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Mock revolutions

Published Jun 28, 2012 08:56am

It is a common human trait when some people get exhausted by disgust, they respond to the dilemma and refresh themselves up by satirising or parodying not only the stuff that is disgusting them but at times their own state of mind as well.

This notion of protest usually gets the most effective results when witty and satirical commentary is set to a bouncy tune and then put on video with the help of imagery heavy on parody.

In the western music scene such ventures have sometimes been called, ‘parody pop.’

Parody pop, or at least the modern political version of it, has its roots in Bob Dylan’s famous 1965 video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ - a song that poked fun at the political and economic establishments of the United States and actually foresaw the emergence of a powerful counter-cultural movement in that country.

Though so-called parody pop never went on to become a huge commercial venture, it did remain to be a favourite tool of the people behind some of the liveliest TV shows of which political and social humour were important ingredients.

BBC’s anarchic ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ series (1969-74), and especially the films that the Python team went on to make, punctuated the action with irreverent songs that encapsulated the show’s biting takes on politics, the bureaucracy, organised religion and the British middle-classes.

The song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ from Monty Python’s 1979 film ‘Life of Brian’ satirised organised religion.

The long-running American skit show, ‘Saturday Night Live’ has often made good use of short, sharp political parody songs and so did the in-your-face British political comedy series of the 1980s, ‘Spitting Image,’ which week after week tore into idiosyncrasies of political leaders.

One of its most famous moments arrived when Spitting Image writers and puppeteers directed a video for the famous British band Genesis’ 1986 song ‘Land of Confusion.’

Genesis & Spitting Image’s ‘Land of Confusion’ that parodied conservative US president Ronald Regan along with authoritarian leaders of the time, including Khomeini and Qadhafi.

Then, of course, there was the outrageous 1977 song and video released by British Punk Rock band the Sex Pistols that angrily ridiculed and satirised the jubilee of the British Queen. The song shot to No. 1 in the British charts in spite of the fact that it was banned on radio and TV.

Sex Pistols’ 1977 song, ‘God Save The Queen.’

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Till the late 1970s, songs parodying or satirising political personalities or social issues were not all that common in Pakistan.

But a song from film actor and director Rangeela’s 1973 satire of the human condition, ‘Insaan aur Ghada’ (Man & Donkey), encapsulated the said plot in a ditty (from the film) called ‘Aye Khuda Mujhey Insaan Banadey’ (God, please turn me into a human).

The video grab (see bellow) sees a donkey being chased away by a man and then by all sorts of people until he breaks down and ends up outside a mosque asking God to turn him into a human so he too could understand what makes man so cruel and selfish.

Song from 1973’s Pakistani film ‘Insaan aur Ghada’ satirising the foolishness of man as seen through the eyes of a distraught donkey.

However, it wasn’t until the arrival of the long-running comedy skit show ‘Fifty-Fifty’ (in 1978) on Pakistan Television (PTV) that songs parodying social idiosyncrasies and issues mushroomed in Pakistan.

Taking inspiration from the minimalistic social satire shows like ‘Such Gup’ (1973-75), ‘Fifty-Fifty’ was launched during the first year of the stern and reactionary military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq.

Barred by the censors from critiquing the regime’s politics, ‘Fifty-Fifty’ instead took to task issues like the collapse of the local film industry, violent Punjabi films, lazy bureaucrats, corruption among civil servants, cricket and TV commercials.

The practice of punctuating its skits with satirical songs truly began during one of the show’s most famous skits: ‘Bashira in Trouble.’

Telecasted in late 1979, ‘Bashira in Trouble’ was a parody of violent Punjabi films of the era and the equally violent ‘spaghetti westerns.’ The skit parody’s a typical violent Punjabi film by making it in English!

‘Bashira in Trouble’, Fifty-Fifty (1979).

Another favourite subject of the ‘Fifty-Fifty’ folks was the trend of Pakistanis going to Dubai for work. It was the Bhutto regime in the 1970s that opened the floodgates for Pakistanis to go to Arab countries, and by the early 1980s, the trend had hit a peak.

With the peak also came the proliferation of fake travel agents who had a field day duping simple working-class people by giving them fake visas for Dubai for a hefty price.

‘Fifty-Fifty’ parodied the issue in a famous song called ‘Dubai Janey Walley’ (1982).

