The fictionalisation of Pakistan

Writers and directors coming out of Pakistan just can’t be poster boys for a knee-jerk defence of the realm.

Fifi Haroon October 14, 2010

“As a filmmaker I don’t owe an allegiance to Pakistan” stressed Hammad Khan, director of the coming of age film Slackistan, at its world premiere at London’s Raindance Festival, “I owe my allegiance to cinema.” Khan was referring to the murmuring belief that creative Pakistanis who have made it on a global stage should voluntarily write, direct and paint like patriots; or, at the very least, valiantly direct their energies towards battling myths and stereotypes constructed by an ill-informed western media.

This is tricky ground. Writers and directors can’t be poster boys for a knee-jerk defence of the realm. If they weave narratives around bearded mullahs, violent beheadings and honour killings they are chastised by local reviewers for pandering to trite expectations. And if they respond with a drugged out, sexed-up Pakistan, they are accused of ignoring the “real” Pakistan in favour of the negligible few.

I find these assumptions asinine: truly brilliant work is not a mirror image of historical fact, nor is it democratic in its choice of story. Fiction and films are at their best when intensely personalised; an incomplete slice of life rather than an arrogant attempt at life itself. The objective must be to create a fictional world and makes it viable, believable and real. You can’t judge Slackistan by how closely it resembles the (supposed) youthful ennui in Pakistan’s capital but you can fault it for failing to rise to its own pre-release hype. The first 15 minutes of Slackistan – irreverent, kitsch and humorous – are most pleasurable. Subsequently, the film meanders as aimlessly as its characters; the linear script not quite justifying the lead character’s final epiphany.

“You have to be clear-eyed when you’re writing about Pakistan; you need to address the stark reality of it,” muses writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, who nevertheless contributes a nostalgic love poem to Granta’s Pakistan. It is a collection which has enough (masterfully written) gloom and doom to elevate the placid truck art landscape on its cover to unmitigated irony. Mueenuddin is right about the need to be clear-eyed rather than wide-eyed when confronted by such tumult, but fiction isn’t a history book. We talk after he reads his ode to tripe to an enrapt audience at London’s Asia House. “Writers don’t make decisions based on political aspirations,” he says determinedly. “We believe in aesthetics. What you write may have a political impact, but that is not how we make our choices.”

Intentionally or otherwise, I believe it would be remarkably difficult to write or make a film about Pakistan right now that eschews the political. Be it sexual politics, national identity or economic reality, these strands are so clearly intertwined into our daily lives that it would be absurd to imagine a Pakistan without them (perhaps why nearly all the successful writing coming out of Pakistan is so brazenly contextualised).  You find the balance by being true to your story rather than loyal to your nation, publisher and perceived audience. If pimping Pakistan in all its geo-political significance was all it took then we would have a lot more success stories than Kamila Shamsie and the boys — Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammed Hanif and Nadeem Aslam (who is stylistically at odds with the witty, brutal contemporaneity of the other three).

I ask Shamsie why she seems to be the only Pakistani female author to be celebrated by the literati as enthusiastically as her male colleagues. “When I was growing up there was Bapsi Sidhwa and Sara Suleri. But writers are more visible now. When you sit on a panel and look around to see man, man, man, man, you do wonder why you are the only woman.” Shamsie isn’t sure if it’s because women writers aren’t submitting manuscripts or because male writers feel freer to approach taboo (hence saleable) subjects, but she is convinced that female authors are marketed incorrectly. “Take Maha Phillip Khan’s Beautiful from this Angle. It is a great political satire but has been branded as chick lit.”

I have to confess that in my book, a Pakistani Bridget Jones is still more palatable than a garden of Gulmohar trees or the prosaic scent of mangos. Exploding ones, however, are fine.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2010.


RAK | 12 years ago | Reply An excellent article, very informative and precise. Pleasure to read such good writing.
Masuud Qazi | 12 years ago | Reply Nice one. It definitely is tough to focus one perspective on Pakistan. We definitely owe this to the disparity levels we have, in almost every form of life. Add to it, the image that is usually absorbed globally.
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