Mediations of the Self in Pakistan’s Popular Visual Culture




In the recent times, I had been having these wonderful conversations with various friends and academics about the media in Pakistan and I thought it maybe useful to bring everyone together for a meaningful discussion. So  on November 20th 2015, I organized this event titled ‘Mediations of the Self in Pakistan’s Popular Visual Culture’ at the New York University’s department of Media, Culture and Communication . Among the participants were various academics like S. Akbar Zaidi, Tahira Naqvi, Afiya Zia and media related personalities like Mehreen Jabbar, Saad Khan and Arooj Aftab,  who were kind enough to take their time out to join our discussion. Also attending was Sheeba Khan a reporter from Hip Pakistan, who covered the event here.

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As the title of the event suggests, the basic idea for the discussion was to understand the ways in which Pakistan is being ‘imagined’ through its media and how the media is contributing to the notions of self-hood in Pakistan. In particular we wanted to talk about the tangible new sense of creativity and agency,  an openness to possibility, that is very discernible and visible in Pakistan’s public sphere presently. We wanted to know what it is? Where its coming from? And what kind of work its doing for culture and identity in Pakistan? What role does the media play in social meaning-making? Is popular cultural production democratizing the public sphere?

Through the lens of popular cultural production we wanted to try to deconstruct the multifarious compulsions and contestations which drive/construct current representations of gender, nationalism, class, marginality, language, materiality and socio-political and religious identity in the media and consequently in the larger public sphere.  In this regard,  our event was quite successful as we were able to meaningfully address and discuss many media related issues and concerns.

The general consensus at the event was that the current prevalent representations  on Pakistani television were based on problematic stereotypes and binaries. Women are either shown as vamps or victims, a religious person cannot be modern and a modern one cannot be religious, and an idealized tradition is always pitted against corrupt modernity etc. While these representations don’t seem to correlate much with actual everyday life, they are creating a particular kind of a discourse and a space among the TV viewing audience.  Professor Zaidi for example pointed out that one sees more alcohol in the recently released productions  like ‘Karachi se Lahore’, or ‘Wrong No’ than one sees in a bar in New York. And if this is being done to represent modernity on screen,  what notion or version of modernity is this?

Mehreen Jabbar also affirmed this view saying that being modern on a Pakistani screen meant ” aurton ko nanga kar do aur admi kay hath main sharab ki botal pakra do (undress the women and put a bottle of alcohol in the man’s hand)”. She felt that the current filmmakers were taking the easy way out by showing such simplistic representations and not engaging meaningfully with issues. She also spoke about staying away from such depictions in her upcoming film, ‘Dobara Phir Say’, which she describes as a ‘mature love story’ and ‘clean’ film with ‘no degrading item numbers’. Mehreen also mentioned, (during our discussion about diaspora as to whether those of us living abroad can produce ‘truthful’ work about Pakistan), that she spends part of the year here in New York because at times she felts the need to distance herself from all that is happening in Pakistan. “Our industry is very incestuous in a way because everyone is always patting you on your back, showering praise on you all the time and telling you what wonderful work you are doing. I come to New York to get away from that kind of an attitude and I need space so I can be critical of my own work”, she said.

(Video credit – Sheeba Khan)

In order to put recent trends into perspective  we also delved into the history of Pakistan entertainment industry. Professor Tahira Naqvi gave a very comprehensive chronology of the way the media had evolved over the years. She also spoke about the way in which the  Pakistani drama was reviving the Urdu language not just in Pakistan but also in India and elsewhere . She gave examples of the Zee Zindgi dictionary on ZEE TV India which was allowing people to engage with Urdu after ages through the medium of the drama. Many Indian students also attended the event and share their views about the way in which Pakistani content was being received in India. One student recalled seeing posters of Pakistani dramas  like Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Aun Zara all around Delhi, which she said immediately got the Delhites attention, and once the dramas started playing ‘everyone age 21 and up was hooked’. She also quipped about the way in which the posters conveniently avoided mentioning where these productions were coming from and were framed in elusive language like ‘sarhad par ki kahanian‘ or ‘joray dilon ko‘. One student mentioned how her mother, an ardent supporter of Modi, was a big fan of Pakistani dramas and was overwhelmed with the feeling that ‘Pakistanis are just like us’.  Another mentioned that  ‘even people who did not own televisions started accessing the dramas on the internet’, adding that most young people in India do not watch television or at least did not watch until the Pakistani dramas started showing!

Among other subjects our animated  discussion on class and marginality turned out to be one of the prominent highlights of the evening. At the discussion we had aimed to explore what were the less imagined contexts within the Pakistan media? Which voices can be heard in the media, what stories and outlooks are left out of the conversation? Saad’s work on the women in low brow Punjabi cinema and mujra culture turned out to be the perfect platform to dissects these questions. While the trailer for his upcoming documentary was visually jarring for many of us, it brought out many important questions to the fore.  Should the garrulous productions of the Punjabi cinema be considered fringe  or mainstream entertainment?

Previously before the event, I had told Saad how his work on ‘marginalized’ women and peripheral cinema would be a contribution to our discussion. Those descriptions seem very presumptuous in retrospect. The argument that ensued makes one reconsider how much our ideas of what constitutes fringe or vulgar entertainment depends on our location in society. What we can consider to be ‘mainstream’ is actually fringe entertainment which caters to a small segment of elite classes and is largely out of reach of the ordinary majority in Pakistan who cannot afford to visit expensive multiplexes and such. Not only this but Saad also highlighted the ways in which the recent success of the so-called mainstream cinema was riding on the back of the infrastructures and networks provided by this ‘fringe’ cinema, which had sustained itself over the many decades when the ‘mainstream’ cinema had almost disappeared.

This conversation also brought out the debate over how social location and class provides the frame of reference or the lens through which certain representations become acceptable and others become unacceptable  and are labelled  as ‘vulgar’ and ‘immoral’. In this context , ‘item numbers’ performed by Mehwish Hayat or Ayesha Omar are co-opted as acceptable mainstream entertainment while the same representations from Punjabi mujra dancers are looked down upon as vulgar and indecent. In both cases the women are being objectified but while the elite women are perhaps  seen by some as possessing agency or being  ‘liberated’, the Punjabi dancers continue to be seen as obscene and outside the norms of polite society.

All in all we managed to discuss a large number of concerns that we were hoping to address in this talk.  Among the reasons why I decided to organize this event was because I felt that there was not much quality conversation taking place about media and culture in Pakistan in the academic world. Also I feel that there is very little interaction between academics and people associated with the media in Pakistan. For instance every time I spoke with Mehreen ( Jabbar), I felt that I learnt so much as she had very insightful things to say given her long-standing association with media in Pakistan. So this event was just a small step in bringing together all these voices and viewpoints of an unlikely and disparate group of individuals to the proverbial table.

Obviously one of the of the biggest challenges in hosting an event on Pakistan in New York was to incorporate actual voices from the Pakistan media. As it turned out we were really fortunate that many people in Pakistan like Osman Khalid Butt, Adnan Jafar, Salma Hasan and Hareem Farooq actually took time out from their busy schedules to answer our questions and to contribute their opinions for our discussion. Not only did they have wonderfully perceptive things to say about current concerns in the Pakistani media, it is also evident that these artists actually take the time out to critique their work and the world around them in a very constructive and articulate way. So their contributions were very important for us and I would like to thank all of them personally for putting in all the thought and effort that they did for our event.




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