Profile: Baber Sheikh

Music video director Baber Sheikh's name rings a bell. But his long association with underground music scene, advertising and a brush with Pakistan's non-existent short films and documentary films doesn't make as good an introduction as his name as the director of Ali Haider's music video "Jadu" does. For his first video, "Jadu" earned Baber more than he expected. Audiences who were so used to sweet and soppy, boy-meets-girl videos were caught off-guard with this colourful display of nothingness. It was brandished as a class conscious video and had it not been for its regular supply at every music channel, people argue that it might never have seen its way through the audience. "It was experimental," Baber justifies. "I agree that there was no story board or outdoor shoots. I just locked a few people in the room and got them to perform. Ali was planning an image change and this inspired me to do something that would complement his new image. But I fail to understand the logic behind the argument by certain quarters that this video is not meant for the masses. When a house wife living in a low income area has access to thirty different channels, and can accept all thirty cultures she sees, why wouldn't she understand my video? People have enough sense and exposure to comprehend a different piece of work."

Baber is a year-and-a-half old as a video director. Ali Haider's "Jadu" and "Sohniye," Sajjad Ali's "Paanyon Pe," Faakhir's "Deewana" and Haroon's "Jee Ke Dekha" are some pieces of his work that set his career as music video director rolling. With a sufficient first-hand encounter with advertising, where he has worked as an art director, the transformation from an art director to a video director has been swift and smooth for him. Baber has a degree in arts and graphic designing from National College of Arts. One wonders if having an educational background in film making really adds up to a person's directorial skills. "I haven't studied film-making, yet I am making videos. I have studied arts nonetheless. I believe that an artist is an artist first and then a painter, a film-maker, an art director or a graphic designer. The basic general school of aesthetic has to be inside you, which an art school just grooms and polishes. Only people with artistic sense can make use of their art education. Anyway, there are some people who claim to have a acquired degree in the field, but their work hardly reflects that. After living in USA or UK for years, if their vision of Pakistan is strictly restricted to the narrow lanes of Lahore or the dilapidated buildings in Saddar, then I don't really see their education reflecting in their work?" Baber voices his grouse.

From Nazia, Zoheb and Alamgir days to Junoon and Abrar times, music industry has indeed come a long way. How does he see this progress seeping in local music videos? "Oh it has come a long way," opines Baber. "Ever since 1990, when the music video scene actually kicked off, we have kept on building levels. Technically, the first milestone in the history of Pakistani music video was undoubtedly Fakhr-e-Alam's "Laut Aao." We kept on progressing ever since, but there is a lot more we need to achieve." So what's stopping us. "Well, there is a lot of exploration to be done. Although the industry is really buzzing these days, yet that individual expression is missing. Thanks to the variety that satellite channels have been providing audience has much more exposure now than it had ten years ago. It's increasingly becoming difficult for certain people to make fool of the audiences anymore," Baber insists. He goes on to elaborate, "We in Pakistan like to become trend-followers rather than trend-setters. There is a serious lack of willingness to be different. It's easy for people like me to take advantage of the scene. While Ali Haider's video earned me rave reviews, the fact remains that it wasn't technically a great piece of work. It just got noticed because it was different."

Ten years ago, we would wait for a whole week for Music Channel Charts, Geetar '93 or VJ to get a glimpse of the music videos by Fakhar-e-Alam, Nadeem Jaffery, Vital Signs and Hadiqa Kiyani. Today, we have them at the click of that button. And since the happening and ever engaging Indianised Channel Vs and MTVs are no longer on the scene, viewers are exploring the realm of the local music scene and are coming out with a pleasant discovery that our music industry is quite competent. "Yes, ever since the Indian media exposure has been blocked out, our music has been receiving more audience. Since all eyes are on us now as people don't have other music channels to switch over to, this is a good time for us to put our best foot forward. Unfortunately, along with some good work, there is a lot of crap seeing its way through the audience. There is a make-do attitude since singers and video producers know that the audience doesn't have any option to turn to even if they don't like their work. I believe that this volcano of junk will erupt in a year or so. Good work will stick around while all the bad one will wipe out."

