Mirror, mirror on the wall

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest man of all?” Ali Haider of course! A name that needs no introduction… One of the biggest singers in the Pakistani music industry, he is what the youth of today grew up listening to. Tracks like ‘Purani Jeans’ – that every school and college-going person could identify with – made him a household name. Here we ask Ali about his Purani Jeans, his new album and make him clear out a few controversies. Here he is uncensored.

How many years have you been in the industry and how many albums have you released so far?
I started in the late 80s; I’ve been in the industry for nearly fourteen years. I’ve done thirteen albums, which no pop artist, from the time of Alamgir and Nazia and Zoheb till today, has done in Pakistan. And that, for me is a big achievement.

You’ve experimented with a wide variety of musical styles over the years, from basic pop to trance music, back to pop and so on. What is the reason for that?
I like to experiment, because if you do just one kind of music, you’ll never be able to make thirteen albums. You have to have that versatility and have to explore yourself to create something. I started off with filmi pop, then I came towards pop, then I came towards pop music, then I went a bit towards techno music – like ‘Qarar’ was totally techno. ‘Sandesa’ was a mish-mash of country and pop. Then I came up with folk music with ‘Zaalim Nazron Se’; I did soft rock later with Milestones. I like to experiment. If you don’t experiment, you’ll never grow as a musician. I don’t agree with people who say that they only listen to pop or rock music. I think they’re not unprejudiced. Music is a very vast field. When I was doing trance, I thought I’d never be able to do anything other than this. I got really thin, had spiked hair. I stopped listening to any of my old albums; I used to think, ‘Yeh mein ne kiya kya hai?’ These are just phases that everyone goes through.

The same goes for you image as well, that keeps on changing too.
Yes! Let me clear up one thing: I don’t change my image for commercial purposes; I never do something just because everyone else is doing it. I did trance music four years ago and people are beginning to understand it now. ‘Jadu’ wasn’t a major hit because people weren’t prepared for it. If I’d released it today, it might’ve been a hit.

Do you plan on re-releasing Jadu?
No, because I’m not in that phase any more. In ‘Dil Chahta Hai,’ Amir Khan’s image was totally lifted from the ‘Jadu’ video; the Indian newspapers mentioned that even the dance moves were copied from it. Our problem is that whatever comes from India, we immediately think that it’s very ‘in’ but if someone does it here, no one will pay any attention.

Did that happen when you released ‘Chand Sa Mukhra’ in India?
Yeah, even when ‘Chand Sa Mukhra’ was released here in Pakistan, people were like, ‘What kind of album has he released with the Milestones?’ They didn’t accept it the way it was. Then I went to India, launched the album there, and made a video for ‘Chand Sa Mukhra’ and it was a huge hit in Pakistan. Same goes with ‘Mahi.’

It was a remix, right?
Yes. I’m a die-hard fan of Madam Noor Jehan. I really liked the song Mahi, and sung it to pay a tribute to her. A lot of people said that I ruined the song. I said that it is just a tribute; I cannot compete with the talent Madam Noor Jehan had. That program was seen by Archies India (an Indian record label) and they called me up from India and asked me not to fritter away the song. I went to India, re-recorded the song with the musicians there, and made a video. Wherever people listen to music – especially bhangra – it shot to the top. Even now when I go on tours, people ask me to perform that song. I’ve just come back from a tour of the UK, and even though Mahi was released 6-7 years ago, everyone was screaming for it. Sometimes I feel sad that people here don’t respect the musicians and artistes here, and when they go across the border, they automatically start liking them.

The Indian videos that you did like ‘Chand Sa Mukhra’ and ‘Sayonee Mera Mahi’ weren’t very well received by the Pakistani audience due to the dancing girls, the skimpy clothes and so on. How do you feel about the criticism?

It’s weird that, even without any such intention, something like this always happens. These things have been happening from the beginning. When I first started out performing. I would be really energetic and would take off my jacket, never my shirt though, and even then people had objections. Then the band I made with Milestones – we called it Araaf; we kept the name with some other intentions. Since. Araaf is the name of a Quranic Surah too, people deduced some other meaning from the name and we had to change the band’s name from Araaf to Akash. Chand Sa Mukhra was a video! For God’s sake, the world is advancing so fast, sirf shayad aik hi scene tha jo aisa tha, and these days it’s in every video. If you show something entertaining and commercial in a good way, I don’t find that to be wrong. Even in Mahi objections were raised because there were girls dancing in it.

The ‘Mahi’ video got censored a lot too.
I got censored to the extent that nothing was left in it. But people are smart; they’d managed to watch it on channel (V) and MTV. Whenever I’ve made a video, there have always been objections raised against it. I’ve just done a video and given it to Indus and they’ve already asked me to censor it.

It’s the story of this mohalla in Lahore. There are three guys who are in love with this girl. There’s this maulvi in the video as well who has this chul as to what’s happening in the video. It’s a typical mohalla’s story. Now they’ve asked to take the maulvi’s character out. How can I do that? He’s one of the characters in the video!

