THE ICON INTERVIEW: IN SEARCH OF HIMSELF

Updated 26 Nov 2020

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Hair & make-up: Sajid's | Styling: Ehtesham Ansari | Photography: Abdullah Haris
Hair & make-up: Sajid's | Styling: Ehtesham Ansari | Photography: Abdullah Haris

Umair Jaswal is known more for being a rock musician than a traveller or philosopher. Yet, in the recently concluded online web series EasyPaisa Raahi, he took us along on a motorcycle journey across Pakistan, exploring its diverse cultures and people, all the while constantly introspecting on his interactions and asking lots and lots of questions. The show was not your traditional travel Planet Earth-esque show, but it was not a travel vlog either — it was somewhere in between and perhaps much more.

During the course of the show, Umair shed his angry rocker persona and became somewhat of a wandering dervish, but only in the most ‘burger’ sense of the word. After all, wandering dervishes don’t exactly ride around on heavy duty BMW bikes.

Icon caught up with Umair Jaswal, as he was preparing for the next season (and his wedding to actress Sana Javed — that he kept secret until it had already happened!) to find out about his journey, both in the show and beyond.

How does it feel now that the series has concluded?

UJ: To be very honest, I haven’t taken a single day off. It’s not done for me. While we were airing the last episode, I was working on the first three episodes of the next season. It’s been insane. I could really use a break. But rest is for the weak! [laughs]

Rockstar-turned-producer Umair Jaswal recently took the country along on his journey across the length and breadth of Pakistan. What prompted his wanderings and what was he really searching for?

But it’s not due out for another year. Is that how long it takes?

UJ: It does. So, it’s around nine months of non-stop constant work. The team gets rest for three months, I don’t. I have to constantly look at new talent, the narrative, the research etc.

Along with the show, you launched Umair Jaswal Productions. How was your first experience producing and writing for the screen?

I’ve been obsessed with this for the last three years. I was riding my bike up north in 2016-2017. That was a time in my life when I was going through a lot personally. I just wanted to escape and so I took my bike and decided to disappear for a while. While I was riding, I would see this breathtaking landscape and I would meet people and they would tell me such amazing things. It would inspire me on a human level. Every day there was something new. I was learning. I was out in the wild, absorbing a lot of stuff. [I was thinking] there is a lot of glitz and glam but why aren’t we seeing something real on television?

When we were planning this show, I went up to a couple of people, a few famous ‘rock star’ directors and they laughed off the idea. Then Zeeshan [Parwez] came in. He’s a brilliant guy, very open to ideas. When he came on board [as the director] he said, “This is your vision. This is your concept. I’m going to run with you on this one.” That’s how UJ Productions came into being.

We had locked down one very good scriptwriter, but every time I’d go through the script I felt I would be saying the name of a brand at the end — people here are so used to writing for ad films, they’re incredible writers but — it just wasn’t real. So I decided to write my own stuff. I said what’s the worst that can happen? I’ve written songs all my life. I write my own lyrics. I’ll give it a try. I’ll just start writing what I feel.

On this journey through the country, you’re riding mostly by yourself on a motorcycle. What was the scariest moment for you?

UJ: Riding wasn’t the hard part, even though I had some near-death moments here and there. Some were really ridiculous. I was up north riding on this really mountainous road. I go into this blind corner and my navigation is showing me that the road ahead is straight. I’m very dependent on my navigation up in the mountains as well because it shows me a curve so I can decide this turn at, say 120-130km/h and then go straight. If you want to take your bike out of the curve, you actually have to speed up. So, I speed up and turn to find a car blocking the road and four girls are jumping up and down and waving their arms at me. That was the scariest moment.

If I go straight I’ll blow these kids up, on the left is the mountain on the right is a steep drop to certain death. The bike stopped just 5m short of the group. My adrenaline was so high at that point that my hands were shaking. All the group wanted was a selfie. Imagine. We could’ve died for a selfie!

But none of that really challenged me. What was challenging was going to places where you would see people living in conditions that were unliveable. For example, Sindh broke my heart into a million pieces. I think that’s pretty evident with the episode as well. There’s extreme hunger, extreme poverty and criminal negligence. It feels like someone punched you in the gut. When that episode was about to air, I felt I wasn’t done with it. That’s when this line came to me… ‘Zinda hai to chup kyun hai?’ and people connected with that.

You mentioned Balochistan was the most surprising for you. What were your expectations?

UJ: Like that of any Punjabi man. You’re told ‘You’re going to Balochistan? They’ll take one look at your ID card and shoot you.’ Well, I was stopped. But they didn’t check my ID card and shoot me. They gave me chai and offered me food instead. Jazbaati hain woh loag [Those people are emotional] when it comes to their hospitality.

It was a difficult show because I’m very private. I’m not in the followers and numbers race. People open all of their personal doors to the public, but the one thing I’ve been particular about is that my personal life is private. I’ve still kept my privacy despite opening up in this show.

There’s this fear the media instils in your heart. I was on the Khuzdar highway, I reached Khuzdar well before the team. I went to the shop, had a smoke, bought a drink. There were these kids who were playing football in the market. We started playing football together.

Two men show up on a motorcycle. Their faces are completely covered by their scarf. They come close, they circle my bike and they circle me, twice. They started talking to each other and they’re constantly looking at me. I felt this sense of danger and fear. They reached inside a cloth bag and I felt, this is it, I’m done. Things went into slow motion when they took their hand out of the bag. Turns out it was a camera better than ours! They took their scarves off and came towards me, ‘Umair Bhai, we want to get a photo taken with you, we knew you were here!’ and I was in complete shock. [laughs] When they left, I felt dirty, for having this thought in the first place. They were innocent people. And that’s why it feels so good when people from Baluchistan reach out and say, ‘thank you, no one has ever represented us this way.’

