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Khajistan Podcast Vol. 13. Otheristan with Saqib Malik

Saad Khan of Khajistan had a conversation with Pakistani filmmaker Saqib Malik in a podcast episode uploaded on 3rd October 2020. In this episode, Malik and Khan talk about the evolution of Pakistani cinema from the late 1960s to the 2000s, the political and social landscape that impacted filmmaking, and the representation of ‘other’ characters, among other things Lollywood and Pakistan.

Malik begins by talking about growing up in Islamabad back in the 1960s when it was newly built and replaced Karachi as the capital of the country. At that time, according to Malik, the city wasn’t that crowded and one could bike and roam free all day. Mostly, there were just bureaucrats and government servants, as there wasn’t much commercial activity going on in the city. But Malik’s earliest memories are of Karachi, where he spent his days in his grandmother’s place. Karachi was an exciting, colorful city that held a lot of possibilities. It was a fantastic place, unlike Islamabad, which Malik associates with seclusion and coldness. Karachi, on the other hand, was warm and full of colors.

Talking about films that were shown in the only cinema in Islamabad, Malik remembers the time slots for Urdu and Punjabi films. At 3 and 6 PM, Urdu films were shown, and a Punjabi film occupied the 9 PM slot. Malik says the films would first run in Rawalpindi for a few weeks, and upon doing well, they’d later bring them to the cinema in Islamabad. Saad asks whether those films were censored in any way, to which Malik says that during the time of Bhutto in the early 70s, it was somewhat relaxed, but during Zia’s draconian dictatorship, it got really bad. But still, there was an international film week and Malik recalls seeing ‘The Planet of the Apes’ and how there was a nude scene in the film which wasn’t censored. Upon seeing that for the first time on a large screen, Malik was left mesmerized.

Saad shares his experiences of growing up in the 90s and how he used to consume films on STN and TNT. During those days, scenes that had nudity or kissing were pixelated but during the late hour into the night, that wasn’t the case. Malik says from 1978 to 1989, the time when Zia’s regime was at full throttle, things were pretty bad when it came to censorship and the state’s control over what was to be shown and what was to be blocked, but things got way better after that, especially with the arrival of VCR. That was the time when video shop culture burst onto the scene. That culture created a revolution for the film aficionados. One could get anything from the video shop and subsequently watch it on the VCR, without any censorship or cuts or pixelation. Initially, the video shops only had softcore porn, which was hidden at the back of the shelves, but later on, one could easily get the hardcore stuff as well. With the arrival of the VCR, the technique and experimentation got better too.

In the 1970s, according to Malik, the standard was Urdu social drama. There were Punjabi action films too but they didn’t come out fairly frequently. Every week, two to three films were shown in the cinema. Malik remembers going to a movie theater for the first time: “When I saw my first film in the cinema, just the kind of freedom and life on the big screen really got me……I identified with the otherness and difference.” Malik was largely into risqué films that were away from the usual norm. It excited Malik, to see something that catered to the other and otherized. Talking about nude and sexy scenes, Malik remembers that in those days it was done with ‘ingenuity.’ It wasn’t butt and boobs just for the sake of it, which happened a bit later on in Lollywood. The sex scenes had a context to them. Talking about the audience, in those days going to the cinema wasn’t a stratified practice. “Almost everyone went to the cinema,” recalls Malik. Women used to go alone to watch movies. But mostly it was the urban gentry because Urdu social dramas catered to them.

Then, in the 80s, as the films moved away from social drama and started producing stuff that resonated with the urban working class, the landscape shifted. It was primarily working-class people in the cities who filled up the cinemas. As far as the films of that time go, they focused on themes of justice and exploration of the poor at the hands of feudal and urban capitalists. Those films mostly featured Sultan Rahi at loggerheads with the powerful and oppressive ‘Chaudhry’ of the village. Having the theme of justice in those films was really necessary, especially in the times of Zia’s dictatorship. Punjabi films were made to cater to the rural and working class audiences while Urdu films were for the urban gentry. Malik believes that people easily write the old Lollywood off but it cannot be written off. Those films are usually carelessly dismissed as not good or special or interesting enough but they were very relevant to the times they were produced in. Saad bemoans the parochial and didactic nature of Urdu films at that time. Those films were full of ‘chaskay’ and all but at the same time, the characters were also punished for their subversive actions by the end of the film.

Post Sultan Rahi, Shan took center stage when it came to Punjabi action films. While Rahi was a rural hero, Shan was an urban ‘badmash’ who fought against the police and systematic injustices. Most of the Gujjar films, which Shan became synonymous with, were city-oriented. Moving onto the political landscape, Malik believes that although Zia is held responsible for it he wasn’t the only one in on it. The process of Islamisation and subsequent control/censorship really began during the government of Bhutto, even though its tenets were quite different from Zia’s Islamisation. Bhutto had no issue with kissing or nudity but he didn’t tolerate anything that was critical of religion or army or other state institutions. Saad mentions how Jameel Dehalvi’s film was also thwarted by Bhutto. This was also the age of television, as many acclaimed television dramas like Ankahi, Tanhayian, and Waris were produced.