Sajjad Ali said in an interview on IM quite some time ago that the Indian record labels forced him to make such videos. Was that the case with you too?
No, that wasn’t the case with me. If you look at Indian pop, no one listens to it; you just see it sometimes on TV and even then you can’t watch it with your family. Only if a bunch of guys or girls are sitting together, they might watch it. If you compare Indian pop with Pakistani pop, here at least you have a collection of maybe a few really good musicians, like Vital Signs, Ali Haider or Sajjad Ali and from the new bands, maybe Fuzon or Noori. You won’t say that only their music is good; they have to have some other quality in them as well, only then you’ll listen to them. There are a lot of pop singers in India but no one is doing good work; there is nothing there except vulgarity. The ‘Tera Naam Liya To’ video I made was to answer people who said I could only make one kind of videos. I made the entire video here and the album just went to the number 1 spot on BBD Asia with the same video and song. My whole tour was a hit because of ‘Tera Naam Liya To.’

Do you think releasing your albums in India had a negative impact on your popularity in Pakistan?
Not at all, people make negative comments, but they’ll still listen to it if it’s popular in India. This has become a weird psychological cycle here; we’ll criticize someone and at the same time go and buy his/her album.

Your music is more on the commercial side, very pop, without any theme or message, right?
My basic focus is pop. I’ve never been inclined towards the classical side either, even though there are a lot of musicians who started out doing pop but have gone toward the classical side. My basic focus and style is pop music and I want to maintain that and keep polishing the variation in me.

Do you think you” do something with a message or a theme later on in your music?
There are always one or two message-oriented songs in each album. I think I’m a very good entertainer – I know how to entertain people on stage and my performances are energetic. I might start singing more ballads, but if you’re talking about message-oriented or serious or bahut hi Allah wale gaane, that I won’t do.

You were the first musician in Pakistan to come up with a trance album. However, it wasn’t very well received. What do you think were the factors behind that?

‘Jadu’ was released before its time. At that time, trance music was relatively new in UK, it wasn’t there in India and it wasn’t in Pakistan at all. No one had done trance music in Urdu and it was a big jump from ‘Saiyaan’ and ‘Mahi’ if I’d released it now, people might’ve had an idea of what trance music is. Plus the video was very bold too. I had a very different image in the video. I used to think that as you grow old and age, you change. However, people didn’t accept that change. Everyone asks for change, but they don’t accept it. The overall colorful image, the dance steps – people didn’t get those.

The ‘Jadu’ video was directed by Babar Sheikh and had a very different feel and look. Who was behind the concept?
It was Babar’s idea. We sat down and discussed it and I told him what energy, a colorful video, but I give Babar all the credit for the way he showed it.

You worked with the band Rushk on their album. How was that experience?
Excellent experience! There’s this new song I’ve done with them as well called ‘Goli Maar.’ It’s about this place called Goli Maar near Nazimabad. I might do a video for it as well. It’s a great song. I’m very open to all these ideas that have something new in them. I worked on two songs on the Rushk album, and Uns (a member of Rushk) says that the best songs on the album are the ones that I sang. Everyone liked it a lot, even though it isn’t my style of music. But if I listen to something new, I get totally absorbed in it.

You’ve worked in some dramas and a film as well. How was the experience like?
I started working in dramas in the beginning of my career. I’ve only done five plays, just to do something different. I know I have acting skills and I can act. I’ve worked with Shaira Kazmi, Zaheer Khan, Iqbal Ansari, etc., and I did a film with Sajjad Gul, so I’ve worked with the top-most directors and they’re happy with my work. But I don’t want to do a lot of it. I keep getting offers everyday. But music is my passion. It’s nice to do it once in a while, as it’s just a branch of entertainment. One of its benefits is that you have a lot of fun doing the videos. Experiment-wise, working in films was good. For the first time I felt that working in a film is like having a 9 to 5 job. You’ll have a shift from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, and then there’s a break and another shift from 4 pm till late at night. It’s a lot of hard work. But I think the Pakistani film industry still needs time. It was good for an experimental purpose, but you can’t make it. Your career. Not until more educated and talented people enter the field.

What do you feel about corporate sponsorships, as you’ve been signed up by Pakola and Lipton as well?
In corporate sponsorships, you get a lot of benefits. Like Lever Brothers, whom I worked with, they make the videos, launch albums, do concerts, and arrange everything; so in a way it becomes easier for you. You can concentrate more on your music than on publicizing your music, which is a big job. With corporate sponsorships things are very organized because they have large agencies working for you. The main factor is that it should be beneficial for both that parties it shouldn’t be that you see Ali Haider’s face but you’re thinking of the tea more than the music – there has to be a balance. A lot of corporations here put so many products in the videos that it looks bad. It’s enough if you say that this song was sponsored by XYZ at the beginning and end of the video as opposed to showing it again and again. Like showing the models eating Tulsa repeatedly. This is something I would term Jahalat. There’s a song coming in TV. You like it and then you see them eating chalia and you start hating it. What happens everywhere in sponsored videos is that the product is only shown for a few seconds and in a very subtle manner.

