May 5, 2022
By Xari Jalil
Sajjad Ali’s 1995 hit ‘Chief Saab‘ was a lot more than just a catchy tune. The lyrical subtext, and the song video, both depicted the infamous thug-like attitude that young men were wearing on their sleeves on the streets of Karachi in those days. These gangsters were also accused of being patronized by the locally powerful MQM. The song lyrics are satirical and the video is amusing, but the reality was far grimmer with people being mugged by such elements and killed over trivial issues. The city’s youth had become weaponized and violent and street fighting was common.
In 1993, the rock band Junoon came up with ‘Talaash‘, portraying the alienation that young people felt because of the violent and pessimistic political history of the country. It had a raw and gritty vibe, as audio clips of actual news broadcasts overlapped each other – from campus life being suspended because of student clashes, to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s judicial hanging, to the breaking news of General Zia-ul-Haq’s plane crash being announced. The harsh reality given in the song of an unstable Pakistan and an alienated younger generation hit hard. A few years later, Ehtesaab was another of their political hits.
Artists through their respective art forms – from music to drama serials – have depicted social and political reality from time to time. Yet few have been giving their opinions so openly as today. Art was cracked down upon by various military dictators – in particular General Zia – and so expressions were affected by that. In general, the artist community has always been on one side.
But the days leading up to the no-confidence motion, and afterwards, have exposed the deep fissures that run throughout the artist community.
A CONVENIENT PLATFORM
In the first place, if the situation is compared to the 1980s and 1990s, artists did not, and could not always speak out. There were subtle ways adopted such as through their art or writings or the plays they chose to act in. But where personal political leanings were concerned, there was rarely any platform, where an artist could stand up in front of a crowd and declare their ideologies.
During those times, an artist’s mystique was considered important: the less the celebrity was exposed to their audience or fans, the more ‘star-power’ they exerted.
In fact, it is very different today. Almost since they have begun jumping on the social media bandwagon, almost everyone in show business knows the importance of having a social media account and how to use one – from those who are educated to those who are barely computer literate. The entertainment media is always abuzz with frivolous interviews of models, actors, singers and musicians, and newspapers give regular updates of what is going on with their lives. If they are lucky to garner enough attention, they can make it to an important news bulletin.
But on social media, ‘celebrities’ are in charge of their own public relations, with direct access to their fans and critics both. They are in control of what goes out, at least from their official social media account, and usually, it revolves around their personal and professional lives. However more and more often we are seeing celebrities come out with social or political or even religious statements especially of late.
It could be a turn of faith that some celebrity has realized. For example actress, Noor Bukhari suddenly switched to wearing an abaya, and talking about religion after she went through multiple divorces, and personal crises and faced backlash online.
Like Noor, TV actor Feroze Khan also surprised many of his fans when he said he would “leave showbiz” to follow a more “spiritual path”. It was another story though when he rejoined showbiz a few months later and said his Alim or “spiritual guru” had said there was nothing wrong it that.
POLITICS AT PLAY
It doesn’t stop at religion though. In recent times, celebrities have begun spouting politics too – and not just discussing issues, but actually imposing their own political views on others, outright insulting and condemning detractors even questioning their loyalty to the country.
Take Shehroz Sabzwari for example, the son of an established television actor, and now one himself. Sabzwari made an appearance on a private TV channel’s Ramzan show recently and said that his choice of Imran Khan as a politician lies entrenched in the fact that ‘My father has fed me halal rizq, so it is not possible that I do not follow Imran Khan. There can be no two ways about this.” He did not just leave it there, equating the support for Imran Khan to being honest. The actor who is not really known to take part in any political discussions as such, went so far as to say categorically declare, “No one else can take Pakistan forward and turn it into ‘Riyasat-e-Madina‘ apart from Imran Khan. If anyone has the tiniest bit of honour, it is not possible for them to follow anyone other than him.”
While fewer celebrities are supporting the Pakistan People’s Party, PML-N still enjoys the support of a few loyals like the “Lollywood brigade”, namely actors Meera and Resham. In any case, celebrities have come all out in support of PTI.
“They have bought into the party rhetoric,” says Jawad Ahmed, the singer turned politician. “All of it revolves around the threat of a corrupt and dystopic Pakistan, which can only be saved by Imran Khan. I would say these people live in such a privileged bubble…yeh loag hawa main rehtay hain.”
Jawad’s own Barabri Party Pakistan (BPP) which was formed in 2018 focuses on the issues of the working class and the middle classes. “Most celebrities out there – and I really hate that word – are only about glitz and glamour, nothing else,” he says. “They have very basic personalities – small dreams…and i don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush but most of them are like this. They have zero knowledge about anything outside their own world, and if you ask them about ‘left and right’ they wont know.”
When asked why Imran Khan, in particular, has so much popularity among celebrities, Ahmed says, “That is because Imran Khan is himself a celebrity. But we really can’t trust people. These are the same people who believe that Irtughral was real, so what can you expect from them?” he laughs.
Like former US President Donald Trump, who enjoyed television ratings thanks to his celebrity status, it is true that Imran Khan has the kind of celebrity status that few other politicians have – mostly among young people.
The fervour to suddenly join politics – especially in support of Imran Khan – is such that celebrities have begun to also take part in rallies or jalsas. In April, several of them took part in a Lahore jalsa.
