Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
Last night we watched a glamorous cross-dresser in a sari hosting a TV talk-show in which he asked Amin Fahim, Benazir Bhutto’s the right hand man, about love. Fahim – a stolid, mustachioed man with the charisma of Dick Cheney – smiled, and said something like love is a function of fate, a bland but sporting reply. The show, “Late Show with Begum Nawazish Ali,” is analogous to the “Dame Edna Experience,” the popular 80’s show featuring the flamboyant British cross-dresser Dame Edna, or the “RuPaul Show.” Both, however, were short-lived in the States and neither host would have been able to invite Dick Cheney. But this, ladies and gentlemen, is contemporary Pakistan and Begum Nawazish Ali is arguably the face of contemporary Pakistani televsion.
During the last year about thirty-five private television channels have been granted licenses by the government. In fact, more licenses have been granted in the last five years than in the last fifty-three. The effects of this administration’s progressive media policy are manifest in public discourse, commercial interest, and society at large. On talk-shows such as Indus’ “Mujahid Barelvi Online,” ARY’s “Q&A with PJ Mir” and Geo’s “50 Minutes,” powerful sitting generals and prominent politicians are savaged by a new, brazen, no-holds-barred breed of talk-show hosts.
In the May issue of the most widely circulated news magazine, the Herald, Meera, one of Pakistan’s most famous film stars was asked: your next “[Bollywood] venture…sounds like a recipe for some explicit sex scenes…” Meera replied: “I don’t know what the big deal is. What is sex? It is a bodily function similar to going to the toilet and eating. Just look at the population of this country. We have so many people because someone out there is having sex…We have to realize that sex is part of life. God has given the instinct to us, not the mullahs. Haven’t you seen sparrows or animals have sex? It is a natural process. It is like hunger and thirst. Who are we to oppose something that is natural?”
On a breezy Wednesday night last week in Karachi, Ghazanfar Ali, the large, charming head of the Indus television network, hosted us at his Beverly Hills-like residence for drinks and dinner. On the esplanade outside, old Christian rockers – vestiges of Karachi’s jazz age of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – played Nancy Sinatra’s “Summer Wine.” The soiree was held for a visiting group of Indians from MTV India who is interested in a joint-venture with Indus Music or IM. IM features attractive twentysomething VJs in tank-tops and jeans introducing Pakistani rock bands. An MTV executive told us that “we can’t compete with your rock and roll scene.” Indeed, IM has become not only an institution but a Pakistani cultural export. It has spawned a generation of rockers who have fused native traditions, including Sufi’ism, the mystical variety of Islam, with the influences as varied as Led Zeppelin and Limp Bizket.
Teenagers today, whether denizens of Defense or Nazimabad, aspire to be musicians, VJs, newscasters, producers, and actors. The emergent “media generation” spans classes, drawing from the elite as well as the urban middle class: we’ve been to open-air pop concerts attended by several thousands of middle class teenagers – boys and girls – gyrating to bands that include Junoon, Fuzon, EP, Noori, Strings and Jal. In fact, many working at the new channels jump up the social ladder in a matter of years not generations. The administration’s media policy has produced a generation that’s redefining what it means to be Pakistani, a generation confident in itself, unlike, say, the generation produced under Zia-ul-Haq’s conservative regime or even the previous, precarious, democratic ones. And unlike their parents, they aren’t scarred by history, by Partition, the ’71 war. A rare insightful outside commentator notes, “The kids appreciate Musharraf because he’s opened up the country to outside influences and loosened the stifling grip of the clerics – at least in the cities. Even conservative rural areas aren’t entirely immune either – satellite tv has seen to that, with Baywatch and its ilk beamed into the most remote outposts.”
Admittedly, it’s peculiar that Musharraf’s media policy – a dictator’s media policy – is liberal, progressive, indeed more progressive than any administration’s in Pakistan’s history. (Then again, Putin’s a democrat but the Russian press is horribly cowed and pliant.) It may all be a fluke but, more probably, it has to do with Musharraf’s thick skin and particular sensibililty. Salman Ahmad of Junoon says, “We’ve had the most freedom of expression since Musharraf came to power in 1999 – you can say anything, do anything, get up on stage and play anywhere.” Musharraf seems to have become a patron of the arts: he, for instance, recently inaugurated the government funded National Academy for the Performing Arts” or NAPA (a development picked up by the CSM although the reporter puts a peculiar spin on it and is occassionally incorrect: NAPA is not Pakistan’s first performing arts academy). Strangely, despite outside scrutiny of Pakistan in the print and electronic media, in academia, in the insular DC think-tank community, almost no commentator has picked up these trends. In fact, although Pakistan’s political history is documented and catalogued ad nauseam, it’s cultural and social history is not just glossed over but systematically ignored. This gaping lacuna completely skews any political analysis.
We, here, attempt to fill in the blanks.
The contemporary Pakistani rock scene owes much to Nazia Hassan the pigtailed, dungareed pop icon of the 80’s whose death anniversary was on August 13th. In the video of “Dum dum dee dee,” Nazia assumes the role of Alice, Carroll’s prepubescent protagonist, flittingly navigating a cardboard Wonderland set. Like Alice, Nazia at thirteen, fell into a wonderland of fortune and certain fame. The film Qurbani (1980), which featured her song “Aap jaisa koi,” was not only a “runaway success” at the time, transforming pubescent Nazia into a “star overnight,” but has become a modern classic. “Disco Diwane” (1981) sold a record several million copies on either side of the border (and hit number one on the Brazilian charts!), followed by “Boom Boom,” (1982) “Young Tarang,” (1986) “Hotline” (1987) and “Camera Camera” (1992).
Nazia’s oeuvre comprises anthems of love and celebrations of youth, fusing “indigenous melody with synthesized chords and western percussion.” The unfettered mirth in “Aao Na” is contagious, the lyrics silly, the disco beat insistent, like an ABBA number. The catchy “Disco Diwane” and “Boom Boom” demand animation, movement – foot-tapping, finger-snapping, hip-shaking. These songs echo within our generation. Our favorite lyrics are found in the resplendent “Aakhein milanay walay” when Nazia proclaims, “Main jawan/ Main haseen/ Meray paas kya nahin / hay sub kuch?” These eleven words definitively articulate the arrogance of youth.
Nazia’s contribution to pop is much more than a casual survey suggests: in a way, she gave voice to an inchoate genre, a genre without meaningful tradition, much like Rushdie, who established magic realism as the literary voice of South Asia, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who came to define qawwali. She achieved this at a time when PTV broadcast bathetic patriotic songs and Bollywood churned out shrill hits. And her videos revolutionized PTV in particular, and Pakistani videology in general, by doing away with drab sets, frumpy curtains, expressions of severity, the constraints of immobility, the prerequisites, the code, it seemed, for any singer performing on television in the eighties.
Nazia’s orbit of influence extends across the border. An Indian commentator notes that “…Hindustani film music was never the same after Nazia, maybe accidentally, invaded it…Aap jaisa koi actually set a disco trend.” Nazia has contributed to the development of the present isomorphism of Bollywood music and pop: “She set – well ahead of its time – the personal album trend in India,” spawning the likes of Alisha, Lucky Ali and Shewna Shetty. A disconcerted Ameen Sayani, India’s Casey Casim, prophetically remarked: “Either it’s a fluke or a harbinger of a new trend. Nothing else can explain that a Pak (sic) girl, who’s totally unknown in India, should achieve such super success.” Harbinger, buddy.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
Other related Critical Digressions:
Dispatch from Karachi
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Live 8 at Sandspit