True. Even Vital Signs started out, they used to have very subtle shots of Pepsi.
Exactly. Now you see a guy picking up Tulsi from the floor, seeing the girl and falling in love. It’s not right. And you should hear the budgets of these videos. It’s insane. Like 40-50 lakh, jahalat hai. The directors are ripping off the sponsors as well. No one is serious. The directors think, ‘Tulsi’s sponsoring the video, let’s rip them off.’ They know the budgets of the videos and they make fools out of the sponsors. With 40 lakh, you can make 4 good videos that are of an international standard. The problem is that a lot of people who have money don’t have brains.

I heard that Lipton changed its policy and canceled this contract with you and Hadiqa.
No, nothing of the sort. It was a contract for 2 years, and then they renewed the contract for one more year. Lipton has 3-year themes: these days they have a family theme which will run for three years; before us, they had Nazia and Zoheb Hasan for a three year campaign as well. In their campaign, you sign a contract for two years, and if both the parties agree, the contract is extended for another year. In our case, we signed a two-year contract, and because the campaign went so well we extended the contract for another year.

When Lipton sponsored you and Hadiqa Kiani, rumors were rife about the two of you being involved. Was there any truth to those?
Hadiqa and I are still great friends. Hadiqa was married at that time, so there was no point in it. She’s a very nice girl and I respect her a lot for that. I know the way she used to work. To stay clean in this industry is a very hard job and she did it. I’ve known her for along time. She went for her first tour of the UK with me, and even then I really liked her. After Nazia Hasan, she was the one female artist whom I really liked there was something new in her voice, in her songs, we did a lot of tours together, and then coincidentally, we got the Lipton deal together as well. So a lot of people made up stories that we were having an affair, although there was nothing of that sort. When the news of her divorce came in the papers, people said that she got divorced because of me; I won’t say anything about Hadiqa, because she’s a friend and I respect her.

You were recently at the centre of a controversy regarding a party at your friend’s place involving a couple of models and yourself. What do you feel about it now?
I don’t have grudges against anyone. That’s one quality I have, thank God. Whoever planned that thing, it didn’t make a difference to me whatsoever and I’ve become more popular. Those who didn’t recognize me have started to recognize me now, so even negative publicity helps. At that time, I was really shocked. I think I don’t even do 5% of what those people who indulge in such activities here, especially in the showbiz industry, do. I’ve tried to be careful throughout my life. Whatever happened, whatever the motive behind it was, it wasn’t successful. It was just a news item that was played up by newspapers for a little while, and those who wanted to become popular with this news did. I thought that I should leave this country for a while. I’ve experienced a lot of fame but nothing like this. I used to go out of the house and 50 people would turn around to look at me. It was so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. But I’m more popular now, people want to see me perform more, my tours are going well; I’ve just come back from the UK and am going to Canada. USA, India and Dubai. I like to party a lot, but I don’t party as much as it seems I do. I go around, really happy and laughing. A party for me could just be an evening sitting with friends and watching TV, or talking to my family, so a lot of people get really jealous of me. I think that was one of the reasons behind it, which is why people were watching me for some time, noting what the timings of my coming and going were. It was a bad period, but when I look back, I feel I’m a really strong person new. Only I know what it felt to be the centre of attraction with the press waiting outside your home. Whenever I went out, people stared at me with this question in their eyes, asking if it was true or not. I didn’t leave my home for a month and used to wonder what I did to deserve this. Maybe there was something good in it from Allah. – I take it that way. After going through that time. I feel so strong. I think I can handle anything now. That was a chapter in my life that’s passed.

Since you’ve been in the music industry for fourteen years or so, how were record labels then and how are they now?
I think we’re regressing. Earlier we had EMI in Pakistan, which used to do everything professionally. They would launch an artist, you’d find out about album sales – like for Qarar I got the best selling award and got a gold disc. That feels good because it’s an achievement, and the press gets to know about it. Now it’s completely different. The record label waits till the artist brings a sponsor to make videos and to do concerts. The label makes no effort except to release the album. There isn’t a single record label in Pakistan who looks at XYZ artist, thinks he’s good and signs him up. When there was EMI, they released all the Vital Signs albums; they released my major hits like Qarar and Sandesa. We were kids who didn’t know how to record and mix an album or how to deal with the press. EMI was very organized and it used to do all that. Now we have to record our own albums, hire a studio, produce it ourselves, arrange concerts, and the only thing we do is give it to the record label and get our money out of it, which is kind of stupid as well. The record label is just a helping hand, that they’ll copy the albums.

True, like with Mizraab, their album continuously got delayed by a record label.
Exactly. Take Mizraab’s example. Their album would never have been released had Faraz not made four videos from his own money, or his fans hadn’t mailed the record label. It was only then that the company realized that their album was being demanded and hence it got released. No one is ready to take a risk. The record labels still come to the established artists, when in fact the releasing company should introduce new talent, like EMI did with us. HMV India had seen one of my old songs and they had asked EMI about me and EMI told me that they were asking about you, that it’s a big deal, and that I should go to India. These are all the efforts of releasing companies; we didn’t even know how to talk to these people.

What projects are you working on currently?
Launching the album in India, releasing a video, tours in USA and Canada. Apart from that I’m making another video with small Javed.

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