contemporary sound. I am also an avid listener of blues and country music so I guess “Filmein Shilmein” is an amalgamation of all these influences. I think the song has that old-world charm, albeit in a novel modern sound. Most Pakistanis feel “Filmein Shilmein” has an Indian filmi touch, whereas Indians get that Pakistani raw pop-ish tone.
You are very vocal about both your patriotism and your love for India. What is your stance on Indo-Pak relations and secularism?
I would like to say that I am a proud Lahori in love with Mumbai and I have no qualms about saying this aloud. The people of India have given me a lot of love, even though I am an extremely patriotic Pakistani. Secularism and peace for me are not theoretical concepts. My parents belong to different sects, different ethnicities and different linguistic traditions, yet both respect each other’s worldviews. I experienced diversity every day at home. Therefore, when I went off to study in the United States, the love-hate relationship most Indians and Pakistanis have with each other did not apply to me.
Likewise, Pakistan has been subjected to a battle of ideas since its inception. We, Pakistanis, have to make a choice today. Do we want Jinnah and Faiz’s Pakistan, which is progressive, secular and egalitarian, or Maudoodi and Zia’s Pakistan, which is rigid and pro-establishment? I have made my choice.
This article was originally published in the Annual 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Old School Tunes With a New Spin.”
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Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.