‘Dubai Janey Walley’, Fifty-Fifty (1982).

Though even the top satirists struggled to comment on politics and the regime during the Zia dictatorship (without either being ‘blacklisted’ from state media or jailed), writer Anwar Maqsood found unique ways to satirise and criticise the Zia government.

One way he used was to comment on the materialism and with it fake displays of piety that had begun to infiltrate deep inside the Pakistani society during the Zia regime.

It was a dictatorship propped up by millions of US dollars and Saudi dirhams dished out to conduct the ‘anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad’.

Some of this money began to trickle down, and along with the rise of a ‘black economy’ (due to the ascend of drug mafias), saw a number of Pakistanis suddenly become very rich, very fast (the nouveau-riche).

The tendency also graced the cricket scene, especially in Sharjah where rich Arab sheikhs began pouring in huge amounts of money into India-Pakistan games.

In 1986 during an India-Pakistan final in Sharjah when Pakistani batsman, Javed Miandad, hit a last-ball six to win the game, he was showered by millions of rupees and gifts by the sheikhs and the Pakistani government.

Anwar Maqsood penned a song satirising the event in which he said that though Miandad got millions of dirham, his partner, Tauseef Ahmed, standing on the other end of the pitch, just got 8 dirhams!

This was Maqsood’s tongue-in-cheek take of the lopsided economic prosperity witnessed during the Zia regime.

‘Javed Koh Soh Lakh’ (1986).

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The more immediate ancestor of the Pakistani parody-protest pop song and video is 1996’s ‘Mr. Fraudiye,’ by the seminal Pakistani boy-band Awaz.

The 1990s were a time when democratic governments replaced the Zia dictatorship.

But as governments rotated between Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s IJI/PML-N, remnants of the Zia regime still exercised great influence and power within the country’s military, security agencies and the bureaucracy.

The culture of patronage and corruption and that of violence that had begun to develop during the Zia dictatorship mushroomed across the society and within Pakistan’s political scene in the 1990s.

It reached a peak on the eve of the dismissal of the second Benazir regime in 1996 (on corruption charges by her own President), and the controversial, ‘establishment-backed’ election of the second Nawaz government.

The nouveau-riche phenomenon was often populated by shady seths, politicians and businessmen, who had made quick money through drug and banking scams, fraudulent business deals and through their connections in political parties and military ventures.

Awaz successfully parodied all this with a jazzy song and video.

‘Mr. Fraudiye’ – Awaz (1996).

In content, parody pop in the West had mostly been left/liberal in leaning and this was also the case in Pakistan.

But when the children who had belonged to educated urban middle-classes under the reactionary Zia regime reached their teens in the mid-1990s, their ideological orientation began to naturally tilt towards the rightist sides of the conventional ideological divide.

This generation became a magnet for a number of modern Islamic evangelical groups and organisations. This orientation also began informing the generation’s politics and perception of what Pakistan was going through.

An existentialist tussle took shape within this generation when it tried to intermingle religious rituals/beliefs, modern materialism and a rather chauvinistic concept of patriotism into a condensed (if not entirely convoluted) bourgeois ideology.

The immediate results were: • an anti-theistic rejection of the left-liberalism of previous generations; • the embracement of materialism and careerism but expressed with vague theoretical convolutions like ‘Islamic banking’, and ‘halal practices’; • a repulsion against ‘corrupt’ civilian politicians elected by ‘illiterate people’; • the imagining of a hackneyed concept of poverty derived from old revolutionary imagery of the left; • and a romantic portrayal of the armed forces.

One of the first songs and videos that encapsulated (and celeberated) such thinking came from famous rock band Junoon. The song was ‘Ehtesaab’ (Accountability).

A punchy satire on the corruption of civilian politicians, this 1996 rocker affectively ridicules politicians and the ‘illiterate masses’ (who let themselves be duped).

There is, of course, not a word or image questioning what was (and still is) one of the most powerful, controversial and richest institutions in the country: the armed forces.

The lack of recognising irony too was/is a peculiarity of the above-mentioned ideology.

That’s why even though this video had images of rich, fat politicians (and their horses) enjoying expensive food at a lavish, expensive restaurant, the song was actually launched by the band at a ceremony held at an equally lush and expensive 5-star hotel!

‘Eehtesaab’ – Junoon (1996). Politicians bad, people stupid, military good?