After his education at a university in Ohio, Malik came to Pakistan at the back end of Zia's rule. The dominant culture was very conservative at that time and it was hard to make any art that didn’t fall in line with whatever Pakistan was supposed to be. But after the passing of Zia, a lot of possibilities opened up for artists and filmmakers. It was, in a way, quite an exciting time to be alive and making art. Artists and filmmakers like Malik were at the helm of a cultural shift that was about to take place. It was the beginning of a whole new era and as per Malik, that was the real ‘Naya Pakistan.’ It was an exciting time to be making videos for songs and commercials, which is how Malik started his career.

Malik began his career by collaborating with Asim Raza on three music videos: Laut Aao by Fakhar-e-Alam; Mr. Fraudiye (which was a massive hit); and Shaava by Awaz. Saad asks Malik about Mr. Fraudiye and its production story, and Malik recalls a funny anecdote. Originally, the song was called Mr. 10 Percent, which was a direct reference to the husband of a very prominent political leader at that time. Fearing that the song might get banned, it was changed to Mr. Fraudiye. The video was shot in Karachi and as Malik says, “We wanted an unforgettable face/presence for the video. Someone hip and fashionable.” So they went for Tariq Ameen, who wasn’t a conventional or popular figure at that time. Along with him, they featured Amna Haq, who was at the peak of her modeling career during those days. The music video for Mr. Fraudiye set a benchmark and was in many ways a turning point for music videos in Pakistan. It was really popular among the youth. After these collaborations, Malik wanted to do something that really defined him, so he did Behti Naar.

It was 2000. Malik was going through a terrible breakup. He was in a studio when he heard this electronic song that had a “haunting quality” and an “emotional pull” to it. It was ‘Behti Naar’ and Malik was instantly sold on it. He was told that the song was by a group called ‘Rashq,’ so he contacted them and offered to make a video for it out of his own pocket. Describing the song, Malik says: “it sucks you in and pulls you in this tunnel.” The video featured three different stories and it was quite coded and experimental. The voice follows three characters who are trapped in their own different ways and cannot seem to escape the situation. One of the stories was about two guys who were lovers trying to navigate life together in an environment that didn’t accept them; it was quite cryptic and subtle. The other one dealt with an abuser. And the last one shows a bride who is waiting for the groom to make a move on their wedding night but he’s incapable of moving towards her as if he is paralyzed. He constantly sweats and looks out of sorts. In the end, the woman too pulls off her necklace and tries to break free from the situation.

It wasn’t a very commercial song or music video but for Malik, it was quite cathartic and liberating, given what was going on in his personal life. For many people who find themselves at the fringes, who cannot break free and feel trapped, the video was very relatable. But soon after, even though it played on PTV and STN, it got banned. The order came from the president’s house and the reasons for its ban were never clear. Later it resurfaced on Geo’s music channel ‘Aag’ (which was huge back around 2005, 2006 but was shut down for some reason) and now it could be found online too.

The podcasts end with a brief discussion on Malik’s film, ‘Baaji’ and how it was quite experimental in many ways. There was no conventional hero and it was full of multidimensional and complex characters. The sort of film where audiences’ allegiances keep changing as the story unfolds. It was a very ‘other’ kind of film. Nayyer Ijaz, the veteran Pakistani actor, plays a very layered queer character in the film. He is a talent scout, a journalist, among many other things, but he also happens to be a predator. Unlike the usual queer representation in Pakistani cinema, where gay characters are invariably portrayed as effeminate and are often subject to mockery, Ijaz’s character was very empowered and masculine. As Malik says, “You couldn’t laugh at him.” He calls all the shots. He’s not hiding from the world either. He is who he is and it's out there. Yes, he is a predator but Malik is not making a didactic and politically correct film. It is up to the audience what they make of the film and its characters. When Malik explained the character to Nayyer Ijaz (who had previously played many transgender roles), he was up for it and did a tremendous job. All the other characters did a terrific job too. Apart from dabbling with the ‘other’ and ‘otherised’ subjects, Malik says the film was ultimately about class. People can take what they wish from it and decide what’s good or bad but the theme of class was at its center. The podcast ends with Saqib Malik asking a very pertinent question (a question that almost all of us, whether we ask it or not, deal with in our own unique ways on a daily basis): what does sex mean in a society like Pakistan (Where pleasure and condemnation go hand in hand) that is so caught up in a moral puddle?

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