x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Mixing it up

The multi-ethnic performer Ali Quli Mirza speaks abou his debut album and his second acting role in Jail, which opened in the UAE last week.

Ali Quli Mirza is a new breed of international pop artist, or at least an interesting hybrid. An actor-singer-model hailing from Iran, India, and Dubai with a little help from Greater Manchester, he acts like a superstar, dresses like a blinged-up character from A Clockwork Orange and makes a gleefully miscellaneous sound.

"I am into universal music," he says. "Tomorrow I could come up with Spanish music mixed with Arabic... I'm a creative guy. If I find something, I'm there." So far what he's found is a ruthlessly radio-friendly blend of Mumbai, Middle-Eastern and Europop styles, all of which are showcased on his new mini-album Ishqamaan, released in the UAE last Saturday. "My music is a common man's music," he says when I meet him at his management company's premises on the Palm Jumeirah. "Common men understand the beat."

And beats Ishqamaan delivers: not for nothing is its most English-heavy cut titled Ooh Ooh Shake it Baby, a charivari of twangy ouds, digital kickdrums and slavering exhortations whose significance the dullest listener could grasp. Mirza offers this summary of his musical aesthetic: "I get excited when I hear good lyrics, properly done, with the right composition and the right music. That excites me the most... I prefer good lyrics which touch your heart and make you cry."

At the same time, he likes it "when you can move your body, like you just want to enjoy yourself... It has to be hard-hitting romantically or emotionally or dancing-wise." What workaday fellow could disagree? Not that Mirza is such a common man himself. Born in 1982 in Tehran, the son of an Indian embassy staffer and his Iranian wife, he moved to Delhi as a teenager, skipped to Mumbai as a more suitable home for a person of his talents, and spent several years slogging through advertising campaigns and catwalk shows in hope of a break.

"I'm a street-smart guy," he says. "I've seen Mumbai streets. I've lived there by myself without my parents' support. So you learn a lot. You learn that you don't want to learn." Mirza says that he racked up 300 catwalk shows during this period, as well as commercials for Mountain Dew, FNL magazine and a score of other brands. But it wasn't the world for him. "Models can't sing and they can't act; they can only do modelling," he says dismissively. "And they cannot think - that's the best part. Eighty per cent of models are dumb." Not Mirza, though: he was hard at work demoing the tracks that would appear on his new CD.

His method was laborious. A non-musician, he had to memorise hooks and scraps of lyrics as they came to him. "I have a team of musicians who play and I direct them." he says. "I tell them the tones. I say: 'All right, this is like'" - he sings a couple of notes - "'and I want harmonies.' Or: 'I want guitar in this, or tabla in this, you know.'" Inspiration might strike at any moment. "Even as I'm talking to you, if something comes into my head, I will keep it in my head," he says. "You never know. It comes because we're creative people. We're very moody people." It was only a matter of time before someone noticed.

The man who did, curiously enough, was Reeyaz Moosa, a Bolton and Dubai-based property and trading entrepreneur. Moosa was so struck by Mirza's music that he set up an entertainment company especially to manage his career. Ziggy Star Entertainment was established and wasted no time raising the profile of its first property. Last weekend was the UAE release of Mirza's debut album (or EP, perhaps: it's five songs and a remix - "six bombs for different cities", as Mirza puts it). It was also the Indian release of Madhur Bhandarkar's new prison drama, Jail, in which Mirza took his second acting role.

"I'm a rich spoiled brat," Mirza says, describing his character in the film. "My conflict is that I killed six people with my car.... I buy everyone in the jail. You know, money talks." Mirza visited prisons in Mumbai to study for the role, "talking to the real criminals, using their body-languages", he says. "It was a great experience." The film itself, he believes, might serve a salutary role for potential wrongdoers. "You can at once see and then you can relate: 'OK, wow. This is jail. I'm not going to do any criminal activity any more.'"

Pressed for details about future acting projects, Mirza is vague. "We are getting so many offers," he says. "Now we have to pick one." Nonetheless, he has some ideas about the kind of part he'd be interested in. "I'm good in comedy," he declares. "I'm good in psycho roles, like the good guy who's a psycho. I've done all that in my workshops." The phrase "good guy who's a psycho" might describe the lead in almost any action film and it's true that Mirza has the sort of bullet head and springy physique that would look at home dodging snipers and explosions. His most cherished ambition, though, sounds a little more conceptually challenging than the average Jason Statham picture.

"My first role I want is, I want to play myself as a pop singer who can sing and act," he says. "That would be my first preference towards my acting." One can see how it would make Mirza's job simpler, but surely his character would, in turn, want to play himself in a further film and so on, recurring. Only Charlie Kaufman really writes movies like that and Mirza's star will have to rise a bit further before he can command that kind of talent. Not that he'd have any objection to working on Kaufman's home turf. "When I was walking in Manhattan I felt that energy," he says. "I said: 'All right, this is the place where my next venture will be.' And insh'Allah it will be."

Naturally, he denies any preference between music and acting. "I'm a performer, so when you perform you sing and you act," he says. "For me, music and acting is my love, my left and right hand." But competition is stiff for the spot closest to Mirza's heart: the new record, which is "like my baby, my family, my everything", he insists. "My girlfriend, you know?" Likewise, he can't seem to settle on a favourite city. "When I came to Bombay," he says, "I thought: 'This is the place I want to be.' When I came to Dubai, I said: 'This is the place I want to be.' And then I went to New York. I said: 'This is the place I want to stay.' So you get the feelings, you know?"

All the same, Mirza has a soft spot for the UAE. He shot the video to his CD's title track around Jumeirah, a suitably ritzy location for a chap who wears wraparound sunglasses indoors. "Dubai is a great place, a great market. People have love for music, films, and they're very open-minded," Mirza says. "It's a multicultural place, so I really respect Dubai." It will be intriguing to see whether the feeling is mutual.