The boy wonder of the Pakistani showbiz industry, Ali Zafar is loved and respected by millions. Meher Tareen ‘s in-depth interview reveals the details of his journey to the top, his relationships with the people he loves and his penchant for flirting.
It’s 5pm on Sunday, 28th November, 2010. I am frantically rummaging through my closet. Three hours away from attending a black tie charity art auction organised by the Sanjan Nagar Trust. I have gone through the beautifully put together booklet with all the artists’ work, including the legendary M.F. Hussain. But I have my eye on an Unver Shafi, a beautiful blue form, oil on canvas. 3’.6”x 3’. ‘Perfection’, I think to myself. I need it. I want it. I am hoping and praying I get it for the reserve price because that’s all the money I have saved up. We arrive on time and take our seats. I am excited to see Edward Cummings, the energetic Sotheby’s auctioneer, conducting the auction. The Anwar Maqsood goes, then the R.N. Naeem – both for the reserve price. Good good good. I keep my fingers crossed. Then he announces with animated excitement, “Anddd nowwwww, the Unver Shafiiiiiiiiii.” I get my auction paddle ready. Then suddenly across the aisle, someone outbids me. Uh oh! I muster up the courage to top the bid. I am outbid again. I go up to my maximum and shut my eyes, hoping against hope that I won’t be outbid this time. No such luck. “Going onceeeeeee,” he says. ‘Nooooooooo’, I think to myself. “Going twiceeeeeee. Soldddddd to the gentleman in the back.” My heart breaks. Disappointed, I hang my head and notice that the paddle lying dejected in my lap is beautifully hand painted like Pakistani truck art. ‘Whatever!’ I think to myself. I am not happy. When I look up, I see Ali Zafar flashing his signature cheeky smile, the proud new owner of my dream painting. With mixed emotions, I give him a pursed lip fake smile but I am slightly assuaged by the fact that it went to Ali Zafar.
Ali Zafar makes what he does look effortless. There’s the faultless delivery of one hit song after another in that smooth voice, Bollywood box office hits, numerous endorsements that take full advantage of his dashing good looks and of late, entertaining onstage dance performances. It seems as if Ali was born to be in the spotlight. And if that wasn’t enough, he is married to the love of his life, Ayesha, and has a beautiful baby boy, Azaan, who looks just like him. But life was not always so kind and success came gradually for Ali after years of hard work and perseverance. I first saw Ali while vacationing in Bhurban with my family over summer break. While crossing the lobby on our way to dinner, my mother noticed “a cute young boy drawing portraits”. Impressed with his skill and touched by his effort, she asked him to draw mine and as a grumpy teenager, I reluctantly agreed. If only I had known. If only I had held on to it. Now speaking to him over lunch many years later on a hot summer day, I learn that Ali Zafar was born in Mughalpura and is the eldest of three brothers. His mother, Kanwal Ameen, was a librarian at Punjab University and his father, Mohammad Zafarullah, a professor at the Fine Arts department. “I come from a humble background,” he says as he clears his throat. “I used to cycle to my friends house early in the morning so I could hitch a ride with him to school in his car or I would take the bus – wagon no. 40, I still remember. Growing up, there was no room for complacency in my life because I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. My parents had to struggle constantly to provide us with a quality education and that drove me to strive harder,” he confesses. His comment hangs in the room.
”Growing up, there was no room for complacency in my life because i wasn’t born with A Silver spoon.”
