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Superheroes, jazz, Queer Art: How Pakistan’s Transgressive Pop Culture Went Global

Pakistan’s three censor boards cleared Saim Sadiq’s award-winning film Joyland for release. Shot in Lahore, the film is about a young married man from a conservative family who finds work at a dance theatre and falls in love with a trans woman struggling to land her moment on stage. It was the first Pakistani film to screen at Cannes and it won the Un Certain Regard prize, receiving a standing ovation nearly 10 minutes long.

Even though the film was then subject to various bans in Pakistan, after being accused of pushing an LGBTQ+ agenda and misrepresenting Pakistani culture, it finally appeared in Pakistani cinemas in November, with Malala Yousafzai signing on as executive producer.

Whatever happens at home, (the whiplash never seemed to end, as the Punjab censor board reversed course once more and re-banned the film) the film’s next journey will be to the Academy Awards, as Pakistan’s submission for best foreign film.

This drama is nothing new. Pakistanis have always understood their heritage to be culturally rich and transgressive: from the romance of the Urdu language, spoken by poets and in royal courts, to qawwali singers as diverse as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, to television dramas and literature. Artists such as Iqbal Bano sang songs against dictators and shows on state television satirized military juntas with jokes so sophisticated that even army censors couldn’t catch them. In 1969, Pakistan state television aired Khuda Ki Basti, or God’s Own Land, a series set in a Karachi slum in the tumultuous days after independence, from a classic Urdu novel. To ensure that the drama was faithful to the novel, Pakistan state television convened a board of intellectuals to oversee the scripts, including Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the country’s most beloved poets.

Pakistani artists are garnering international attention as they continue this legacy of confronting themselves and their society, interrogating religion, sexuality and class hierarchies.

“People say, ‘Oh, they’re telling poor people’s and underdog stories,’” says Sarmad Khoosat, “but that’s where the truth is, I feel.” Khoosat, who produced Joyland and whose production house Khoosat Films is at the helm of Pakistan’s cinema renaissance, made a big splash when his film Zindagi Tamasha was banned in 2021. Besides the Khoosat-produced films, The Legend of Maula Jatt, a remake of a 1979 film, brought in $10m (£8m) at the box office and Sandstorm, a short directed by the London-based film-maker Seemab Gul, originally from Karachi, was nominated for best short film at the Venice film festival and has garnered plenty of Oscar buzz. Pakistan is also the setting of Jemima Khan’s debut film as scriptwriter, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, starring Emma Thompson and premiering in the UK in February.

eight people pose, smiling, in front of water

People who think the edgy subject matter is intended for foreign audiences don’t understand Pakistan, Khoosat says. “They don’t realise that religion and trans people and socioeconomic divides are realities here. They are our stories.”

Sadiq told the Guardian he strongly disagreed with the campaign against his film. “I think it’s as empathetic a portrait of Pakistanis as you’ve ever seen on screen,” he said. “It’s actually a very empathetic portrait of conservative Pakistanis.” And the supposed promotion of a sinister LGBTQ+ agenda, Sadiq said was “frankly, in my opinion, bullshit”.

Trans people, known as khwaja sira, held positions of power in the Mughal court and were not just considered faithful guards and protectors but also bestowed with ceremonial importance. At Cannes, the director and his producers had a surreal moment watching a packed theatre of over a thousand people cheering and clapping when Alina Khan, who plays Biba, finally takes the stage for her big song and dance number. When the credits rolled, Sadiq found himself crying and turned to Khoosat only to see him in tears too. The editor was crying, the actors, the crew, the audience.

Art versus commerce

Pakistan never had the money or machinery to produce art at scale as its neighbour, India, was able to do with Bollywood. And this is perhaps why it has taken the world so long to wake up to Pakistani culture.

