She was the radiant face and voice of a generation keen to move beyond the hostility of history. She epitomized young aspirations, wanting to break free from tradition and borders to celebrate the music of life. She was Pakistan’s first popstar Nazia Hassan.
Zeenat Aman’s pub princess avatar in Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980) gained its mojo greatly from Nazia Hassan’s Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye filmed on the actress. The 15-year-old Nazia, amusingly, brought the belligerent nations on the dance floor with the Biddu-composed club track. Along with the Filmfare Award, it won her adulation cutting across the politics of the two countries.
The singer-songwriter next enthralled with her album, Disco Deewane, sung along with brother Zoheb Hassan. Selling 60 million copies across 14 countries, it became the best-selling Asian pop record of all time. “Nazia’s voice was like the ABBA singers. When it hit the microphone, it had a two-tone kind of split. It sounded like a double track, but it wasn’t,” brother Zoheb Hassan once decoded her singularity.
Unwittingly, Nazia spawned the personal album drift in India, picked up by singers Alisha Chinai, Lucky Ali and Shweta Shetty among others. As part of the indie artiste movement, Biddu further launched talents including Shaan, Lucky Ali and Sonu Nigam in India. Just as singers Ali Azmat and bands Strings and Junoon got a platform in Pakistan.
Apart from her voice, Nazia's youthful demeanour made her a teen icon. Dungarees and jumpsuits, leather jackets and midis, braided tresses… coupled with an informal stage presence, Nazia was the poster girl of cool. Boom Boom, Young Tarang, Hotline… a series of fast-selling albums earned the siblings a comparison with the Beatles ‘minus the crazy haircut’… until one day Nazia quit it all…
An activist and lawyer, she was offered a scholarship in Columbia University’s Leadership Program in the early ’90s. But around that time she was diagnosed with cancer.
After treatment, a restored Nazia got married to entrepreneur Mirza Ishtiaq Baig on March 30, 1995. Her son Arez was born on 7 April 1997, seemingly completing the ‘happy-ever-after’ picture. But towards the end of 1998, the cancer returned with vengeance. Nazia braved the harsh treatment hoping she'd survive for her baby.
But what came as a grim indicator of emotional distress was her reportedly seeking divorce from her husband just 10 days before she passed away on 13 August 2000. The urgency to severe ties with Baig during the terminal phase of her disease leaves behind unanswered questions as it also points to the trauma she may have suffered.
Years later, her track Disco Deewane was reprised in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year, as a tribute to the Asian star, who steered the pop revolution but herself was stymied by sorrow…
Nazia was born in Karachi on 3 April of 1965. She was the first child of Muniza, a social worker, and businessman Basir Hassan, followed by younger brother Zoheb and sister Zahra.
The Hassan siblings later lived in England with their grandmother. In Manchester, the musically-inclined Nazia and Zoheb discovered pop and rock music, a vibrant departure from the classical.
They were inspired by American pop band Jackson 5 and American instrumentalists The Carpenters. The ‘fusion artistes’ began writing music on the guitar, which blended the ‘rock’ of their immediate ambience and the Eastern sounds of their heritage.
They were introduced by superstar Zeenat Aman to Vinod Khanna and Feroz Khan at a party in London. When Khan heard the 14-year-old Nazia sing, he roped her to sing for his mega film Qurbani (1980).
Nazia, reluctant to miss school, recorded the club track Aap jaisa koi composed by London-based Indian composer Biddu Appaiah (Kung Fu Fighting fame), on a Sunday. At 15, she won the Filmfare Award for Best Playback.
Next, Nazia and Zoheb sang for Biddu’s album Disco Deewane (1981). It broke records in Pakistan and India and topped the charts in the West Indies, Latin America and Russia.
Biddu offered the duo a chance to act in the movie Star (1982). But they chose to perform the soundtrack instead. The album of Star (starring Kumar Gaurav-Rati Agnihotri), included part of her album Boom Boom.
Their album Young Tarang (1984) in Pakistan featured music videos made in London by David Rose and Kathy Rose. Ankhien milane wale from the album was a rage. While the album Hotline (1987) featured the chartbuster Aa Haan.
