Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rerun: The Year 2015 in Television

year in review

- The continued existence of Game of Thrones ensured that people could keep telling us over and over (and over) again that they have read the books, and effectively made it easy to identify people we don’t want to be friends with.

- Better Call Saul was a delightful masterclass in prequel-making.

- Broadchurch spotted a shark off the Jurassic Coast, then promptly jumped it.

- The Doctor said goodbye to yet another companion. Based on the fate of everyone he travels with and eventually tragically loses, if you ever run into the Time Lord and he asks you to join him, just smile politely and back away slowly.

- We suffered from a severe lack of Sherlock in our lives.

- The Big Bang Theory continued its descent into rom-com drabness.

- Marvel impressed with its new offerings: the brilliant Daredevil, the classy Agent Carter, and the fierce Jessica Jones.

- Supergirl joined Arrow and The Flash in DC’s small screen world of melodramatic mediocrity.

- iZombie was like a cross between Veronica Mars and Tru Calling with added cannibalism.

- Desperate to be provocative, American Horror Story: Hotel recruited Lady Gaga and tried to gather attention by featuring sleazy encounters. Viewers shrugged and moved on.

- The massive success of The Walking Dead led to a companion spinoff series that was very creatively titled Fear the Walking Dead. Shockingly, the title wasn’t the worst thing about it.

- The Mindy Project was cancelled by Fox, then picked up by Hulu, so that instead of not-watching it on Fox, we can now not-watch it on Hulu instead.

- Backstrom was created to find out what would have happened if House had been a police procedural instead of a medical drama and had been written by significantly worse writers. The answer was a swift cancellation.

- With her movie career going nowhere fast, Katherine Heigl somehow found her way back to television in the implausible State of Affairs, which brought with it a big mystery: who thought this series was a good idea and how did it manage to get picked up by a major network? Thankfully it didn’t last long.

- The leads of Stalker, Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q, got engaged, so at least the project wasn’t a complete waste of their time, just ours.

- Unlike its protagonist, Forever didn’t have a very long life.

- Jon Stewart made the world a sadder place by leaving The Daily Show which decided to continue with new host Trevor Noah just so it could be a constant reminder of how much we miss Jon Stewart.img1

- The Nightly Show was unwatchably dire, yet inexplicably remained on air.

- Stephen Colbert took over The Late Show and turned it into a watered-down version of The Colbert Report.

- The Simpsons remained in our lives like old, faithful friends.

- South Park helped us cope with a world gone politically correct.

- Barack Obama went on a wilderness walk with Bear Grylls, ate leftover salmon that had been nibbled on and then discarded by a bear, drank catkins tea, and then struggled with taking a selfie because the most powerful man in the world doesn’t know how to use a smartphone. We are not making this up.

- Fargo returned for a second outing, dispensing crime and violence from the 1970s for viewers who are tired of crime and violence from the 2010s.

- Everyone was frustrated that we couldn’t figure out if Orange is the New Black is a comedy or a drama, because everything must be neatly classified into categories to maintain order in the world.

- House of Cards gave us major trust issues.

- The terrific Mr. Robot was so awesomely confusing that it left us a little woozy.

- Viewers remained riveted to Scandal.

- How to Get Away with Murder remained true to its title.

- Empire turned into a game of “spot the random, unnecessary, pointless celebrity cameo”.

- Quantico showed us that you can make a semi-successful series by putting together an intriguing premise, terrible writing, and atrocious acting.

- It was decreed by law that Amy Schumer must appear on every talk show in the known universe.

- Kimmy Schmidt’s unbreakableness was charming.

- Scream Queens was a sporadically entertaining mess.

- Bruce Jenner transitioned into Caitlyn and starred in the reality show documentary series I Am Cait because the Jenner-Kardashian family isn’t ubiquitous enough already and should totally be in even more television shows.

- Finally noticing its ever-increasing irrelevance, someone pulled the plug on American Idol, but decided that we deserve to suffer through one more season, obviously as some sort of penance for our sins.

- Jeremy Clarkson’s foot-in-mouth disease finally led to his sacking from Top Gear.

- The Muppets made a somewhat triumphant return to television.

- International treasure Stephen Fry decided to say goodbye to QI after 13 years.

- Mad Men and Downton Abbey joined the "gone but not forgotten" club.

- The Grinder surprised us by being thoroughly amusing.

- The Odd Couple left us concerned about the fact that someone has clearly stolen Matthew Perry’s acting ability.

- The Comedians forgot to be funny. Viewers forgot to watch it.

- The delightful Rachel Bloom wowed in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was so much “gooder” than we expected. #HumbleAndBlessed

- Steve Harvey accidentally (on purpose?) announced the wrong Miss Universe, creating a controversy that reminded us the pageant still exists.

- After having a long, successful run and spawning a number of entertaining spinoffs, CSI, formerly the most popular dramatic series on television, bid us farewell.

- Mythbusters decided to end, leaving us in a sad world where all myths henceforth will forever remain unbusted.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 27th December, 2015 *

Supergirl - to the moon and back

television series review

The spectre of the Man of Steel looms large over the series, and the inability to actually show Superman (so far) is instantly frustrating 


Starring: Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, Mehcad Brooks, Jeremy Jordan, David Harewood, and Calista Flockhart
Tagline: A new hero will rise.

Between their many cinematic and televisual offerings, Marvel and DC Comics have collectively saturated both the big and small screens with their superhero sagas. Their ever-expanding franchises have taken over the blockbuster and broadcast realms, and given us some of the most entertaining viewing experiences of recent years. From The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Avengers films to the Daredevil, Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones television series, the standout superhero offerings have not only generated massive global interest but have also received critical acclaim. The bar has been set high for any project that follows these notable adventures, which might be why the new television series Supergirl seems so disappointingly unimaginative.

The CBS action drama tells the story of DC Comics character Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), one of the last surviving Kryptonians, who was sent to Earth by her parents, just before Krypton was destroyed, to protect her then-infant cousin Kal-El. But her spacecraft got knocked off course, ending up in the Phantom Zone where time stood still. When she finally got to Earth 24 years later, Kal-El had already grown up to become Superman.

Hoping that she would have a safe childhood, her famous cousin placed her with an adoptive family – father Jeremiah Danvers (Dean Cain), mother Eliza (Helen Slater), and their daughter Alex (Chyler Leigh). For a while she hid her powers from the world, taking a job as an assistant to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), the founder of CatCo Worldwide Media, in the hopes of fitting in and leading a normal life. But then an accident forces her to use her super abilities, making her realize that she didn’t travel 2000 light years just to be an assistant. As she embraces her powers, Kara discovers that Alex works for the Department of Extra-normal Operations (DEO), a secret government agency that monitors alien activity on Earth. While trying to master her abilities, she starts helping the DEO protect National City from alien beings and anyone else who poses a threat.

Simultaneously charming and cheesy, Supergirl might have been impressive had it been made a couple of decades ago. In the current environment, the show simply doesn’t have enough creative elements to stand out, and seems to target a younger, less discerning audience. While it is exciting to have another female-led series, Supergirl’s in-your-face female empowerment agenda feels patronizing as it unwisely relies on (constantly, repeatedly, boringly) telling us the things that the series should instead be showing us.

