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Culture Unplugged

Faiza S. Khan relocated to Karachi from London three years ago, specifically not to find herself. She is the administrator of a short story prize and editor-in-chief of literary journal, The Life Too Short Review.
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…and now Pakistan wants to cleanse its airwaves of vulgar alien (read: Indian) influences.

…and now Pakistan wants to cleanse its airwaves of vulgar alien (read: Indian) influences.

PEMRA, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, issued a notice recently warning local cable operators of possible action against them with the claim that “local broadcast and distribution media” is being “influenced by the alien culture [sic] and foreign lifestyle [sic] and is imitating the same through their programmes… The increased vulgarity is, by and large, being criticised by the general public through print media and written complaints” (sick, me being).

The ‘increased vulgarity’ (as opposed to some unstated acceptable standard of vulgarity, and don’t even get me started on the topic of hair-raisingly vulgar Pakistani cinema) refers to the proliferation of Indian music videos, Indian soap operas and low-budget Indian variety shows favoured by local cable operators. Personally, I find the ones with gyrating, pelvic-thrusting, sexed-up nine year-olds rather disturbing myself, but that’s a whole other topic. Yes, they’re often qualitatively lacking but forcing them off the air surely isn’t the answer (especially not if viewers are watching only enough of them to pen huffy letters of complaint). Among other things, PEMRA’s contention that the ever-looming threat of an unnamed “alien culture” is threatening to engulf us in a giant tidal wave of Indianness is, of course, ridiculous. And not just because of the enormous cultural overlap between the two countries.

Firstly, there’s a great deal of worthwhile Pakistani television. This has traditionally been the case, with the 80s still held up as the gold standard of the intelligent Pakistani ‘drama series’ (episodic narratives of a dozen or so instalments). Taking the place of our decimated film industry and freed of cinema’s bums-on-seats imperative, dramas are allowed to take on serious themes and nuanced subject matter. They’re allowed to be reflective and languidly paced. The comparison with mainstream Bollywood is a bit like British cinema versus American blockbusters. We’re good at deglamourised, understated kitchen-sink sagas.

There was a terrible rough patch a couple of years ago when the epic success of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi inspired Pakistani directors to mimic a more melodramatic style of soap opera, complete with soft focus, stagey dialogue delivery and volleys of impact shots. Mercifully, being a bad imitation of something that was crap to begin with, this didn’t attract much of an audience and has since been abandoned. On the other hand, Lata Mangeshkar’s 8oth birthday was loudly celebrated on major Pakistani networks, with her legion of fans and major Pakistani artists clamouring to pay tribute. Culture is what people love and what people choose to do. If Pakistanis want to do Shah Rukh Khan, then a directive from the broadcasting authority is certainly not going to stem their desire.

The same logic surely applies to our traditional nemesis, corruptor-extraordinaire Western culture. ‘Western culture’, recently rebranded as ‘unIslamic culture’, can be interpreted as anything from the polio vaccine and girls’ schools to multiple divorces, short skirts and raves on the beach, depending on who you’re talking to. For some reason, weaponry and interior design never fall into this category. Western culture and the assorted evils of liberalism generally become problematic among those people who don’t have access to it. The perception of Western culture becomes an issue when it ceases to be the thing itself and becomes instead a sign of privilege, the domain of the few. As such, it’s no coincidence that high-income groups tend not to take umbrage at the menace that is Western culture, and certainly not while shopping at the Harrods’ summer sale.

For me, the only people left in the age of the global village with whom one can have an adult conversation about threats to their culture are the French, and that too when it’s restricted to dairy products. When the European Union, the muscles from Brussels, threatened to impose new food regulations to standardise European food hygiene, raw-milk cheeses such as Gruyere and the majority of Provencal goat cheeses came under threat. It was an attack on the French way of life; they didn’t give an inch, and are, as we speak, happily consuming potentially deadly bacteria and loving every minute of it. Come to think of it, the bacteria might explain their rather peculiar decision to wholeheartedly support celebrated director and convicted paedophile Roman Polanski.