For about 30 years, Bilal Maqsood has been bowing his head to his piano and singing about love, loss and reuniting with a Bichhrra Yaar. Now, he’s playing a different tune.

He’ll tell you about Baarish and recount the delectable details of a Jalebi and list the Huroof-i-Tahajji. Turning away from lost lovers, the singer-songwriter and ex-Strings frontman has now forged friendships with Pakkay Dost.

Bilal tells me that he couldn’t be happier.

We sit in his home, surrounded by thick foliage clustered around the concrete and glass walls. It is a space where I have interviewed him before, discussing new productions, upcoming singles, past highs and lows. Today, we switch tack completely and focus on the dearth of content in Urdu for children and how Bilal has decided to do something about it.

The first edition of Pakkay Dost, an assortment of songs and skits in Urdu targeted at children, is now streaming on YouTube. A motley crew of eccentric puppets take centre stage in the show, brought to life by a group of young puppeteers, and with skits and songs written by Bilal.

Bilal Maqsood, the erstwhile one-half of the superband Strings, is forging a new career path for himself, as the producer and creative force behind a new puppet show for children. How did he end up here? Why is he so heavily invested? And does he miss Strings?

The puppets are brightly coloured and the content is funny and quite catchy, so much so that if you have a child in the house watching the show, you might find yourself humming about jalebis! 

It is notable, also, that the sound and visuals are very well-defined — these Pakkay Dost, I believe, could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with global heavyweights in children’s entertainment, the likes of Barney and Sesame Street!

I mention this to Bilal and he nods

“I was resolute that we could not compromise at all on the show’s look. Kids these days have a lot of options. If a show doesn’t appeal to them or they don’t understand it, they will quickly switch to something else.

“We also stayed away from cliches like placing a Sindhi topi [cap] on a puppet’s head or adding an ajrak accessory or giving a puppet a particular complexion. A lot of times, these have been ways of adding local colour to children’s content. We just wanted the pops of colour to attract the children and for the different characters to be relatable.”

It’s all so starkly different from the work that has defined his professional career so far and, yet, Bilal tells me that creating children’s content was always on his mind, even in the years when he was hurtling down the concert circuit as one-half of Strings.

“When my son Mikaeel was born, I realised that there was no Urdu content that he could watch. While I was growing up, I would watch programmes by Sohail Rana and listen to those songs. Now, all my son was watching was content in English.

“Time and again, I would discuss with my wife and with Faisal Kapadia, my partner in Strings, that we needed to do something for children. But Strings kept us busy, we were releasing albums, doing concerts around the world and we just never had the time.”

Turning puppeteer

Then things changed.

“In 2019, I connected with Farooq Qaiser sahib,” Bilal refers to the late creator of the Uncle Sargam puppet troupe. “We had lined things up and I started looking for sponsors. At that time, I had thought that sponsors could invest in the puppets and the script while I would make the music. Things couldn’t come together and, in the meantime, Farooq Qaiser passed away.

“I then started working on the concept myself. I researched extensively, watching international children’s shows like a detective, figuring out details like the lighting or the height of the stage. I feel no shame in admitting that the children’s show Sesame Street was the benchmark that I wanted to achieve with my production.”

Initially, Bilal reached out to Yamina Peerzada at the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop — well-known for their prowess in puppeteering — in the hopes of collaborating. “They told me that they preferred to do things on their own, which was completely understandable,” says Bilal.

He then proceeded to search beyond Pakistan, first getting in touch with Sesame Street’s ace puppeteer Rick Leone — who was excited by the concept but couldn’t meet Bilal’s timelines — and, eventually, discovering the work of Canadian puppeteer Allison Ewert.

Photos: Bilal Ashraf
Photos: Bilal Ashraf

“I fell in love with her puppets,” he says. “When you start searching for puppeteers, you come across different genres in the field. Some puppets are more mature and targeted towards an adult audience. I, on the other hand, was looking for puppets that would appeal to children and I saw Allison’s catalogue and felt that this was my show, right there.

“She custom-made eight puppets for me — we have used six so far — and when I finally had them with me, I felt that I could start working on the script.”

I comment that it sounds like quite an expensive project.

“It was, especially because I was investing in it on my own,” he agrees. “When we shot the show, we had a little more than 100 people working with us. I actually initially reached out to different brands who specifically catered to children, but they all told me that they didn’t have the budget for a show like this.

“There was a point when I felt really depressed about it all but then my wife Tina suggested that I should just invest into it on my own. ‘Where will we be taking our money? Who has seen tomorrow anyway?’ she told me, and that’s when I decided that I would bring out Pakkay Dost myself. Bilal already had someone in mind to helm the show with him. “I was very sure that I wanted the show to be directed by Umer Adil. He and his wife Beenish Umer have often worked on content for children.”

Finding actors to impersonate the puppets turned out also to be challenging.

“I didn’t want the usual preachy voices that we tend to hear in children’s programmes,” says Bilal. “I wanted the puppets to sound more normal, like regular people conversing. I auditioned many people but couldn’t find anyone but then, one day, when I was wondering if my plans for the show would end up getting shelved, a colleague suggested that I audition his brother, Usman Sheikh.

“Usman came, took hold of the puppet that we eventually named Jagga, and started blabbering brilliantly in a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English.”

