Zahra Paracha’s new single Bekhudi is a complex sad banger about loss

A child in an oversized black sweatshirt walks through the streets of an ordinary city: her sneaker-clad feet are easy, her gait is sure. As she passes by a vibrant display of flowers, a smiling florist hands her, with an air of familiarity, a long stem of yellow daisies. The child places an orange into the woman’s palms in return. This sweet exchange that occurs outside modern notions of currency and transaction, rather rooted in gentleness and care, takes place in the music video for Zahra Paracha’s new single “Bekhudi”.

“Bekhudi” is Zahra Paracha’s second solo outing, after her first single “Tum Kaafi Ho” released last year. Zahra has been a strong and salient voice in the local independent music scene owing to her popular body of work with group acts including but not limited to: indie rock outfit, Sikandar ka Mandar, and Biryani Brothers, the two-piece with fellow Lahore Music Meet co-founder Natasha Noorani. In her new single, she takes a step deeper into herself as an artist and songwriter by speaking about grief and what is to be found beyond and in spite of it. The result: a powerful, triumphant, and unconventional pop song. 

The song keeps you on your toes, specifically due to the incorporation of diverse stylistic elements, fleeting moments of rousing polyphony, and a slightly unconventional song structure. The song wastes none of itself in a pre-amble or an intro, there is no precursor to the first verse. It simply starts. Zahra’s vocal performance is soft, serious, and self-assured throughout the song. Just as there is no intro, there’s also no coda: the song simply ends with the last word of Zahra’s unaccompanied voice (the music ends a beat shy). To her, this is where the core of the song is: the words. What we must begin and end with. She has never written a song that has this much flesh in the lyrics, she says; she has never been this vulnerable.  

Her words in the first verse, backed by a pensive yet playful synth chord progression, are reproachful: Ab kahan tu / Akele hai mainay saha ye imtehaan. The progression intensifies backed by longer sustained notes in the pre-chorus where the artist now sings of being stuck in the pain of her loss: Iss bekhudi ne chheen liya hai mujh se raasta / khoj main phass gayi mai / iss pal se dar gayi mein. The building tension then leads us to the chorus where Zahra subverts most traditional expectations from a pop song.

The chorus is perhaps the most unadorned part of the song: the chord progression is more purposeful, there is a serious and earnest bass line atop a sparse pounding beat. Here, the artist sings about her resolve, her acceptance of loss and how she hopes to gracefully take the pain in stride as she moves on after being adrift for so long. Conventionally, the chorus is the part of a pop song where all the mounting tension is released, however the artist here doubles down and increases the tension as if the chorus is not to be our focus: the chorus is merely leading us to something else, something bigger. 

This is when she surprises us with the instrumental hook which is a mix of triumphant and heartening horns layered on top of a wandering, wistful string melody. The hook is fun and energetic but it’s also complex in its duality. Zahra chose the trumpets, an instrument and sound that she loves, to signal a victory of sorts over the pain of being lost in bekhudi. In contrast, the strings she includes are a sombre sound that, to her, is meant to indicate the continuing presence of her grief. Even though, Zahra has surmounted the cold and uncaring confusion of her loss and is moving gracefully forward, she continues to carry the weight of her struggle; she continues to grieve but without succumbing to it. In this way, it makes perfect sense that this hook is what the chorus must lead up to: the lack of words in the hook indicate everything the artist chooses not to say (just as the gaps in lines of poetry are replete with the words the poet chooses not to write down) but the music expresses, perhaps better than words could have, the emotional timbre of journeying through grief once one is no longer stuck within it.  

The second verse of the song and the second pre-chorus occupy a different emotional weather to speak to the spirit of this journey: Zahra is no longer afraid and helpless in the face of loss but she is accepting that there are some things which cannot be neatly resolved. However, when met with the spectre of trauma, what is within our hands is to care for ourselves and keep carving our own path through the haze. This is what Zahra is doing now: khauf se aagay barhi mein / apna hi dil behla ke / bina ghabraye khari hui mein. It is her endeavour to gracefully live with and move past the trauma of loss and fractured relationships.

