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Smokers’ Corner: Projecting the bizarre

June 09, 2012

One of the most ubiquitous scenes in Pakistani films of the 1970s was that of a nightclub where more often than not the villain used to get girls drunk just so he could rape them.

And it usually took just a sip or two of imported whisky for the girls to not only get drunk enough to perform a voluptuous item number, but to also end up on the sleazy villain’s bed.

Apart from this, nightclub scenes were also used to show the behavioural contrasts between the rich, immoral brats and the not-so-rich, very moral heroes.

The 1970s were a time when alcohol and nightclubs were a norm in Pakistan. But, no, they weren’t quite the dens of immorality and raping sprees as depicted in most Urdu films of the era.

During an extensive interview I conducted (for a weekly) with one of Pakistan’s leading film theoreticians, authors and archivists, late Mushtaq Gazdar (in 1992), I asked him why, in the 1970s, Urdu films were putting nightclubs at the centre of immorality when in reality these clubs were also being frequented by pretty normal middle-class folks?

Having a Marxist background, Gazdar offered a very interesting class-based observation. According to him a majority of Pakistani filmmakers used to come from petty-bourgeoisie/lower middle-class backgrounds to whom class conflict between the haves and have-nots was first and foremost a battle of morals.

“These filmmakers (who were operating when the local film industry was at its peak and Pakistan was being ruled by a ‘socialist’ regime [Z A. Bhutto]), were not religious fanatics,” Gazdar had said. “But even though most of the filmmakers were Bhutto supporters, in an era where the regime was propagating class warfare against the urban business elites, these men and women, due to their petty-bourgeoisie backgrounds, had imagined class-conflict as a tussle between social decency and deviancy.”

In other words, what Gazdar was suggesting was that most of these filmmakers were busy imagining a reality which they were not necessarily accustomed to.

To the class that they belonged the reality of nightclubs and bars — if not alcohol, because most film personalities loved their whiskey and vodka — were seen and then represented as decadent symbols of the rich man’s oppression of the poor.

Till they were closed down in April 1977, nightclubs were places where men and women went to have dinner, a drink and watch a house band play the latest pop covers, or watch a Lebanese or Turkish belly dancer do her thing.

But on film the clubs became figments of a myopic petty-bourgeoisie imagination or glimmering, gaudy dens of zombie alcoholics who spent all their time getting drunk, poking fun at the poor, dancing in the most archaic manner and, of course, indulging in obsessive raping sprees!

I had asked Gazdar about the impact such imagined scenarios had on the large film audiences of the era, most of whom, too, belonged to the same petty-bourgeoisie class as the filmmakers.

Answering this, Gazdar had pointed at the dynamics of the right-wing protest movement that took place against the Bhutto regime in 1977: “When the mullah parties united against Bhutto in 1977, they accused him of being a drunk and his regime un-Islamic,” Gazdar explained.

“During the riots, what did the people attack?” he asked. “Liquor shops, bars and nightclubs. In their minds it wasn’t the feudals, the monopolist capitalists, the bureaucracy, the military or Bhutto’s own hypocrisy of being secular and yet throwing the Ahmadis out of Islam’s orbit that were the sources of the people’s economic and political exploitation. It was the bars and the nightclubs!”

The reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship that toppled Bhutto was quick to pick this up. With the collapse of the local film industry under Zia's strict ‘Islamisation’ project, state-owned media (especially PTV) became tools of the imaginary petty- bourgeoisie outlooks and projections of ‘obscenity’ and ‘un-Islamic behaviour’ that were explained as fruits of secularism and democracy and the reason why Allah was angry with Pakistan.

Of course, once again, things like economic gaps, governmental corruption, military adventurism and the stark exploitation of faith to meet some rather discriminatory ends were never talked about.

Today, constructing and using moral panics to shade the truth about economic and political failures and associate divine reasons for our social failings are not the prerogatives of the state or governments anymore. And the Pakistani film industry is simply too minuscule in size now as an influencer.

All this has today become part of the explosive private electronic media whose operative stuff too, largely belongs to the urban petty-bourgeoisie classes. But projected moral panics now have little to do with nightclubs, bars or belly dancers.

The paranoid prospect of a ‘Khooni inquilab’ (bloody revolution) due to corruption and energy crises, and a clash between religious extremists and ‘liberal fascists’, has become the new moral ground which a more assertive middle-class and petty- bourgeoisie are grounding their new moral flags on.

Though the projected ‘fahashi’ of nightclubs and alcohol of 1970s films and moralistic convolutions of the state under Zia were almost entirely based on exaggerations, concerns like corruption, extremism and energy crises are not.

However, they are again largely being seen through conservative petty-bourgeoisie lenses.

For example, corruption among politicians is angrily denounced, but not among state institutions like the military that (at least to the said class), still symbolises a Nietzschean kind of super manhood.

Religious extremism is bizarrely being explained away as a reaction to ‘liberal extremism’. Of course, the latter is nothing more than the convoluted and equally bizarre concept of nightclubs in the films of the 1970s, but even if it’s there, it has absolutely no influence in the media or the state. It’s a bogey.

Just like the projected moral panics created by cinema in the 1970s became ammunition for a reactionary dictatorship in the 1980s, I wonder what the moral panic being created against so-called ‘liberal extremists’ is going to produce.

One thing’s for sure though, it will have absolutely nothing to do with tolerance, peace or equitable distribution of wealth.