How Pakistan’s Pop Culture Gained Global Attention During 2022

How Pakistan’s Pop Culture Gained Global Attention During 2022
As 2022 dwindles to a somewhat sombre end in Pakistan, one can only hope you are either ringing in the new year dancing to Pasoori or Peechay Hutt; perhaps, you are one of the lucky ones whose eyes are brighter after seeing Joyland. Maybe you’re huddled in front of a fire trying to fight off the chills that Usman T Malik’s book brings on. Somewhere else, Arooj Aftab’s version of Mohabbat is soothing the wounds of this year or you’re feeling as energised as Ms. Marvel. Could you be manifesting a new romance while watching  ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’

From the jaw dropping numbers that Salman Toor’s painting and Maula Jutt raked in, to the stunning shock of Project Dastaan’s virtual film series marking 75 years of Partition, to the gentle determination of the written word to transcend boundaries via a digital literature festival, there is one common truth in all of the above.

Pakistani culture has arrived. And it is glorious.


If you happen to be a millennial, you will know that your childhood is forever labelled as the post General Zia Ul Haq (Zia) generation. ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ was the mantra and a new sense of joie de vivre was delivered by the Pepsi and cricket mix whose face was none other than the then handsome cricketer Imran Khan.

So starved was the country, we took it. Whatever there was post Zia, we took it and clutched onto it for life. The post Zia generation ate off crumbs fed by India through satellite television, outdated fashion magazines and Bollywood. In the 90s a local cultural scene did begin to build upon the foundation of the fashion industry spanning music, television, print media and theatre. It was heady, sexy and fun. There were two eras; pre Zia and post Zia. And the general feeling was yeah sure, post Zia is fun, but it isn’t as great as pre Zia.

And then came General Pervez Musharraf.

Kargil and the media explosion. Channel after channel mushroomed, local cultures such as stage shows that had traditionally been shunned and labelled as ‘vulgar’ found an audience. Local cable operators showed pirated DVDs and Bollywood films -  in the absence of satellite dish and ban on Indian content. Somehow ‘Colors’ was also able to stream. We took it and clutched onto it for survival.

And then came 9/11.

Out went the Indian content, in came Zakir Naik, Farhat Hashmi, Maria B. blindly peddling fake pirs such as Zaid Hamid. Anti America. Pro America. George Bush. Saddam Hussain. Tony Blair. Osama Bin Laden. Blackwater. Al Qaeda. CIA. Taliban. MI6. Islamism. War. Fundamentalism. Terrorism. The rockstar we wanted to be, Ali Azmat of Junoon, made media appearances demanding a Caliphate. Guitar toting Ali Noor, the heartthrob from Noori blamed ‘the West’. Disco maulvism was to define us? Yes. No. What? Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke was still the ‘it’ book. Fasi Zaka emerged as a voice for the younger lot. Bollywood posters at local tailors were replaced by ayats. TV lounges blasted naats. Political talk shows became entertainment. Entertainment became a thing of the past. And the lawyers movement brought on a revolution that the 60s Marxists probably had nightmares about.

Two extremes. Whose side were you on mate? There wasn’t much to hold onto.


And now, this year Pakistan nailed it.

Music, art, film, literature and a postcolonial movement. Pakistanis like to sing, dance, paint, write and make films. In fact we’ve always liked to do all of the above and more. It just took the world 75 years to realise it.

But with all things Pakistani, none of it came easy and none of it came with the aim of making it ‘big’. Most of it homegrown, organic and not quite the Reaction-To-Bad-Things as the Rest-Of-The-World thought it was.

For a while Pakistan was a pariah state – in fact, when it is not – and the arts suffered. By that it doesn’t mean, nothing was happening. Plenty was happening, just that the world didn’t want to know about it because well, how dare this Particular Naughty Country not fit in the narrative?

And what happens when the world doesn’t want you? You just carry on.

You. Just. Carry. On

Coke Studio’s Pasoori which took Shae Gill and Ali Sethi’s voices global was a befitting Pakistani song leaving aside the famous Coke ad with the jingle ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. Gill and Sethi showed the planet that they couldn’t just teach the world to sing, they’d teach the world to sing in Punjabi.

Arooj Aftab’s Grammy win was proof of how much value Pakistani music had. It was a moment where the past and the present came together – Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s lyrics and Arooj Aftab’s music. And for one glorious moment, 75 years summed up so magnificently leaving behind patriarchal stupidity and gender imbalances in Pakistan in shame. Look at what can be achieved! And think about other opportunities and moments of glory that could have been and still, can be.

