It was the summer of 2015. It was the worst of times. Somehow it always seems like the worst of times.
And then the Pakistani Internet – sweaty, tired of a punishing heat wave and struggling to find joy – broke. A series of ads – so over the top they seemed like ironic parodies – circulated in an endless loop online, forcing birthday wishes and political discussions off Facebook, turning news feeds into an unending video stream.
Waseem Hassan Sheikh had arrived.
Pakistan’s illustrious history of ‘viral’ internet content dates back to the early 2000s: an image of a flooded underpass in Karachi titled the largest swimming pool in Pakistan/Asia/the world, a series of photos taken in a cyber café, Aadat.
The Pakistani internet has immortalized many since then: Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s off-camera take, Zohair Toru, the impassioned Imran Khan fan who literally could not stand the heat, or the brilliant video for Taher Shah’s Eye to Eye, and Asif and Mudassir's friendship.
But Waseem Hassan Sheikh is not off the cuff, nor as overtly manufactured as Eye to Eye. Sheikh is an artist. He is a writer and a director and an actor. He is a filmmaker. He is the star of Chauburji. He is the star of Lahore. He is the star of Facebook and Twitter and Daily Motion. He is chased down the streets of Lahore by young men and women, all demanding to take a selfie with him.
This is why.
I am in Lahore. I call Sheikh to schedule an interview. The place we’re supposed to meet at is closed, so he suggests that I wait at a nearby Yasir Broast, where the staff looks at me with the kind of suspicion reserved for single women seated by themselves. Sheikh is late. He finally walks in wearing a shiny grey suit, his hair covered by a cap. We walk to his office: It has a desk, a seating area, and an old poster for Sheikh’s filmmaking services. We are joined by a friend of his, who turns to me and asks: Is he really the hero of the internet?
‘Yes’ seems like an understatement.
Waseem Hassan Sheikh makes two kinds of ads: One is the run-of-the-mill ad that proliferate on local cable networks, a basic slideshow with superimposed title cards.
But Sheikh’s calling card is the elaborately detailed, kitschy production that sets set up a whole scene. There’s an executive raging over the office electricity bill, or a man taking two women out to dinner. There is a back story and context and a narrative. What’s going to happen next? What will Sheikh do or say or wear? Will he even appear in the ad? In his latest, Sheikh and a woman dressed as turbaned snake charmers play the flute and attract curious locals following them ala Pied Piper. The box opens, only to reveal locally made burgers (Johnny and Jugnu). In an ad for Hanif Tailor – which Sheikh did not make – he plays a prospective groom looking for a tailor to make his clothes, and is prompted on by a sister-in-law to visit the tailor’s shop. In another, a woman is drawn to his scent (Kit Kat Talcum Powder) and begins using it herself. There are attempts at infusing glamour (Talcum Powder portrays Sheikh as alluring and worldly), or the obsession with the media (Sheikh plays a reporter in the ad for Al Sheikh Fan). There are references to local culture. One ad features a riff off a stereotypical Punjabi film where an angry father sets on his daughter, Bano, when she comes home late, demanding to know where she’s been. She, in turn, lifts up a bag of haleem, winning everyone over.
Waseem Hassan Sheikh is 30 years old. He started off as a medical rep, where he honed his marketing skills and learnt, firsthand, what it felt like to taste success and freedom. He graduated from Punjab University with a BA in journalism, and spent a year working as a sub-editor at the Daily Khabrain newspaper, where he helped to put out the sports and showbiz pages. But his real interest was in editing and production, and it helped that his brother is a filmmaker. Sheikh assisted on plays and films, and then ventured into making ads and short documentaries. Over the last three or four years, he estimates that he has made thirty to fifty ads.
But on January 7, 2015, Sheikh appeared in an ad he’d made for Butt Murgh Channay and Bong Paye, after a client’s family suggested he take up acting. The next ad was for Al Sheikh Fan, which his team insisted he star in. He started uploading the ads on Facebook after he realised people were stealing his ideas.
But each ad went viral, one after the other. And one day, he uploaded the ad for Kit Kat Talcum Powder and went home.
He only turned on his computer the next morning.
There were “15, 16 lakh likes.”
“I only tagged it so that no one would steal it but God gave me respect and fame,” he says.