Ali possessed an inherent aptitude for art, which was honed early on as he had to come up with innovative ways to make extra cash. In school, he put his drawing skills to use and made elaborate cartoons (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thundercats) for his friends for 25 rupees apiece. As a young teenager studying Fine Art at the National College of Arts, Ali spent his evenings sketching portraits in the lobby of the Pearl Continental hotel. “The first day, I made three portraits for 500 rupees each, and that too, of three beautiful girls. So I thought to myself, ‘Wow yaar’. By the end of the month, I was earning around 30,000 rupees and that was a lot for me. But I always wanted to be a musician so this was a means to achieve that end.” Ali saved that money to buy his first keyboard, “Yamaha PSR,” he says proudly. His eyes light up. “With my next installment, I got an amp and microphone,” he continues with a smile. Interestingly, it was while sketching portraits in that very hotel lobby that he was discovered by Nabila Masood and Khawar Riaz and approached for a fashion shoot. After a short stint in the fashion industry, Ali turned his focus to music and never looked back.
“I consider myself an artist who expresses himself through various mediums and what I’ve learnt is that music is the most powerful medium for communication,” he says. ‘Channo’, Ali’s first single, was written and composed on his first keyboard. “I had arranged and composed the music pieces but didn’t have the professional facilities to make it sound international. I finally met Shuja in Karachi who enhanced the production quality. Once the song was done, I needed a good director. I took it to all the directors I knew. Finally, I landed at Ahsan Rahim’s studio and begged him to direct it. He was very kind. He agreed to shoot the video but he didn’t have time to edit it. Months passed by. I literally used to sleep on the floor of his studio in Karachi, trying to get him to edit it.” Suddenly, Ali received the earth-shattering news that another singer had already released his song. “One of the producers I had taken the song to had sold it to another singer, Ghulam Ali’s son Aamir Ali. Meri toh zameen nikal gayee paoon kay neechay say. But thankfully, it went unnoticed. Maybe God had favourable plans for me,” he reflects. ‘Channo’ was finally released to rave reviews and Ali Zafar became an overnight sensation. The song struck a chord with young people like myself who couldn’t get enough of the catchy beat and sincerity of the lyrics. ‘Channo’ led to his first album, Huqa Pani, which was followed by Masti, proving that Ali Zafar was a force to be reckoned with in the music industry. Ali’s lyrics possess the power to derive deep emotions. When I heard ‘Aasman’ for the first time, it lifted my spirits instantly and became my go-to song when I needed inspiration. This year, he released his third album, Jhoom. His music has the ability to transport you to a better time and perhaps it’s the nostalgia that makes us love his songs so much. With over 5 million copies sold worldwide and numerous awards and accolades (he has three Lux Style Awards already), Ali has made his mark in the music industry and set a very high standard for others to follow.
I ask him to share the worst criticism he’s ever had. He says, “I remember someone in the music industry told Herald in an interview that artists like Ali Zafar come and go and that no one will remember my name after two years. Like one of those one-hit wonders.” He pauses, calls the waiter and asks for a banana milkshake. The waiter looks confused, as they don’t have milkshakes on the menu. Ayesha, who’s been sitting there silently throughout the interview, intercedes, “Aik fruit platter lay aain, please.” I smile. Ali feels the need to explain, “You know I like to eat healthy”. I know that by now. The first meeting we had at his house, prior to the interview, he offered me a chilled glass of cold coffee made from, “khaalis dhoodh”. Seeing the Unver Shafi hanging in his lounge after so many years still makes my heart sink. He may have found fame and stardom but it is endearing that he still lives with his parents, in the same house he grew up in. “My father is always either watching the news or reading the newspaper. He has read countless books on philosophy and history and everything I know, I’ve learnt from my parents. We have a great relationship.”
