Friday, August 26, 2011

On Nusrat

A few weeks ago I randomly came across this short film, which I'd first seen around 10 years ago. The film's called Nusrat Has Left the Building... But When? and is directed by Lahore-based filmmaker/journalist Farjad Nabi. It came out in 1997, a few months after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away. The sound quality isn't super but it's still worth watching:

To give some background, the title is the same as that of an article that Nabi wrote in The News (which unfortunately I can't find anywhere on the web) shortly after Nusrat's death. The article although it was an obituary of sorts was simultaneously a scathing critique of the last few years of Nusrat's career. Essentially, Nabi argued, the real Nusrat had 'left' a long time ago, leaving behind a disinterested star who had abandoned his roots in favor of some quick bucks in the pop music industry. That Nusrat's true fans had stopped following him precisely at the moment his music started being set to Channel V dance routines.
Needless to say, coming so soon after Nusrat's death, the article wasn't well-received at all and Nabi caught a lot of flak for it. However, it ended up being an inspiration for this film, in which he uses Nusrat's own music - from its origins in Sufi qawwalis and through to kitschy Bollywood pop - to track the metamorphosis of his career.
I think Nabi's criticism has its place and something that I find is forgotten amidst the Nusrat hero worship. That for all his greatness he also lent his voice to some pretty ordinary projects.
At the same time though, I would argue that had it not been for the last 10 or so years of his career many of us wouldn't have known about him. (My first exposure to Nusrat was through this song, a Massive Attack remix of a Michael Brook rearrangement.) Without his collaboration with the likes of Peter Gabriel or Eddie Vedder, qawwali would probably have struggled to free itself of the graveyard midnight slot on PTV.
Furthermore, 14 years after his passing, a quick glance at tributes online and fan pages on Facebook reveals that the music people are listening to is in fact Nusrat's qawwalis rather than his disco jhankar stuff. The pop music one might say has served as a conduit, leading people to the music that first brought Nusrat fame. That this is now his legacy is something I think Nabi might take heart from.
(Incidentally I wonder where Farjad Nabi went. I hope he's still making films. There's some really cool stuff by him on that Vimeo page. There's this short documentary called Cricket Lives in Lahore, while I also really enjoyed No One Believes the Professor.)