But why does it take the banning of foreign channels to make our way up? Can't we stand the competition on our own. "For years, our music videos have been striving hard for acceptability. The penetration of Indian music has made that acceptability factor easy for us," he opines.

Speaking of music videos, as an audience, one can easily claim to have seen all kinds of it. Since the music video field hasn't developed enough to be classified in genres, how exactly one can go about describing a music video itself and essence of a good video? "Music videos are just the visual narration of music," Baber jots his observation down. "It is very essential for a music video to be based on a solid concept if a storyline is involved. The video should complement the music but not overpower it. That's where most of the video directors go wrong, when they try to make videos that outdo the song itself. Ideally, a video should say what the audio is saying."

How much liberty, visionary and conceptually, can a video director afford to take? "At the end of the day, as a film-maker, a certain idea may be my vision and not others. And if I am able to execute that vision then that's where I can say that I am not selling myself out. I sold myself completely for Faakhir's song 'Deewana.' I did try to contribute my input, but at the end of the day that's not what I am, as a film maker. The responsibility factor also creeps in since, as a video director, it's my job to ensure that the artist and his song clicks well with the audience through the video."

Just like advertisements, where we see clients actually calling the shots, one wonders if in a music video, the singers enjoy the same level of involvement. "They do," he confesses. "Although I involve my singers at discussion levels while conceiving a story board for the song, there are many singers who actually bring the story board with them. That's where the filmmaker part comes in and you have to convince them how you as a director perceive their song."

Unlike the West, we have, most of the times, singers themselves starring in their own music videos. But how much emphasis does this put on the singers to be good actors? "If the singer wants to be a part of the video then he has to have reasonable acting skills." But is it necessary that the singers star in their own video? "The concept of a video without the singer's presence in one way or the other, has not gained acceptability here. Audiences fail to recognise the video without a singer. We have to show the singer playing or acting. How you show depends on the director, but only to a certain extent, since singers themselves insist on getting maximum footage. They want the spotlight to be on them whether they are performing or merely singing in the video."

While every branch of our entertainment media has got its share of hiccups thanks to the bitter pill called censorship, do music videos go through the same grilling and screening procedures due to censorship? "I don't think music videos are subject to any kind of censorship policy. Censorship policy for music video is the same that is applicable for TV. Any way I don't even subscribe to that 'bare more flesh' school of thought. It's not a question of playing safe for me, but I see no point in showing obscenity in the video."

While Baber argues that having an educational background is not a very important requirement to call the shots for a video director, he strongly feels that understanding music is certainly important. "A director should understand the basic instrumentation at least. Many a times, we see the performers playing a guitar when the music is actually playing some other instrument."

That brings us to the point that before getting acclaim as a video director, Baber has been known for his association with the underground music scene. He recently parted ways with one of the most talked about underground musical bands Ganda Banda. "I have been a musician since 1995. But I prefer doing experimental music. I have been working on a music project called Dusk. My first music album with guitarist Faraz Anwer was released in 1999 in Europe and USA. That makes us the second Pakistani musicians, after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to have an international release. It's no point boosting about it however, as the kind of music we produce rarely stands a chance to be comprehended by the masses in Pakistan," he guffaws. He plans to release his second album in October this year. Being one of the oldest players in the underground music scene, where does he think this branch of music stands in Pakistan? "First we need to decide whether we want to remain underground or not. Here, people want to be called an underground band but want the name and fame associated with mainstream bands. Underground demands a certain degree of insanity and passion, which is unfortunately lacking in the underground bands here," he fires.

While Faakhir's "Deewana" is flashing Baber's name on the music channels, Baber is nowadays busy shooting Haroon's and Karavan's upcoming videos. To say that he has arrived with a bang would be an overstatement since the field is already empty, well almost. Baber has, nevertheless, emerged as a name local music industry to add a few dimensions to its visual scene. After "Jadu" and "Deewana" we are looking forward to see more colours to splash on the screen from his imagination. So here it is for you Baber, an empty screen. Go paint it!

Zeenia Shaukat
August, 2002
The News International, Pakistan