The last couple of episodes on Balochistan were hauntingly beautiful. It wasn’t just the landscape but also your interactions with the people. I was told by the director, Zeeshan Parwez, that working on those two was a moving experience for the whole crew. It seemed to have left quite an impression.

UJ: In Balochistan, a few lines from the Atta Shad poem come in [the show]… if someone truly understood what he’s saying, woh tabah ho jaye [they’d be shattered]. He says ‘Kohsaron ki atta rasm nahi khamoshi, raat so jaaey tau behta hua chashma bolay.’ That line encapsulates the whole emotion of the whole province. That you can’t silence these people. Agar raat so bhigayee [Even if the night were to fall asleep], even if you can silence the mountains, you can’t silence the spring that’s flowing.

You’ve had this persona as this angsty, hardcore rock artist and then in the series there you are, a ‘burger’ malang [dervish] on a bike. Were you conscious about how this transition would be perceived by audiences?

UJ: The only question in my heart was, why would people be interested in knowing my story? It was a difficult show that way, because I’m very private. I’m not in the followers and numbers race. People tend to open all of their personal doors to the public, but the one thing I’ve been particular about over the years is that my personal life is private. I’ve still kept my privacy despite opening up in this show.

That’s true, most of your Instagram updates are generally about the two main struggles of your life — the gym and food.

UJ: Yeah [laughs]

Now that you’ve travelled across the country and tasted everything the region has to offer, what region has the best food?

UJ: Balochistan, hands down. These guys have mastered the art of daal [lentils] like nowhere else in the world. I would eat daal every day, all day. But there’s something about the meat there as well. Their bakra [goat] or dumba [sheep] is grass fed. It makes all the difference what the animal eats and how much the animal travels to eat every day. It wasn’t expensive either. I’ve always believed that Karachi is the food capital of the country. But when I went to Balochistan, the daal and gosht [meat] was just insane. It was slow-cooked and falls off the bone. Now I’m thinking about it. Thanks! [laughs].

As a person in the limelight, have you ever felt misunderstood?

UJ: Well, everybody is misunderstood. It’s just what you want to do about it. The biggest thing I’ve heard is that, ‘When we meet you, you’re the nicest guy on the planet. But your image comes across as somebody so angry.’ It’s fine. I don’t want to correct it, I don’t want to change it. It is what it is. As long as I know what I’m doing and I’m not trying to hurt people.

The one big surprising reveal in the show was that you’re a geology major!

UJ: Yeah. I did my masters in geosciences and petroleum engineering. There was a career waiting for me in oil and gas and I had scholarships waiting for me in the top universities of the world. And I didn’t travel because I wanted to do music in Pakistan. A lot of my friends went abroad and they never got back into music. I was afraid that if I go there I would never be able to do music.

Between the time I was writing Rabba and the final take… it didn’t feel real. Over the past two years, I started connecting differently and I finally understood what it meant. I was in tears when I recorded it. That’s how honest it was for me. I’m still not there, the quest is never over.

Geology is something that I love and, when I’m travelling, it still comes back to me. People see mountains, I see formations. People see weather patterns and I’m looking at how weathering takes place. I see fossils and start putting an age to it. All of it comes back. Maybe we’ll add in a little more detail next time but in a fun way.

One of the songs released during the series, Rabba, was a moving, deeply spiritual track that was unlike any of your previous work. Where did it come from?

UJ: Rabba is very reflective of my own personal journey. The lyrics came first. It was recorded in 13 takes [over a span of a couple of years] But between the time I was writing the song and we did the final take that you hear on the track… it didn’t feel real. You’ve lived the rock star life. You’ve done your excesses. You’ve done everything under the sun. But what’s real? What’s out there? I wasn’t living the life I was singing about. Sometimes we write about things that are ahead of us, we want to be that or want to feel it, but we’re not really there. Over the past two years or so, I started connecting differently and I finally understood what it meant. I remember being in tears when I recorded this last version. That’s how honest it was for me. I’m still not there, the quest is never over.

What can we expect from the next season?

UJ: People have been asking and begging us for more. You’ll see the number of episodes increasing. It’ll be a much more fulfilling journey. We envisioned this initially as a six-minute video per episode, because we felt peoples’ attention span wouldn’t be that long but, to our surprise, when we saw the video analytics of the series, we have an 89.8 percent completion rate for every episode. It’s unreal. People don’t watch content like this.

The one thing I’ve been clear about from the start is that the show is not about me. I’m just a vehicle taking you on this journey. The journey is about other experiences, people and things. We’re going to amp those up. The only thing I’m afraid of is getting tired. [laughs]

What about your plans for music?

UJ: You got to hear new music on the album that was featured in the series. There is some other music released on different platforms. But the next season is big on music. There is tons of original content that we’re trying to create. Not only mine, but also by interesting people on the road. We don’t want to be a copy of any other show, so this has to be done in a way that’s never been done in Pakistan.

At the start of the series, you set off on a journey looking for something, did you find it?

UJ: Not at all. The day I find it, the journey is done. It’s over. The questions I left with, they’ve just been replaced with tons of other questions. Curiosity is growing by the day. The only thing I’m hoping to ignite via the show is curiosity. That curiosity can lead to beautiful things. The possibilities are endless.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 25th, 2020