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First person: Tunes, TV and talent

September 08, 2013
The musician-turned-actor talks television, music and everything else in betwee. — Photo Mohammad Farooq
The musician-turned-actor talks television, music and everything else in betwee. — Photo Mohammad Farooq

Junaid Khan cuts a sharp look these days. The grungy look of his Call days is behind him. Wearing a white t-shirt and black jeans, Junaid looks crisp and clean. He’s neither lanky nor is he buff. Junaid is, in a word, fit.

Tracing him for the interview was a revelation in itself. Nailing the actor-musician down for a couple of hours is no easy task. The reason: Junaid has been shooting round the clock. But through it all, he maintained a no hang-ups attitude. He’s honest as he traces his years as a musician and talks freely about fame, music and everything under the sun.

His career as an actor has taken off but for many, Junaid’s real game is his music. And, like many a mainstream front man, Junaid has separated from the entity that landed him fans in and outside Pakistan. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that many find similarities between Junaid (the singer) and Scott Stapp (Creed) and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden).

The erstwhile band is Call, the Lahore-based rockers behind hits like Nishaan, Pukaar, Ho Jaane De and Laaree Chootee.

As I ask him about Call, Junaid takes his time and is clear that he’s just not interested in carrying out any sort of vendetta against anyone. His departure though is reflective of a larger picture.

The last couple of years have seen almost all major bands go through lineup changes, with Strings being the one exception. Slowly but surely, the guitarists start singing more and more to the point that the vocalists eventually move on.

Ali Azmat and Salman Ahmed went through this process with Junoon and in recent years, Farhan Saeed and Gohar Mumtaz went through it as well. “A band isn’t just about music. It’s about ideology, respect, passion, creative input and a certain degree of compromise,” says Junaid and continues: “When band members manipulate each other or get insecure in their own space and start encroaching, it becomes an issue.”

The real problem, says Junaid, is insecurity about fame itself. “To a huge sense, insecurity drives you to succeed but when that insecurity is about attaining fame and the limelight, it can be a deal-breaker.”

In Pakistan, original band members no longer stick together. Noori is still carrying on but the band’s broken up with the popular drummer Gumby as well as groovy bassist Mohammed Ali Jafri time and again. Meanwhile EP, Aaroh and Jal are all functioning without their original singers.

Junaid, though, is clear about why bands make it in the West but not here at home. “We don’t exactly have record labels. One major record label is monopolistic and unhealthy for the industry. In the West, bands are tied under contracts with labels. A label will dictate and even if band members want to go their separate ways, they just can’t.”

While Call’s music videos had a penchant for being seriously dark (Shayad, anyone?) it was the Umar Anwar directed video of Ho Jaane De that made Junaid stand out as a front man and played to his strengths. But the video and the feedback it generated couldn’t keep Junaid in the band.

“It was time to move on,” says Junaid about his decision to pursue music as a solo artist. And he’s clearly done just that, having released three singles with more to follow in the months ahead. His single, Keh Do, is a funky ballad featuring ex-Junoon member Brian O’ Connell. In fact, it’s a rather pleasant and welcome departure from the really dark and brooding music videos that seem to be everywhere on television.

Right after this interview, Junaid is heading to a jam session. Those wondering if they will see Junaid strut his stuff as a rocker onstage have reasons to rejoice as he is gearing up for a tour of the US next year.

Small screen break

Like many of his musical contemporaries, Junaid Khan has also gone down the acting route. Alongside Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar, Junaid is amongst the new crop of rising stars. Sure, Fawad and Ali Zafar are ahead of him in terms of popularity, but Junaid isn’t too concerned about others.

Not that his thespian turn is completely unexpected. Junaid acted in theatre during his college days and always had the acting bug. His television debut was in 2010 with the sitcom, Kabhi Na Kabhi. With his next acting gig in Dil Ki Lagi, Junaid earned a prestigious Lux Style Award nod for Best Actor.

However, Junaid went mainstream in 2011 with the play, Mujhe Rootnay Na Dena. Mehreen Jabbar’s Maat-e-Jaan, then paired Junaid with the hugely talented Sanam Saeed and the rocker finally established himself as a credible actor.

Not oblivious to the rise and fame of Turkish plays in Pakistan, Junaid admits that some of the plays are extremely popular and that serials like Fatima Gul, Ishq-i-Mamnu and Mera Sultan are all the rage.

“Take the automobile industry. Importing a car means paying some serious duty. Most can’t afford that so they are perfectly content with the Toyota or the Suzuki. Now imagine you can import a Porsche for the same price as a Toyota — what will you go for? That pretty much sums up the Turkish drama fame. The budget and production value is high. They are quality plays and they are dubbed in Urdu. So, of course people are watching. But the obsession has died down. Serials like Mera Sultan are popular but not all Turkish plays are generating a buzz.”

Junaid Khan is clear that while Lollywood gives a somewhat sleazy vibe, television as an industry is better and cleaner.

“To the outsider, it may seem glossy or dirty but it’s not like that at all. We have intelligent actors and sensible directors. The actors come from decent families. There are no tantrums or diva-esque behavior. It’s a great place to be,” says Junaid emphatically.

But, like every industry, television has its setbacks. The regressive themes can be a downer for many. But Junaid has a different take on it: “It’s great that new film-makers are coming up and making films. But by and large, our film industry has struggled. Cinema is a large canvas, catering to all sorts of people, while TV soaps are primarily aimed at women. So, there are parameters that must stay in place. Our television directors work just as hard as if it were a film and that passion fuels the production. This is why our serials are popular in the US and India and with South Asian diaspora all over the world.

As we head towards the end of the interview, it’s clear that Junaid’s happy with the way things are progressing. At 31, he is happily married, and doesn’t shy away from admitting that his is an arranged marriage. It’s a partnership that works, he says. I grill him about working with beautiful actors and how that goes down with the Mrs, and Junaid breaks into a huge smile and says that his wife has no issues because she understands the demands of the job, and that he was already in the limelight when they got married.

Hailing from the city of Lahore, the singer-actor has shifted to Karachi because of his work, but says the ever-present threat of violence doesn’t daunt him. “I try to stay away from it all and focus on my work,” he says.

And with a number of plays in the pipeline, Junaid Khan certainly will have a lot to focus on. “I am both a musician and an actor and which part goes ahead remains to be seen. I’m pursuing acting but I will keep on making music.”