Its cliché-ridden storyline and script as well as a near-complete lack of dramatic tension also don’t help. Instead of being inventive, the writers leave us feeling like we’re watching the same formulaic twaddle over and over again, week after week. Add to that a cringe-worthy love triangle – between Kara, her tech expert friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan) who has a crush on her, and former Daily Planet photographer James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) whom she fancies – and things start to feel forced and sophomoric.

The cast, like the show, is charming but unexceptional. Beautiful but bland, Melissa Benoist makes an affable Supergirl, but while she looks the part and seems personable, she doesn’t have an imposing screen presence, especially in the action sequences which don’t always pack the required punch. The writing too lets her down, as the character of a privileged super-being, who is pretty much a demigod on Earth, gets bogged down by constant teenager-like angst delivered through tedious dialogues.

The spectre of the Man of Steel looms large over the series, and their inability to actually show Superman (so far) is instantly frustrating. Supergirl isn’t for people who enjoy the grittier take on the comic book hero genre, but is more geared towards younger viewers who prefer something lighter, and fans of The Flash and iZombie might enjoy this lively caper. The series can still appeal to a wider audience if it ups the ante in the coming episodes by making its scripts sharper, its gender commentary smarter and subtler, its action sequences more exciting, and its storyline less predictable and more gripping.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 27th December, 2015 *

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Intern - charming but dull

movie review

The film is a light comedy that touches on women’s rights and seniors at the workplace

The Intern

Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, and Andrew Rannells
Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Tagline: Experience never gets old.

The more recent arc of Robert De Niro’s acting career has followed a trajectory that generally hasn’t been a big success with both critics and fans of his earlier work. Viewers who are hoping for the actor’s return to more intense terrain won’t be pleased with The Intern, a comedy drama that somehow ends up being both charming and dull.

In the hopes of filling the hole in his life left by retirement and his wife’s death, Ben (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old former executive at a telephone directory company, joins a senior citizen internship programme at an up-and-coming e-commerce fashion firm. Ben’s old-school charm instantly wins over the young workers at the office, but the company’s founder and CEO Jules (Anne Hathaway) is initially unreceptive to the elderly newcomer. As she tries to juggle the rapidly-growing start-up and her increasingly strained family life, she eventually begins to see Ben’s value, and learns to benefit from his advice and gentle wisdom.

The privileged individuals in The Intern are so unrealistically nice and everything is so cordially resolved that there is no real tension in the proceedings. Even when its characters are put in a potentially tough situation, the stakes are never quite palpable. As a result, the movie’s dealing of its weighty subject matter seems shallow, over-simplistic and lacks edge.

Instead of creating interesting characters, writer and director Nancy Meyer seems content with employing caricatures and spends two long hours enamoured with her own one-dimensional creations. The film mostly relies on the talent of its lead actors to add life to Meyers’ self-satisfied script, and to their credit, both De Niro and Hathaway are amiable in their roles, although there is nothing in the project that would actually challenge the actors or bring out something remarkable or memorable in their performances.

Not particularly smart or amusing, The Intern spends most of its time just being pleasant. While it does succeed in exuding warmth, its lack of tension makes it bland. As long as you don’t expect anything profound from it, you might still enjoy the movie primarily due to De Niro’s easygoing charm and Hathaway’s genial presence.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 20th December, 2015 *

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Teen Years: Abbas Hasan

Abbas Hasan

Date of birth and star
November 12, Scorpio.

The best thing about being a teenager was
Growing up in the Paris arts scene.

The worst thing about being a teenager was
Saying bye to all my friends when I moved countries.

I was always listening to
Everything from pop to rock; from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Junoon.

I was glued to the television for
I didn’t have time for TV!

My favourite movie was
I was a bit of a film buff and liked to appreciate cinema from all over the world. I thought I was too “cool” to have a favourite!

My favourite actor was
It was a tie between Al Pacino and Muhammad Ali.

My favourite book was
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Reading this book had a profound effect on my life.

My room was full of
Music. I had CDs everywhere.

My room walls carried the posters of
The various places where I had lived.

My closet was full of
Clothes and specifically a lot of leather jackets

My friends were
Crazy, hilarious, creative, and intelligent.

My first crush/date was
A girl that I studied with.

What hurt me the most was
Waking up early.

My dream was to become
An artist.

I wish I had known then
The difference between good friends and people who will let you down.

Relations with siblings were
Always a lot of fun. My sister is like a really good friend who shares my strange sense of humour.

Relations with parents wereVery special. Like all parents, mine want what’s best for me, but they have also always been my friends.

My school was
More like my “schools” were — I studied across different parts of the world, but they were definitely great places to grow up and become who I am today.

Ragging at college/university
I never really experienced ragging, but high school and university were definitely among the best times of my life growing up.

My favourite subject was
Society, Challenge, and Change. I know, sounds very dramatic.

My least favourite subject was

I couldn’t stand
Phoney people.

My favourite hangout was
A coffee shop near my school.

My favourite food/dish was
It’s a tie between a really good biryani and perfectly cooked, al dente pasta with a really good sauce.

My favourite superhero was

My favourite sport was
Bodybuilding and physical conditioning.

My favourite pastime was
Making music.

I learned that
Good friendships last forever.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 18th December, 2015 *

Sunday, December 13, 2015

No Escape - shot down

movie review

No Escape tackles Third World chaos from a First World perspective

No Escape

Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, and Pierce Brosnan
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Tagline: Survive together or die together.

An American family finds itself being chased by a murderous mob in the midst of a foreign coup in John Erick Dowdle’s action thriller No Escape.

After getting a new job with an American engineering firm abroad, Jack (Owen Wilson) and his family — wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) — relocate to an unspecified Southeast Asian country. Upset about the upheaval but hoping to forge a better future for themselves, they make their way overseas, but soon realise they have landed in the middle of a violent revolution.

Armed rebels descend like a tsunami of death and destruction, pulverising everything and everyone in their path. The onslaught is relentless and the tension never lets up. The result is both thrilling and exhausting. Jack and his family are put through all kinds of harrowing ordeals. Even though the story at its core isn’t very inventive, the fast-paced, gripping action makes the movie an intense watch. Solid performances delivered by Wilson and Bell also help make the narrative more effective. Pierce Brosnan — appearing in the role of an English expat who befriends the protagonists — is stuck portraying a character whose arc is quite predictable, but still plays the part with zeal nonetheless.

Even with a suspenseful setup and good acting, No Escape doesn’t come together quite like it should have. The movie falters in its half-hearted attempt at humanising the locals. Viewers are asked to invest in the fate of one Western family, while the situation of the natives is given only a cursory explanation. Their predicament and revolt against unchecked foreign business interests is never fully fleshed out, nor are they given a chance to appear as anything but sadistic murderers hell-bent on killing all seemingly-innocent people they come across.

Overall, No Escape’s promising premise is marred by an uneven execution and a seemingly prejudiced worldview. Still, if you can look past its unconvincing political commentary, you have to admit that the movie is undeniably thrilling. Had this intensity been wrapped in a better story and delivered through stronger characters, the film could have been a lot more interesting and entertaining.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 13th December, 2015 *

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - delightfully quirky

tv series review

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a fun watch for those who can embrace both its darkness and mirth

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 

Starring: Rachel Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, Santino Fontana, Donna Lynne Champlin, Pete Gardner, Vella Lovell
Created by: Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna
Tagline: Never. Let. Go.

