April 03, 2020
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Bulle Shah's Boys

With Indian musicians fixated on remix mantras, from across the border come invaders riding a frothy surf

Bulle Shah's Boys
Bulle Shah's Boys
Black and white images of an ethereal Pakistani beauty, Zara Sheikh, light up our TV screens as she tries to do a Waheeda Rehman from Kaagaz Ke Phool, while her Gregory Peck-meets-Dev Anand co-star Shaan enacts a smitten Guru Dutt. All set to one of the most soothing tracks we’ve heard in ages, Khamaj, by Pakistani band Fuzon.

Compare this to Shefali Zariwalla’s suggestive gyrations in one of the two "latest remixes" of the old Guru Dutt classic ‘Kabhi aar, kabhi paar’. It doesn’t take a classical musician to figure out what’s happening: while Indipop is plumbing the dark recesses of remix land, good original music from across the border is not only filling the void, but also winning over millions of fans.

The occasional Pakistani artiste has always been appreciated in India, whether it was the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the Pakistani Carpenters, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan. Singers like Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum and Abida Parveen have a fervent Indian following. But it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that popular bands and pop acts like Junoon, Ali Haider and Strings truly started crossing over. Junoon’s Azadi went on to become the highest selling album in South Asia over 1998-99. In fact, it sold a million copies in India alone (by comparison, an Indipop album is considered successful if it sells 25,000 units).

Today, on MTV, you’ll see Pakistani videos by Fuzon, Strings, Hadiqa Kiani and Shamaila Khan 4-6 times a day. They are as popular on rival, Channel [V]. "We have at least one request for a Pakistani song per episode of each request-based show. Dhaani by Strings even featured on our Request No. 1," says Amar K. Deb, head honcho, Channel [V].

Bands Fuzon, Junoon, Aaroh and singers like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Shamaila Khan have all made several promotional trips to India this year. Strings just hit six cities as a part of their third India tour in 2004. ‘Sarhadon Ki Jugalbandi’, an Indo-Pak peace concert held recently in Delhi, pulled in huge crowds, eager to watch their favourite Pakistani artistes perform live.

The easing of visa restrictions certainly has helped, but there’s much more to the popularity of these cross-border acts. One reason: India never really produced a second line-up of Indipoppers after the Alisha Chinais, Shweta Shettys and Baba Sehgals of the early ’90s. One-hit wonders like Viva and Band of Boys owed much to marketing and too little to musicianship, and did nothing to fill the ensuing gap.

Their Pakistani counterparts, in stark contrast, are genuine talents who’ve already established themselves at home and have a considerable fan base in India, thanks to piracy and the Net. Harry Maini, bassist from Mumbai-based band Bhang Lassi, tries to explain: "To cross over, they have to be exceptionally brilliant. What we usually get here is the creme de la creme of their pop-rock tribe."

The Pakistani film industry is small, and piracy is rampant, one reason why many of Pakistan’s talented artistes stick to albums that aren’t film soundtracks. Once stardom at home happens, the obvious next step is to look eastward for more money, larger audiences. Points out Junoon’s Shehryar Ahmed: "Pakistan doesn’t have movie stars like you do in India. We only have rock stars and cricketers."

These ‘rock stars’ come complete with readymade albums and videos and all that the Indian music companies do is buy the rights to sell them here. It’s a win-win situation for everybody—the music company has less work to do and the artistes get a Bollywood trampoline to international recognition.

Pakistani pop/rock also has a distinctive sound unlike most Indian pop music where identity seems to have been subsumed by filmdom. The distinction between pop and film song eludes virtually everyone, musicians included.

So how has Pakistani music carved out this distinct niche? Avers Shafquat Amanat Ali from Fuzon: "Our music industry is still in its experimental stages which is why we innovate a lot more, with newer, varied sounds." Innovate they most certainly do, drawing as much inspiration from Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath as from Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. In India, barely anyone other than Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy or A.R. Rehman share that sort of musical nous.

Many Pakistani bands have also made a conscious effort to woo Indian audiences, perhaps why lyrics nowadays are seeing a drift from chaste Urdu towards a flavoured, old Hindustani. Strings sings about a ‘dhaani chunariya’ (green veil), while Fuzon laments ‘Mora saiyan mo se boley na’ about a sulking lover. Even Junoon has slowly moved from its Sayonee brand of Sufiana lyrics to ‘Garaj Baras Sawan Ghir Aayo’. "Using basic Urdu and Hindi is always better because that way audiences in both countries can understand our songs. It’s a bad idea to sing in the language you hear in the ‘samachars’ and ‘khabarein’ if you want to reach out to the masses," reasons Bilal Maqsood from Strings.

Bollywood is beckoning spiritedly, so the logic must be right. Pooja Bhatt’s recent film Paap featured Ali Azmat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan on its soundtrack. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Hyderabad Blues Part 2 has Fuzon with two of their hits. Another band, Aaroh, makes its debut with the title track on Vijay Mallya’s Rakht. "We want to see Bollywood go the Matrix/ Mission Impossible way, hear a lot more rock songs in Hindi movies," says Nabeel Nihal from Aaroh.

Mahesh Bhatt has apparently signed on five Pakistani bands for his future films. And now Strings have bagged themselves a song on the Spiderman 2 soundtrack being released in India. Strings’ Bilal is categorical about his Bollywood preferences: "If it’s a Farhan Akhtar flick, we are on."

So, while Indipop’s remix gurus are busy fighting over who’s imitated whose Chhod do Anchal remix, Haroon Rashid, one of Pakistan’s more successful pop stars, is quietly readying to release his next album in India. So is Aaroh. And Ali Azmat.... Well, looks like it’s time the Indian pop music industry took some sane advice from ’70s Swedish ‘supertroupers’ Abba: Sing a new song, Chiquitita.

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