The other night while watching Amy Poehler and Tina Fey conduct the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, I sat in my living room in flannel pyjamas nursing a cold, yet tittering with barely containable schadenfreude at the way single men in Hollywood were played for laughs by two strong, middle-aged women, whose credentials for hosting the awards was not their ability to bare their silky midriffs but their razor sharp wits. In another era the only reaction to George Clooney dating women much younger and Leonardo Dicaprio consistently accessorizing himself with supermodels would have been envious looks and a nudge nudge, wink wink camaraderie among all men concerned (or unconcerned). But there I sat, observing an alternate being thrown up– a reverse ‘slut shaming’, if you will. Even in the west, this irreverent commentary on long established mores of sexual behavior and the subversion that accompanies it has not been easy to come by, nor has it been quick. Having laws that do not discriminate (the right to vote, equal wages etc.) can sometimes be the easier part to negotiate, fundamentally changing the nature of a gendered society’s thoughts and behavior is much harder. Pop culture can often be both a gauge for observing and a tool for bringing about this change. Who are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, you might wonder, and why do they matter to an average Pakistani weighed down by too many pressing problems to care about celebrating some abstract feminist victory thousands of miles away in a culture that has nothing in common with us? Well, they matter in exactly the same way as the Suffragette Movement or Marie Curie or The Second Sex matter to me – as markers of important milestones in the history of women. Even then the disturbing question remains: where are our Poehlers and Feys? In a globalized world I can revel in the jabs these powerful white women make at powerful white men in an industry defined by power and the perception of it, but what about closer to home? As new channels pop up every day in Pakistan’s rapidly expanding media climate, where are our female role models? – The fun, the smart and the witty with a voice unmistakably their own; changing perceptions and creating new norms while still being able to deliver the common touch. What country is riper than Pakistan for such a figure, or two or three? There was Bushra Ansari once upon a time who gave MoinAkhtar a run for his money and received equal billing, but Bushra was always Anwar Maqsood’s mouthpiece – a perfect receptacle for the parodies, the mimicry and the political satire that Maqsood poured into her, but never a creator. She only brought his vision to life. In fact, going by Maqsood’s recent spate of stage dramas, his representation of women is just a refined version of the Umar Shareef/Hanif Raja brand of comedy – thinly disguised misogyny in the name of humour. Social comedy, especially of the irreverent and subversive brand, doesn’t seem to have reached Pakistan yet, if one were to go by a cursory surfing of our interminable television channels. One will chance upon plenty of political irreverence but social life is served solely with a heavy dose of melodrama or an occasional side of slapstick. In a rapidly urbanizing country where divorces and single women are aplenty, not a single television show addresses the pleasures and pitfalls of an independent life. Granted comedy is a difficult genre; what about news channels? Is it too much to ask for a cerebral, rational, erudite woman on television, funny or not? We have Meher Bukhari who mistakes loud decibel levels for a brain. Ayesha Tammy Haq who has a hard time stringing together two sentences of Urdu without stumbling (a matter of importance in a country where to only be conversant in English is to be limited to a very small circle of people). Huma Amir Shah and Sidra Iqbal on PTV World (again in English) have decent shows, but in the stifling confines of Pakistan’s state run media there is hardly any room for cerebral provocation and refreshing new content. Then there are the inane morning show hosts whose sole aim is to outdo each other in their vapidity. There is also the moral brigade ala Maya Khan and the Samaa TV anchor who barges into people’s houses to expose their private lives. This is the extent of our creative bankruptcy. ’57 channels and nothing on’ said Bruce Springsteen. I feel the same sentiment as I flip through Pakistani channels, almost laughing at my expectation of coming across a Fey or a Poehler.
The singular thread that runs through every genre of creativity in today’s Pakistan is derivation. Coke Studio and Nescafe Basement are the epitome of this culture of derivative creativity. Repackage an old song with a saxophone solo here, a taan there – and voila, you have something ‘new’! This is the well-worn formula for all forms of mainstream art in Pakistan. Our drama is an unceasing parade of social melodrama so similar in form and content that cutting whole scenes from one play and pasting onto the other would leave its anesthetized audiences none the wiser. Even our theatrical productions are lifted straight from Broadway and planted in Karachi without so much as a cosmetic attempt at adapting for local sensibilities.
It might be argued that a country clawing for its very survival does not have the luxury to produce art, let alone original one. Confronted with a 24/7 cycle of bomb blasts and target killings just the fact that artists still exist here is an achievement of sorts. In a social setup where arguments can still be had on whether music is haram or halaal, perhaps expectations of originality aren’t just fanciful, they’re unfair.
Under such circumstances Amir Liaquat Husain’s rise to the mantle of Pakistan’s biggest star is not a coincidence but an inevitability. Liaquat is as much a deliberate construct, put together piece by piece for maximum effect and impact, as say, Lady Gaga. Designing herself with equal parts shock value and infectious pop hooks, Gaga upped the ante on her lukewarm career with an algorithm for super stardom pieced together with nudity, raw meat dresses and plumage that would dazzle a male peacock into submission. If that is the blueprint for breakaway success in the West, then a mixed-plate of quranic recitations, Raakhi ka Swayamwar; religious stories of dubious origin, Masterchef, Kaun Banega Crorepati and The Crystal Maze with a thick topping of Neelam Ghar shot through with sleaze borrowed from 80s Hindi cinema is the baara masala formula for success in Pakistan. Amir Liaquat has cracked the code, and judging by the wild applause and the cash rolling in, Pakistan is lapping it up.
Tariq Aziz’s wide repertoire of couplets, Naeem Bukhari’s spontaneity and Moin Akhtar’s sense of humour seem archaic in the face of the one quality more Pakistani than Nihari – the projection of piety.
Starting off as an impassioned host of a religious call-in show, Husain first cornered the religious market in the country through a groundbreaking attempt at putting a Shia and a Sunni aalim together on stage. When that became too passé, he soon flexed his muscles through passing fatwas on Ahmedis, a sect so hapless and beleaguered, only the suicidal would choose to defend its followers in public. When his repertoire of colourful abuses was leaked online, the resourceful Amir decided to leverage this notoriety to break out of his ishq-e-rasool mould, switching seamlessly between his faux-sincere Ramzan transmission face, flirtatious frolickings with women and a thick layer of Jazakallahs, to finally emerge as the host of Pakistan’s most watched game show-cum-iftaari langar, Aman Ramzan, the apotheosis of which was handing over a new born as a jackpot prize. Islam, babies, hijabs and cooking; could there be a mix more Pakistani? During Ramzan, maybe, but the rest of the year the awaam is amenable to added dozes of sexual titillation, children’s birthdays and wedding celebrations as well as the replacement of bearded clerics with celebrities. Enter Inaam Ghar! Whatever else you may say about it, you cannot fault the honesty of its title that doesn’t even make an attempt at originality.
If popular culture is the most honest representation of a society’s desires and aspirations, then there is nothing more reflective of the mass confusion in Pakistan – as witnessed in overt religious posturings and its status as the leading consumer of porn in the world – than Inaam Ghar and Amir Liaqat Husain.