Don’t judge a television show by its title – that’s a lesson networks have taught us time and again. A number of promising series have suffered as they failed to attract viewers atleast partly because someone thought it would be a good idea to give them a title that was either lazy (Complications, Better Off Ted), bland (Go On, The Neighbors), confusingly irrelevant (Terriers, Cougar Town), or just plain bad (Don’t Trust the B In Apartment 23, Selfie, Trophy Wife, and many, many others).

Likewise, the name of CW’s latest comedy drama, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, seems to have been picked by someone who appears to be under the impression that titles should actively serve as audience repellents. Without any context, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is more than likely to turn people off, and the series itself seems to be aware of that. “That’s a sexist term,” the protagonist interrupts the “she’s the crazy ex-girlfriend” chorus in the show’s theme song. “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!”

And it is. Because once you move past the cringe-worthy title, you encounter a delightfully compelling, charmingly zany musical comedy with a lot of potential. The series follows the story of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a single woman who is smart, strong, and successful. Also profoundly disturbed, and quite possibly in the middle of having a nervous breakdown.

A chance encounter with her former boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) – a guy she dated at a summer camp a decade ago when they were teenagers – makes Rebecca realize that she isn’t happy with her life and needs a change. In an attempt to seek happiness, she turns down a huge promotion, leaving her job at a law firm in Manhattan to move to West Covina, California, the “pride of the Inland Empire”, only two hours from the beach! Oh and it just happens to be where Josh lives.

As she tries to get closer to Josh, she befriends his buddy, bartender Greg (Santino Fontana), only to discover that Josh is actually dating a stunning woman, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). Rebecca’s new co-worker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) soon finds out about her obsession with Josh, and starts attempting to help her win back her lost love.

Proceedings generally take the most ridiculous route possible. The show presents an interesting character study, offsetting the underlying darkness of its premise with often-sarcastic humour while having a lot of jaunty fun in the process. The cast periodically breaks into exuberant Broadway-style musical numbers that are amusingly absurd and often annoyingly catchy. The show is consistently self-aware and mostly finds the right balance between embracing and lampooning its tropes and stereotypes. Every role is well cast, and the series is a perfect showcase for the very talented Rachel Bloom who is terrific in the lead role.

But as with most projects, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend definitely isn’t for everyone. Certain viewers won’t enjoy both its darkness and mirth. It is risky to make the protagonist so quirky, and Bloom is so good at portraying the unhinged Rebecca that the result is almost disconcerting. It’s amply clear that Rebecca has serious issues and is chasing a fantasy in an effort to recapture a moment of happiness from her past in the midst of a crushing depression. Also, at times some of the show’s less engaging arcs are given more focus than they deserve, and you are left to feel that the series might have been better off as a half-hour comedy (which it was originally intended to be when it was developed for Showtime) instead of going for a longer, one-hour format.

Ultimately, not all viewers will enjoy Bloom’s quirky brand of humour, and if the idea of an offbeat, campy, over-the-top musical comedy doesn’t appeal to you, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not for you. But those who fancy a fresh, fun escapade that is sharp and has a lot of musical fun along the way will be pleasantly surprised by this new, often bizarre comedy.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 13th December, 2015 *

The Forgers - ominous signs

book review

The Forgers takes readers into the world of rare books through a murder-mystery plot

Book: The Forgers
Author: Bradford Morrow

“They never found his hands.” Thus begins Bradford Morrow’s crime thriller, The Forgers, grabbing the reader’s attention with its intriguingly disturbing first sentence while setting a fascinating scene around which the narrative unfolds. The former possessor of said hands is Adam Diehl, a reclusive book collector, who succumbs to his injuries 10 days after he is attacked. A murder investigation ensues. The press is drawn to the story, with one tabloid dubbing the slaying “The Manuscript Murder”. But with few further developments in the case, the media soon begins to lose interest.

The narrator, however, does not. He is the boyfriend of the victim’s sister, Meghan, and doesn’t like being referred to by his name, which is only mentioned once in the book: “shadow men never like being called by name,” he tells us. His past is evidently chequered. He is a former forger who specialised in mimicking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inscriptions, but was exposed as a fraud and shunned by many in the rare books community after receiving a series of menacing letters in Henry James’s handwriting. Now, as he tries to rebuild his life and forge a better future with Meghan, a spectre from his past returns. Threatening letters penned in the handwriting of long-dead authors once again start showing up after Adam’s death. The anonymous correspondent claims to have disturbing information about the murder, and threatens dire consequences if his demands aren’t met. As the web of extortion is spun, it soon becomes abundantly clear that his nemesis will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

The protagonist’s shifty character is intriguing (albeit not particularly likable), despite the fact that from the very get-go, it is fairly obvious that his account isn’t necessarily reliable. But shady and strangely elusive as he may be, he is our only source of information. We have nothing to go by but his words, and we spend much of the book wondering how accurate his telling of the tale is. Is someone who describes history as “subjective”, “alterable”, and “little more than modelling clay in a very warm room” worthy of our trust?

His flawed personality does, however, help create a captivating setup. His past proclivities and his association with the literary sphere give us a chance to discover the oddly fascinating world of forgery, which serves as a terrific setting for a literary mystery. The thoughts of an unrepentant forger, who sees his work as art, offer a unique peek at the complex world of rare books and manuscripts as well as the sinister underworld of forgery, a universe most of us have probably never thought of or know much about.

But even though the narrator and his world are interesting, the mystery he’s trying to spin, sadly, isn’t. After a promising start, the tale slows down and the action stalls. Character development continues without much plot development, and the novel turns into a detailed character portrait instead of a riveting, eventful murder mystery. The proceedings end up focusing on the clash between “two forgers interested in the same authors, furtively competing in the same small market, and forced by specialisation to share some of the same contacts”, putting the murder in the background for much of the novel, and then wrapping up the mystery in the last 10 pages, more as an obligatory afterthought than a satisfying conclusion, in thoroughly underwhelming fashion.

It also gets a bit frustrating that we are never sure how much of what we are being told is true. Seemingly honest one moment and duplicitous the next, the protagonist lies to and deceives Meghan, but he is only “withholding certain things that would hurt her or cause her undue worry,” he assures. Instead, his actions and justifications leave us wondering if he is simply doing everything to shield the woman he genuinely seems to love or if he has something to hide. After a while, this constant unreliability gets tiring.

The prose has impressive moments of flair, and Morrow’s passion for literature shines through in the details, but the overall execution of the novel is decidedly uneven. The Forgers will charm bibliophiles, and readers are more likely to enjoy the book if they don’t expect it to operate as a detective novel and see it as a character study instead of a mystery thriller. After a riveting beginning The Forgers quickly runs out of steam, and even though it is a short, quick read, the novel still leaves you feeling you’ve spent more time than necessary with the main protagonist. There are some interesting thoughts in the book, but the novelist could have spun a better tale.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 13th December, 2015 *

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Farhan Saeed: The comeback kid


Farhan Saeed is having a terrific year. The singer – who first came to prominence after being recruited by Jal as a replacement for Atif Aslam and then parted ways with the band to pursue a solo career – is riding high on the success of his song ‘Roiyaan’ which recently won him multiple awards. He has also been busy with his budding acting career, appearing in television dramas including Mere Ajnabi which saw him starring opposite his real-life partner, Urwa Hocane. In an interview with Instep, Farhan talks about his latest successes, venturing into the world of acting, and his upcoming projects.

