On a warm July afternoon, in the lobby of a fancy Lahore hotel, I had tea with Muhammad Shahid Nazir, better known by his YouTube name: One Pound Fish Man. The former internet king was wearing a white suit. His face hadn't changed a bit since his golden year—he had laughing, squinty eyes and spoke broken, melodious English.
Nazir drove down from Pattoki, the small town where he was born and raised. “We also call it the city of flowers,” he informed me. Nazir had moved to London in 2011, aged 30, to complete a business administration degree and “live the London dream.” Like thousands of expat Pakistanis, he made ends meet by working menial jobs, eventually at a fish stall in East London’s Queen’s market. In April 2012, a passerby filmed Nazir’s catchy serenade to beckon customers and the video went viral.
“This song was a God-gifted idea,” he recalled. “When I discovered its success online, I was shocked.” Nazir’s sales quadrupled. Six months later, he found himself in a studio surrounded by choli-wearing women, recording a clip with Warner Music for worldwide release. “I was over the moon, I couldn't believe what was happening to me,” Nazir said.
Only later did he realise the contract he had signed with Warner screwed him over. “I didn't know how you could make money with music, I didn’t even know what a royalty was,” said Nazir. “These guys profited from my innocence.”
But he was more than happy to settle for fame. “I was second only after ‘Gangnam Style’,” he said regretfully. “This was because YouTube had been banned in Pakistan at that time. Otherwise I would definitely have been number one.”
In December 2012, Nazir was deposed from his virtual throne by the harsh reality of his visa expiring. On his return to Pakistan, he was welcomed like a rock star by massive crowds at Lahore airport. He released a Punjabi version of his ditty and started delivering motivational speeches in universities across the country, while being invited to embassy cocktails. He also made his way to Pakistani households as brand ambassador of PTCL, the country’s largest internet provider.
“It was too much to handle,” Nazir said. He claims Tesco asked him to appear in ads alongside Kevin Bacon and Angelina Jolie, an offer he had to decline as he was exclusively bound to PTCL. “Michael Winterbottom, the guy who did that Daniel Pearl movie, also wanted to make a film about my story,” but the biopic stalled due to security reasons.
In Pakistan, no fame escapes politics. Like many businessmen and zamindars in Punjab, Nazir's wealthy, propertied family is well-connected to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the incumbent party. “My father and grandfather were the mayors of Pattoki, and my uncle is the current speaker of Punjab assembly,” Nazir explained. He himself joined the family’s transport business (Rajput Goods, since 1947).
In 2013, as the country was getting ready for the last general election, Nazir got a phone call from party leader Nawaz Sharif. “He said I represented the soft image of Pakistan that he was trying to promote,” Nazir said, “And he asked me to do a song for him.” The result was “Dabang Sher”, a bizarre ode to Nawaz Sharif (the “bold tiger” of the song’s title), in which Nazir prances about in an old Mughal house while chanting his praise. The song became the official party anthem; it preceded Sharif’s speeches and was shared abundantly on social media.
Nazir’s adulation of Nawaz Sharif continues. A few weeks before the 25th July election, he released a new song in support of the PML-N, "Hum Sher Dil Hum Sher Jawan”.
Nazir praised Sharif for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for creating “a soft image of the country” and advancements in infrastructure and electrification. As he told me his reasons for his support of Sharif, Nazir glanced over my shoulder towards the TV behind me. The Supreme Court had just indicted Sharif and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment following the Panama Papers scandal. Nazir’s phone exploded with notifications.
I asked Nazir who he thought was behind the decision. “There is no freedom of speech in Pakistan”, he smiled. “There are some powers you can't mention. Nawaz Sharif wants to trade with Afghanistan and India. Maybe that's not acceptable to some people. If everyone lives happily ever after, then there won’t be weapons to be sold,” he concluded with a wry smile.
The television announced that Sharif had also been fined £8 million on corruption charges. “Maybe I should do a new song,” Nazir laughed. “After £1 fish, £8 million fine!”
Has he thought about politics himself ? “Maybe one day,” he said. As we walked out of the hotel (where, sadly, nobody seemed to recognise him), a huge aquarium in the lobby attracted his attention. “Look at this one,” he said, pointing to a large flat fish with bulging eyes. “I think it’s a tilapia.”