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SMOKERS’ CORNER: DISCO AND THE DICTATOR

Updated July 02, 2017

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Much has been written about the devastating impact that the intransigent Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88) had on the social, cultural and political make-up of Pakistan. Indeed, much of what you have heard and read is true. However, when it came to the arts, especially music, his dictatorship was riddled with some fascinating ironies.

For example, though creating and playing pop music was discouraged during the dictatorship, the truth is (contrary to popular belief) there never was a blanket ban imposed on this kind of music on TV and radio.

In the 1980s, unlike in some other Muslim countries headed by conservative regimes, the people’s attachment to music in Pakistan not only remained high, but many music forms (including pop) managed to continue operating, despite the complaints of even its most myopic decriers in the government.

How mainstream pop culture changed during Zia’s regime

What’s more, even though Zia was a hard-sell peddler of certain inflexible strands of the faith, he actually used music to bring his ideas into people’s drawing rooms.

Aware of the initial success that the populist image of the Z.A. Bhutto regime had experienced in the 1970s — when state-owned TV and radio regularly aired melodic odes to the working classes, folk music, and flamboyant urban popular music — the Zia regime took this idea and moulded it to fit his own image of piety and patriotism.

During the dictatorship folk and national songs crafted through a mixture of regional and western instruments were frequently played on TV and radio. But instead of carrying populist themes or Sufi-folk imagery, they were loud demonstrations of faith, family values, and the glory of state institutions (police, military, navy and so on).

Also, despite the regime’s overtly conservative make-up, pop music on TV and radio was never entirely rejected — even though the regime did place a ban on airing some songs that had been a regular feature on the state-owned electronic media during the Bhutto regime.

Pop singers such as Alamgir and Mohammed Ali Shyhaki were given ample space on TV (albeit only if they were ‘properly dressed’). But the regime (in 1981) ‘advised’ the state-owned PTV and Radio Pakistan to stop playing songs by the country’s newest pop sensations, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan.

Nazia and Zoheb had exploded on to the scene with the country’s first-ever Urdu disco album, Disco Dewaane (1980). Recorded in London, the album was studded with classic disco beats fused with Pakistani/Indian ‘filmi’ sensibilities and lyricism.

The album became a huge hit in Pakistan. Young Pakistanis constantly called Radio Pakistan to play songs from the album and PTV ran a video or two. But when a member of Zia’s so-called Majlis-i-Shoora saw the video of the album’s title song on PTV, he complained to Zia that PTV was undermining and mocking the regime’s “Islamic credentials” and “corrupting the youth.” Zia at once ordered a ban on the disco duo.

Since in those days local musicians had to bank on the coverage they got from state-owned media (to generate album sales, and, more so, to tap into the large ‘private functions’ market), the duo’s parents went into overdrive in trying to set up a meeting with the then Information Minister, Raja Zafarul Haq. After many tries, Nazia and Zoheb finally managed to bag a meeting with the dictator himself.

The teens were summoned to the palatial President House in Islamabad and were sat in front of the grinning general in full view of PTV’s news team and cameras, and given a long lecture on what it means to be Muslim and Pakistani. Soon after, the ban was lifted.

Pop music, as long as it was presented within the parameters allowed by the censors, continued to be played alongside the increasing number of religious programmes on PTV. These parameters included: little or no dancing while singing; no physical contact between male and female singers; and it was preferable if the singers avoided wearing western clothes, especially jeans.

Ironies in this context kept cropping up across the Zia regime. Even during perhaps its most reactionary period (1986-87), viewers were suddenly treated to a song and video that would trigger the first big wave of urban pop music in the country. The song was the otherwise harmless Dil, Dil Pakistan (1987), but played and sung by a very modernly-attired group of middle-class youngsters calling themselves the Vital Signs.

Zia was a curious character. Though a master of the art and politics of exploiting faith to remain in power, and pulling into the mainstream extremist figures and clerics who till his arrival had only existed on the fringes of society, Zia was very conscious of not being seen as a ‘conventional mullah.’

In his 2003 book, Uncensored, the former General Manager of PTV, the late Burhanuddin Hasan wrote that on various occasions Zia was advised by some of his religious allies to sport a beard, but he always declined to keep one. Burhanuddin also wrote that Zia was a keen TV watcher.

Maverick film and TV director, Shoaib Mansoor, who produced the popular PTV satire show Fifty Fifty (1978-84) told an interviewer in the 1990s that Zia would often call him after watching the show and share his observations. Mansoor said that at one point the phone calls became so frequent that the Fifty Fifty team wondered whether the ‘President’ spent all his evenings sitting in front of a TV.

Zia was also a big fan of Haseena Moin’s light-hearted TV rom-com Ankahi (1982). However, once he called the serial’s producer, Mohsin Ali, and ‘advised’ him that all male and female characters in the play should appear in kameez-shalwar and only the bad guys should be shown in western attire.

If you watch the serial today on YouTube or a DVD, you will notice that male characters who were appearing in western attire in the first few episodes suddenly begin to appear in kameez-shalwar!

After the producers and actors of the serial complained about the move, Zia reversed the decision and allowed the ‘good guys’ to also adorn western clothing. However, he did ask PTV to stop women from appearing in saris.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 2nd, 2017