Arab in Bollywood Haitham Mohammed Rafi talks about Indian music reality shows

Omani singer Haitham Mohammed Rafi, on making it to the top 11 of an Indian music reality show, and catching the collective imagination of his people

Haitham with Shah Rukh Khan on the sets of Dil Hai Hindustani where the two sang SRK’s chartbuster Jabra Fan
Haitham with Shah Rukh Khan on the sets of Dil Hai Hindustani where the two sang SRK’s chartbuster Jabra Fan

When we meet Haitham Mohammed Rafi inside the dimly-lit sets of a popular music reality show, he stands out from those sitting beside him. The white of his traditional dishdasha and the colourful turban — called the massar — make him look like an anomaly. The 23-year-old appears to be closely observing his fellow singer — a girl half his age — who is on stage and singing the famous DDLJ-towel song, ‘Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye,’ when we raise our hand and call for his attention. There is instant recognition.

“Wallah!” he yells out in Arabic. “How come, you here?” he goes on, in his Middle-Eastern accent.

It has been three years since we first met Haitham. The last time it was in his hometown Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman. “I will sing in Bollywood, someday, Inshallah!” he had then rapped, much to the amusement of this correspondent. At the time, we had wished him luck, without mocking his expectations or pointing out the risks.

Last week, when a video of filmmaker Karan Johar sitting in stunned silence after Haitham’s performance of Naina Thag Lenge, went viral on Arab social media, this writer was glad she had kept mum then.

Haitham, an Omani national, has just made it in the final 11 of the first season of music reality show Dil Hai Hindustani. Being an Arab, has only worked in his favour. For the judges, Johar, Badshah, Shalmali Kholgade and Shekhar Ravjiani (of Vishal-Shekhar fame), the first question on their mind was, “Can an Arab sing in Hindi?”

“Okay, maybe!” “But, that good!”

“I have Mohammed Rafi’s blessings,” Haitham jokes. Not like, we hadn’t been meaning to ask him the story behind his namesake. Haitham al Balushi takes his middle name, Mohammed Rafi, from his father, who was surprisingly christened by the veteran Hindi singer himself. “Though Omani, my grandfather was a huge fan of Mohammed Rafi,” he recounts. “When my father was born, Rafi saab was performing in Bahrain. My grandfather, who was working there, went for the show and managed to have a quick chat with him backstage,” he says, adding, “He told Rafi saab, I want you to name my newborn.” The rest, as the Balushi family recalls, is history.

Until seven months ago, Haitham worked as a personal banker with a leading national bank in Muscat. “It was so boring. I hated going to work…it was suffocating,” he says. Unable to take it anymore, Haitham put in his papers, and ferociously started looking for opportunities to sing. “I wanted to pursue my passion,” he says. We ask him what that is? And, pat comes the reply, “I want to become the first Arab playback singer and composer in Bollywood.” Haitham has been harbouring that dream since he was 11.

In Oman, Haitham says, there is no concept of vocal training. “If you’re a good singer, you’re a good singer.” His only source of Bollywood music was audiocassettes and CDs as a child, and later YouTube. “So, when I told my Omani friends that I wanted to become a singer, they laughed. They said, ‘You can’t make it big in India…it is so tough’.”

On an Indian friend’s advise, he started listening to a lot of ghazals. “I was told that it would help me get my nuances and accent right,” he says. His favourite ghazal singers are Jagjit Singh and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. But, that’s how Haitham’s Bollywood dreams first took flight.

In 2012, he became the first Omani to win Muscat Idol, which sees participants mostly from the Indian Diaspora. From there on, due to dearth of a great body of work, Haitham started composing music for Omani TV shows. “But, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying Arabic music. Each time, I sang in Hindi, I was happier,” he says. Of the 500 songs he has composed, 450 were in Hindi. “My mum knew I wasn’t meant for Oman. So, she kept pushing me to try my luck at Indian reality shows,” he says. He tried thrice and failed. The fourth time, he decided to think practically and opted for ‘The Voice Ahla Sawt’, the Arabic version of the international music show. “Even there, I could not fit in,” he says. This December, after five years of working towards his dream, he got the call. And, that too, from India.

Here, he is still just another contender at the show. But, back home, things have changed for Haitham. After a video of his performance went viral, Omanis in Muscat, who he claims love Hindi cinema, have gone into an overdrive. “I’ve already signed 13 shows in Muscat and Dubai,” he says. “My friends are buying the Indian digital channels, just to watch my show.”

“I think it’s a proud moment for my country,” Haitham says. Just as we end, he gets his cellphone out, and shows us a photograph of his, clicked with Shah Rukh Khan, where the two are facing each other, striking the latter’s signature pose. “India has already opened its arms to me,” he gushes.


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