When the establishment is backing a movement, it seems it is still possible even in today’s Pakistan to protest, sing and dance on the streets without fear of harassment or violence. If old pictures of fashionable Pakistanis are proof that Pakistan was a liberal paradise before Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist regime took over – a narrative that has become nearly sacrosanct amongst English-reading Pakistani audiences – then pictures of Imran Khan’s ‘Azaadi March’ could equally be used as evidence that Pakistan in 2014 had public spaces full of revelling women who could participate in the country’s political and public life without any fear of harassment or censure. The truth, however, is far from linear and much more complex than the selective projection of historical images can represent.
But relevant to our argument here, culturally speaking Pakistan’s popular culture has stagnated, hence the need for constant revisitation and reinvention of the past. Young ‘revolutionaries’ are still kept entertained by stars who lost their currency two decades ago and nobody questions the lack of recently produced cultural icons. Even the biggest mainstream musical hit of this decade, Coke Studio, relies purely on the country’s past riches. This constant harking back reveals a nation with a paucity of new content and ideas– an emptiness filled by the 24-hour news cycle with its illusion of inexhaustible newness.
The most popular non-news entertainment of this decade is the Pakistani drama, and if there are any identifiable (non-religious) stars on the horizon they are those who have performed in hit television shows in the recent past. But this form of entertainment is endemically regressive with its fixation on domestic politics and a representation of urban youth that is one-sided and out of touch with reality. Or at the very least obsessed with just one aspect of their experience – that revolving around marital strife and family machinations. This is largely owing to the consumers and creators of these plays being comfortable with the status quo, all in places where rocking the boat and creating cutting edge content is not even on the periphery of their artistic visions, driven solely by commercial gain and pandering as they are.
Urdu books for children live in a similarly dangerous time warp where ‘Pakistani’ heroes are still the Jihadist and colonizing ‘heroes’ of the past. Even recently produced books look backwards for inspiration, such as the Umar Ayyar comics that made a limited appearance last year but failed to make much impact. Unlike the recent surge in interest in Young Adult literature in the West, Pakistan has seen a complete withering away of this genre, once a thriving market with the likes of Ishtiaq Ahmed and Ibn-e-Safi selling books in the millions.
Little surprise then, that a wide cross-section of Pakistanis, cutting across class, age and cultural divides, is left with little choice but to romanticize, glorify and ultimately live in the past, reinventing it according to its particular predilections – for the liberal this was a country crawling with hippies pushing Volkswagon vans, for the conservatively inclined, an Islamic citadel whose cultural norms must not be allowed to disintegrate.
Proliferation of television channels and the corporatization of culture should have given birth to a diversity of expression, or at the very least created space for a larger mainstream, but instead the tyranny of the market has resulted in shrinking options down to screaming newsmen and women, inane morning shows, commercial religiosity and weepy soap operas.
If those protesting in Islamabad are largely the middle to upper middle class, disenchanted, urban Pakistani youth, then what they are saying through their actions is that they need space to breathe and engage with their political realities in ways that make sense to them; music and dance. They deserve representation, through support for the artists among them, and those who can drive the conversation around Pakistani popular culture and identity forward. That is one of the basic ways in which the complete hollowing out of what it means to be Pakistani can be stemmed.
But no politician seems interested in that debate.
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.