Ananke’s Women In Literature Festival founded by Sabin Muzaffar continued to sideline Indo-Pak hostility by taking literature to the digital realm, handing back political correctness in exchange for humanity resulting in international book deals and mentoring. Pakistani authors and publishers finally found a platform where they could interact with the Rest Of The World, leaving behind the ideas of borders as mere toys for politicians to busy themselves with, all without corporate sponsorships or any funding.

Pakistan’s publishing industry remains fairly unknown to the world and largely a wasteland of decaying books, hopes and dreams. Yet quietly, with a determination that perhaps is borne more out of love for the written word than as an acquired skill and therefore need to prove How Good One Is, local writers had been scribbling away. This year Usman T Malik, author of Midnight Doorways: Fables From Pakistan became the first Pakistani to win the Crawford Prize presented annually by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) for a debut book of fantasy. This is only the second time in its 40 year history that the award has been conferred on a writer not belonging to or hailing from ‘an Anglophone country’.

The summer of 2022 was brimming with joy and pride as parents and children looked on screens and saw a Pakistani family – a normal one without the clichés of a beard or the 9/11 legacy of Islamophobia following like a bad smell – doing normal things. But with a superhero twist. Ms Marvel gave Pakistani children in particular that sense of cultural ownership that perhaps had not existed since Ainak Wala Jinn. Ms Marvel was modern, hip, trendy just like the average Pakistani child. And, Peechay Hutt at the end had every single person owning the green and white flag with a sense of pride that hadn’t been felt in a long, long time.

Pakistan saw themselves again on the big screen with screenwriter Jemima Khan’s film ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ With a gorgeous wardrobe by The Pink Tree, Pakistan’s fashion, music and identity was brought to the world again in what was an authentically Pakistani film. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. And for those who felt it wasn’t ‘local enough’ there were two other films which showed the diversity and multi-layered existances that one Pakistani identity simply cannot hold. ‘Joyland’, a transgender love story is the first Pakistani film officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Legend Of Maula Jutt’, smashed through as a breakthrough setting a new standard of filmmaking and is soon to release in India.

In art, Pakistanis simply blazed ahead. The Pakistani American artist Salman Toor’s 2019 painting titled ‘Four Friends’ sold for a record $1.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction. Merging art, film and technology, Project Dastaan founded by four friends, released one of their virtual films on Partition in Pakistan. Co-founder and Pakistan Lead, Saadia Gardezi brought the virtual reality experience to the Lahore’s National History Museum. Overwhelmingly powerful and immersive, the film was yet another reminder of what was lost and how little had healed 75 years on. Speaking at the event Saadia Gardezi was a reminder of how Pakistanis could own their history, so much of which remains unacknowledged and retain a sense of identity.

Much more was achieved by Pakistanis, especially women. Although these may not fall under the category of ‘culture,’ there is no denying the impact of these women on Pakistan’s cultural development and growth at a national level which in turns fuels what is seen at the global level.

Lawyer and short story writer Nida Usman Chaudhary represented Pakistan at the 3rd International Conference of Women in Law in Vienna. Lawyer and advocate Nighat Dad represented Pakistan at the Paris Peace Forum where she spoke about the need to create safe digital spaces especially for women and minorities of all kinds.

Mehreen Zahra Malik, editor at Arab News Pakistan Edition, won the ‘Best Mentor of the Year’ award and also bagged the ‘Edition Of The Year’ award at the prestigious Arab News General Assembly in Dubai for excellence in journalism.

Natasha Noorani smashed onto the music scene in all her glory and continued to go from strength to strength culminating in an appearance on New York Times Square via Spotify Pakistan. She not only took music but visual aesthetic for music videos hauling them to a whole new level of Pakistani-ness.

Karachi based fashion designer Sonya Battla organised Pakistan’s first collective for decolonial practices. This resulted in Pakistan being part of a global conversation as part of the Global Fashioning Assembly and recently, a symposium at the State Bank Museum in Karachi. Single handedly bringing together academics, craft practitioners, scholars, artists and more, Sonya set a foundation where ideas and practices encouraging ownership of local culture and ways of living are documented and advocated to the general public.

Right now, culturally - Pakistan has it all. What the globe sees as pop culture is an intrinsic part of Pakistan’s culture identity, but it is not complete. There is so much more happening, and it is happening because it’s just what needs to be done.

Pakistan will continue to carry on. Is the world ready for more?