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When General Pervaz Musharraf toppled the Nawaz regime and imposed Pakistan’s fourth Martial Law, his ideological antics actually fitted well with the convolutions of the post-‘96 generation of middle-class Pakistanis.

Musharraf was modern, authoritative, hated the politicians, harboured a contempt for the ‘illiterate masses,’ talked about ‘enlightened moderation’ – and yet insisted on nurturing sectarian and Islamist militant organisations whom his military believed would be ‘strategic assets’ against India (in Kashmir), and against an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan.

He also suspected that most rape victims were lying about their ordeals so they could get western nationalities! And he got a rally of defiant women marathon runners baton-charged and tear-gassed in Lahore.

During the early years of his rule many pop musicians happily dished out saccharine-laced and overtly romanticised odes to the armed forces – until Musharraf fired the Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2006 on corruption charges.

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The uprising (‘Lawyers Movement’) against the firing of a supposedly ‘clean’ Chief Justice by Musrarraf was like an exemplary chapter from the neo-Marxian ‘Critical Theory’.

One aspect of this theory suggests that the urban middle-classes usually ally themselves with authoritarian regimes.

But after such an alliance brings relative economic benefits to these classes, they then experience a political awakening of sorts in which they want to prosper politically as well.

Usually a demand for democracy becomes their cry.

If one is to understand the ‘Lawyers Movement’ in Pakistan through this theory, then one can suggest that the economic growth experienced by Pakistan’s urban middle-classes under the Musharraf dictatorship, eventually turned against the authoritarian regime that had triggered it.

But democracy was not quite so cohesive a call by those who now wanted more political participation in the running of the country.

The Lawyers Movement in fact brought to surface the long-winded post-‘96 bourgeois ideology that had continued to thrive within the middle-classes in Pakistan.

The movement was a hotchpotch of democrats, lawyers, non-militant Islamists, leftist fringe groups and emerging non-combatant right-wing outfits.

One can say that the overall make-up of the movement was rightist in orientation and not exactly democratic, as such.

Amidst all the turmoil and confusion, emerged a fantastic song and video.

Written and performed by famous pop singer Shahzad Roy, it was called ‘Laga Rey’ (Keep at it).

In an era of widespread electronic media and YouTube, it became an instant hit.

The sharp satirical ditty takes to task the agitating lawyers who are shown involved more in protests and politics than in what they are actually paid to do.

However, taking in its stride the contradictory nature of the movement, the song then goes on to mock the lazy fatalistic nature of the Pakistani masses as well.

Maybe Roy was satirising the extremes that the Pakistani society and polity were displaying: of overt political agitation counterbalanced by numb political inactivity?

Social disgust and political cynicism expressed through wit and satirical imagery remained to be at the centre of the song and the video. Not bemoaned by Roy, but rather used as a weapon to mock the two above-mentioned extremes.

However, though the agitating lawyers, politicians, their supporters and the numb, fatalistic sections of the masses were all taken to the cleaners, nowhere to be found in the song and the video was that fat institution: the military.

Yet again it was conveniently left out by a rolling urban middle-class pop protester, given a benevolent benefit of the doubt whereas civilians and their representatives were cynically ridiculed.

Whatever the case, the song turned Roy from being a popular pop tart into becoming a sardonic protest pop icon.

‘Laga Rey’ – Shahzad Roy (2007).

Though Roy had added a much-needed dose of satirical cynicism to what was being transformed into some kind of a Utopian uprising by the belligerent private electronic media, he was, however, making observations using Pakistani bourgeois perceptions about politics and society.

That’s why his next satirical shot eventually moved towards the right from the cynical centre from where he had delivered ‘Laga rey.’

2009’s ‘Kismat Apney Haat Mein’ (Destiny in your own hands) was a sequel of sorts of ‘Laga Rey’ in which his cynical character arrested by foreign agents becomes a believer but is eliminated by a US drone missile!

It was Pakistan’s foreign enemies that were behind all the turmoil in the country, you fools. Anybody trying to rectify the situation through patriotic action was eliminated.

Again, young middle-class political and ideological naivety and Utopian expectations from media-moulded messianic figures coupled with populist hysterics had shone through.

Thus, the ‘Kismat’ song and video actually became more of an unintentional self-parody!

