Flashback: A local TV channel buys the rights of and plans to film/air the Pakistani franchise of the hit singing show, American Idol. Gossip circulates about whom the judges will be and eventually when nothing happened, the buzz surrounding the show fizzles out.
Fast forward several years and it’s finally happening. At the time this issue went into print, Pakistan Idol was due to air its first episode right before the weekend. We caught up with a contestant and the ‘Simon, Paula and Randy’ of the Pakistani franchise in between the filming of the show to talk about their experience of being a part of Pakistan Idol.
Meet the judges: Bushra Ansari, Ali Azmat and Hadiqa Kiani
“I find it really hard to be the bearer of bad news,” exclaimed Bushra Ansari. “Make me do anything except tell someone that their dream is over!”
I tracked down the well-known TV actor sitting in a room at a club in Karachi where PI is being shot. All decked up for the next shoot with her hair in rollers, Ansari was lounging around with fellow judge Hadiqa Kiani who looked very much like the style icon that she is in a seemingly leather jacket forming a part of her black-and-red ensemble with chunky jewellery.
Soon, the third judge, Ali Azmat, popped in and greeted us. While everyone had been on location for a couple of hours, he had only just arrived. “I don’t need to get my hair and make-up done!” he joked. Kiani stepped out for a little while when I began talking to Ansari about her PI experience. I later caught up with her outside in the hallway.
“I’ve been singing for a very long time, but I don’t think most people, or at least those from the newer generation, remember that,” Ansari explained. She mentioned how she’d grown up listening to proper, tasteful music and added that her own Sufi music album will be out soon.
“The show had to be adapted to the cultural sensitivities of the Pakistani people,” said Ansari. They (judges) couldn’t just simply act like those in the original show. Plus, she pointed out that each of the judges brought something different to the show — they each had their strengths and weaknesses that worked in favour of the contestants.
Although the numbers still aren’t clear (some say 11 while others say 15), the judges travelled to quite a few cities but due to an unstable security situation, they couldn’t hold auditions in all the cities they wanted to.
“Like Peshawar, for example,” said Azmat. “The contestants from Peshawar and Swat had to come to Islamabad to audition for the show.”
The determination of the contestants was sometimes ... over the top, says Ali Azmat. One very adamant, overage singer “who wasn’t even good” auditioned almost three times for the show. After his first audition, when he was told he was over the age limit, he went back to his hometown and had his family’s priest make him a baptism certificate that showed him to be younger than he was!
He then followed PI to the next city and tried again. He was ultimately issued a warning.
What kind of an artist makes the perfect Pakistani idol? I asked Azmat. “These guys are looking for the ‘whole package’ — someone who sings and is presentable, etc.,” he said, referring to his fellow judges. “I’m just looking for someone who can sing.”
“There is some prize money involved, but I’m not sure how much,” said Ansari when asked what the contestant will get out of the show. “An album and possibly a car. They will also get the launch pad they need.”
“The music industry has never had it so bad,” said Azmat. “There have been harsh times before but never like this. One has to do other things (such as host TV shows) in order to make ends meet. It’s difficult for established musicians to survive let alone new entrants.” Azmat jokes that there is a chance the contestant who wins might just start his own business with the prize money/offering, since that might be the more prudent thing to do.
“Most people who came on the show sang semi-classical or classic songs. For them singing pop songs turned out to be hard,” said Hadiqa Kiani, adding that as one of the judges, she was looking for someone who was well-rounded and could adapt to various genres of singing.
As a judge, Kiani relies on her instincts as well as her ear, mentioning that she would close her eyes to really focus on the song and see whether it managed to move her.
She also stressed that they must be original in their rendition of a song, “If someone is singing a cover of my song, I don’t want them to sing exactly the way I did. I want them to take my song and make it their own, I don’t want another Hadiqa Kiani.”
Being a contestant on the show I managed to speak to a few contestants about their PI experience so far. “It’s a dream come true. Sometimes, I can’t believe I’m actually here,” said a young lady from Faisalabad during the group auditions. “This is the first time I’ve ever been to Karachi and of course we’re learning a lot. I’m going to do my best to stay in the competition.”
Did she know what to expect when she heard about the auditions? “Oh, yes! I used to watch Indian Idol and imagine what it would be like to be a contestant on the show. When I heard about the PI auditions, I knew I just had to go. This is the first time I’ve been away from my family and I miss them very much. The downside is that we hardly get any sleep,” she added. “Sometimes we have to wait for hours and the shoots can be very long. I once went without sleep for almost three days! Of course that affects performance,” she added.