In a span of just four years, Atif Aslam has released three albums, won countless awards and has developed a massive following in and outside Pakistan. Its not exactly rags to riches and yet his success story remains unique. In this interview with Mag4you.com, Atif Aslam reveals all…
A star is born
"I always dreamed of being a rock star as a kid," says Atif smiling.
At the age of just 25, Atif Aslam is living his dream.
With three albums to his credit, in a span of four years, the mess of a break-up (with his former band Jal) behind him and a mass appeal that extends all the way out to India and beyond, Atif Aslam's story is truly unique.
He is sitting on a sofa in denims, a polo top and his guitar on his lap when we meet.
It's a crisp Sunday afternoon and Atif has a hectic schedule ahead. He is flying back to Lahore and is then heading for a massive US, UK and Canada tour.
We meet the morning after the Atif Aslam Lookalike-Singalike contest, where five men, who adore Atif, belt out Atif ditties, imitating his antics, attempting to impersonate the man himself. Atif came to the finale and picked the winner himself.
"It was a little bizarre," admits Atif and continues, "but a good effort. Some of those guys were confident, others had a decent voice but Gibran matched my style more than the others so it had to be him."
As a person, Atif is friendly, open and confident. What drives him is his ambition to bowl out the world. He doesn't look at Asians as his target market. The world is his stage and he is here to perform and entertain.
What sets him apart is his ability to mould himself, that elastic factor.
Whether it is through lending his vocals to Indian films or dancing with Aaminah Haq at the Lux Style Awards or going out all-rock on a single like 'Hungami Halaat', Atif is willing to bend and break norms to make his mark.
His latest is his new album, Meri Kahani.
A sharp, conscious turn from his commercially hit album Doorie, and a return to form, the kind one first witnessed on his debut record Jalpari.
Meri Kahani sees Atif don the roles of singer, songwriter and lyricist. But most importantly it sees the various emotions of the man that is Atif Aslam. Not surprisingly, it is a mixed bag. And even though Jalpari remains the best Atif Aslam record, Meri Kahani shows off his skills as an artist and his will to experiment. To make sure that it is his brand of music, Atif brought in Overload men Farhad Humayoun, Shiraz Siddique and Mahmood Rahman to play on the album.
"I did Doorie but afterwards I wanted to do my kind of music. Meri Kahani is just that. It is an album that is filled with personal reflections. I got Overload guys involved because I love their music, especially the Pappu Saeen bit and it was fantastic working with all of them," says Atif.
The record comes after Atif received severe criticism for Doorie, the smash hit album that consolidated his position firmly in India and Pakistan. At the same time, it brought out criticism on the fact that the album was purely commercial and Indianised.
But Atif has never shied away from criticism. His defense has always been one, breaking into the Bollywood-friendly Indian market.
"A commercial album has the power to hit the masses. To me making commercial music is a bigger challenge than anything else. If I'm singing songs that I don't really believe in and are not challenging me as a musician and they become a hit, that to me is an achievement," explains Atif.
Today Atif Aslam is more restrained and self-assured than he has ever been before.
But this self-assurance has taken its time. Atif may have become a huge star but his beginning was shaky and rather controversial.
There was the Jal-Atif controversy which aroused questions about his debut album and the well-known debacle of writing credits.
"That wasn't the only thing. When I began, I wasn't accepted. Back when I was starting out, Noori was huge. I went to Ali Noor and made him hear 'Aadat' and he thought it was crap. I was very discouraged. Gumby then said to me that the song's good. I would go to channels and they would be in a blackmailing mode. If one channel was airing a video, another wouldn't," says Atif of his struggling days.
Atif Aslam has had no backing in the industry and neither did he have parents who were dishing out finance to record his album.
Coming from a middle-class background, Atif found his groove playing at colleges.
'Aadat' first made buzz through the Internet. 'The video released and a star was born. But no one could've predicted where this star would go.
Jal broke up and Atif went solo. Jalpari was released and soon, Atif rolled with the punches. He was destined for bigger things. Soon India came calling. And from thereon, there has been no looking back for this star.
Last year Atif picked up Best Music Album for Doorie at the Lux Style Awards. Among other countless awards that he has to his credit includes the prestigious Tamgha-e-Imtiaz award from the government of Pakistan for portraying a positive image of Pakistan abroad.
Pros and cons
Criticism and stardom, it seems, go hand in hand. Where Atif was singing to packed houses, in and outside Pakistan, there has also been some criticism.
And that has been changing to fit the Bollywood mould.