The difference is one of art versus commerce. Though commercially unable to compete with Bollywood, Pakistani films, television and music are arguably more sophisticated and daring. Though Bollywood films from earlier decades addressed injustice, feudalism and political oppression, today the industry is little more than a mouthpiece for India’s quasi-fascist rightwing government, obsessed with spit-shining the image of its prime minister, Narendra Modi. Recent films such as Swachh Bharat, or Clean Up India – based on a program which, as far as anyone can tell, is about cleaning the entire country, one hand-held broom at a time – or Sui Dhaaga, Needle and Thread, whose tagline is “Made in India” and which is based on another self-explanatory initiative – were little more than government puff pieces. When they have run out of Modi initiatives to build entire films around, Bollywood producers turn their eyes to military operations where action heroes with greased, rippling eight packs, based on modern-day and revisionist historical figures, wipe out Muslims on the battlefield.

Aftab stands in front of colorful background

Without having to satisfy paranoid governments, increase box office receipts or please audiences of a billion people, Pakistani artists have been able to take more risks with their work. The country’s turn towards conservatism is fairly recent, a result of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s CIA-backed fundamentalist dictatorship, which ravaged the country between 1977 and 1989, but even then, in the darkest days of military rule, art thrived in spite of and in resistance to the junta.

On the 75th anniversary of independence this August, Indian citizens were instructed to hoist their tricolour flag from their homes by Modi, and social media was replete with famous Indians, including Shah Rukh Khan, waving and posing in front of their flag while saying how nice it was to live in the world’s largest democracy. One struggles to imagine Pakistanis, who have lived under authoritarian regimes for much of our history, acquiescing to such ominous dictates so politely or enthusiastically.

After all, it was under Pervez Musharaff’s dictatorship that the Booker-longlisted author Mohammed Hanif published his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about another Pakistani dictator’s airplane being blown up mid-air. Though Pakistan never stopped producing culture – not during any of our four coups, nor during bloody periods of internal and external strife – today a wave of progressive and provocative work is finally getting recognition far beyond the country’s borders.

Music and visual art

All this good news is rare but welcome now more than ever, after Pakistan was devastated by a super-flood this year that displaced 50 million people, wiped out staple crops and produced a health and hunger crisis that continues to unfold.

“We’ve been having a really hard time in a post-9/11 world,” says the Brooklyn-based Arooj Aftab, the first Pakistani musician to win a Grammy, taking home the 2022 award for best global music performance. Aftab’s album Vulture Prince reimagines traditional ghazals, melancholic love poems born out of Arabic and Persian literary traditions. “There’s been a significant amount of Islamophobia and a lot of bad marketing towards Pakistan in general – associations with terrorism and pain and Afghanistan-adjacent confusion – while the narrative around a lot of other south Asian countries is like ‘Oh my God! Beauty! Exotic landscapes! Yoga!’ And the west loves that shit.”

Musician Ali Sethi spreads arms.
Ali Sethi Performs at Harvard in 2019. Photograph: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Whether exhausted by orientalist tropes about south Asia, tragedy porn or the low-thrumming racism that marked the Trump years, today the west seems to be embracing non-English culture at pace. Pasoori, Ali Sethi and Shae Gil’s breakout song about complicated love, drawn from the separation of India and Pakistan, is the first Pakistani song to top Spotify’s global viral chart and was the most Googled song of 2022, beating out global behemoths such as BTS. The song, whose Punjabi title means “difficulty”, has had over 440m views on YouTube and is the most successful song to come out of Pakistan’s famed music incubator and TV show Coke Studios, which has brought contemporary singers together with traditional musicians to wide acclaim since 2008.

Boiler Room, a London-based online radio station, broadcast a Pakistan special this summer streaming singers, DJs and even traditional Baloch musicians to their online audiences. “The ceiling is being completely shattered,” Natasha Noorani, one of Boiler Room’s featured artists, said. And that shattering reverberates because Pakistani musicians are “exploring their identities in a way that isn’t whitewashed or pandering to some kind of global reach where you are told to sing in English or do a fusion or dress English”.

Before anything goes global, Noorani believes, it has to strike a chord at home. Musicians locked down during Covid waves were creating albums in their bedrooms, on their phones and laptops, and in doing so have “dismantled the machinery, the same infrastructure that kept up the monopolistic tendencies of music”.