While we are on the subject of great relationships, I learn that Ali and Ayesha met at a party years ago and spent the whole night flirting. Then she came to the same hotel lobby for a portrait and “sat there silently”. They got married three years ago but they have been together for over a decade. “We have been together since 2001. I don’t think I would have been able to survive this long with any other girl because of the travelling and the insecurity my profession brings with it, so the credit goes to Ayesha.” He goes on, “They say if you want to see what a girl will be like in the future, look at her mother. Bonnie aunty is amazing and Ayesha’s father loves me more than she does because he comes from a background of film.” Ayesha’s grandfather, Sibtain Fazli, directed and produced many great movies, starring legendary actors like Waheed Murad and Nadeem, such as Dupatta (of ‘Chandni Raatein’ fame) and was extremely passionate about music and cinema. The passion carried on to his son Ali Sibtain and grandson Umair Fazli, Ayesha’s brother. “They are very kindhearted people and I am very blessed to have them in my life. I’ve always believed that if you have good core values and upbringing, toh chotay motay maslay theek ho jatay hain. Basically, I didn’t want a freak raising my child so I thought she was the best choice,” he jokes. Ayesha retorts, “Oh, please. I’m an enchantress. You are where you are today because of me. Just admit it.” He laughs out loud. She continues, “I met him before he was doing any of this so the fame has nothing to do with why I fell for him. In fact, I have been with him in spite of it. It’s not easy to keep up with his lifestyle and travelling but because of the person that he is, I pushed myself to be more accepting and patient.” Ali nods in agreement. “She is right. I couldn’t have done it without Ayesha. I wanted to be with her because she had solutions to my problems, and not problems to my solutions. You need one stable factor in your life and she has been mine. One stable factor…aur uss kay ird gird jo thora bohat…” He laughs out loud. Ayesha rolls her eyes. “I have always been committed to Ayesha, laiken flirting mainay bohut kee hai,” he confesses. Ayesha responds, “Ali, flirting kabhi khatam nahi huey.” Ali smiles at her and says, “Haan, vo nahi ho sakti.” Ali teases her every opportunity he gets but it is obvious that he dotes on her and depends on her completely. Ayesha has been supporting him for years and she is his closest friend and confidante.
”I have always been committed to Ayesha, laiken flirting mainay bohut kee hai.”
Ali is the first Pakistani to have crossed over to mainstream Bollywood cinema and that is a remarkable achievement. “Everyone told me it would be impossible to land lead roles in Bollywood. They said Indians would never give a Pakistani that opportunity or status but I wasn’t deterred by the pessimism. I have always dreamt big, believed in myself and worked toward my goals. You have to stay positive and keep trying.” Ali has always been driven but his positivity is his most redeeming quality. His recent tweet read, “99% of what’s stressed you out today will be irrelevant in a year. Don’t lose sleep over petty things. Get over it, move on, & enjoy ur life!” What a fabulous philosophy to live your life by.
After the success of Tere Bin Laden and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Ali became the first actor in India to have rendered his services as an actor, singer, composer, lyricist, writer, arranger, programmer and recordist for his recent film, London, Paris, New York. “They told me they need a teasing type song for the scene in London when they are at a music store. I was in my studio at the time and made ‘Woh Dekhnay Mein’ in 15 minutes and sent them the demo. They said this is exactly the mood of the entire film and asked me to compose the entire album,” he says matter-of-factly. Ali’s talents have earned him the respect and admiration of fans and critics alike in India. With numerous nominations, he made us proud this year by receiving a Stardust award (‘Superstar of Tomorrow’) and India’s most prestigious award, the Dadasaheb Phalke for ‘Best New Talent’. Ali’s fourth Bollywood movie, Chashme Badoor, is set to release next spring, followed by Aman ki Asha opposite Yami Gautam of Vicky Donor fame. Other exciting projects are also in the pipeline.
From Mughalpura to Mumbai, Ali has worked his way up relentlessly, through sheer dedication and hard work and has carved a name for himself. What’s so commendable is that he never made excuses; he wasn’t deterred by negativity or disheartened by rejection. He grabbed life by the horns and carved out his own destiny. Today Ali Zafar, or Ali Zee as his friends call him, is a superstar. Ali’s is a heartwarming success story of overcoming the odds and making it all on his own. He has the talent, the passion, the ambition and the support of his family and nothing is going to stop Ali Zafar now. I log on to Facebook after writing this piece and on my mini-feed, I read Ali’s status, “Learn to cut the negative people out of your life. The key is to spend your time with people that let you shine & that want you to shine!” Touché.