From Prince Biscuits to Dalda to Surf Excel, our minds and childhoods echo with TV jingles, nationalistic pop anthems from the 90s and snippets of jokes from 50-50. Pop culture is always musical. Ask someone about their favourite bit of Pakistani pop culture, and invariably the answer is Nazia Hassan, “Purani jeans aur guitar”, Vital Signs and Junoon. But a deeper look brings back heart wrenching nostalgia, like watching Thundercats on STN at 7 pm as a kid, or trips to Bata before every new school year, or laughing at Moin Ahktar on PTV. Popular culture by no means is something that can be concretely measured or defined. In Pakistan such frivolity is often sidelined, but by nature of being uncontrolled and spontaneous, pop culture crawls through the cracks to become part of the national psyche.
Popular culture is a different creature from the national phenomenon of culture. It only comes into being when it has mass effect and acceptance, but with no direct control of the creator or of any form of authority. The actors of the legendary TV show 50-50 have long disappeared from the airwaves, yet the comedy skits are still part of beloved pop culture. Massive aid by the Internet, like YouTube, have ensured that such chapters in our popular history can survive. Most of quality TV from before the 80’s was produced by PTV, and the state enterprise has either lost this content or has been unable to digitize obsolete mediums of film. This compounds one of the problems of popular culture in Pakistan, that it doesn’t last long.
Quality makes for good popularity, but popular culture is often absolutely frivolous (like the popularity of Annie’s Mahiya, or Mathira’s antics on cable TV). It does not have to be art; it just has to be catchy. It is forever changing and evolving, and mostly comedic, artistic or musical. To give a very simple example, the shalwar kameez is culture; the Pierre Cardin twist to the outfit for PIA air hostesses in the 1970’s is pop culture.
The problem with popular culture in Pakistan, as mentioned earlier is its extremely short lifespan. Even though pop culture is transient, Britney Spears head shaving shenanigans have lasted longer in our public memory than Dr aur Billa’s hilarious take on pop music. This is probably due to the nature of our media and how it is controlled. Virtually all the fodder for pop culture in the last ten years has come not from art and music but from 24 hour news channels, like Amir Liaqat’s “Ghalib film dekhi hai aap neh?”, and Maya Khan’s “Apnay maan baap ko dhoka mat dain” (about sitting with a member of the opposite sex in a park). In a country obsessed with national security and political drama, it is not hard to see why high culture (like fine art) and low culture (like Pushto films with buxom dancing lasses) have a minimal role in discourse. Even when high art and popular culture are as important to the construction of Pakistani identity as religion, ethnicity or politics.
In the 1990s, the heyday of pop music in Pakistan, these 24 hour news channels did not exist. In fact, it can be argued that news channels like Geo and Dunya were the death of entertainment channels like Indus music that, for a few years had captured the attention of teens across urban Pakistan (for one, it propelled Jal’s Aadat into Pakistani music’s Hall of Fame). It is only in the last two to four years that we have seen the beginnings of a renaissance of entertainment channels with Hum Tv.
General Zia’s years were a blur of state censorship and state controlled television to the extent that even female actors sleeping in bed on TV had to have a veil on their heads. The state does have a role in creating what is popular culture, but this is hardly equal to the state controlling it. The most popular example of this from outside Pakistan was propaganda posters during World War 2. The most wonderful art and design was combined with government messages across the world including the US, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, Japan and China. One of the most popular posters was the red British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. Today these posters have survived because to the masses, they represent an instantly recognizable version of history, not because of state control of history.
Pakistan has never had a tradition of propaganda posters but one of the bastions of national television (and even a mouthpiece for state propaganda), Shaista Zaid, is an icon today. She is instantly recognizable, and even beloved by her long-standing presence on PTV, with her perfectly pinned dupatta and impeccable English accent. Again, her figure is not created by any authority, it is rather how she has been perceived and received by the masses that fixes her in our memories. Her retirement thus spawned long bouts of reminiscing about the lives and times of General Zia.
It can be argued that Humsafar was the first drama to break the stereotyping of Pakistani TV as being dull and uncreative plot wise. Other popular shows on TV like Jutt and Bond, Shashlik and Teen bata teen, were different in the sense that they targeted a young population with comedy. Interestingly, Jawad Bashir’s hand was behind all three of these comedies. Including the music of Dr aur Billa, well produced music videos like Abrar-ul-Haq’s Preeto, and Ufone GSM’s riotous adverts, Bashir may be the single biggest contributor to Pakistani pop culture since the 90s with honorable mentions to partners-in-crime, Adeel Hashmi, Vasay Chaudhry and Faisal Qureshi. Good comedy was always popular (whether Moin Akhtar cross-dressing in Rozi in the 90s or the inane hilarity of the sitcom Bulbulay today), but quality dramas were few and far between.
The sad thing is that such changes in local culture are not given importance in dominant narratives. With a threadbare film and music industry, break throughs like Jutt and Bond or Humsafar open us to local art but are often not capitalized on because they do not feature into the power structures of society. It is sometimes argued that during Zia’s time, there was a cap put on creativity, that due to government censorship and control, the quality of national TV fell. Yet there are short-lived blips of renaissance here and there, for example shows like Chand Grehn in the 90s. Today the problem is not state control but societal encouragement of such projects and the people behind them.
(In The Nation, a few weeks ago. Leave a comment?)