In the past few months, the contemporary Pakistani artists Shahzia Sikander and Salman Toor have been glowingly profiled in the New Yorker; Toor’s Four Friends recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $1.2m (£0.99m). His paintings are celebrated for their depictions of queer intimacy, and reimaginings of classical masterpieces from Caravaggio to Édouard Manet“My immediate reaction was that this artist could paint anything and make me believe in it,” wrote the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins.

TV celebrates the diaspora

Meanwhile, Pakistani diaspora television is having a celebratory moment. Shows by creators of Pakistani origin such as Bilal Baig are radical and refreshingly complicated. HBO Max’s Sort Of (tagline: “the future is theirs”) is the story of Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid Pakistani Canadian working as a nanny for a family in crisis even as they try to hold their own crumbling life together. The show is wry and clever, subverting all the standard tropes about south Asian families. Sabi’s sister, Aqsa, protects them while managing her own messy romantic life and their mother struggles more with understanding why they would be a nanny – “like Mary Poppins? You’re telling me you’re a servant?” – than with their sexuality.

Class and hierarchy, in the subcontinental imagination, has always been more fraught than sex. Before the prudish intervention of the British, who ordered and organised Indian life into narrow boxes, the south Asian approach to sexuality was always fluid, a heritage that Sort Of, Joyland and even Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha have all embraced. Though Sort Of has been renewed for a second season, premiering on HBO in October, perhaps more well-known is Ms Marvel, showcasing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) first Muslim and Pakistani diaspora superhero.

Vellani makes a fist with some kind of magic superhero power around it

Ms Marvel follows Kamala Khan, whose parents, formerly of Karachi and now of New Jersey, are not caricatures of immigrant parents, but droll and charming, embarrassing in the way all parents are while their young daughter suffers the indignities of teenagers everywhere. The writing team knows only too well the codes and ciphers of Pakistani life and have seamlessly blended them into this Disney tale. Kamala has a brother who prays constantly (every Pakistani family has one resident fundamentalist), her father quotes poetry at the dinner table and Nakia, her hijab-wearing best friend, has her shoes stolen at the mosque – a timeless rite of passage for all mosque-going Muslims.

The team behind Ms Marvel includes some of Pakistan’s smartest creatives: from the directors, including the two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, to the music supplied by Coke Studios, to the actors, including the respected theatre actor Nimra Bucha and heartthrob Fawad Khan.

Though Ms Marvel fast became the best-reviewed show in the MCU canon, initial reports have shown that it has a substantially lower viewership than other Marvel blockbusters, pulling in less than half the viewers that WandaVision brought in in its first week. Critics have kindly supposed that the numbers are to do with Ms Marvel being a new character and the actors being relatively unknown stateside, but in a country whose political discourse has been blisteringly Islamophobic over the last two decades, a Pakistani-origin Muslim as a superhero may be too much for traditional audiences. Though I cheered the show as much as every TV-watching Pakistani, it did give me pause that Kamala’s hero in Ms Marvel is Captain Marvel, an ex-elite fighter pilot in the US air force, the very department of the US military that flies the MQ1 Predator and MQ9 Reaper drones that have terrorised Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11.

‘I’m going to give you this beautiful thing’

Gone are the dire years of apologia and contrition as Pakistani artists travel worldwide.

“We’ve been really sick of the stuff where it’s like, ‘Can you please score this really extremely sad documentary about Pakistan?’” Aftab says. “And I’m just like, absolutely not. I’m not going to do that. White people love to witness and be moved by Black and brown tragedy. They don’t know how to see us happy and that’s really deep and fucked up. It’s not interesting for them to see us experiencing joy. As someone who works in art, in music, it’s my responsibility to say, ‘I’m not going to give you that. I’m going to give you this other really beautiful thing that is jazz and I’m going to make something that is undeniably beautiful and will move you and I’m going to be committed to that because you guys are so annoying.’”

Source : The Guardian