Sheikh still seems a little surprised by his own success, or at least the sheer force of it. Every day, he says, there are calls and offers for work and requests for photos. He opens up his Facebook page, and the notifications bar is a blur of red. A friend of his once described the reaction to an ad as “net pe siyaapa para hua hai”. But Sheikh’s legend appears to have transcended the internet. He was sitting at Al Sheikh Fan one day when two kids on a donkey cart passed by and asked the owner 'aap kahan ja rahe hain?' Or the Kozi Haleem folk, whose ad with ‘Bano’ became such a huge hit that their owner says “sannu bhag hi Bano de lage ne.” (We are only blessed because of Bano) Sheikh heard of someone ordering haleem from the shop over the phone from Chanda Qila, Gujranwala, and arranging delivery with a nearby Gujranwala-Lahore van service that would drop it off en route.
Or there’s this story:
“Aik banda wahan pe four hundred ki haleem le raha tha. Maine usse kaha ‘Bhai itni Haleem, proney agaye ne?’ Waise as a joke, usko nahin pata tha ye ad maine banaya hai. Usne kaha ‘Mera dost Sheikhupura thanay mai pakra hua hai kisi case main to main us se milne ja raha hoon. To maine subah jab uss se phone pe kaha ke main aaj milne aaraha hoon to kehta hai ‘yaar agar tu milan aya hai te bano di haleem vi le aayein.’”
“Some guy came and bought four hundred rupees worth of haleem. I jokingly asked if he’d suddenly had visitors arrive. He said ‘My friend is being held at a police station in Sheikhupura in some case. When I called this morning to tell him that I’d be coming to visit, he asked that I bring Bano’s haleem along.”
What is it about these ads? Why are they so successful? How does a man in a police lock-up know about Bano and Kozi Haleem? There are dozens of advertisements on Pakistani television channels, and tens more on local cable networks. There are ads rife with childhood nostalgia and ads that feature celebrities and ads that show a postcard perfect Pakistan that only exists on a storyboard.
But Sheikh shows us who we really are, because Sheikh is the Don Draper of the middle class.
People are derisive about the middle class and the urbanization of cities like Lahore. They are squeamish about admitting their own small town roots and starts in small neighbourhoods in poky houses, with an assortment of relatives and friends called Bunty and Pappu.
But Sheikh and his ads celebrate the middle class: the people who are loud and have louder families. They want to save a buck and tell everyone just how they did it. They may wear jeans that don’t fit quite well, but they pull it off with a confidence that comes with a new identity. They like to eat. They guffaw at jokes. They laugh – they really laugh, the kind of hysterical, addictive laughter that is a product of Lahore, the vestiges of the zinda dil.
In Mad Men, Don Draper ruminates: "When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had."
We forget why we are watching a Waseem Hassan Sheikh production. We want more. We may have covered up our roots, but we are still there, guffawing privately at a bawdy joke, hoping that our jeans hide our sizeable derrières, blaming our weight on our genes and being big boned, and wondering whether we've really made it at all. Sheikh – as he does in his video for Johnny and Jugnu – is leading people to their destination: the new urban Lahore that puts on a fake accent and wants discounts on ceiling fans.
Sheikh knows where you’re going, and he knows where you came from.
“Our public - they wear a suit, a tie – but when you ask, basically someone’s studied till the fourth grade, or the eighth,” he says. “Basically, we are simple people. Our education rate is low. And I’ve seen that people [in upscale neighbourhoods] have enjoyed the ads more.”
So when Sheikh pitched the flute charmer idea to the Jonny and Jugnu owners, one guy piped up that the outlet was in ‘Defence’, the subtext being that the ad wouldn’t work with the upmarket area’s residents.
Sheikh countered: “Bhai sunn, zyada painday Defence main hi hain”
Then the owners proved his point by asking everyone in the room if they understood the concept.
They all did.
“Actually no matter how much we change the culture or nature or become very educated... if your link is paindu then that has to emerge in one way or another,” he says.
(Sheikh recently caught someone out as a paindu for pronouncing police as pliss, something, he says, paindus are wont to do)
But being paindu or uneducated, he says, is not a bad thing.
There’s a great back story to all of the ads, I point out.
“Sometimes, our people here...” Sheikh starts, and then launches into a description of an ad for BMW, which shows that the only sound one can hear in the car is of a girl's earrings tinkling.