Instep: Since parting ways with Jal in 2011, you have released a handful of songs, including ‘Khuwahishon’, ‘Pi Jaun’, ‘Kyun Gayi’, and more recently ‘Roiyaan’. Why have you only released singles so far and not a full-length album yet?
Farhan Saeed: Since I started doing music, I have seen the music scene of Pakistan changing drastically. When we started, Pakistan’s music scene was on a high and saw some of its best times. After around 2008–2009, it has been in a relatively difficult situation.
In my opinion, it was a technology shift. From CD players we went to iPods; from buying music we went to downloading it onto our iPods or smartphones later on. This whole technology shift disturbed the business model all over the world, but in the West and other countries like India, they soon got control over it and started paying the artists as their music got downloaded or played anywhere in the world in the form of royalties. But in Pakistan, as expected, no one really came out to help the musicians. Record labels lost interest as the numbers didn’t make sense anymore – everyone started downloading the music for free and CD sales went down to zero.
On top of that, YouTube got banned in Pakistan, which pretty much closed the international doors for Pakistani artists, especially the ones that were new.
With all this in mind, I thought this is a better way of producing music – release a single, make a video, and promote it, rather than releasing an album and not doing justice to each song as I would like to.

Instep: Are there any plans to release your debut album? How soon can we expect a full-length record from you?
Farhan: Honestly speaking, I am not thinking about the album right now. I’d rather release six to seven songs in a year as singles. If things get better and it makes sense, I’ll probably be the first one to do it.

Instep: ‘Roiyaan’ has become your most successful song to date, winning trophies at the Hum Awards and the Lux Style Awards earlier this year. Why do you think the song has been so popular and resonated with listeners and critics alike?
Farhan: Yes, by the grace of Allah, ‘Roiyaan’ has been liked by almost everyone and won me the biggest awards of Pakistan this year. I think it was a great team effort from the audio to the making of its video. I personally believe Pakistan’s audience has a great taste when it comes to music, and good work never goes unnoticed. On top of that, I have some seriously loyal fans behind me to support me through all this.

Instep: How was the experience of performing at the Masala Awards? And how much preparation went into your performance?
Farhan: It took me half an hour for preparation. I reached Dubai just a day before the performance due to my tight schedule. My song was already rehearsed by the dance group, I just had to go and do my bit. I enjoyed every bit of it so it wasn’t that difficult for me.
I loved the feeling of representing Pakistan at the Masala Awards. It was a proud moment. Thanks to Frieha Altaf (Catwalk) who approached me for this and made this possible.

Instep: How much value and importance do you attach to awards and award shows?
Farhan: I think it just motivates you a lot more when you come to know that your work has been appreciated and you’re contributing to Pakistan’s music industry in the best possible way. It just gives you that kick to keep going and make a lot more music.

Instep: You have also been working as a playback singer for Bollywood movies. What do you prefer, making your own music or playback singing?
Farhan: I think both are very important. When you’re making your own music, it’s like a one man army, from making a song to its recording to making its video till its promotion, whereas in a Bollywood movie, or any movie for that matter, you have a lot of people working as a team; it’s relatively easy, but having said that, you get exposed to the biggest audience which you probably wouldn’t be able to achieve on your own.

Instep: You are currently touring Pakistan and India, performing in various cities across the sub-continent. How would you compare the audience of both the countries?
Farhan: I’ve been lucky in that aspect since the start of my career, to be exposed to audiences around the world. Music generally has the same effect on everyone no matter where you are from, but it feels special to represent Pakistan across the border and present the softer image of Pakistan.

Instep: You’ve recently ventured into acting. How has the experience been so far? Has it been easier or harder than you expected? Have you faced any difficulties?
Farhan: I enjoyed acting. In the start obviously I felt it’s harder, but then I started enjoying it and surprisingly it complemented my singing too. I started enjoying being on stage even more as I kept switching between acting and music. I plan to do a lot more acting in the future.

Instep: You recently appeared in the drama serial Mere Ajnabi alongside your real-life partner Urwa Hocane. Is it easier or more difficult to work with the person you’re in a relationship with?
Farhan: It was definitely easier as we had the comfort level and that chemistry one would ask for as an actor. We’d help each other if needed in various ways.
The only difficult thing was our laughing fits which would just come from nowhere in a very serious scene and then [it would be hard] to control them. We’d laugh at any and everything; once it started, it was impossible!

Instep: Are there any upcoming music or acting projects you can tell us about? What can we expect from you in the coming months?
Farhan: There’s a lot in the pipeline: a couple of projects in Bollywood, working on my own music videos – I won’t disappoint my fans even in the coming year, Insha’Allah.
As far as acting is concerned, I have got some big offers, [and I am] working on them. One project is a drama with Hum TV called Silah. It’s a musical serial, directed by Aabis Raza. It’s almost completed; I’m looking forward to its release too.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th November, 2015 *

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2 - lacking bite

movie review

Not particularly inventive, animated film Hotel Transylvania 2 is still likely to hit home with a younger audience

 Hotel Transylvania 2

Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, and Mel Brooks
Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky
Tagline: They're back to raise a little terror.

Sony Pictures Animation makes another visit to Dracula’s monster-lodging establishment in Hotel Transylvania 2, a sequel to the 2012 film that found the overprotective Count (voiced by Adam Sandler) trying to dissuade his beloved daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), from going out into the world and interacting with humans.

Despite his efforts, Mavis falls in love with a mortal, Johnny (Andy Samberg), and as the sequel commences, the couple ties the knot and subsequently becomes parents of a son named Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). Count readily takes to his responsibilities as a ‘vampa’ — a vampire grandpa — and dotes on his half-human, half-vampire grandson, while hoping the child will inherit his traits. But when Mavis decides to move to a human neighbourhood, away from the dangers of the monsters’ locale, Count makes it his mission to help Dennis find his inner monster and convince the family to stay. He enlists his monster friends — including Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), a mummy named Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), and Blobby the Blob (Jonny Solomon) — to assist him in scaring his grandson, hoping fear will cause Dennis’ fangs to sprout.

There is nothing exceptional about how events unfold, nor does the film make any attempts to try something original or different. The result is amiable but not particularly inventive. With Genndy Tartakovsky returning as the director, the movie retreads the same ground as its predecessor, basically focusing on Count’s parental neurosis and delivering the same messages of acceptance and embracing change. The execution is obvious and safe, while the thin plot seems to have been stretched and padded with gags to make a full feature.

To its credit though, the film is — or at least tries to be — warm and full of energy. It is competently animated and does succeed in delivering the occasional laugh, but few of its punchlines are clever enough to merit praise, and some simply feel tired. On the whole, the movie will please younger viewers more than it will entertain their parents. (Grown-ups are also likely to find most of the voices overly familiar, a gripe that young kids will not have).

