“My style statement is homeless!” Momina Mustehsan talks about music, math and life in a Brunch exclusive
The voice that sent Pakistan and India into ecstasy when she sang Afreen Afreen with music maestro Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in one of Coke Studio Pakistan’s most famous renditions of the song ever is bright and chirpy over the phone from Pakistan. Chatting with Momina Mustehsan, one of Pakistan’s youngest super talents, is rather like chatting with a friend; the 25-year-old is filled with enthusiasm for life – as she should be, having lived in several countries around the world, as well as her native Pakistan.
An army kid with a doctor mother, Momina’s childhood was spent between Pakistan and New York, with five years in Ukraine thrown in. This added to her repertoire of languages: Momina speaks Urdu, of course, Farsi, because her mother’s family is Persian, Russian and German. “Even though it was confusing, shuffling between cultures, I never faced an identity crisis,” she says. “No matter where I lived, I knew I am a Pakistani. In fact, it made me appreciate my culture even more. Still, everything in my house and lifestyle is adapted from the different cultures that we lived in.”
And she has a double degree in engineering and mathematics, as well as a passion for music, so essentially, while growing up, she had no life, Momina giggles, and she liked it that way. “I’ve always loved maths, so in college when I started engineering, I had applied math and I really liked it, so I overloaded my courses and did two degrees,” she says.
Music was never her career plan (In fact, it still isn’t.) “When I started college, I wrote a song Pee Jaun, with a friend. I never intended to make mainstream music, but that song did really well and I got some recognition. That’s actually how I got Awari for Ek Villain,” she explains.
In 2014, she recorded Awari for Pakistani band Soch, but she didn’t know that this song will be used in Bollywood film Ek Villain. In fact, she was in her final week of college when she recorded the song. “I recorded that song in two hours, and I told them if this works, then great. But if it doesn’t, I don’t know what we can do,” she says.
But the song worked. And Momina’s life changed.
Her voice is soft, powerful at catching higher notes, and definitely unique, but while she learned the violin, she never actually took singing classes. “When I started learning the violin, my choir teacher thought I could sing. But when I first got on stage, I froze!” she says. “And I learned the guitar from online lessons offered by a teacher in Arizona!”
Despite her lack of formal classes, the success of Awari caught the attention of Coke Studio, who asked her to sing. “I had just graduated and didn’t have a hectic schedule, so I thought about it,” says Momina. “I hated facing the camera, so I declined initially, which meant that I wasn’t part of the three-month-long daily jam sessions that Coke Studio insists upon before recording. But two or three weeks later, I decided to do it despite my lack of practice, and I arrived at Coke Studio a day before the shoot, asking if I could sing Tera Woh Pyaar. They agreed. But then Afreen happened. And I had no idea about the song. And then I was told I’d be singing with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me’!”
Clearly, they weren’t. And so, says Momina, “The first time I heard Rahat Fateh Ali Khan singing live was when I was next to him!”
“My style statement is homeless; I don’t like glamorising my life”
She is a brilliant singer, but Momina also has a huge fan following for her beauty! However, she doesn’t like the attention. “I’ll be a normal person, as long as you don’t put a camera in front of me. There’s a downside to glamour and since I know that, I think that’s why I have been able to stay grounded. I don’t want to become public property, to let everyone have an opinion on me.”
That doesn’t stop her fans from asking things such as what she wears, who she wears, and the colours of her cosmetics. “And then they want to have an opinion on what I should wear,” she says. “For the record, I’d rather wear chappals than heels and my nail polish is chipped. My style statement is homeless.”
Like all well-known people, Momina has her share of haters too, and has faced horrid amounts of cyber bullying. “In fact, now whatever I do, I think of the worst comment that could come my way. I’ve installed this maila (dirty) mindset so I can predict the worst thing someone can say about me,” she says.
The fact that she comes across as a gentle person seems to incite the haters even more. “Being gentle is translated as weakness, especially in Pakistan,” says Momina. “That’s what I’ve faced in the one year that I’ve been part of this ‘circus.’”
As a millennial and a social media sensation, Momina has 537K followers on Twitter and 1.4 million followers on Instagram, and she uses social media to lead by example. “Someone tweeted, ‘What’s the hype about Momina, she looks like a maid.’ I used this to call out the class differences in our society,” she says. “Being compared to a maid is not insulting to me, it’s an honour, because you’re comparing me to a woman who goes out to work and earn a living.”
“Indian fans have more respect for artistes”
Momina hasn’t been to India, but she has a lot of friends here, as well as a massive fan following. “I meet a lot of Indians when I’m travelling, and I have noticed that Indian fans have more respect for artistes than Pakistanis,” she says. “The way they interact with you melts your heart.”
The divide between India and Pakistan should not stretch to the arts, she believes. “Indians love Coke Studio Pakistan and Pakistan loves Bollywood,” she says. “I have friends in the Indian music industry, and I think Indian culture gives a lot of importance to music, which isn’t so much the case in Pakistan. That’s why I feel music that comes from India is more pakka.”
But she is a star in Pakistan, and that means Momina has a responsibility to fulfil. “Being a 25-year-old in this industry, I don’t feel too welcomed by society. But what I say, what I do, will not go unnoticed,” she says. “So whatever I say will impact girls who haven’t been able to establish their own voice. We have to be careful and set the right example for upcoming generations in Pakistan. If we’re able to fight for our rights and get them, it will set the right precedent for generations to follow.”
“I have suffered from depression and I want to talk about it”
Mental health, including depression, is a discussion taboo in our society, but Momina wants to open minds about it. “I think we don’t talk about mental health enough. In my case, I got engaged, and then it broke off, so as far as society is concerned, it’s like, now the girl is useless,” she says. “The way I got through my depression was through a fortune cookie that said, ‘It only gets better when you get better’. This spoke to me! Depression doesn’t always have a reason, it’s this sinking feeling. When I was depressed, I was so low on self-esteem that I wouldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. When I came back from that point, I became a warrior. When you pick yourself up from beyond rock bottom, nothing will knock you down.”
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From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018
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