Zahra calls this the second phase of the song and it is distinct not only in the change of tone but also in several stylistic choices: the lyrics of the second verse are delivered in a faster pace with lots of internal rhyme and enjambment. This verse most prominently marks the contribution of rapper Maanu who co-wrote the lyrics of the song. Additionally, while the chorus builds up tension leading up to the instrumental hook, we are surprised again but this time with what almost resembles an EDM build up, compounding the tension a moment before it is released ecstatically in the hook. 

The song approaches its climax through a bridge in which Zahra solidifies her intention of moving on towards peace and love, leaving the ugliness of pain and conflict behind her: nafraton se agay / tamasha peechay chhor ke / dil ko hausla dila ke / bina ghabraye khari hui mein. The bridge, featuring harmonies from Maanu and Aaishay Haque, continues in conjunction with the chorus, and the trumpets towards the end of the song. Zahra leaves us with the chorus– the first part of the song she wrote– which, with the context she has provided, now evokes predominantly the pursuit of healing this song is centred around. 

Even though “Bekhudi” is an intensely personal and vulnerable song, Zahra Paracha has ensured that every facet of the process has been collaborative and this speaks exactly to the sense of healing through community that is at the heart of the song, the music video and their production. Zahra had written the chorus when she chose to share her work and ultimately collaborate with Maanu on the lyrics. She further trusted her lyrics to singer-songwriter and producer Haniya Aslam who Zahra says helped polish them. The music video was a collaborative effort between Zahra and Karachi based artist and filmmaker Mahnoor Mahar, the director of the music video, and Karachi based writer and film critic Sadia Khatri, who served as the producer and screenwriter. The cover art was entrusted to Karachi based designer, architect and digital artist, Bushra Saleem who, Zahra shares, also produced other promotional material for the release of the single without being asked to. She intimates that the process was surreal as every person involved showed such ownership of and belief in the project that she felt all of her team had banded together to empathize with her and help her express the emotional density of this song to the best of her ability. 

The story of the production of the music video is similarly encapsulated by trust. Zahra chose to work with her friends Mahnoor and Sadia after providing them with an early listen of the song. The rest of the production team and cast (which are comprised almost exclusively of femme and gender non-comforming folk) were reached out to from within shared communities via word of mouth. The production team fostered this collaborative spirit in their environment which led to an openness of ideas and the organic execution of them: the scene described at the beginning of this article, Sadia Khatri reveals, was unscripted and thought of on the spot by Mahnoor and pieced together with the breakout star of the video, Subul Ahad, who plays Young Zahra and Sana Ahmad, who plays The Florist.

A key element of this music video is the absence of traditionally masculine figures i.e. cis-men. We meet our young protagonist fearlessly traversing the streets, crossing paths with femme and non-binary people, unhindered by the masculine hustle and bustle of a noisy neoliberal city. The city instead is one of speculation: is it a city that could have been? Is it the city that could be? Is the city purely the embodiment of how Young Zahra views the world? “Bekhudi” invites us to ponder on this gentle city as an exercise in feminist world-building but what it carefully establishes is that the city is ordinary. It is familiar to us; perhaps, it is a city we ourselves have walked through some version of. 

Album artwork for Bekhudi. Artwork by Bushra Saleem.

Young Zahra’s walk is a mix of purpose and leisure as she stocks up on supplies and stops to get oranges and balloons on her way to a park where she lies down, looking up at the sky. As a backdrop for the words of the song, the scenes of the music video are perfectly complementary. Young Zahra’s footsteps continue as the background of the scene switches (excellently filmed by cinematographer, Mariam Iqbal Desai and edited by Mahnoor Mahar) upon every downbeat showing the many paths she has taken to get where she is now. This scene is echoed with adult Zahra’s footsteps too in the second hook as she continues to walk through the ordinary softness of her city towards a deep and brilliant sunset. As she stands by the highway, looking to the sky, a small host of balloons descend: a gift, perhaps of resolution, from Zahra to herself. 

“Bekhudi” illustrates a journey with grief as an intentional and meandering stroll and it returns us to a knowing and steadfast hope by reminding us that just like a walk through an ordinary city, dealing with grief and trauma need not be a solitary endeavour and can indeed have softness and gentleness to offer. 

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