In the hands of a more creative studio and writers, Hotel Transylvania 2 could potentially have been a lot more impressive. As it stands, this animated feature is watchable but largely unmemorable and ultimately inconsequential.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 22nd November, 2015 *

Necropolis - Delhi after dark

book review

Necropolis is a noir-crime novel meets supernatural thriller set in the Indian capital

Book: Necropolis
Author: Avtar Singh

Gangs of pretend vampires and werewolves roam the streets of Delhi as three cops find themselves pursuing a series of cases in Avtar Singh’s Necropolis, a crime drama that interweaves a supernatural thread into its peculiar yarn. In a literal instance of “digital crime”, an attacker terrorises the city by collecting fingers from a number of unwilling donors. His victims are “drawn from the ranks of the peripherally urban — rickshaw-wallahs, casual labourers and the like”. The perpetrator incapacitates his prey with a blow to the head delivered from behind, and then administers an injection to ensure the mark doesn’t regain consciousness, removes a finger, and bandages the hand to minimise the blood loss. Deputy commissioner of police, Sajan Dayal, a lawman “noted for his perspicacity in matters criminal”, heads the task force set up to deal with the matter. Assisting him is his immediate subordinate, “a slow-moving Punjabi” named Kapoor who is a legend in the Delhi police, and smart, idealistic young cyber crime officer Smita Dhingra.

Even though the novel commences with the discovery of the body of a young man, the thread is far from resolved. The same night that the body is recovered from a wooded area next to an old village in Delhi, the elusive Razia disappears without a trace. Known as the Colonel because of her vaguely military outfits, she is a prominent presence in the city’s nightlife, yet no photos exist of her; she may even be hundreds of years old and is suspected by some of being a vampire.

As the would-be vampires and lycans battle each other across the city, Dayal and his cohorts try to track down a specific member of the former group, a young man wearing a keffiyeh. Along the way, other cases — like the rape of a young woman, the murder of a West African drug dealer, and the kidnapping of a child — demand their attention, the resolution of these crimes often complicated by political pressures. As its criminal underbelly is exposed, the setting starts to seem more reminiscent of Batman’s Gotham than India’s capital. It’s a dark, decadent environ, rife with vice and corruption, with a bevy of bad guys causing trouble and shady characters mysteriously appearing whenever they see fit.

There is, however, disconnect between the novel’s style and content. The book finds itself battling its literary and detective sensibilities and ultimately satisfies neither. The attention wanders from the story to Delhi’s history and surroundings instead of focusing on the mystery at hand. Long-winded descriptions of the city’s past and present are peppered throughout the text, which make the narrative’s progress slow and uneven, draining the tale of much-needed intensity. Add to that the heavy prose and wordy style of writing and the book becomes a chore to read. After a while, both the style and substance start to feel repetitive.

But while its leisurely pace may not be to everyone’s taste, the novel leaves no doubt that Singh is both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject matter, and if you’d like to read about an enigmatic metropolis as it changes through the seasons, then it is this very element of the novel that you will find the most fascinating. The author also raises several social issues, with each tragedy highlighting a prevalent problem; even though the book doesn’t explore these issues in depth, it still leaves you with much to ponder.

The characters of the investigators are conventional but well crafted, although they are not as engaging as one would have hoped. Nor is there much reason to be invested in their stories. There isn’t much emotional depth to the proceedings, and it’s hard, for instance, to be interested in the drama surrounding Razia’s connection and relationship with Dayal or indeed her fate, even if what she ultimately represents is intrinsic to the story.

All in all, if you like your crime fiction fast-paced and focused, then Necropolis isn’t for you, but if you’re a fan of descriptive, literary writing and aren’t likely to be disappointed by unsatisfying mysteries, then you will probably enjoy this book.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 22nd November, 2015 *

Friday, November 13, 2015

Licence to thrill

 cover story

Even after five decades on the big screen, James Bond still continues to rule the box office

His name is Bond. James Bond. And he is the most successful secret agent in the (cinematic) universe.

With billions of dollars in box office intake, Bond is one of the highest grossing protagonists of all time, and it is fairly easy to see why - the debonair spy is cool, charismatic, and classy. Armed with a licence to kill, he surfs through danger with the help of high-tech gadgets and gorgeous women, delivering bad guys their comeuppance along the way.

His appeal is timeless, as is clearly obvious by the fact that the Bond series remains the longest continually running franchise in movie history, and even after 24 instalments, 007’s popularity is showing no signs of waning, thanks to the fact that his globetrotting, action-packed outings are chock full of thrilling twists and turns, guaranteed to captivate his fans. And the latest Bond film, Spectre, is no exception.

But how exactly did everyone’s favourite spy come into being? James Bond’s journey, like most good things, began with a book.


The character - an intelligence officer in the MI6 Secret Intelligence Service - was created by British novelist Ian Fleming (1908 - 1964) in the 1950s, and based on a number of individuals he came across while working for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. Bestowed with many of Fleming’s own characteristic and sharing a resemble with both American singer Hoagy Carmichael and the writer himself, 007 debuted in the author’s first novel, Casino Royale (1953), which garnered much success. Fleming ultimately wrote a total of twelve Bond novels as well as two short story collections before his death, two of which were published posthumously. The Bond saga - which has since been continued by other writers - has gone on to rank among the best-selling book series of all time, having shifted over 100 million copies worldwide, and has been adapted into other medium, including ventures in television, radio, comics, video games, and of course the immensely popular films.

The film series

The Eon Productions series which started in 1962 with Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as the first actor to portray Bond, has gone on to become the third highest grossing franchise to date with an over $6 billion haul so far, and is actually the single most successful series when the revenues are adjusted for inflation. Because of their continued, lasting appeal, these movies are usually among the most anticipated films of the year, and often give a boost to the careers of the unestablished actors and actresses who weren’t well known before appearing in these projects.

From the girls to the villains, the gadgets to the cars, the Bond style has been emulated by many other films, and the series is also cited for its influence within the cinematic spy realm, attributed with popularizing the genre.

The actors

Here’s a big reason behind Bond’s popularity: he’s very well cast!

Sure there have been some misfires (Hello Pierce Brosnan!) but the part has usually been played by suave Brits who have won the hearts of their audiences and looked dapper in the process. Six actors have taken on the celebrated role so far, and all viewers have their own opinions and preference about who played the part best. Sean Connery and Roger Moore (who appeared as Bond more times than any other performer) remain fan favourites, and Daniel Craig has also made a place for himself in this category, despite initially receiving unfounded criticism prior to the release of his first Bond film. Craig is now the most successful actor to portray 007; his film Skyfall (2012) is the highest grossing movie in the series, having earned $1.1 billion at the box office (the first Bond film to cross the $1 billion mark), and there has been much speculation about whether he will return for another film and reprise the role once again.

The latest release: Spectre

The secret agent is now on the big screen for the 24th time, and his latest adventure is called Spectre. The film finds Bond on a trail to uncover the titular global criminal organization but along the way reveals a chilling connection between him and his enemy. The movie does not use an original Ian Fleming title, and is not based as such on any of his stories, although it does draw on some of Fleming’s source material.

