Can Imran Khan's 'Pakistaniyat' help improve the country's self-image?

“Hollywood-Bollywood vulgarity” has been one of Imran Khan’s pet peeves for long and he has ordered the drafting of a new nationalist, culturally-centred film policy for Pakistan that is yet to be made public, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Jun 27, 2021
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Pakistan PM Imran Khan (File)

The looming certainty over the United States ending its military presence in neighboring Afghanistan, despite the expected volatility it may bring to Pakistan and the entire region, has made a concerned Prime Minister Imran Khan look for an ideological armor to overcome the nation's nervousness and defeatism - embrace ‘Pakistaniyat.’

He drew a broad-brush picture of this abstract concept, without giving details, at a film awards function in Islamabad on June 26.

To begin with, he says ‘Pakistaniyat’ - the concept, ideology and character of Pakistan - should be projected by  Pakistani filmmakers, especially the young ones, making "original" films, and move away from the "vulgarity" that comes “from Hollywood to Bollywood to Pakistan.”

"Vulgarity started from Hollywood, came to Bollywood and then that kind of culture was promoted here,” Imran Khan said, because Pakistani filmmakers, were "impressed" by Bollywood.

The point to ponder here is that if they were "impressed" it was with what is called the “golden age” of Indian cinema of the 1940s-60s. Many landmark films were made. The older Pakistanis remain immensely nostalgic about that era and the younger ones, willy-nilly, copy many Bollywood themes and cinematic styles. Also, the two cinemas were one till the 1947 Partition and many of the same filmmakers and artists grew separately. Indeed, some, notably A R Kardar, made films simultaneously in both countries till the 1965 conflict.

Pakistan's 'fear of defeat'
 
For cinema to sell anywhere, it should be commercially viable. But opposing the filmmakers’ plea for the need for “commercial content” to make a film run, Khan said: "The fear of defeat is a big impediment to [achieving] man's [full] potential." Copying other trends was the same as following the trodden path. "No one excels on the trodden path," Dawn newspaper quoted him as saying.

However, Khan has made a valid point in that unlike Pakistani cinema, Pakistani television, which began before India’s, produces its own plays, some of high quality, that remain popular on both sides of the border. 

 Only “originality" will sell and endure, he said at the function hosted by National Amateur Short Film Festival (NASFF), saying what he said was based on his “life’s experience.”

“I want originality in our film industry and for it to bring a new way of thinking," he said. He had pointed to the lack of original content since he took office and has been critical of how much the Pakistani film industry - often dubbed Lollywood - was influenced by Hollywood and Bollywood.

“Hollywood-Bollywood vulgarity” has been one of Imran Khan’s pet peeves for long and he has ordered the drafting of a new nationalist, culturally-centred film policy for Pakistan that is yet to be made public. He brought the popular Turkish television series 'Ertrugrul', which captured the imagination of the Pakistani television watchers locked up in their homes by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Criticism of 'soft image' 

The theme that both Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan jointly pushed was about Islam’s ‘renaissance’ in Turkey in medieval times. Such religio-cultural affinity with Istanbul was not to the liking of Pakistan’s traditional benefactor Saudi Arabia, though. Both are perceived as rivals for leadership of the Islamic world, with Pakistan fancying itself as a go-between.

Criticism of Hollywood may be part of Imran Khan’s current anti-US stance wherein he says Pakistan was "humiliated" and forced into joining the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. He told the New York Times last week, it was made to feel that “they were giving aid to Pakistan, they felt that Pakistan then had to do US’s bidding.”

This is implicit criticism of the policy pursued by former ruler, General Pervez Musharraf under whom joining of the “war on terror” began. The military ruler had also liberalised media as a whole, allowing for private TV channels and allowing film imports from India. This was his response to the Pakistani film industry falling in dire straits with audiences moving away from cinema halls fearing lack of public safety, thanks to terror and sectarian violence, causing cinema theatres across the country to close down.

The policy on Indian film imports ended with India banning Pakistani artists from working in Bollywood in the wake of 2018 cross-border flare-ups and Pakistan retaliating by shutting out film imports. The only channel now available for cross-border viewing are OTT platforms, some global, but most of them India based. All of them show Indian programmes, while some have financed and released Pakistani products.

Imran Khan did not also miss out on the opportunity to hit out at his predecessor and political bete noire, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was keen on projecting Pakistan’s “soft image” when in power.       

Khan said this “flawed understanding of a soft image” was born from the mistaken concept of "enlightened moderation". He used precisely the same words Nawaz Sharif had.

The 'Pakistaniyat' path
     
This was based on “a sense of inferiority and defensiveness” when Pakistan used to be “mischaracterized during the 'war on terror'”.

A soft image, according to Imran Khan,  was actually rooted in “independence and self-belief, not in speaking English and donning Western clothing,” said the sportsperson-turned-politician who spent several years studying and playing cricket in England, had an English wife, whom he divorced, but from whom he has two children. His second wife, although of Pakistani origin, is also a British national.

But he now says: "The world respects the ones who respect themselves," which was why "Pakistaniyat" should be promoted.

Since Hollywood-Bollywood bashing is itself a “trodden path”, not just in Pakistan, but in many conservative societies, deeper enunciation of what he seeks by way of ‘Pakistaniyat’ will be keenly watched in the coming months.

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)