When Romance needs to be Halal Certified

Nirvaan Nadeem reflects on a distinct trend in Pakistani arts and entertainment

When Romance needs to be Halal Certified
There is an apt and well known saying: “Nau so choohay kha ke billi Haj ko Chali” (After eating 900 mice, the cat goes off on a pilgrimage). It sits perfectly with the current trend in our entertainment industry.

The performing arts are a beautiful, deep and intensely meaningful part of the human experience. Existing since the start of civilization itself, from the ritualistic stories of cavemen to the modern day technologically advanced extravaganzas, they imbibe and reflect the soul of nations and representative voices of the age. Stories of civilizations are preserved, told and re-told to future generations. Social problems are addressed, the many facets of human existence are explored.

The developed nations know the power of art to change the world, change narratives and bend the world to their whim. The USA has not taken over the world through its armies alone, but through its art forms. From a young age, their youth is imbibed with the intricacies of theatre, music, dance, filmmaking and writing. The result is the creation of a particular brand of culture, which is exported to the rest of the world. Top quality music, exceptionally made films, gripping web series, they conquer without firing a single shot.  Black Hawk Down dealt with a real life story, a verified failure of an American military operation. The movie was so well made, from the acting to the intricacies of scene development and technical brilliance, that the disaster was turned into an “inspiring” tale of success against all odds.

We in our own Lollywoods and Kollywoods have excelled in the art of projecting our victories as disasters. From Moammar Ranna’s delirious screams for ‘Azaadi’ to Shaan’s deafening Waar-cries, we happily snatch defeat from the jaws of victories. We are unable to put together a beautifully crafted storyline, fail to develop credible characters or offer engaging music. And this is not to mention lackluster performances themselves.

Is it because we have an inherent problem with art? Or is it the apathy of the state and corporate sector?  Or our collective malaise of taking pride in our shortcomings and blaming others for our failures?  In any case, we don’t seem to be learning from our mistakes. While the entertainment industry is growing and growing, the standards go further and further down.

As if this decline in standards were not enough, recently a new malaise has hit our stricken nation.  Previously the enemies of art and culture attacked from outside – from pulpits and seminaries. But now the enemy of art and culture has found allies within.

It started from cricket when all retiring captains decided to grow beards and start ‘tableegh’. Then it suddenly dawned on the Big J that music, which he had been earning fame and fortune from, was a bad thing and he started preaching against music and other sinful art forms. Some other musicians joined the chorus. The likes of Reema, Meera and Veena found it very convenient to cover their heads and get photographed in a pious pose whenever there was an embarrassing leak or scandal. More recently, one must add the unfortunate Rabi to this list.

But the more worrying trend has been the emergence of what I can only call “Islamic romantic TV dramas”, where a jean-wearing ultramodern heroine suddenly sees the light and turns into a head-covering, lowered eyes, namaz-saying ‘nek Parveen’. Or a clean-shaven moustached villain transforms into a long bearded moustache-less hero. They preach and preach. And towards the end of the serial, the prevail. A number of writers excel in this art of earning fame, fortune and blessings of the believers in this world and luxurious farm-houses in Heaven. But they do that after their mandatory 900 mice. The plot (not the one in Paradise!), goes like this: The hero is a misguided, sinful young man with bad habits but takes pride in his evilness. He is fond of the evil Western culture, mistreats women and is a nuisance for the neighbourhood. On the other hand, there is this pretty hijaban, who despises Western culture, spends most of her time praying or cooking, and is determined to bring this rascal-hero to the righteous path. Or it could be the vice versa. Sometimes  the stories revolves around a showbiz personality who abandons show business itself, eventually finding the “true path”, repenting and renouncing the dazzle and razzmatazz and choosing a life of a submissive housewife or an obedient husband. Following the footsteps of the Big J, the likes of Hamza Ali Abbasi  and Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar have been benefiting from the flowing Ganga (we might have said Ravi if it actually flowed).

This whole attitude from producers of mass culture reminds me of another adage, “Jis thali mein khana, usi mein ched karne” (making holes in the very plate you eat from).

While the world is working on colonizing Mars and female astronauts are breaking records of the longest stay in space, we are still engaged in debates as to the halal-ness of music and if women can be part of showbiz. We have surrendered the rich and proud musical heritage of the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent - meanwhile Indian diplomacy has won predominance riding on the cultural horse.

How can we regain the lost cultural space and build on the ever-lasting creations of Tansen, Amir Khusrau, Shah Hussain, Bare Ghulam Ali, Ustad Allah Rakha (not to forget Allah Rakhi, the Malka-i-Tarranum), if a sizable majority believes music itself is sinful? Let us remember that calling someone a ‘dancer’ is almost a swear-word here, especially if it is aimed at a woman. And yet whenever you are happy, you dance. Whenever the farmer has a good crop, he dances. Such a pious expression of the human soul has been reduced to an insult. People in the drama/film industry are considered veritably promiscuous. “Showbiz waalay” means loose morals and doubtful characters.  Let me quote from the story lines of some mega hit ‘Islamic’ TV serials:

Ali, Allah aur Insaan (2018):

“With growing time Shahzeb begins questioning himself and God as to why Nazneen doesn’t love him back, with his questions he faces religious confusion and regularly visits an Islamic Maulvi (Qavi Khan) whose knowledge and words help him with religious knowledge.”

Shanakht (2014):

“The story revolves around a young girl named Qurratulain (nicknamed Annie), a devout and practicing Muslim. She is shown to often cover her head using a  hijab. She faces strong criticism and objections from her family members over her obsession about being a dutiful Muslim, especially from her liberal-thinking mother. Rohaan has a pleasant, fun loving personality, but despite this he also believes in adhering to religious teachings in life. Hashim, though fond of Annie, resents her for her religious, and hence outdated, outlook on life. Rohaan’s friendship gradually changes Hashim’s attitude towards life and religion.”

Alif (2019):

“Alif revolves around the journey of a rebellious filmmaker and a struggling actress, both having disturbed pasts. It shows how both come across the same path and understand the terminology of the alphabet Alif, illustrating the bond of an individual with his God.”

Hypocrisy is the base – the fundamental paradigm – on which much of our social values system is based. How then can we hope to compete with likes of India, the US, the UK and other powerful cultures if our self-defined culture excludes art, humanity and love? How can we hope to develop narratives to further our own political or cultural cause? How can we grow as individuals, as people and as a nation, if we abhor and disregard the basic elements of the human soul?

In the coming decades, previously sought skills and jobs will become redundant. According to Buisness Tech Magazine, five key skills for future employment are Mental Elasticity and Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity and People Skills and Interdisciplinary Knowledge.

The world still places a premium on is creativity, something which cannot be inculcated or replicated. That creativity can be applied in the sciences, humanities, engineering, finance or business. Inventions are not made through rote memorization. Groundbreaking theories are not developed through learning redundant concepts.

And great films are not made through insulting all the art forms which go into making one.

To end, a quote from a renowned theatre practitioner and writer:

“Life beats down and crushes the Soul, Art reminds you that you have one.” (Stella Adler)