Shortly after the no-confidence motion, when Imran Khan was ousted, he held a huge rally at Minto Park (Minar-e-Pakistan). Actor Zara Noor Abbas could not hold back her excitement:
Lahore! You make me proud ❤️⚡️ https://t.co/gA4AmKpObc— Zara Noor Abbas Siddiqui (@ZaraNoorAbbas) April 21, 2022
Several others were present in the rally. Singer Annie Khalid, actor Samina Peerzada, Khaled Anam, Zara Noor Abbas and talk show host Anoushay Ashraf, along with several others were seen posting their images of being in the jalsa or sending accolades to their friends.
The same people were not seen even once when protest calls were given for Nazim Jokhio for instance in Karachi, recently.
It’s bandwagonism,” says comedian Ali Gul Pir, who also works on satirical songs from time to time on pressing issues.
“Politics and social issues were present in music or acting back in the 90s and even before that too,” he says. “There was ‘Chief Saab‘ by Sajjad Ali and there was ‘Mr Fraudiaye‘ By Awaz. There have always been outspoken artists. I always tried to also convince others to speak out but many of the celebrities I came across, did not want to get involved in anything controversial. They thought it was safer discussion social issues which would not spark any trouble.”
There is also a huge lack of knowledge among many of the celebs too. For example regarding the no-confidence vote and the matter of violation of the constitution, none of them actually thought about the reason why there was so much outrage.
“What ground realities will such people know if they do not even know that the Constitution is being violated?” asks Ali Gul. “It was not even such a big issue – they only had to Google it. But then this kind of disconnection from reality is just an attitude that filters down from their own political leaders. All of them are like this.”
When Ali Gul Pir came out with a satire on feudal power and lifestyle, called ‘Wadere Ka Beta’, the song was a huge hit – although not among the landed class. Sadly with the Nazim Jokhio case, it remains true too. “I had a lot of threats and hate coming from the Jalbanis and the Jatois,” he says about the two names he mentioned in the song. “When I came out with ‘Tera Jism Meri Marzi‘, a satire in support of women’s bodily rights, I got a lot of hate from a majority of my male followers. I simply ignored it all.”
But with this recent phenomenon of supporting one party blindly, he says its all about clicks and ratings.
“Yes these people are misinformed about a lot of things – and so are most people,” he says referring to the ins and outs of the no-confidence motion and how myths were being perpetuated by such supporters.
“It’s very simple. If they speak in favour of PTI, they will get retweets on Twitter and shares on other platforms. If they speak for other parties they will not get as many shares.”
There are several celebrities that do their research and speak in a more analytical or balanced way about a political issue, such as Junaid Akram and Ali Aftab Saeed, both of whom have their own shows on digital media. But this kind of bandwagonism is found among more mainstream celebrities, says Ali Gul.
“Some of them may be actually political, but most do it for the clout. Today, models, actors or musicians can’t just wrap up and go home after work,” he adds. “Now they have to look for clicks online, increase campaigns and to stay relevant have to also make sure they are mentioned in drawing-room discussions.”
Cricketer Shahid Afridi was recently trolled for criticizing PTI for lack of governance. A comment he made in an entertainment show was misconstrued by PTI supporters.
Later Afridi came up with his defence.
Shahid Afridi didn’t say anything wrong, people need to watch complete clip and then pass some comments. #Afridi said for the first time i had voted for #ImranKhan in 2013 elections, it’s a fact expectations were high from IK and he didn’t perform accordingly. #IStandWithAfridi pic.twitter.com/z1PrfdeMa1— Kifayat Ali (@KiffayatAli) May 6, 2022
A GOOD TREND?
Is it better to talk about politics even if it’s uninformed, or is it better to stay away?
Jawad Ahmed says that it may seem like it’s a good idea to be ‘political’, but the problem is the mindset.
“We want to have them take a position on things,” he says referring to the way celebrities have been talking politics for some time. “They can’t just remain neutral. If they stand up for things related to that political thought, then I could buy that kind of political stance. But this is not taking a position on matters and issues.”
Performing artist and Women Action Forum member Sheema Kermani agrees more or less.
“I do know two things – one, everyone has freedom of speech, and two, I think that the state’s machinery has infiltrated every sphere of life in the country and arts and the media is just one of them.”
Kermani is one of the most outspoken artists in the community – always taking positions on violence against women, or marginalized people. She is often seen at protests and rallies in solidarity with the cause.
In 2017, in a courageous move, Kermani performed Dhamaal, a Sufi dance, at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine where a suicide attack killed over 85 people a week before.
“I find it very disturbing and upsetting that celebrities rarely stand up for any human rights cause but they are ever ready to stand with their political leader,” he says. “Elements are hate-mongering, but we remain politically unaware and unconscious, we just blow this way or that.”
However, she does mention that some artists have stood up against sexual harassment for some time.
“Since I am myself grounded in political background, I have my perspective, I came into the arts with a different mindset. I knew that art crosses boundaries, and can be such a strong medium,” she says. “Instead what we are seeing is this sick kind of jingoism, intolerance, and mob mentality everywhere.”
Iffat Omar, actor and model, says that although it was done in a base manner, the former ruling party PTI can still be attributed to attracting many young people to politics.
“It is just sad though that they did not become too politicized and began this cult following.
Politics is a profession and the country can still be run with corrupt individuals, but cannot be run with incompetence. Being politicized is a good thing but it does not stop there.”