A 20-year celebration in the midst of a pandemic can’t be your usual glitzy awards ceremony. It requires strategising and perpetually fretting over the guest count and stressing on SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) left, right and centre to everyone involved in the ceremony.

I am told that the organisers of this year’s Lux Style Awards (LSAs) hummed and hawed for some time, wondering if it were practical to stage an awards ceremony at all. They eventually decided that they should do so, albeit with a profusion of Covid-19 caution.

I am glad that they did. How could the country’s longest-standing awards ceremony not celebrate two decades of spotlighting Pakistani fashion and entertainment? Last year’s LSA had been relegated to a pre-recorded show for TV, but how could this be done yet again, on the 20th anniversary celebration? How could the nominees and winners not be allowed their moment under the spotlight and be given the chance to deliver their winning speeches to an audience comprising their peers, with all of it filtering out in real time on social media?

The LSAs have collected plenty of baggage over these past 20 years and the show has its ardent supporters and fierce critics. Every year, there are many that declare that the awards are now redundant. Just as many flock to social media to thank the platform for their nominations. But the show’s contributions cannot be denied. Countless ‘LSA moments’ can be remembered fondly over the years, and the yearly LSA nominations and wins continue to be very contentious which, ultimately, are an indication of how they wield immense clout. How could all that not be celebrated?

Despite the power games, politics and egos simmering below its shiny disinfected surface, 20 years down the line, the LSAs still manage to put up a great show — even if it were a long, recorded one

And let’s be realistic here, how could the main sponsors resist this chance to publicly pat themselves on the back with a ceremony that they have managed to helm for so long?

The 20th LSAs were, consequently, planned out carefully, mixing star power and entertainment in a socially distanced, masked ‘new normal’ world. The guests had to be limited. The main celebrity audience sat on tables for one, all positioned six feet apart. Select media, also invited to the ceremony, was expected to view the show from a balcony overlooking the main stage.

The organisers anxiously peered out at the hall, adroitly separating a fraternity that has a penchant to huddle together for selfies and a dash of gossip. Show director Frieha Altaf had to work with limited cameramen and even the number of dancers on stage couldn’t be above a certain figure. Celebrity presenters had to stay six feet apart on stage and winners weren’t handed their trophies — instead, they picked them off a shelf before stepping on to the podium to give their thank you speech.

There were an endless slew of precautions, all devised to sidestep a minefield, laid by a persistent virus, that could go ka-boom anytime it pleased!

Earlier, the LSAs were always extensive shows, bunching together music, fashion, television and film. The 20th one beat all past records by being the most extensive one, simply because it was necessary for the show to be sequestered into segments. A limited audience attended the music awards and then left the hall. This was followed by the fashion segment and, then, television. Film, the fourth cog in the LSA machine, had to be eliminated with no movies releasing in the past year because of the pandemic.

A new award, dedicated to ‘Change Makers’, recognised the late Haseena Moin. The Lifetime Achievement in Fashion award was given to couturier Bunto Kazmi.

Some of the performances were pre-recorded. Others were staged before the audience. The attendees had been told beforehand that the LSA was simultaneously being recorded for TV, which meant that a lot of the performances and on-stage banter had to be seen on repeat, perfected before the show could go on.

Resham and Ahsan Khan performed to a tribute to Farida Khanum, sung beautifully by Aima Baig, twice. Mahira Khan was part of three, very energetic, dance performances and the guests got to see it several times — for Mahira fans that ought to be a bonus, although even fan obsessions can begin to wane when a performance is repeated well past midnight.

“I won’t be doing a retake,” singer Asim Azhar announced and I think many in the audience cheered silently. Asim went on to lip-sync to his hypnotic rendition of Ho Jaddun Nimmi Nimmi Chaldi Hawaa…, originally sung by the late Farhad Humayun. The screen in the backdrop flitted through a distressingly long list of stars who have passed away in the past year.

At some point during the event, show director Frieha Altaf quipped from her vantage point in the control room, “This is the first time that my performers are changing in the audience rather than backstage.” Ahmed Ali Butt, who was also the host for the ceremony, was changing jackets at the time, preparing for his dance performance.

The comment drew laughs and it also rang true. The LSA experience this year was akin to getting an insider’s look at a major show rather than attending a seamless ceremony. Herein, lay the LSAs’ high points and also, the lows.

The LSA private soiree

Even the staunchest LSA fan couldn’t deny that the umpteen delays were exhausting, particularly as the night began inching towards the early hours of the morning. There were repeats and recording of ‘links’ meant to bridge different segments together. Nevertheless, all this is part of a TV show recording and the guests had been forewarned.

Comedian Tabish Hashmi regaled with a skit and then, about an hour later, the hosts for the night recorded a snippet where they invited him on stage. Of course, he’d been on stage already. Ahsan Khan and Resham performed, but the announcement for their performance came much later. It was a bit mind-boggling until you got the hang of it.

Much more than a show, the LSAs were a private party of sorts. Celebrities would be laughing in between recordings. Sheheryar Munawar could be seen doing a jig of sorts as he prepared for his performance. Ahmed Ali Butt, while he waited for his cue, decided to talk of a fictional dinner supposedly set up backstage. Frieha Altaf and Faizan Haqqee, who was making many of the announcements, kept making quips from the control room. There was much camaraderie and good cheer.

We’d seen perfectly packaged stage performances before, but we hadn’t seen what went on behind the scenes. Choreographer Nigah stood in the audience, enthusiastically dancing while his performers, Sheheryar Munawar, Mahira Khan and Ahmed Ali Butt, grooved on stage. The usual streamlined awards show could never allow such an insider’s peek.

