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 *

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage - the anti-hero

book review

Tania James tells a tale with three interconnected narratives and an important issue at its heart

Book: The Tusk That Did the Damage 
Author: Tania James

Its tusks may be what make the elephant a truly majestic beast, but it is this very feature that has also proved to be the animal’s biggest curse, making these magnificent creatures a target for nasty poachers who senselessly hunt them down and brutally slaughter them for ivory. This cruel state of affairs drives Indian-American novelist Tania James’ latest book The Tusk That Did the Damage, a tome that journeys into the forests of India to spin a yarn that intertwines three storylines, telling the tale from the alternating perspectives of a poacher, a filmmaker, and an elephant.

After losing his cousin Raghu in an elephant attack, Manu, the son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the world of his wayward brother Jayan, a poacher who hunts wild elephants and sells their tusks. Struggling with poverty while harbouring aspirations to make something of himself, Manu’s quest to look out for his brother leads him down a path he doesn’t want to follow, revealing, along the way, a sinister network that is widespread, going far beyond the hands that are responsible for pushing the trigger.

Meanwhile, young American filmmaker Emma and her working partner Teddy arrive at Kavanar Wildlife Park on a mission to make their first documentary. Their subject is Dr Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, known for his unorthodox methods of animal rescue. But as they delve deeper, the complexities of the situation begin to emerge, creating a picture in which conservation and corruption collude. Amidst the drama, Emma finds herself attracted to the enigmatic doctor, jeopardising her professional role and resulting in a betrayal that will have lasting consequences.

At the heart of the action lies the Gravedigger, an elephant who witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of poachers. Taken captive and subjected to varying degrees of care and abuse by the people he encounters, the elephant eventually turns rogue and takes out his traumatised anguish on those he comes across.

The three storylines merge to create an affecting novel that speaks of an important issue and does so eloquently. The Tusk That Did the Damage may chronicle themes we’re well familiar with, but its ideas still bear repeating. Its premise is touching, its moral complexities intriguing. The writer also weaves myths into the text, like the fables behind the chain tree and the elephant graveyard, which provide fascinating interludes.

But while the novel’s structure and style are creative, its three narratives don’t come together with the elegance one would have hoped for. The focus wanders unnecessarily as the viewpoints shift, partly because the writer doesn’t handle the three accounts with the same level of dexterity. An unnecessary love triangle that has no significant bearing on the story has been thrown into the novel for no obvious reason other than to create some convoluted drama. Plus the account of the filmmakers feels more tedious than interesting. Emma was perhaps inserted into the book as a means to offer a Western perspective on Eastern realities, but her arc is banal and those that inhabit it seem caricatured. You can easily exorcise her thoughts from the novel without losing anything.

It is the Gravedigger who draws the most empathy and who should ideally be the focus of the story — the anti-hero we can’t decide whether to root for or against. No thread is as engrossing as that of the elephant, but the Gravedigger doesn’t get as many pages as he deserves. The proceedings instead get bogged down by contrived plots in the filmmaker’s (and, to a lesser extent, the poacher’s) tales, as progress is littered with inconsequential detours, draining it of intensity and leading to an ending that does not satisfy.

Overall, The Tusk That Did the Damage is an uneven but moving tale built around an interesting idea and executed with creativity. The novel is a quick read, even though the storytelling takes a more meandering route than it should have. Its content is well researched, and James has firm grip on the subject matter, although her penchant for lyrical prose might leave some readers struggling to connect with her windy, maudlin style. The writer has opted for both moral and structural complexity over clarity, cramming too many ideas into this slender volume. A more focused narrative with less contrived melodrama would have elevated the book and made it an even more compelling read.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 11th October, 2015 *

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47 - hitting Hard

movie review

Hitman: Agent 47, based on the Hitman video game series, is lacklustre to say the least

Hitman: Agent 47

Starring: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, and Angelababy
Directed by: Aleksander Bach

Hollywood has had massive success with the adaptation of books and graphic novels, but film-makers haven’t been as lucky with movies inspired by video games. Many efforts have been made to transform popular games into big-screen franchises, but few have been notably rewarding, financially. Fewer still have received critical appreciation which has remained largely elusive for this genre. Sadly, the new Hitman film also fails to satisfy or entertain its viewers, and leaves you wondering why the franchise was resurrected for this instalment.

Hitman: Agent 47, a reboot of the series, sees Rupert Friend take on the role of the titular protagonist that was portrayed by Timothy Olyphant in the 2007 original. Director Aleksander Bach helms the project, while Skip Woods, the writer of the previous film, returns as one of the scribes, co-writing the screenplay with Michael Finch.

The premise revolves around the search for geneticist Peter Litvenko (Ciarán Hinds), the man behind a bioengineering programme designed to create the perfect killing machine — human beings without any emotions, be it fear, remorse or even love. Various entities with motives partially unclear are trying to find out his whereabouts. These include the assassin Agent 47 (Rupert Friend), a man known as John Smith (Zachary Quinto) who works for the Syndicate International Corporation and a woman with enhanced survival skills called Katia (Hannah Ware), who tirelessly tries to find the scientist although she doesn’t remember him or any links she has with him.

Amidst the cat and mouse chase, the movie loses any sense of logic or coherence. The protagonist is significantly more trigger-happy than his Xbox counterpart, and instead of a clever plot spun with stealth and creativity, Hitman: Agent 47 turns into yet another mindless action movie. Shoot-outs, fight sequences, and car chases take over the proceedings, and no attempts are made to explore the underlying themes and issues with any depth. There isn’t much its cast can do being stuck in a plot that is so inane. As for the twists and reveals, the film makes sure you see them coming a mile away.

Hitman: Agent 47 can occasionally be borderline fun, but only if you switch off your brain. But there are significantly better action thrillers out there, so ultimately there aren’t many reasons to bother with this movie. It’s about time filmmakers realise that if they want game franchises to make a successful leap to the big screen, they need to be creative and come up with something more interesting than nonstop action and mindless violence.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, Express Tribune - 4th October, 2015 *