‘Kismat Apney Haath Mein’ – Shahzad Roy (2009)

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Talking about unintentional self-parodies in this context, nothing comes close to the funky ‘Tanha Hai Kyun’ (Why are you alone?) by former Junoon vocalist, Ali Azmat.

Azmat is a good example of a talented lad coming from a petty-bourgeois background who eventually made it upwards to the trendier spheres of the urban bourgeois realms of Pakistan.

Always more talented as a vocalist and songwriter than a thinker, Azmat, after quitting Junoon in 2005, decided to … think.

Bad move. It was like Axl Rose, after watching a dozen straight-to-YouTube ‘documentaries’ based on the most hackneyed conspiracy theories, becoming an overnight political commentator and then a disciple of Deepak Chopra!

In Azmat’s case, Chopra was the verbose and bombastic conspiracy theorist and hate-monger, Zaid Hamid.

Azmat found Hamid’s tales of imaginary victories of the Pakistan military (or prophetic visions of conquests), and his anti-West/anti-Semite and anti-India tirades quite in tune with his (Azmat’s) anxious concerns about multinational corporations and the CIA conspiring with powerful Zionist bankers (Elders of the Zion?) to destroy Islam and Pakistan.

Such grave concerns were enthusiastically revealed in Azmat’s video for ‘Tanha Hey Kyun.’ The video is not really parody pop, but rather, self-parody pop! Entirely unintentional, of course.

‘Tanha hai kyoon’ – Ali Azmat (2009).

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Along with the urban middle-classes that they came from, a majority of pop musicians too had been moving way towards the rightist sides of the divide.

This was again proved by the trite and now clichéd condemnation of ‘corrupt’ civilian regimes by famous pop band ‘The Strings’ anti-politician song, ‘Mei Toh Daikhoon Gay’ (I shall see).

Amazing how none of these guys ever remember the corruption during the 30-plus years of military rule. And how it’s so easy to bite politicians but stay clear of those who bite back (such as extremists). Traits also blatantly present in the parody songs featuring on the now worn-out political skit show, ‘Hum Sab Umeed Sey Hein.’

‘Mein Toh Deikoon Ga’ – Strings (2012).

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But two songs/videos suddenly appeared on YouTube laying down the gauntlet to directly challenge the right-wing swing of the urban middle-classes and the media.

Both became massive hits, suggesting that within the said class there were still large sections of young Pakistanis who were exhausted by the intransigent narratives being fed to them.

First song was by the band Bayghairat Brigade (Dishonourable Brigade).

The song and video came down hard on the sacred cows fattened by the self-claimed Ghairatmands (the honourable patriots). The satirised cows included military dictators, the ISI and jihadists; as well as middle-class hypocrisies and right-wing parties like Imran Khan’s PTI, PML-N and Jamat-i-Islami.

With biting satirical irreverence and joyous cynicism, the song, ‘Aloo Anday’ (Potatoes and Eggs), sang the unspoken.

But whereas the band experienced overnight success, it also faced the expected criticism: That they were from the heretical Ahmadi sect; that they were on the payroll of foreign agencies; that they were anti-Islam, et al.

‘Aalu Anday’ – Bayghairat Brigade (2011).

The other song/video ready to challenge the ‘ghairat’ narrative appeared only recently.

Though, equally effective in its satirical content as ‘Aloo Anday’ was, Ali Gul Pir’s ‘Waderey Ka Beta’ (Son of a feudal lord), is simpler in essence but still manages to work on multiple levels.

On the obvious level it pokes fun at the slacker antics of a spoiled brat of a rich Sindhi feudal lord.

But it did two other things as well: First, Pir’s mocking of feudalism is done in a way that it also satirises a kind of paranoid repulsion that the urban middle-classes feel towards those from semi-rural or rural backgrounds and cultures.

In the scene where he is bouncing on a sofa between two young ‘Burger’ girls is like him actually celebrating the outlandish behaviour of the feudal’s son at the expense of the city girls’ xenophobic horror.

Secondly, by coming up with a song satirising the social aspects of feudalism and bourgeois urbanites, Pir consciously turns his back to the burning/breaking news ‘issues’ with which the media is obsessed.

Pir seems to be more interested on commenting on everyday people than in sensational political abstractions and imaginary demons.

‘Waderey ka Beta’ – Ali Gul Pir (2012).


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.