Ali Zafar vs Shaan: What defines patriotism?

Updated 02 May 2014


There is nothing patriotic about restricting the immense talent that Pakistan has to a geographical location.
There is nothing patriotic about restricting the immense talent that Pakistan has to a geographical location.

Sunday’s ARY Film Awards will go down in history – not as a milestone where the industry’s major players turned out in their finest for a night dedicated solely to celebrating the best of Pakistani cinema, but as the night when two A-listers host, Shaan and AFA honoree, Ali Zafar had, for lack of (wanting to use) a less sensational term, a ‘catfight’ on stage.

While the grapevine and gossip mongers were having a field day with who-said-what, there were many who were left shaking their heads in resignation, for they recognised the sentiments simmering beneath the surface for what they fundamentally were – an encapsulation of everything that caused cinema in Pakistan to stagger and stagnate over the last 15 years.

For those that weren’t in attendance at the ceremony, and were spared melting in the sweltering heat of the outdoor event, Shaan used his opening monologue to address patriotism, and the lack thereof, in the Pakistani industry. Specifically calling out artists who accept work from across the Indian border, he labeled all those who choose to work outside Pakistan as unpatriotic ‘sell-outs.’

Shaan’s comment was seen as a thinly veiled dig at Ali Zafar, who was set to receive the International Icon Award of Pakistan later that night. Undoubtedly, our biggest export, as far as the entertainment industry in concerned, Ali chose to address the statement in his acceptance speech.

Calling it a disrespectful comment to make, he pointed out that artists the likes of Ghulam Ali, Zeba Bakhtiar, Nusrat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam are a few of the illustrious names that have worked in the Indian industry. The exchange has divided public sentiment, but it doesn’t come down to simple matters of bitterness, diplomacy or self-promotion. Shaan was right about one thing – it is a question of patriotism. He’s just looking up the wrong definition of the word.

There is nothing patriotic about restricting the immense talent that Pakistan has to a geographical location. Denying the world the chance to utilise, shape and celebrate Pakistani talent under a misplaced notion of patriotism is extremely problematic.

No industry is an island, and cinema, is especially ill suited to subsist in a self-containing bubble. Our industry has repeatedly been victimised by those who have sought to further their interests under a guise of patriotism, whether it was seeking a ban on foreign content that was reportedly ‘destroying’ local cinema, or the present day variant of attempting to deter talent from working outside of the country.

It is easy to claim be patriotic within Pakistan. What is difficult, and therefore all the more important, is to show the rest of the world what Pakistanis are made of.

Patriotism is Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy on the Oscars red carpet, not in Dior or Chanel, but in a Bunto Kazmi suit with a golden statuette in her hand. Patriotism is committing to a performance so completely that an international jury has no choice but to give it the Best Actress Award at the New York City International Film Festival, like Aamina Sheikh did.

Patriotism is what one feels when a Pakistani film prompts Ram Gopal Verma to concede that Indian filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Bilal Lashari.

This is how to evoke Pakistani pride, not by calling for an imposition of geographical boundaries on creativity in a country where there are already too many restrictions on artists and art.

Patriotism is indeed encouraging an ‘emotional transaction’ between the Pakistani and Indian film industries, like Shaan did when he bought the rights from Mahesh Bhatt to remake Arth in Pakistan. What is not quite so becoming is belittling the contributions and accomplishments of one’s peers in the industry.

An A-lister should weigh the impact his words can have, for in today’s social media age, the fallout will not be limited to any geographical confines. What Shaan doesn’t seem to realise is that if the Indian industry ascribed to the same philosophy that he is advocating, then he would not have been able to make Arth 2 in the first place.

Indian content has been quite vilified in recent times, with many purists blaming its popularity for being responsible for the demise of Lollywood. What is also true, however, is that Indian imports have been indirectly responsible for Shaan’s major career comeback.

The popularity of Bollywood films is what brought about a resurgence of cinema culture in Pakistan, lead to the rise of the multiplex to cater to the increasing demand, which in turn allowed Waar to do the massive business that it did at the box office.

Also read: 'Waar' wins big at Pakistani film awards

Looking at things from this angle, is it really so bad that a few of those Indian films have Pakistani actors in them? An industry revival demands a rebooted mindset, and it is high time that we lay these archaic notions to rest.

It’s not about selling out; it’s about selling a more positive image of this country to the rest of the world. Let patriotism be the by-product, not the driving force behind art and cinema in Pakistan.