Content is king

Even in its imperfect meanderings, it was evident that a lot of thought had been put into developing content for the show. The 20th celebration, after all, couldn’t contend with stilted hosts and wooden dances — although we’ve seen plenty of those in the past.

The stage was grand, a three-dimensional installation, uplifted by lights and huge screens in the backdrop. The hosts were chosen well: Ahmed Ali Butt, a seasoned LSA pro and always so good on stage, Ahsan Khan, who had been proving his mettle with his TV talk show and Mehwish Hayat and Mansha Pasha, who both spoke extremely well.

The most defining factor bolstering the ceremony was the script, written by producer-director-writer duo Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza of Filmwala Pictures. The monologues were snappy and the quips came fast. There was a bit where Ahsan Khan, whose birthday it was, was wished by Mehwish Hayat who sang for him and had a cake brought out for him.

A little later, Ahmed Ali Butt danced a birthday jig with Ahsan. When actress Hareem Farooq came on stage to present an award, Ahsan asked her why she hadn’t wished him happy birthday to which Ahmed mumbled, “Attention seeker!” The little inside jokes formed the essence of this year’s LSA moments.

YouTube sensation and comedian Tabish Hashmi’s segment — that he wrote himself — was hilarious, identifying him as a potential awards-show favourite. Coming on stage, he quipped to Ahmed Ali Butt that he was always made host so that the organisers wouldn’t have to give him an award. Tabish then proceeded to roam about the audience, roasting quite a few of them.

“I thought I saw a mazaar, then I realized it was Ali Xeeshan!” he deadpanned at designer Ali Xeeshan, who was resplendent in glittering silver and white, reminiscent of the colours of a mausoleum.

“Poora mulk iddat mein hai jub say Strings tootay hain [The whole country has been in mourning since Strings broke up],” he told musician Bilal Maqsood, “You should have named your band something else, strings toh toot hee jaatay hain. [After all, strings break anyway]”

The performances — the ones that weren’t pre-recorded and which I managed to see — were also very well-choreographed. Evidently an LSA anthem, featuring 32 industry power-players, had been recorded earlier. It had evidently been a herculean task, ensuring Covid-compliant elbow room for all the people on stage and it had to get recorded several times.

“It’s one of the main highlights,” Frieha Altaf enthused to me. Regardless, it would have had to have been difficult to watch this ‘highlight’ several times, on repeat — I’ll happily just see it on TV when the show is aired, one time.

I also wasn’t present in the segment where Mehwish Hayat danced to Ballay Ballay in an ode to Farida Khanum. I did see Resham dancing beautifully in the lilting Main Ne Pairon Mein Payal, in another ode to the veteran singer.

Mahira Khan was a consistent part of the performances — she was seen in a whopping three songs. And while she was a treat to see, why weren’t more actresses brought on board? The rampant use of the OST of the movie Parey Hut Love was also very evident. The movie had one of the best soundtracks in recent times but did this warrant the inclusion of three songs altogether for three separate performances?

Two decades of baggage

Perhaps — most probably — this was simply because certain production houses were reluctant to give the LSAs the rights to their film music. ARY Digital, one of the country’s leading TV and film producers, had refused to submit their nominations for the awards this year and it is likely that they also didn’t approve the usage of their music for the awards ceremony.

And while Parey Hut Love was also an ARY Films project, the movie’s producer — and lead actor — Sheheryar Munawar was dancing on the LSA stage, which had possibly eased the procurement of copyrights.

This is all conjecture, but making the politics more ostensible was the absence of some major actors who now primarily work for ARY Digital — particularly Humayun Saeed and Fahad Mustafa, who had incidentally been the host for the last LSA ceremony back in 2019.

There was also a general dearth of the star power that is usually seen at awards ceremonies. The main contingent of celebrities was those that were performing on stage or hosting with some exceptions.

Many of the nominees didn’t turn up, despite the fact that so many of them had been celebrating their nominations on social media and, for the viewers’ choice categories, asking their fans to vote. It was a sad indication that, despite coveting an LSA win, the celebrity ego has blown out of proportion. Unless they are winning, most of them don’t want to turn up.

The one commendable exception was actor Ahad Raza Mir, who was nominated thrice and happily sat in the front row, cheering for his peers. The press release later issued later by the PR pinpointed him as an “LSA highlight”, declaring, “Kudos to actor Ahad Raza Mir who flew in from London… and attended the event without demanding to know if he was winning.” The implication here is that everyone else probably demanded to know the awards results.

All these obstacles are an indication of how the LSA journey has progressed so far. Winners are elated with their trophies, posting about them effusively on social media. It’s still the sort of show that you look forward to seeing, even if it is a recorded one, which means that there will be inevitable delays and you may just begin to teeter towards getting a backache.

Twenty years down the line, it’s a show that is loved enough for you to shrug away the discomfort and keep cheering when Mahira Khan dances to the same song again. You laugh, you film it all on your cellphone camera and you talk about it later.

Twenty years down the line, it is also a show that is encountering an increasingly difficult obstacle course, and I am not referring to the coronavirus. The power games, politics and egos encountered by the LSAs were evident, simmering just beneath the show’s shiny surface.

And yet, the show was a great one, albeit a long, recorded one. It had its moments when seen live and, once polished and edited for TV, it’s going to be high on entertainment. Besides, politics never really have managed to get the LSAs down, ever.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 17th, 2021

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