We relegate songs to phases in our life, but what about the artists behind them? Here are my life and times with Bilal Khan and the artist’s struggle for perfection
If one thing the pandemic has elusively achieved, it is change. How we engage with the artist and the art we are consuming-be it films, music or books. I find my cackles throatier, the lump, a permanent tenant in my throat and the heart jumpier.
So naturally, when I listened to the latest song by Bilal Khan, Kese Bhool Sakta Hun, I wasn’t, strictly speaking, sober. My review? I mentally checked out from the song way before it had hit the halfway mark. But I reminisced over my journey with the art of Bilal Khan and with the artist himself and how we got to this point in our timelines.
The spark in the first song
Like many other sulking teenagers, my initiation to Bilal Khan was his first song- originally released in 2010. Bachana captured the helplessness of a 23-year-old guy at LUMs, at crossroads with his place in that world. Naturally, it became the soundtrack of my confusingly lonesome high-school years-The clash of ego and seeking a helping hand. The song spoke of trudging through the murky waters of adulting. Even though I was still at school, I knew I would come to crassly interpret life through this song.
It was an oddity, that a relatively privileged guy from the hub of burgerdom had made inroads into the soul of a middle-class teenage girl. I was too young to fathom where the wires connected. All I knew was, there was a boy who too was devoid of answers, just like me; who too was peddling his canoe asking the world to save him from the loneliness of memories.
Maybe it had something to do with both of us being one of those gifted kids, those “sorted” kids -the kind that other parents referred to while berating their own; the ‘good kids’ who have an abusive relationship with their own talents and wake up to a front of borrowed maturity.
Naturally, I wanted to preserve this first tryst with his art as a rose-tinted childhood memory. For me, Bilal Khan needed to remain frozen as that voice from the dark pit of Bachana-contrarian, ambitious and aimless.
A little later
Words are events, they say. The occasion was Larho Mujhey. The song that was later hijacked by PTI as an Imran Khan anthem was actually a companion piece to Bachana that Bilal sang, at Coke Studio season 5. Slightly aged, but none the wiser, his rage now had a history, a ferocity, a justification. The boy from Bachana, had become a man who couldn’t shed his boyhood.
And so the song became the soundtrack of my late teens. It occupied my humid walks to university. London bridge felt desolate without his voice giving meaning to it. Both songs dotted my bleak surroundings, making me feel like I was the heroine of a pensive Springsteen video and the only one these songs were ever meant to talk to.
Loneliness felt hopeful – more like an acquired superpower than a hereditary disease. For once, silence had a voice.
I loved Bilal Khan in chapters that I could understand, relate to and wallow in misery with. Anything that contradicted it, was carefully ignored, unsubscribed and shelved aside. But there wasn’t much to keep track of either. After two appearances at Coke Studio, he left for the USA for further studies. In the lingo of Friends, let’s just say we went on a break.
3 years ago Bilal Khan came back within my blinkers. He had launched his own YouTube channel followed by a brief stint at acting. Soon the vlogs from his ‘celebrity’ life came knocking on my screen. Behind the scenes banter from sets of Khamooshi, Hum Awards, Coke Fest, some concerts here and there. It looked like he was on a roll, embarrassed into velocity, living the high life of a middling Pakistani celebrity who no longer needed saving.
Why I felt abandoned
I didn’t feel envy watching his choreographed life, but a sense of abandonment. Just like him in 2010, I was in a tug of war between choosing an artistic endeavour or opting for a major with a ‘better scope’ as they say. A true artist had succumbed to the corny excesses of the commercial universe. My partner in this battle between hope and delusion was lost. He was just a dreamer in the guise of a doer.
If there was no hope for him as an upper-class artist to create the art he desired, what hope was there for the rest of us- the third world artsy souls who didn’t want to join the rut? But earning a living (by temporarily dying inside) is no crime either, I reasoned. Maybe that ‘good kid’ was back in him. In all his Khamooshi scenes, I saw a perpetual look of wry exasperation on his face – almost as if he were an artist surrounded by so much mediocrity that he is forced to suppress his non-existent acting talent.
The fear of not belonging, that oblivion had hijacked his personality to such an extent that he inadvertently conformed to taking the beaten path of many Pakistani singers turned actors; singers frustrated by the music ‘industry’ so fragile that political jalsas cum concerts had to come to their rescue.
He was a child prodigy frozen by adulthood. Like most dreamy students trapped by contradictions of their existence- the ones he had given hope to – I too wanted the boy back; the boy who had invented the gesture of lostness, not the man who monetised it.
Now we know, of course, that boy had never left. Bilal Khan settled in Montreal, to find his artistic self again, labouring in obscurity to reconnect with the craft that had put him in the seat of ‘existential companion’. Putting aside the privilege to be able to do that, I silently applauded his creative idealism as an artist, something that bypasses class and gender. But I also felt a strange foreboding.
Now when I follow him religiously on YouTube, a part of me wants to keep his 2010 self in a cryogenic pod forever, and another wants him to outgrow that ‘disenchanted tween’ legacy. I browse through his videos like an encouraging mother, smiling at his ‘reacting to TikTok’ videos, as he pulls off dares for charity like a true social media ‘influencer’, dabbles into comedy sketches, does singing collabs on Instagram and on and on.
Is he slipping away again?
Or is that how elusive dreams of perfection are realized? By chasing different identities and ideals?
It feels like more than finding the artist, he is finding himself. In between all this, a song drops here and there, gathering a million views. I feel nothing inside. He is the victim of his own reputation. As he sells his branded merch (BK Wears), bearing lyrics from Bachana, he knows it too, that for millions like me, he remains frozen in time.
He had cut off from his world to live in a jungle like an ascetic, to seek perfection, but also with a recurring fear of becoming another Llewyn Davis, an artist who has more passion for his art than the talent to sustain it, inadvertently leading him to become that over-sincere student caught between an urge to fit in and a desire to break away; a drifter stuck in transition but still waddling on with his custom made sense of peace.