“A lot of people saw this idea but they didn’t get it. Because this is a silent message. Hamari awam jo hai na desi, parhe likhe mix hain.. unko THA karke na to phir unko samajh aati hai.”
“The other thing is that when you’re making a production you should create an environment around it, set the mood. Now look at the ‘aap kahan jarahe hain’... there’s an environment. There’s suspense. The snake charmer.. there’s suspense there. All of these things are different.”
"Ye hat ke cheezain hain."
I keep coming back to this idea. How do the hat ke cheezain come about? Why is there so much suspense? How does Sheikh’s mind work? How does he remain creative, given that he acts, directs, writes, edits and does voiceovers? How does he keep coming up with ideas?
“Actually this is your conceiving... what you’re conceiving when you’re sitting in a gathering. I was at a seminar with other directors and the question was directors. People gave one answer to the other. But I gave them the proper, exact answer, which is theoretical and practical: Direction, I said, is the name of two things: one, technique, the second, God gifted. Right? Direction rests on these two wheels. Now the ideas that I gave.. those are my God gifted creations”
Sheikh doesn’t divulge his creative process.
“Dekhain har cheez ka Punjabi mai kehte hain ola hota hai.”
“This is my privacy, my secrecy.” He smiles. “This is a God gifted thing.”
Sheikh now wants to make ads for all kinds of companies, particularly multinationals. His budgets range from a hundred thousand rupees and upwards, and his aim is to complete a project within a week. He has a team of people on call. He has not given many interviews because he wanted to focus on his work, and mostly because he doesn’t quite think he has made it yet. “I am still learning.” He wants to make a TV serial, and eventually, a film. “I will move with the passage of time. I'm very selective. Any work takes time. I work step by step.”
Sheikh describes how his fans hunt him out. A girl who chased him all the way to Regal, a group of boys who he was convinced were going to mug him but wanted a photo. None of this is new to him, though. He saw success early, he says, “I was a superstar there.”
“I saw this success, right? I saw it in the medical field. And I saw here that people saw my ad and became fans. There, I’d pass by and people would become my fans. Log mere deewanay hote they. I feel like it’s just added on to the same success. Nashay main nasha barha.”
What’s ironic is that Sheikh’s fans in the big cities – the ones who smirk at his videos, who think they’re better off than him – are the ones who have no qualms chasing him down or asking for selfies. At a recent wedding, a group of girls approached him after two days of hesitation.
“When I go to Defence, girls take selfies with me on the street... but in back[ward] areas, people hesitate.”
He knows that people are disparaging about the advertisements, that they mock him and laugh at him. He’s seen people fight on Facebook – and tried to mediate – and he’s gotten abusive messages. But he doesn’t mind, at least not when he can sense that the messages reek of jealousy. He has a sense of perspective – an ad, after all, is just an ad. It’s not such a huge issue. And he believes that as a public figure, he now belongs to the people.
Sheikh was always a star.
“I was always stylish, right from the start. At that time I started this trend of bell bottoms which every boy in my neighbourhood copied. I would start the trend. When I was at college, the boys would ask where I was when they’d go shopping. Now that I’m in the frontline in the media, I’m a star for everyone, but I was also a star in my circle of friends, but behind the screen. Even if I would do something wrong people would copy it.”
Sheikh started other trends: white trousers, and then an all-white outfit paired with a multi coloured belt. “I did that get up, and everyone in the neighbourhood copied it, in one color or another. Then I made an off-white three-piece [suit] which I also used in an ad.”
“I don’t focus on dressing so much now. I used to do it a lot more before. Before there was just college, going shopping... now there are liabilities, I also have to look at the business. You need time to do something. Even if you develop a style you need time for that.”
We talk about his future plans, his ads, his work in Lahore, which for now is enough to keep him going. He tells me about his studio and the offers for work he’s had in the last few months. I ask him for a final message. Sheikh is thoughtful.
“Jo zindagi hai na woh bohat kam hai mohabbat ke liye,” he says. “Usko kisi taur par bhi nafrat ka element na dein.”
Maybe Sheikh will remain in this small office forever. Maybe he’ll go on to, ala Don Draper, make an ad for Coke someday. Maybe he’ll become part of our nostalgia, the ad we search for aimlessly on YouTube to remind ourselves of when we were younger and miserable and cynical. And maybe, when we look at those ads again, we’ll remember what we were really like.