Sam Mendes returns for his second consecutive effort in the director’s chair, while Daniel Craig stars in his fourth portrayal of the lead character. The baddie, this time round, is being played by Christoph Waltz, who depicts the mysterious mastermind behind the sinister Spectre (which was originally stylised SPECTRE and stood for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).

Of course no Bond film is complete without a bevy of gorgeous, exotic women. In Spectre, the part of the main sidekick is being played by Léa Seydoux, who appears as Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist working at a clinic in the Austrian Alps. The Spectre Bond girls also include Stephanie Sigman and Monica Bellucci, the latter becoming the oldest actress to play the role of a Bond girl at the age of fifty.

Another popular Bond staple is the theme song, the track which is played during the title sequence of each film and has previously been sung by well-known popular singers including the likes of Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Tina Turner and Adele. The Spectre theme, titled ‘Writing’s on the Wall’, was co-written and performed by singer Sam Smith. Despite receiving mixed reviews, the song has gone on to become the first Bond theme to reach the coveted number one spot in the UK Singles Chart.

So, movie buffs, head to your nearest cinemas and enjoy the latest adventure of one of the world’s most famous characters; it promises to be an action-packed, thrilling ride!

The Bond actors and their filmography

- Sean Connery
6 films: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

- George Lazenby
1 film: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

- Roger Moore
7 films: Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985)

- Timothy Dalton
2 films: The Living Daylights (1987), Licence to Kill (1989)

- Pierce Brosnan
4 films: GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002)

- Daniel Craig
4 films: Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), Spectre (2015)

The current Bond

Daniel Wroughton Craig

- Born on the 2nd of March 1968 in Cheshire, England.
- Has an older sister, Lea.
- Parents divorced when he was young.
- Began acting in school plays at the age of six.
- Started training at the National Youth Theatre in his teens; then attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at the Barbican, graduating in 1991.
- Made his film debut with a role in The Power of One (1992), and went on to appear in films including Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), Sylvia (2003), Munich (2005), The Golden Compass (2007), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).
- Was chosen to portray James Bond in 2005, a decision that initially received criticism before the release of his first Bond film, Casino Royale (2006), which subsequently went on to become the highest grossing movie in the franchise, a record that was beaten by his third Bond instalment, Skyfall (2012).
- Is the first actor to portray James Bond to have been born after the Bond series started, and after Ian Fleming’s death.
- Has been married twice: to actresses Fiona Loudon (1992 - 1994; divorced; they have a daughter, Ella) and Rachel Weisz (2011 - present).
- Is a fan of football and rugby.
- Was appointed by the United Nations as a global advocate for the elimination of mines and explosive hazards in April 2015.

Spectre trivia

- Had a budget of around $300 million, and is the most expensive film in the series.
- Sees James Bond drive an Aston Martin DB10. Is the thirteenth movie in the franchise to feature an Aston Martin vehicle.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor was considered for the role of the villain.
- Penelope Cruz, Helen Flanagan, and Kate Upton were all rumoured to be in consideration for a Bond girl role.
- Sam Mendes was originally reluctant to work on another James Bond film after Skyfall (2012), but was ultimately convinced to return as director. Christopher Nolan had reportedly been considered as his potential replacement.
- Score composed by Thomas Newman.
- Is the first Bond film not to feature trumpeter Derek Watkins who passed away shortly after the release of Skyfall (2012).

- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 13th November, 2015 *

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Scream Queens - apocalypse dreams

tv series review

Scream Queens

Starring: Emma Roberts, Skyler Samuels, Lea Michele, Glen Powell, Diego Boneta, Abigail Breslin, Keke Palmer, Nasim Pedrad, Lucien Laviscount, Oliver Hudson, Billie Lourd, and Jamie Lee Curtis
Tagline: Pretty evil.

Right on the heels of MTV’s attempt to bring Wes Craven’s Scream to the small screen, Ryan Murphy and co. unveiled their own slasher series, the comedy horror anthology Scream Queens, on Fox. But even though the former very vehemently proved that doing slasher in the form of a television show is not without its challenges, it was still hard not to be excited about the latter.

The brain child of Murphy and his working partners Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, Scream Queens seemed like a hybrid of American Horror Story (lite) and Glee (minus the show tunes) by way of Scary Movie, a combination that had the potential to land the show on many a guilty-pleasures list. Add to that a very talented cast that includes the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Emma Roberts, Lea Michele, and Abigail Breslin, and it’s easy to see why the show was one of the most anticipated television series of the fall.

The premise, too, seemed promising. The story revolves around the members of Kappa Kappa Tau, a sorority headed ruthlessly by Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), the queen bee and leader of her posse of mean girl minions – Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel No. 3 (Billie Lourd), and Chanel No. 5 (Abigail Breslin). Much to their chagrin, the Chanels are forced by the university’s dean, Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), to accept all the pledges who want to join the exclusive house, allowing freshman Grace (Skyler Samuels), her roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer), and scoliosis-suffering Hester (Lea Michele) as well as a handful of other misfits to become a part of the club. But the sorority sisters’ luck takes an even worse turn when a 20-year old murder mystery resurfaces, and a serial killer dressed in a red devil costume starts targeting people linked to the Kappa House.

The series embraces its over-the-top slasher spoof cheesiness from the get-go, skewering horror tropes, sorority clichés, and youth culture with aplomb. And the cast – Emma Roberts and Jamie Lee Curtis in particular – seems committed to their roles, no matter how preposterous their arcs may be. The lack of logic and cohesiveness are, of course, to be expected from the genre, and since we aren’t expecting realism from the series, its lack doesn’t really detract from the fun.

Where Scream Queen falters, however, is in how it presents its characters. In their eagerness to cast suspicion on everyone who appears on screen, the writers forget to make us care about any of their characters. And in a series where people are getting picked off one by one, it would help to give them some redeeming qualities that would inspire viewers to be invested in their fate. But Scream Queens gives us no such reasons. Even the principals fail to generate any empathy; Emma Roberts’ Chanel is incessantly obnoxious and Skyler Samuels’ Grace – the good girl to Robert’s mean girl – is simply bland. The humour too is unrelentingly, tiringly mean-spirited, and the series definitely isn’t for the easily offended.

Whether it gains momentum or loses steam from here on out, of course, remains to be seen, as there is still more than half the season to go. So far, Scream Queens has tried a little too hard to shock viewers with its politically incorrect humour, and the result has been quite uneven. The show certainly isn’t a masterpiece, but if you think you’d enjoy a blunt, offbeat slasher spoof, then you might want to give Scream Queens a try anyway.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th November, 2015 *

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Everest - falling short

movie review

Everest fails to make it to the top because of lack of details and limited depth of characters


Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Tagline: Never let go.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the inherent danger in the quest, thousands of people have tried to summit the highest peaks in the world. But the smallest misstep or misfortune can leave climbers exposed to the severest elements of nature, struggling for survival. Everest is the story of one such ill-fated attempt that ended in tragedy.

Based on real events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which, until last year, was the deadliest day on the world’s highest mountain, the film tells the story of a group of climbers that were caught in a severe storm while trying to conquer the daunting peak.

