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Khalid Malik: The desi Aussie

February 23, 2011

KARACHI: Clocking in at 7 a.m. sharp  every single weekday, Khalid Malik has sleepy Pakistanis across the nation tune into his morning radio show for their daily fix of entertainment. Whether heading to work or school, aged five or 65, with the commute being five minutes long or 30 minutes, his audience has no one profile.

There are many reasons why Malik’s The Breakfast Show or BFS as it is popularly known, is preferred by his listeners: “he doesn’t try too hard”, “super-funny”, “very desi, very original”, “sounds [like] 50, bald and muscular”. Others might try to copy him but Malik leads the pack with his birthday songs, trivia, playlists, his ease with switching languages (English, Urdu and Punjabi, the last two non-Anglicised and that is no mean feat). Of course, his über charming personality, humour and wit go a long way too.

No wonder then that for a man whose claim to fame is his sound, so much so as to overshadow his other artistic abilities, Malik’s face is rather well-recognised. As we meet at a local diner early morning, other customers recognise him. He smiles, chats a bit and takes it in his stride. Malik is clearly comfortable in the spot he is in right now.

“I have never felt this energised before. I think you need to evolve as you age,” says the 35-year-old. “Stability is important but so is risk. I still take risks, I am not averse to them, but they are calculated.” In fact, Malik did spend a year in 2006 toying with the idea of packing his bags and moving to Pakistan, after having lived all his life abroad as an expatriate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and then Melbourne, Australia.

So does this balance and comfort extend to his running Sheila Ki Jawani and Munni Badnaam on a radio channel known for its sober approach and non-Bollywood music? “Well, I think they are fantastic songs, and anyone who says that they don’t like them, I don’t believe them,” he says. “This irritates the hell out of me that [these so-called elites] listen to them, dance to them at mehndis and pretend otherwise.” He adds: “Plus, I am a Bollywood fan and I feel it changes the sound of the show. I don’t play them every day.”

Unlike other Pakistani entertainers who over-use ‘like’, ‘basically’ and ‘actually’, Malik overdoes ‘desi’ – whether it’s his immediate family, his extended family, their quirkiness, his work experience abroad or life in general, ‘desi-ness’ is a reference point for everything.

“My family is close-knit and very desi, and there is a lot of family politics. Just the other day even on the show, I mentioned that my uncle is not speaking to us anymore because my younger brother didn’t agree to marry my first cousin,” he says. “So there is a stalemate, but both my brother and I are staying away from it.”

However, Malik speaks fondly of his mother, describing her as a simple ‘desi’ Punjabi mother who still does not understand the world of entertainment. His father, who passed away four years back, was a retired Pakistan Air Force engineer. “He left the service in 1974, joined the airlines industry, and moved to Kuala Lumpur where I received my primary education. We finally settled in Australia, where I received my secondary and tertiary education.”

And like all other ‘desi’ parents, he says his parents too envisioned him to be in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. “I come from a very desi Punjabi-speaking family, who wanted me to become a doctor. And I tried,” he says. And tried he did.

“After my year 12 exam in Melbourne, I tried, did not get in. I went to New Zealand, spent a year at the University of Otago, tried again, did not get in. I came back to Melbourne, did my bachelors, majored in anatomy and physiology, tried yet again, did not get in. Ab kya karoon?” he says matter-of-factly.

Eventually he settled for a Master’s in Business Management, and pursued a diploma in acting on the side. After his graduation he spent some time in advertising, and then moved on to work in local Australian ads and short films.

He candidly admits that it was not easy for an actor of South Asian descent to get a break  except in a stereotypical role: “You are an ethnic minority in an otherwise Anglo-Saxon country.” That there are significant differences between the Australian market and the ones based in other parts of the western world makes it even more difficult.

“The content is largely American-based. Secondly, there are only five free-to-air channels as compared to the 150 in the subcontinent. You can get cable, but you have to subscribe to it, but even then there is very little Aussie content,” he explains.

Moving to Pakistan, as a result, was a pragmatic decision. “A lot of casting agents had shut down, my friends were moving to LA and Bombay and I felt it was time I made a move as well,” Malik recounts. “There is a lot more work here, the frequency and opportunity of work is much more. The money is steady too.”

Malik also opines that the move has opened up a whole lot of opportunities internationally, which he has yet to tap into.

On a more personal level, migrating to Pakistan has strengthened his relationship with his wife Joshinder Chaggar, a dancer herself, whom he met and married in Australia seven years back. “I think it was important for the relationship because long distance becomes very tough and it damages the relationship. It’s been a good move that we came here together, for our careers and as husband and wife.”

Besides being an RJ, Malik has also dabbled in acting in short-films and theatre plays, such as Conversations and Mohabbat Bhi, Qayyamat Bhi, and has also hosted television shows on MTV and a travelogue on CNBC. In fact, he’s quite excited about his role in Sabiha Sumar’s film. “Two years before it was shot I met Jami, who introduced me to Tayyab, the assistant editor. I auditioned but was not cast. Two weeks later, they called me in. I play the character of a flamboyant, strange, charismatic, modelling agency coordinator,” he says, chuckling at ‘charismatic’. “Another one is being shot this year. It’s by a Pakistani-American film-maker. Things are brewing,” he adds.

Malik’s sentiments about the entertainment industry in Pakistan are the same as those of the local artistes. “The industry suffers from lack of resources, lack of vision. The thinking is too short-term, no one is looking at it 5-10 years from now. Specifically from a talent point of view there is a lot of it in Pakistan, but we are hung up on who’s popular right now.”

An avid listener of local radio stations, he admits that the ‘talent’ on-air could be substandard but that should not translate into it not being supported. “The bottom line is that if you are faking your accent or even a persona, it comes through, it’s obvious.”

As the conversation rolls to an end I ask him whether he really is as chirpy in person as he is on air.  “You know people don’t even believe me when I say I from Australia as I don’t have an accent. I have been asked before if I play a character, but I say that if I were faking it, I would have been caught out by now,” he says. “I am bright and chirpy, [but] I have some serious and some spiritual moments.”

He quickly adds that it is unrealistic of people to expect him to maintain his hyperactive state the whole day. “Morning is my prime, but people have this expectation that I’ll be hyper from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. Just yesterday I met someone late in the evening at a coffee house off Zamzama. It had been a long day and I was a bit down. He came up to me and went: “You seem so depressed.” Of course I go through moods!” he says, before breaking off into a variety of playful poses for the camera – imitating  Allama Iqbal, then Johnny Bravo and then just fooling with a vase.

Nadia Jajja is a journalist associated with a political monthly magazine.