Atif has sung for a variety of films like Kalyug, Zeher, Bas Ek Pal and Race but most of the films have been average projects (barring Race) and Atif has been criticized for letting his own compositions go under the knife of Indian music directors.
"There have been times when I have sung tunes that I'm not too crazy about. Sometimes directors listen to me and sometimes they simply say no to my ideas. Like Race for instance. I never wanted to sing, 'Meri Bahon Mein Aa.. .'. I wanted those words to be changed but I was told no. So I tried to sing it a little differently. The reason I go for Bollywood projects is simply because they help in capturing a wider audience," justifies Atif.
While pure pop and rock loyalists have frowned upon Doorie, that album increased Atif's star power to a whole new level.
It was Indian actress Bipasha Basu who vouched for Atif when the star-studded Race was being made.
The high profile film is one of the biggest grosser of this year, in and outside India and featured huge stars like Saif Ali Khan, Anil Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif, Akshaye Khanna and Sameera Reddy.
Atif's single on the Race soundtrack, 'Pehli Nazar' has been a massive hit. A little while later it turned out that the tune was a rip-off of a Korean tune.
"I never knew that. I hope that such things don't happen again," admits Atif. But despite the plagiarism bit, 'Pehli Nazar' remains one of the biggest hits of 2008, right here and in India as well.
The local scene
Right here at home, Atif Aslam remains an unmatchable singer. His vocals have been off-key many a times, but he has improved as a singer and a live act tremendously. The experience of world tours has armed him with the know-how of dealing with different kinds of crowds.
And he maintains an image that stands out. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Atif avoids stylists and lets his brother Shabaz Aslam manage his wardrobe as well as career.
This team-up has also had its fair share of criticism.
"As far as my image goes, I think Shabaz has done a great job. They were some mistakes. He has made some blunders but now he knows exactly what I want, what looks good so I'm pretty happy with that," Atif says of his equation with his brother.
On the management front, Shabaz Aslam suffers from a strange reputation. Industry insiders maintain that he is harming Atif's career.
But Atif brushes these stories aside.
"He has straightened out a lot of people. Shahbaz has created a market for Atif. Making sure that I perform at Royal Albert hall in UK at such an early stage of my career, shows in Norway and Belgium, that isn't an easy task. He plays a bad guy but it doesn't mean he is. We always take money in advance. I don't play for free. And I don't do favours. Why should I charge any less? This is my money and Shabaz has made sure that these rules get implemented and I'm not taken for a ride," Atif sets the record straight.
This attitude comes after seeing first hand an industry that is still struggling despite growing in talent for more than a decade.
The local music industry still lacks a proper structure.
In the last few years, as musicians have gained experience of playing abroad and have understood the importance of doing decent live shows, live concerts here have become scarce.
Barring acts like Atif Aslam and Ali Azmat, both of whom do countless shows, more and more musicians are shying away from doing shows here.
The reason: lack of proper sound management, engineers, lighting and investment by promoters.
"I still try to do shows in Pakistan and not just the three main cities - Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad but others as well. Recently I have performed at Multan, Sialkot, Faisalabad and Sargodha. Nowadays schools and colleges are also facing threats so they aren't doing many live concerts.
The change we need is decent sound engineers, lighting. If a show is sounding great on the ground, it shows sound great on television as well. But it us who have to push for that change. I really think it's a lame excuse to use for not doing shows. Look at India, they have made films like Raja Hindustani but make a film like Black today," says Atif emphatically.
His frequent visits to India have given him the knowledge to differentiate between the two industries.
While they lack a pop industry, they have the infrastructure that has taken its time to develop. Atif maintains that to overcome these issues, the industry has to unite as a single force.
On a farewell note
"I see myself as a spiritual person," says Atif. He doesn't exactly come across as a spiritual person, in all honesty, but it is his personal belief that is truly surprising.
"In this industry I don't find time for myself and my god. The industry is bad, the people part and the business part. It is seductive and completely attractive but I fight that part. I don't fear losing the success and the money that comes with being a star. What I do fear is losing my originality," Atif reveals in a moment of vulnerability.
Rumour mills about Atif have been forever going on. His rise to super stardom has resulted in rivalries that go beyond professionalism.
"I know people who are threatened by me. I know who they are and I have heard and seen them bitch me out. But it doesn't frighten me. It makes me happy because it is a telling sign of my own significance within this industry," explains Atif.
Some might even take this attitude as smugness but to Atif, it is his way of survival. Pop stardom can be fickle and Atif understands it well.
It remains unclear what Atif will do next but with his passion and thrust to continue conquering hearts and minds, it is clear that for Atif, the journey has just begun.