The movie commences as several commercial expeditions — most prominently the teams led by guides Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — set off to ascent the summit of Mount Everest. Hall’s clients include pathologist and mountaineering enthusiast Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who is making his second effort to climb to the top, experienced climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has already scaled all but one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of each of the seven continents, and journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who has been poached from Fischer’s team.

Amidst delays because of overcrowding, Hall persuades Fisher to cooperate during the mission. But a series of misfortunes await the mountaineers. Soon after summitting, the climbers find themselves in the middle of a fierce storm, leaving them in a life-or-death struggle in brutally harsh conditions.

With Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur at its helm, the film does a terrific job in capturing both the splendour and the hostility of Mount Everest. But despite a considerably slow build up, the movie doesn’t really explore or define its characters beyond unoriginal archetypes. Not many of them are given much back-story, and the lack of details and personality makes the characters seem underdeveloped.

To his credit, Kormákur doesn’t ‘Hollywoodise’ the disaster by slathering the proceedings with over-sensationalised cinematic peril. But as affecting as the story at Everest’s core is, it has already been told numerous times through various mediums, including books, documentaries, and even a made-for-TV movie, some of which present a significantly more comprehensive look at the events that unfolded during that fateful expedition. If you already know the tale that this film is retelling — or even if you are just expecting someone to thrillingly save the day — then you’ll find the film lacking in suspense, bereft of a cliff-hanger.

Still, while it doesn’t quite keep you on the edge of your seat, Everest does succeed in conveying what a harrowing experience it was for the climbers to be trapped by a blizzard near the summit, and is, on the whole, worth a watch, thanks largely to its solid cast as well as spectacular cinematography and the gripping real-life circumstances it is based on.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 1st November, 2015 *

Sunday, October 25, 2015

In conversation with Farhad Humayun


Between touring with his band Overload, recording new music, endorsing brands and working on a web music platform, Farhad Humayun certainly appears to be having a busy year. Instep talks to the drummer-turned-singer to find out what he’s been up to and what we can expect from him in the coming months.

Instep: Tell us about Overload’s recent trip to the UK.
Farhad Humayun:
It was a fantastic little tour. The crowd was such an eclectic mix of people from all over the world. They didn’t care about the language we sang in. They just picked up the good vibes from the music. We sang at BBC Lancashire on live radio and when we began, the entire six storey office came down to the studio to see what this crazy band from Lahore was doing. It was great fun.

Instep: You also have another UK tour coming up. What makes the United Kingdom such an attractive tour spot for artists?
We played our first UK gig as Overload only this year. I guess there’s a time for everything and it’s all coming together for us. We have three winter gigs lined up in London, Manchester, and Glasgow.

Instep: Any shows planned for Pakistan?
Not too many honestly. It seems music, at best, makes for television or internet programming. If the government can’t ensure that people will be safe in public places, then families or individuals won’t risk coming out, and consequently sponsors aren’t interested in paying for something so risky.
We end up playing corporate gigs or conducting team building workshops for corporations through drumming, but that hardly gives us an audience to which we can give an audio visual experience, which is what a band is supposed to do. Even institutions aren’t hosting many shows since the Peshawar attack last year.

Instep: Overload is also planning to release a new song/video soon. What can you tell us about it?
It’ll come out after Muharram and it’s going to be a rhythmic and up tempo Urdu song.

Instep: You are also planning to release ‘Give In’ – Overload’s first English release. What can you tell us about it?
I wrote an autobiographical song in English, which talks about the last five years of my life. It’s about losing hope, losing worldly things and relationships, and gaining it all back by continuing to aspire and be inspired by the good energy in the world. It’s about surrendering and giving in to the cycle of life. I was planning to release a video, which we’ve already shot, but I’m waiting to release it with a collection of songs I’m writing. We played the song in the UK and people loved it.

Instep: Why have you not released any English songs before?  Where do you feel English songs by Pakistani artists stand, both locally and internationally?
I’ve done many covers by some of my favourite bands, like Whitesnake and Aerosmith, in the past. Even though I believe the public shouldn’t dictate your creativity, I think I might waste an English song by releasing it just yet. Since it’s going to be an internet release, it’ll be available to the whole world, so I think it should be in a collection of songs that go together so the world has a variety to get a real taste of the English songs a Pakistani artist writes.
I think usually when Pakistani artists write and record English songs, they’re amateurish. The best you can say is “nice try”, but music in the West is governed by a different set of aesthetics. So you have to have grown up with music from the West and also read and think in English. However, Sajid and Zeeshan had some great songs, and Poor Rich Boy write some odd and interesting things. If done and released right, it could all have a great impression in Europe and the U.S.

Instep: What do you make of the current state of the music scene in and across Pakistan?
I don’t think it’s improving at all. In fact it’s growing worse. There’s no financial, legal, or managerial support for young artists. I think the major fault is of the musicians themselves. They don’t produce or release music frequently. Every artist wants someone to do their work for them. They can’t get organized or wake up early in the day and treat their band like a company.
Corporate shows try to convince you that the scene is improving, but such shows are made to sell their own brand more and further their interest. And don’t get me wrong – it’s fine. They do great publicity for artists who appear on their shows, but after the season of those shows has ended, there isn’t much that an artist can do. So they either end up becoming TV or film actors or start producing jingles or get into production, and if that makes them money or gets them fame, that’s their choice. It’s not wrong and I’m nobody to comment on their preferences, but that’s the state of music in Pakistan at the moment.

Instep: Are you working on any film-related projects?
No, none at the moment. I’m only writing and recording my personal music, but it’s great to see that film is on the rise. It’s on the rise because cinemas are being made all over the country after a long ban in Zia’s time. Also, the fact that the cinema business is tax free helps.

Instep: How do you feel about the issues surrounding the airing and ban of Indian movies – like Phantom – in Pakistan? Where do you stand on the Shaan-Mawra episode?
I don’t care about Phantom or the Indian cinema and I have no opinion on any arguments between actors. I wish them all the best!
All I have to say is that people in Pakistan need to look within themselves and spend more time in producing world class material that stands apart from all the other content out there in the world. I think social media as well as TV are being used more as a tool for nuisance than to actually serve as means for connecting people. We all need to act responsibly and let our work speak for itself.

