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(First published on November 17, 2018)

Remember those magical days when you had a kingdom of your own. When you placed your head in the lap of your grandmother and were immediately lost in the vivid imagery of the fairytales she told you? That sense of wonderment never abandons us. It only retreats to some ignored recess of our mind and bides its time in the hope of resurfacing whenever you have time and need a pick-me-up.

Everyone needs an occasional break from reality. And to cater to this need there exist what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer call the culture industry. Your television, movies, radio, magazine and pop fiction all are part of it. Of course, to these members of the Frankfurt School it was another name of ‘enlightenment as mass deception,’ but if truth be told it cannot be dismissed as yet another tool to manipulate people into passivity. Perhaps they have the cause and effect order wrong. Culture industry exists not because there is a need to manufacture consent, but because there is such a remarkable appetite for it. It doesn’t mean the powerful will not try to use the medium to get what they want. They would. But the thirst for stories is directly proportional to the hardships in life. Stories offer you an easy escape from the trials of time.

And there are many political uses of this industry as well. It is a critical part of what Joseph S Nye Jr calls a nation’s soft power. Among many advantages the United States has compared to other nations an important one is Hollywood. America’s storytelling skill bewitches the entire world and cultivates its influence. Even the citizens of countries most hostile to the United States cannot resist its cultural charms. And while its critics often complain about hidden agendas of Hollywood movies or American TV series they often prove to be remarkably and refreshingly honest and conscientious.

In our parts however this influence dims against the onslaught of the Indian software. At times I have wondered why a country that considers India its worst enemy would allow Indian movies to be openly sold by the video stores and DVD vendors. At others, when paranoia grips you, I have assumed that perhaps it is because the simplistic and often childish storylines of Indian cinema, where a man’s or a woman’s purpose of life is ostensibly to find a spouse and settle down, serves as the opiate in countries with incidence of extreme poverty. So, in other words, they let it play because it teaches people to live a life of mediocrity with what their hormones deceive them to believe their one true love and not to challenge the status quo. But that is the problem. The Indian state is rich while people are poor. It would want an exploding population to make peace with the mediocrities of life and stay that way. The Pakistani state is not. It needs people to dream big and all hands on the deck. Exposure to Indian content is like allowing mental malnutrition at best. We can do better.

Before we talk about the need and the ways to vitalise our culture industry let us look at what we already have. At the last count the country had 17 commercial FM radio stations. However, these stations mostly run Indian music. No talk radio, no radio dramas, nothing original, only endless stream of second-hand music and some random banter and small talk by the hosts to kill time. And this, by the way, is the most powerful medium you can have. You can’t read and drive at the same time. Nor can you watch movies while driving. But you can listen to radio and go about doing stuff. Pemra or whichever body succeeds it needs to explore ways to diversify the content.

Television’s condition is even more abysmal. Countless channels, dozens among them dedicated to news and current affairs. We probably have more talk shows than the total number of guests. So, most likely similar content is aired on these channels. No documentaries. Ask a producer to come up with some documentaries and what you get is slightly extended (three to five minutes long) version of a news package. No deeper questions asked, none answered. It is no secret that our television news industry is overstretched, uneven and unimaginative. From economy to technology, from foreign news to literature you can see how many sectors are ignored every day. Here water kit can find more airtime than a serious breakthrough. You will not find one decent show dedicated to deeper discussion on serious social issues. If some of these channels eventually decide to convert to hybrid content the national cause might be served better. And many of the anchors you see on your TV screens are better suited to act in drama serials than talk shows any way. For all you know they might make more money there too.

And see how these news channels have crippled the imagination of investors. Barely any content for children. No adventure channel, or on tourism. No documentary channels. Not one dedicated to comedy. And the quality of comedy has fallen so sharply that the weird content of Lahore small stage shows has found its way to the 11pm slot of many news channels. Most of this content is of disturbingly poor quality and in poor taste.

Our film industry seems to be in a revival mode. But the cinema houses that were once converted into marriage halls or malls have not reverted to their old business. So, there is a dearth of screens in the country. In such a situation the only business models that work are either low-cost productions or to find a big sponsor. Filmmakers with decent storytelling skills invest more time in scripts that belong to the genre of parallel cinema in the hope of winning foreign awards. Meanwhile, the investors ask light-men and cameramen to come up with the script for the commercial cinema. Result is bedlam. If Indians plagiarise from the American rom-com movies, our rocket scientists make carbon copies of their second-rate narrative. If all you have to do is to steal ideas at least look for a better source.

Kindly note that I don’t even want to discuss the magazines and novels that are being published these days. It is plain that we have given up on creativity. But if you want your culture industry to amount to something and add to your soft power you will have to look for good story writers. If you don’t find them, you will have to create them.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2018.

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