The siblings hosted Music ‘89, the first pop show to be aired on television in Pakistan. They introduced singers like Ali Azmat and the Sufi rock band Junoon.
Their fusion sound invited censure by the purists. Nazia’s retort was, “It’s the kind of the music we dig, take it or leave it. They say classical music is the only real music. Whenever I’m attending a classical music recital, I feel like I’m attending a funeral. You have to sit grim and still...” (Herald). She believed what they were conveying were new-age dreams in tandem with global sensibilities.
Before the ‘culture warriors’ launched Camera Camera (1992), they announced it would be their last album. Nazia then on turned her attention towards her personal life.
Reportedly, Biddu wanted Nazia to sing Made In India but she turned it down. The iconic song was then rendered by Alisha Chinai.
Nazia, also a brilliant student, received her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Economics at the Richmond American University in London. She also held a London University Law (LLB) degree.
Inclined towards social work, she worked for underprivileged children, youth and women in Karachi. She established the organisation BAN (Battle Against Narcotics). Just as she helped raise funds for Inner Wheel Club of India.
In 1991, she joined the United Nations Security Council in New York and worked there for two years. Subsequently, she was offered a scholarship in Columbia University’s Leadership Program. Sadly, she was unable to accept it as she was diagnosed with cancer.
A piece in rediff.com mentioned the Khaleej Times report, which cited her medical report stating that Nazia underwent an operation in 1995 after ‘she was diagnosed with stage one ovarian carcinoma and remained well for four years’.
On March 30, 1995, she married businessman Mirza Ishtiaq Baig, in Karachi. Her son Arez was born on 7 April 1997. The Khaleej Times report mentioned that towards the end of 1998, her left lung had ‘a solitary deposit’ of carcinoma, she was diagnosed years ago. Hesitant about chemotherapy, she eventually began treatment.
A few days after Nazia was discharged from hospital in 1999, she said in an interview, also her last, “It’s the kind of illness that you have good days and some bad days and I had some scary moments in between… I’m getting better....” (Zee TV UK June 1999).
She mentioned that chemotherapy takes its toll physically adding that such challenging times, “reaffirm what is important... family… spending time with people you care about… not getting involved in petty issues… In our day to day lives we overlook them.”
On a philosophical note, she wistfully said, “All of us have to die one day. But I felt it wasn’t my time yet... it sounds cliched… the outpouring of prayers saved me.
Another excerpt of the Zee TV UK interview, has her saying, “You can get worried about the future… about dying… but it’s important to be positive... I cherish everyday...I love spending time with my family. I have a little son … a two-year old monster.”
However, soon after she fell gravely ill and was admitted to North London Hospice in London. She showed signs of mild recovery the day before she was to be discharged. But the next morning, she reportedly started coughing heavily.
She died of lung cancer in the morning of 13 August 2000.
35-year-old Nazia was buried at Hendon Cemetery in London.
In a strange twist, 10 days before she passed away, Nazia reportedly divorced husband Mirza Ishtiaq Baig.
“She’d asked the doctor to intensify the chemotherapy as she wanted to live for her son. The doctor told her if he gives her any more chemotherapy, she would not survive… Her body was too frail and she passed away,” recalled brother Zoheb later in an interview (cinestaan.com).
In an interview with The Express Tribune (tribune.com.pk) Zoheb revealed, “She died an unhappy person, she died in pain…. She never told me she was going to die so soon… I will never forgive her for this.”
Reportedly, Zoheb also mentioned that she kept the family in the dark about her troubled marriage and never shared what she had to endure till she was finally divorced days before her death. Confiding how difficult it was to move on he said, ‘the wound will always be there’.
Nazia, passionate about charity, always donated her royalties to charity. In 2003, her parents created the Nazia Hassan Foundation to further their daughter’s humanitarian efforts.
A decade later, in 2013, Nazia’s 16-year-old Arez Hassan opened the ‘Music That Becomes A Message’ event for the Nazia Hassan Foundation in London. The singing competition was open to all young Asians from the sub-continent.
“Music was so important to my mum… I hope one day I can make music, not only to make her proud but also to give others happiness,” said son Arez (business-standard.com).
We wish the same too.