Farrukh writes

Celebrities, politics and outrage

The quarter of a century spent writing opinion pieces has taught me a few things in life. The first one is frustrating. The herd instinct. As opinion writers most of us obsess about more or less the same things. As we do so, many important stories get crowded out. The growing flatness of South Asia’s intellectual tradition can largely be ascribed to this.

The second thing that stands out is the politicisation of everything. Economics, religion, family, entertainment, even sports (especially cricket), all politics in South Asian mills.

The third is about the danger posed by political tribalism. Tribalism might be doing a number on the west just now, but it tore up every South Asian country into a post-truth society ages ago. In Pakistan, the differences grew to such an extent that a section of the society thought that killing itself to kill others was a good idea. Shouldn’t a country that has suffered so much in such a short period at the hands of tribalism be more circumspect in dealing with and resolving differences?

The fourth and the last one: we seldom learn from mistakes and that’s why this piece and the ones like that I wrote on April 19, 2018 titled ‘A dissenting note’ will always be unpopular because they do not conform to the black and white interpretation of reality. The reality, to this scribe, is always messy. Grey, brown, yellow, and often uncomely.

In our long excruciating history of tribal wars, the nicest things always become the collateral damage. Creativity and culture are its two biggest victims. The third is the idea of a true celebrity. And just look at how they all are punished. Let’s start with the most provocative examples first. Especially because you, most likely, will not like that which is to be said. And yet somebody has to say it because you know it needs to be said.

In recent political scuffles, one thing became surprisingly clear. An overwhelming majority of Pakistani celebrities still side with Imran Khan. In a country where multiple narrative arcs feed on your imagination and collide, it is difficult to digest. Artists, entertainers, and in short celebrities of all sorts occupy a cultural space where they benefit and reinforce pluralism which the religious zealotry seeks to erode. Time and again Mr Khan has chosen to ally with groups whose outlook is clouded by religious intolerance. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Jamaat-e-Islami was his ally of choice. In the war on terror, his advocacy against the crackdown on fanatics grew to such an extent that the TTP nominated him to be a part of the Pakistani state’s negotiations with them. Much before that, he had found a way to be dubbed Taliban Khan. And yet so many celebrities still like him.

I don’t think anyone has caused such an uproar online as Mahira Khan when she tweeted a message with the name of Imran Khan followed by the emojis of Pakistan’s flag and hands raised in prayer. For a long time, she has endured repulsive attacks by troll armies online. In Pakistan’s political space anti-liberal trolls are usually associated with the PTI and Mahira Khan, like most celebrities, is considered a liberal. So is it a textbook case of cognitive dissonance? Social media was too quick to judge.

Similarly, Samina Peerzada and Shan Shahid are very vocal too. Seems only yesterday that the former had faced controversy at the hands of the clergy when she and her husband in real life in a TV series had to act in a divorce scene. Clergymen shouted that since it was a televised scene viewed by countless witnesses it amounted to real divorce. Those persecuted by religious bigotry should not stand with its known appeasers, the critics say. And that’s why their fondness for Imran Khan, the PTI, or their government made little sense and they must either be bought or brainwashed.

This last hideous take is nothing short of tragic because it robs thinking human beings of their agency. The thinking human beings who have already given us a lot to be grateful for and proud of. Is it possible to simultaneously disagree with them politically, while respecting them personally? Absolutely.

I can give you a hundred heartbreaking explanations as to why a celebrity who had to face misogynistic attacks throughout her career would empathise with a politician who has ostensibly blamed the attire of rape victims for their ordeals. Like they love their state and their state loves this so naturally, they end up having sympathies for this as well, albeit at a personal cost. That religious indoctrination for decades makes them believe that their career choices are actually wrong and that is why they atone for this as soon as they can. Remember I once shared with you one episode where one famous singer told me that singing was sinful? And finally, as one Twitter critic put it, it all has something to do with the PBCDs (Pakistan born confused desis), the cultural contradictions of Pakistan’s upper-middle class. But none of these explanations mean anything. Why? Because you are going to such lengths just not to respect their individual choices. Are you then any better than all those fanatics who have little regard for their career choices?

Politics be damned. For a healthy society to grow you need far more cultural products than the dynamics of power. Have you wondered why a nation of storytellers has stopped telling good stories? Why do even some of our best platforms like Coke Studio spend more time recycling old content? Why is it that when we talk of our entertainment industry most of the time it is in the past tense? Because we have abandoned them all to their fate. Because there is no support system nor an efficient market for their talent. You will be surprised how little or less often they are paid for their hard work.

Back in the 1990s when PTV was the only major network I remember how many well-known drama actors would emerge from the one number wagon in an exceptionally shabby state. Ask yourself why do many comedians choose to be a prop on late-night variety shows on news channels rather than perform in their own space? Because there is job security and assurance of being compensated on time.

I can’t believe that a nation of opinionated and politics-obsessed viewers is criticising its celebrities for having a political opinion. The fact that our celebrities, artists and performers have survived despite these shoddy conditions should be enough to offer them unconditional respect. Politics may have a short fuse but it also has a shorter shelf life. Culture and entertainment have a far more lasting effect.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2022.

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