Pak artists get global recognition: Proud, yet prejudiced

In a country where art is still looked down upon and the artists are stereotyped as immoral beings, how does one expect the artists to stay motivated to work within their own country?

(L-R) Riz Ahmed, Arooj Aftab, Saim Sadiq
(L-R) Riz Ahmed, Arooj Aftab, Saim Sadiq

Saadia Ahmed

Being a Pakistani who has spent the major part of her life in Pakistan, I do not recall consuming Pakistani content much. When I was young, Bollywood and Hollywood influenced my media choices significantly. Whether those were wedding dances or love references, Bollywood formed the basis of every emotion.

For many girls of my generation who have grown up watching Karan Johar films, the real-life better not be much different from that of Poo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Hence, on one hand we all wanted a soft romantic lover like Shah Rukh Khan who would make us feel over the moon. And on the other hand, we dared not to look any less than a Manish Malhotra-clad bride in Yash Chopra’s cinema.

However, in many households singing and dancing all time was not considered socially acceptable, especially for girls. Little did it matter for them as every time their parents left the house this was the first thing any girl wanted to do. Pakistani weddings back then (and even now) were heavily influenced by Bollywood and looked no less than a Karan Johar’s film set if the finances permitted.

Being a post-colonial country taking immense pride in mastering the language and culture of the colonial masters, people took pride in having a knack for watching Hollywood films. It was considered a sign of refined taste and culture to have a sound knowledge of the latest films in English language.

Being a Bollywood buff through and through, I had little or no interest in English films. However, to fit in and give some authentic proof of my being cool enough, I sneakily learned the names of a few famous Hollywood films. Every time someone asked me my favourite film, I could always make some tweaks. Easy!

Contrarily, we did not have much idea about our Pakistani artists. Pop music inspired by western music was reaching unprecedented heights during the 90s. Pakistani drama was always popular among the masses and was considered one of the most easily accessible entertainment options for the Pakistanis.

While pop music and drama were somewhat acceptable, Pakistani film was always looked down upon. Despite a few good films by the directors Syed Noor, Javed Shaikh, and Shamim Ara that came as a breath of fresh air for a dying industry, there was not much to talk about. Pakistani actors rarely became a part of the international projects.

Not only this, films were also not considered an acceptable profession for regular people. It was assumed that only people coming from a certain background were meant to work in films.

Hence, growing up I do not remember anyone around me wanting to become an actor or singer when they grew up. The social structures played an important role in the further deterioration of Pakistani cinema.

The past few weeks have been a ray of hope and a breath of fresh air for the Pakistani actors and filmmakers. All of a sudden there is a new burst of energy that has filled the Pakistani creatives with zeal and enthusiasm to produce better work.

This is attributed to the Pakistani-British actor Riz Ahmed winning an Oscar, Pakistani- American singer Arooj Aftab winning a Grammy, and Pakistani-British filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s film showing at Cannes. Everyone in Pakistan is immensely proud of these artists for adding glory to the country’s name on an international platform.

Although I am trying hard not to be a grinch, let me beg your pardon here. Being a Pakistani journalist with a keen interest in the entertainment industry, I couldn’t be prouder. But I cannot help expressing the questions that are hovering above my head as those concern me deeply.

Riz Ahmed and Saim Sadiq spent all their lives in Britain. Arooj Aftab was raised in the Middle East and stayed in Pakistan for a few years until she moved to the United States for her higher education. While these artists have a strong influence and reflection of their Pakistani heritage in their work, do they really represent the artists living in Pakistan who are producing their art against all odds?

Showbiz is not even recognised as an industry in Pakistan. Not only does this deprive the artists of the work benefits, it also leaves them financially insecure with no sense of tomorrow. Even opening a bank account is not easy in Pakistan if you are an artist. The forms require filling in the profession and their craft is not recognised as an industry.

In a country where art is still looked down upon and the artists are stereotyped as immoral beings, how does one expect the artists to stay motivated to work within their own country?

While Pakistan is being recognised on the international platforms, it is pertinent for the government and the platforms to acknowledge that they played no role in the Oscar, Grammy, and Cannes accolades won by these artists. It is about time we set our priorities right and empower the Pakistani artist enough to reach the global stage. The journey has started but there is a long way to reach the destination.

I will be the happiest when one day a Pakistani film made in Pakistan by the Pakistani resident artists reaches the Oscars, Grammy, and Cannes. And it will only be possible if we take pride in our art and artist. Till then, let us all Pakistanis bask in the glory of Riz Ahmed, Arooj Aftab, and Saim Sadiq who flaunt their Pakistani roots while conquering the global art horizons.

(The author is a Pakistani journalist. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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