BY deed and in words, the right in Pakistan has demonstrated often enough that it is opposed to cultural expression through performance-based media such as film, theatre, dance and television.
There is a part of the right that considers such work to be either immoral or downright sinful, and wants to forbid it altogether. Civility demands that I cede them their right to their point of view; in any case, there’s no talking to some people, so there we’ll have to agree to disagree.
But there are other conservatives, far more in number, perhaps, who are opposed to imported products of cultural expression. These are the ones who in letters to newspapers and on television call-in programmes decry the spread of vulgarity and poor family values in society through, variously, Australian soap operas or Hollywood films, Eurovision music and American apparel.
Demands have been made on the floor of no less than the National Assembly that the screening of Indian films be banned (again) in Pakistan, because they lead young minds astray and pollute the sanctity of ‘Pakistani culture’.
(A secondary argument here is that the import of cultural products from powerhouse India hinders the development of the local industries by giving audiences a choice, for which reason this demand has received support from some sections of our own film and television world; but the argument one hears more frequently is simply that it is leading our youth to turn away from their own culture.)
Instead of wittering on impotently and taking solace in forbidding their daughters from wearing jeans or their sons from listening to rap, I suggest that these people take a more constructive approach. I’m willing to cede to them their reservations about imported cultural products, but I have to point out that the line of argument they currently take — of lobbying for bans — is self-defeating.
Instead, such men and women should be the ones rooting the loudest for setting up academies and institutions in Pakistan that teach performance-related disciplines. If there are too few Pakistani films to choose between, they should be thronging the theatre halls — not to condemn, but to admire. They are the ones that consider the problem of foreign cultural invasions pervasive; they should be lobbying for solutions more long-term than merely condemning this or boycotting that.
Take television as a representative case. The fact is that as long as they have access to a set, people will want to watch it. The more channels a country has, the more airtime has to be filled up.
The businessman who runs a channel or a cable network has to have something to broadcast, after all. If not enough locally produced fare is available, or it isn’t of a quality that makes viewers choose it over the competition, then he’ll put out what is available and has proved popular — he has a business to run, after all.
As an industry we haven’t done too badly in the area of drama. Pakistan is producing a lot of soaps, sitcoms and serials, and the endless inventiveness of the news channels is legendary. But there are plenty of smaller, more niche areas, that the local industry has either overlooked or not taken enough of an interest in, and has by default left the field wide open to any other culture that chooses to peddle its ware.
This is the case, for example, with programming for children. Pakistan has done very little work in this department, and the handful of children’s channels that are beamed by most cable networks across the country overwhelmingly broadcast non-Pakistani programming.
One particular cartoon character has apparently proved very popular given that the channel airs several episodes back to back during most afternoons, which is children’s television viewing time.
The hero is immensely strong, a champion of the weak, and when not defeating villains he is generally found playing cricket, sitting with his friends under the village tree or sneaking ladoos from various kitchens. I believe he is as popular here as he is in the country of his origin, India.
Those worrying about impressionable teenage minds being polluted by adult-oriented American or Indian or any other fare might also want to look into what their five-year-olds are watching, for our hero has friends amongst the gods and there is a very discernible ideology and education being disseminated. All of it is clean, above board and imminently suitable for children, but what it definitely is not is Pakistani.
The only truly effective way of resisting foreign cultural products’ popularity in the domestic market is by providing plenty of quality local alternatives.
People the world over choose their diversion on the basis of quality and availability. Once these factors have been addressed, people tend to choose that which resonates with them, which is familiar.
In other words, a Pakistani child would prefer to watch a show or a cartoon that is in his language, and that uses a setting and symbols that is accessible. Where the effort has been made, it has been successful; few television-viewing children in this country would be unfamiliar with the name of Captain Safeguard, for example. But lacking more such choices, Ben 10 or Chota Bheem rule the roost.
And for this reason, those who want to protect Pakistani culture and Pakistani minds from being sullied by foreign influences would do well to start demanding that more emphasis be laid on training and providing opportunities for musicians and actors, theatre directors and screenwriters, dramatists and dancers.
The more that are trained and sent out to do their thing, the more we’ll be in a position to experiment with and expand the contours of — in fact celebrate — our own culture. Again, where the effort has been made, it has been successful to the point of people choosing it over other options. Coke Studio has proved that.
Arguing for shutting out other options is easy. So is raising one’s voice in defence of the local cultural cocktail. Harder but far more beneficial is lobbying for the creation of opportunities and an environment that would give Pakistanis not just a reason to take pride in their nationality, but also opportunities to explore and understand it.
The writer is a member of staff.