Instep: You recently signed a three year endorsement deal with the British company Liberty Drums. You also endorse Samsung. How important are such endorsements for artists and what, in your opinion, is their impact on the music industry?
I played eight concerts with Overload in the UK in May, the biggest one being at the Alchemy Festival Southbank London, and some representatives of Liberty Drums were there to watch the show. Three songs into the show, they contacted my PR, saying they wanted to offer an endorsement deal. Such deals are based on the crowd turnout and its response to an artist and of course the quality of music he plays. I guess I fit the bill well. It goes to show that musicians from Pakistan stand up to any of the big artists out in the West or the East. We have our own unique style and it really clicks.
I do have an association with Samsung since January 2015. I did two television commercials and audio campaigns for them. I owe a lot of it to the success of my song ‘Nimmi Nimmi’ and the long standing cult following of Overload because there’s no band in the world playing our style of music.
I usually don’t do endorsements or ads because usually when a brand pays you to do a job it tends to interfere with your creativity and image. But with Samsung I have all the freedom and liberty to do what I want and do it my way. They chose me as an ambassador for who I am and for being a musician, music producer, and video artist. If a brand gives you that liberty and pays you enough so that you can invest that money to further your music, then it’s a win-win situation.
Endorsements like these actually push musicians to work harder and maintain their mettle.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 25th October, 2015 *

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck - memoria

documentary review

Though not particularly revelatory, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is still an intimate and captivating portrait of a complex individual 

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Even though it has been over 20 years since his untimely death, Kurt Cobain still remains one of the most popular and fascinating musicians of his (or any) generation. His life and death have both been the subject of several books and have also inspired a number of films, including the recent biographical documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

Helmed by director Brett Morgen, the project serves as the first documentary about the singer made with the cooperation of his family. The film-makers were given access to the entirety of the Nirvana frontman’s personal archives which form the basis of the film. Footage from home movies, clips from live performances, audio snippets from Cobain’s recordings, and excerpts from his journals are meshed with recollections from his close friends and family members, including Cobain’s mother Wendy, sister Kim, father Don, stepmother Jenny, band mate Krist Novoselic, ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, and wife Courtney Love.

The documentary offers a glimpse into the tragically short life of the rock legend, chronicling events from his childhood till his suicide in 1994 at the age of 27. Montage of Heck paints a grim picture of a troubled young man, who was scarred as a child by his parents’ divorce, and then left struggling with feelings of rejection and abandonment after being shuffled back and forth between relatives in his adolescence. The film goes on to explore the effect of Nirvana’s sudden rise to fame on Cobain, as well as his drug abuse, marriage to Courtney Love, birth of their daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who was a co-executive producer on this film), and the infamous overdose in Rome a month prior to his death.

The result is an intimate portrait of a complex individual, delivered in a captivating, albeit uneven, biography. Cobain, once again, proves to be a riveting subject, explaining why interest in the singer has not waned in the last two decades. The highlight of the movie is the terrific archival material, especially the footage of the singer as a child which is in itself reason enough to watch the film. In its second half, though, the home recordings start feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, and might leave you wondering whether it was really necessary to share his private moments with the world and dredge up his past yet again.

It’s also a little disappointing that despite being invasive, the content is not particularly revelatory. There isn’t much Montage of Heck tells us that we didn’t already know. What the film says about Cobain will probably seem more remarkable to casual observers than fans, because if you’ve read the books and seen the films that preceded this, there isn’t anything in this documentary that will truly surprise you. You might also be left wondering how reliable some of the interviewees (Courtney Love in particular) are, and why the circumstances around Cobain’s death didn’t get a mention.

Still, the project on the whole is extremely compelling. The film is tonally and stylistically a triumph. It intriguingly sheds light on the many facets of Kurt Cobain’s life, and while its focus is a bit skewed and a little too selective, Montage of Heck does succeed in creating an interesting portrait of a talented but troubled individual whose music continues to resonate with listeners around the globe.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 18th October, 2015 *

Holy Cow - bovine tales

book review

David Duchovny's novel is an absurd but amusing animal adventure with a cow as its protagonist
Book: Holy Cow
Author: David Duchovny

Many celebrities find it imperative to put pen to paper and flaunt their (often questionable) literary skills by writing a book. Some publish their autobiographies and memoirs, detailing their many escapades; others try their hand at fiction, spinning tales for readers of all ages.

So it isn’t exactly shocking that David Duchovny has written a book. The actor, best known for starring in The X-Files and Californication, seems like a fairly interesting and creative person, and he does, after all, have a master’s degree in English literature, so it makes perfect sense that he would want to pen a tome. 

It is, however, a little surprising that his debut novel is about an anthropomorphic cow. 

Holy Cow tells the story of Elsie Bovary, a young bovine living an idyllic life on a small farm in upstate New York. She spends her days grazing, getting milked, sleeping, and gossiping with her best friend Mallory. Her existence is largely pleasant and peaceful, even though she still misses her mother who suddenly disappeared one day “like all cow moms do”.

But her world is turned upside down one night with the occurrence of what she refers to as “The Event”. Venturing out of the pasture, Elsie heads towards the farmhouse, and looks in through the window. A family is quietly staring at a lighted box, but the images on the screen shock her to the core. The Box God reveals how animals are treated on industrial meat farms, and as she watches cows being slaughtered, she finally realises what happened to her mom and what fate has in store for her. 

Horrified, and not keen on being turned into leather and beef, she hatches a plot to escape to India where cows are sacred, and therefore, she will be safe. She reluctantly teams up with two companions for the journey — a Jewish pig named Shalom who wants to go to Israel because the kosher dietary restrictions ensure his safety in the region, and an iPhone-toting turkey named Tom who wants to go to Turkey thinking he won’t be eaten in a country named after his kind.

Together, they set off on a zany adventure that is preposterously nonsensical and, at times, downright bizarre. To get your head around this oddball tale, it helps to peruse the acknowledgments at the very end of the book, where the author reveals that Disney and Pixar turned the story down as an animated film, forcing him to “write it out like a big boy”. Its origins as an animated film outline goes a long way to explain the project as well as its style and tone, seeing how some of it is written “in screenplay form” and the protagonist even occasionally leaves notes for the director.

Also revelatory is the accompanying “note from the cow-writer”, in which Duchovny explains that he is fully aware that the premise is all kinds of — as Elsie would say — “cray cray”. Holy Cow isn’t trying to be even mildly realistic, and the author concedes that his heroine is “given to embellishment like any good storyteller, perhaps to outright lies like any great storyteller”.

But a good or great storyteller Elsie is not. Her fondness for cutesy lingo and habit of copiously employing (often cringe-worthy) puns may be amusing initially, but soon get repetitive, and feel downright tiring by the end.

The story itself is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Whether it’s discussing the treatment of animals or weighing in on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the book delivers its social observations and animal rights commentary in a manner that feels a little too heavy handed. That, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that Duchovny is clearly coming from a good place. The effort is obviously well intentioned, and the points he is trying to make are noble. It’s just that the execution, while imaginative, is a bit drawn out, and the prose can, at times, even be grating. You definitely need a high tolerance for the repeated use of “OMG” as well as terms like “amazeballs”, “sistas”, and “wha?” to enjoy this tale.

Also, it’s a tad confusing whom Holy Cow’s target audience is. While the book itself suggests that it will appeal to readers of all ages, and implicitly compares itself to the far superior Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web, it is questionable whether the novel is suitable for children; both its content and language don’t seem very appropriate for young readers, and kids are likely to miss many of the pop-cultural references (like some of the chapter names which are derived from song titles) and political undertones that pervade the text. And while you can look at it as a children’s fable for grown-ups, the effort is too banal to classify as essential reading for adults.

Ultimately, Holy Cow is an eccentric yarn that proves that its writer has a crazy imagination. Accompanied inter­mittently by quirky illustrations (which are admittedly more like wry sketches), this whimsical animal adventure offers some good messages about kindness and peace, and while some readers may be less than impressed with the quality of its prose, others are likely to find the characters endearing and this outlandish fairy tale enjoyably amusing. 

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 18th October, 2015 *