More recommendations came in and Bilal was able to handpick his puppeteers: Shahzeen Usman, Ahson Khan, Usman Sheikh, Umer Adil and Alizay Jaffer.

“Alizay is my niece and she has always been the family stand-up comedian, imitating Bajia,” he says, referring to his late aunt and playwright Fatima Surayya Bajia. “I asked her to play Bajjo, who has been modelled after Bajia. Alizay initially said that she wouldn’t be able to do it but, when she came to the workshop, she fit right in. The thing about this project was that whoever came on board, owned it. No one treated it like a job. Everyone was just so invested in wanting it to do well.”

He shows me a video on his phone from a workshop where the puppeteers are simply bantering with each other, their puppets in their hands. Talking in the voices they had selected for their particular characters, they quip, poke fun and taunt each other. The conversation is hilarious.

Bilal smiles. “It is said that the puppet chooses its puppeteer. That’s what happened here. Everyone was playing around with the puppets but, suddenly, one puppet would just come to life in a particular individual’s hand! Once the puppeteers had been selected, each puppet’s personality evolved in my mind and it was much easier to write the script and develop the songs accordingly.”

He elaborates, referring to different characters, “For instance, I knew that Miraal would be part of the Huroof-i-Tahajji song, because she’s such a know-it-all. And if anyone wouldn’t know the days of the week, it would be Tufail.”

Then there were the songs.

“I created the compositions, the chord structures, melody, from start to finish, and played it out on the piano. Then, I gave the songs to Ahsan Pervaiz, because I feel that he has a very sound understanding of modern-day music. I told him to treat the compositions as proper songs rather than melodies for children. I wanted parents to be able to listen to the songs too.”

The path ahead

Now that the first assortment of skits and songs have been released, is he working on the second spate of videos? “Yes, I am doing my homework, making songs …” he says. Is he satisfied with the response to Pakkay Dost? “It’s been overwhelming,” he smiles. “I sometimes get emotional messages from parents and teachers who are just so happy that their children have access to content in Urdu. This makes me very happy. This is the main reason why I have created this show.

“There are the ethical messages within the script that I want children to comprehend but, more significantly, I just wanted children to have access to quality Urdu content.” So, he’s been able to break even? “Not yet, I am just investing more and more into the show,” he says wryly. “These things take time. I will have to keep releasing content consistently in order to keep people interested in the channel.

“This is why I plan to release one-off short videos sporadically. They will be shot in an outdoor setting, so that they are not confused with the main season, which is filmed at a set. Right now, for me to release an entire second collection of skits, it would be great if I could get encouraged by more views.”

He adds: “I understand, though, that earnings through views can come in more slowly in the case of children’s content. As soon as you specify on YouTube that the content that you are uploading is for kids, the kind of ads that are placed in the video get limited.”

Launching Pakkay Dost on his own may have dealt a blow to his personal finances, but does Bilal think that the show is more entertaining without the intrusion of a sponsor?

“Definitely,” he says. “Once the show was ready, I did show it to a few potential sponsors and, when they saw it, they all wanted to come on board. They also all had a few suggestions of how certain jokes could be eliminated. I backed out immediately. “I didn’t want to get into the same tussles that I had encountered in the past. I told them that I was merely showing it to them and they couldn’t buy the show and I certainly wasn’t going to be making any changes.”

However, some of Bilal’s work continues to be with sponsors, particularly the nursery rhymes in Urdu that he creates in collaboration with the English Biscuit Manufacturers Limited (EBM) group. “I really enjoy that,” he says. “It’s a great project, and it was while I was planning Pakkay Dost that it came my way.”

One of the nursery rhymes that he created recently got plagiarised by an Indian social media page, something that he pointed out in an Instagram post. Will he be doing anything about it?

“I can’t do anything about it because they made enough small changes to ensure that a copyright claim couldn’t be made against them,” he says. “In a way I guess that it is a bit flattering. Now, the nursery rhyme will be heard by more children. But it’s still frustrating.” He shrugs. Bilal has also consistently been releasing solo singles after breaking away from Strings. Will this continue or will Pakkay Dost be taking up all his time and energy?

“I will always be working on songs,” he says. “I am a songwriter and, anytime I feel like it, I’ll record a song and release it. Right now, though, both mentally and physically, I don’t really feel like staying invested into that side of my career.”

Does he miss Strings? He pauses and then says, “No. To miss it would mean that there is something wrong with what I am doing now. I am really very happy. Creating this content for children has given me new energy. It’s a whole new world and there is so much to explore within it.”

We touch upon his recent religious pilgrimage for Hajj. How has that changed him? “I don’t feel that I have changed much,” he says. “I have always had a very close connection with God. However, I used to wonder how one felt while going around the Kaaba when you could simply pray with as much dedication at home.

“Once I went there, I realised that there is something supernatural to it. By the third time I did the tawaaf, I was in a state of ecstasy. By the fourth and final time, I was thinking to myself that I had been missing something so important in my life.”

He adds, “I did pray there that I wanted Pakkay Dost to do well and to take my life into new directions.” He’s well on his way towards this new direction. In retrospect, though, in all the years that I have known him, Bilal Maqsood has always been like this: paving his own path, and doing what he feels is right, while refusing to be part of any rat-race.

He’s found a new passion — and his prayers may just get answered.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 8st, 2023


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