The ongoing war of the colas saw its biggest defection a few weeks ago when Meesha Shafi left Coke Studio to sign on as a judge for Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands. For Meesha, Coke Studio is the platform that launched her solo career. But this is in keeping with the person she is — forever moving, forever evolving.
I first came across the comment on YouTube many years ago, when the song it was written on was first released on Coke Studio. That song, titled Alif Allah/Jugni went on to become one of the most popular videos ever from Pakistan, and today millions of views later I can’t quite find that comment.
The comment itself was an expression of amazement at the sight and sound of the female performer. The commenter couldn’t quite believe how someone who was dressed in very modern clothes (she was looking like a consummate rock star in a red top with black leather jacket and gold chains) could sound so traditional and folksy.
Initially, the correlation makes no sense and yet within a Pakistani context it perfectly captures the appeal and wonder of Meesha Shafi. On one hand, there is her sense of style and persona, which is resolutely contemporary and frequently edgy. On the other, there is her powerhouse voice, which recalls the sounds of traditional singers in village fairs.
In a country such as Pakistan, where the wealthy urban elite often seem completely divorced in their language, customs and styles from the vast majority, Meesha Shafi represents a beguiling example of someone that seems to represent something from both worlds. The YouTube commenter was implicitly referencing a sort of cultural impasse in Pakistani society that very few seem able to traverse.
The first thing I asked Meesha was whether she was aware of straddling this dichotomy, and whether it was something she did on purpose. Her reply takes her back to her childhood home, and in particular the upbringing she had.
“Who I am is all because of the environment I grew up in, which was very progressive, enlightened and free. I am a child of privilege in that even though we had no money, we were a house full of artists. How we lived was very rooted in our culture and yet, at the same time, we were encouraged to be open to change. I often see people scared of things they don’t understand, and so [my art] often exists to challenge people and push them out of their comfort zone.”
Meesha’s mother, Saba Hamid is a famous TV actor who is still active in the Pakistani drama scene. Her grandfather, Hamid Akhtar, was a famous leftist journalist and writer. Her mother in particular helped Meesha cultivate indifference to fame for its own sake, and made her aware of its capriciousness. “Growing up with a famous mother could have gone either way but ultimately it resulted in me not being very fascinated at all. I always got to see what a famous person was like at home with the people they knew, and so that aspiration to fame was never the end game for me.”
Singer, actor, model, mother, yogi — Meesha Shafi juggles varied personas in her search for her true calling
Alif Allah/Jugni was perhaps Meesha’s first successful foray into the mainstream, and it launched a journey that saw her become acclaimed across several fields. This year, she will be appearing as one of the judges on the upcoming Pepsi Battle of the Bands, having released several songs with Cornetto Pop Rock and Khaadi, amongst others, during 2017. She was also recently the lead of Mor Mahal, an epic Mughal fantasy that is Pakistan’s most expensive drama series to date. She was a professional runway model for 15 years and has also appeared in Hollywood as well as Bollywood productions.
If there is a theme that remains consistent in her work, it’s a desire to embrace her many interests. “I don’t think that there is a defined ideology when it comes to my [creative] process. It’s very important to not be so structured — you have a rough idea and then you have to construct and deconstruct and that only happens if you follow the creative energy.” She also attributes her multifaceted career to how she started out in the creative fields, when she tried several things without managing to find much success anywhere.
“I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and for a long while bahut loor loor phiri (wandered aimlessly) trying to do several things and see if one of them stuck.” This period included stints in theatre, appearances in several music videos and a couple of TV serials. In her final year at the National College of Arts (NCA) where she was a regular member of the music society, she was approached by the band Overload to join them as their vocalist.
Overload had come together as a mix between a rock band and traditional dhol (large, double-ended drums) players. Their eponymous first album had received critical and commercial acclaim, and the inclusion of Meesha’s vocals elevated the band’s erstwhile instrumental-only sound. But the major problem was the timing.
Meesha recalls the first concert she performed with the band taking place in a university on December 29, 2007. That was two days after the assassination of the popular former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto which had led riots across the country. Bhutto’s death marked the low point of a particularly terrifying year, where a civilian revolt led against the military dictatorship led by lawyers had occurred parallel to the unleashing of terrorist strikes across the entire country by militants.
The catastrophes of these events affected, and continue to affect, Pakistan in many ways, one of which was the ravaging of the music industry. Concerts, which remained the backbone of the scene virtually disappeared save for rare, private, invite-only events. At the same time, as media investment rushed towards live news, music channels on TV also collapsed. Overload’s second album, Pichal Pairee, eventually released in 2009 and over two years after Meesha had joined them. In another telling sign of the music industry’s woes, the album was the first in Pakistan that had a digital-exclusive release.
Much like it’s cricket team, Overload ended up touring extensively abroad but didn’t get many chances to perform in Pakistan. The situation persisted after her success with Coke Studio, by which time Meesha had left Overload. Indeed, this year was the first time she performed a solo show at a public concert in Pakistan. “There is a term they use here called ticketed audiences, which means that instead of some corporate patron paying for the show and inviting their guests, you have fans coming in and buying tickets to see you. And while Pakistan had so many of those in the years right before I joined, they just disappeared right after.”
It’s perhaps the reason why, like many of her contemporaries, her singing has remained largely confined to Coke Studio performances, or songs for films. “It’s a climate which is extremely discouraging, and the feasibility is depressing, you know what I mean? You have to be very brave, have very thick skin to put that kind of blood, sweat, tears, money and resources into making even just a track, and then you have to know how to market it. A lot of people love to say that you should do you own music but while I respect that as an artist one has to ask what are we getting in return?”
That was one of the reasons that Meesha, again like many of her contemporaries, has returned to acting, having earlier left it after becoming a musician. But unlike the complexity and nuance of her place in music, her roles in films have often been very one-dimensional. She contests that claim about her character in Waar, a blockbuster action film where she played a double agent. But eventually, she concedes that local producers or directors “don’t know what to make of me. I feel they don’t know where to fit me, or how to sell me. They know that no one is going to feel sorry for me and they know I’m not going to play any victims either.”
Perhaps it’s an indictment of the virgin/vixen dichotomy of roles in local cinema, but Meesha’s role in Waar as well as in the Indian film Bhaag Milka Bhaag did little more than play up her looks. While her role in Mor Mahal is more layered, it still has her set as a scheming woman. She also had a role in the Hollywood film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though it wasn’t quite expansive. In many ways, it feels like her acting hasn’t quite found the range that she has found with her music.
What Mor Mahal has done well is shown off her ability to carry off a highly original personal sense of style. “How you look is a very fine tool of expressing yourself, even before you meet someone and say ‘hi.’ Often people are very conservative — I don’t mean that in a religious or modesty point of view — but in how we don’t let ourselves experiment. From a really early age I used to cut my clothes up and stitch them and paste and sketch things on my jeans. When I became a musician, I realised how it is an audio visual experience so why not do something where you’re enjoying yourself.”
And that is the key to Meesha’s appeal. Her ability to enjoy being herself allows her to express a very diverse set of experiences and interests. Her ability to put all of these selves out there often creates an appeal that feels at once contradictory, and also essentially Pakistani.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 4th, 2017