This essay was originally published in the now-defunct Dubai-based e-zine, Milkiina on October 21, 2021, as "The Surreal and Subversive Universe of Khajistan."
Around 6:17 AM on a moderately hot, late May morning in Lahore, I am traveling to Badami Bagh Bus Stand in an Uber, and just after crossing the railway station, the driver has to stop the car and take a turn. There’s some construction work going on the road. As we take the alternative route and drive past the construction site, there are two young boys drawn in the process of making a TikTok video in the middle of the rubble. The Uber driver looks at them, laughs, and then suddenly turns almost furious. “We watch their videos and that encourages them to make more,” he tells me, “the only way to stop this shit is by not watching them, by not encouraging them, or by banning it altogether.” In a half-awake, slow murmur, I ask him why he thinks that. “It’s against our national culture,” he responds. The ride ends. I sit by the bus window and start thinking about the national culture of Pakistan – whether culture can be a tall, singular, all-encompassing entity, something that assumes the proportion of a mythical giant, something we have to praise, protect, feed, defend, be afraid of, and wear on our sleeves at all costs. Who gets to define what national culture is and what is not? What kind of art finds breathing space under the regime of national culture? Does national culture stand on erasure and hazy forgetfulness? And most importantly, how can a TikTok video of two young boys pose a threat to its sanctity? To find answers to some of my questions, I start obsessing over the Khajistan project — a podcast, social media archive, and online bazaar — and the quest turns out to be an absolute joy.
Take the podcast episode Volume 20: Khajistan Tea: Special Tea-Time Mix. Or take Volume 7: Juntar Muntar: Ragas from the Raga Rickshaw. Alamgir’s song ‘Baharen Tere Aanay Se’ from Arshad Salman’s 1978 Urdu film, Bobby and Julie, plays, along with several other Lollywood hits. After a short while, a song is interrupted by a Soda White toothpaste commercial. It says: every third dentist in America recommends Soda White toothpaste. In the middle of a very catchy song, runs a random phone call – aided by a disco beat – between two women. One of them, Farzana, complains about her elder son shitting in the bed. The woman on the other line responds by saying that you have reached the wrong number. Then, there’s a live performance of a Punjabi song by the iconic Naseebo Lal. You might get to hear electronic beats run on a loop. A bone-chilling dialogue from an X-rated 1967 horror film, Zinda Laash (The Living Corpse), might also drop from nowhere. An announcement welcoming a famous Lucky Irani Circus dancer into a private show shows up in your ears. A charged-up rant against capitalistic exploitation from an old Lollywood film might find its way into your head. Then there is JASHAN e CRISMIS; an entire podcast full of Urdu songs sung to celebrate the birth and promised reincarnation of Jesus. Or take SEX: Nashayi vinyls of golden Lollywood: a mix that features music from your wildest wet dreams. You can’t predict what’s coming – it might make you smile, it might send you into a narcotic haze, it might also make your hair stand on end. After a few moments of close listening, I can already feel myself landing in a number of timeless dimensions at the same time, I can already sense we live amid a surreal mix of everything – in a place where the sublime is interrupted by the inane, the subversive is elevated by the vulgar, the ordinary is touched by the divine, and where the monsoon rains follow the imagination of saints and come earlier than predicted. In a country like ours, any notion of a singular culture or art is nothing but a bourgeois disaffection. Your orgasm belongs to the state, as Essex Hemphill would say in a poem. These podcasts drift, move, and transport you into utterly strange and surreal corners of the country. Khajistan refuses to operate within the limits of the dominant culture. It doesn’t believe in that mythical giant. In fact, it exists to question the very tenets of established culture and gatekeeping of artistic practices. A classical song might get cut short by a random phone call. You can’t anticipate or predict its next move. The sounds and visions they induce, hover over the national consciousness. You can’t hear or see them on the TV, not anymore at least, and you refuse to see them elsewhere. They are not approved or supported by the state. The gentry is afraid of them. You can almost feel everything in them is a distant part of your memory, but you can’t often trace the roots, you can’t hold onto their entirety, and the chase just runs on, until it’s interrupted by another Lollywood hit, or a Mujra song, or an Eden Roc Herbal Shampoo commercial. Listening to these podcasts often feels like a truly transcendental, pleasantly hallucinatory experience, but sometimes it also feels like staring into a burning abyss. Khajistan wears its Lollywood heart on its sleeve: the experiences of growing up, watching TV, and going to cinema at the back end of 20th century Pakistan – a time when there was slightly less gatekeeping of the arts, and slightly more freedom from the undue constraints of upper-class morality that mimics colonial footprints. Whatever operates outside this strictly defined morality, whether it’s art or film or how we express love and to whom doesn’t get any mainstream media representation. The state shows what it wants to show. It is terribly afraid of things that aren’t controllable; things that lie beyond its power. The state is a staunch proponent of a homogenous national identity, a monolithic culture, and a fixed sense of morality. For the state, we are either pious or vulgar, cultural or backward, talented or useless, creative or subversive. And it is only interested in one, not the other. It looks at us through narrow binaries and treats us accordingly. The media and the cultural corridors are deeply invested in a fixed, unnecessarily sanitized portraiture of our lives, which in reality only exists in the imagination of the elite and the powerful. In the meantime, the rest of the country, wittingly or unwittingly, continues to oscillate between profound imaginations and possibilities and fireworks; the journey is long, experimental, and beyond all categorizations. It’s just that only a certain class gets to define what we see on our devices. The pictures manipulate us, fail us, and pigeonhole us into alienating spaces. The pictures sicken us.
Growing up in the 2000s Pakistan meant that there was nothing normal about our childhood. When we were supposed to be stealing posters from low-budget CD shops, we were counting the number of bombs that were being dropped on our country by America every day. Growing up, I would consume stories of my uncle and his friend running off to Lahore to catch a glimpse of the film star couple, Zeba and Muhammad Ali in 1977. Or tales of my father who couldn’t manage to get a ticket for the first few showtimes of the ageless Punjabi film, Maula Jutt, when it was first released in 1979. When it was our turn to frequent the cinemas, both the cinemas in our city were reduced to a hotel and a shopping mall. There was no cinema culture because there were no cinemas, especially in smaller cities like mine throughout Pakistan. Existing in a state of perpetual national emergency left us pondering over what to celebrate, watch, and dance for. When things got a little stable at the back end of the decade, new films and new film stars started emerging, and we were told that whatever little remained of the old Lollywood amounted to the dross that should be discarded from our national memory; that we are on the verge of producing the first great film(s) to come out of Pakistan. Films that were sanitized to cater to the strict demands of censorship boards. Films that were also in line with this new national identity – something that didn’t dare to experiment or tamper with the collective sense of faux morality. It was not an evolution, but an overhaul; a hasty but new imagination that refused to look at and feel the rhythms of history. The cultural machinery, controlled and run by the state and its pious bureaucrats, only preserved what served the state best. We were moving towards something without knowing where we were coming from. It almost felt like severing ties with the past had become one of our favorite pastime activities.
In the podcast, Volume 13: OTHERISTAN, Pakistani filmmaker Saqib Malik, discusses the cinema culture of the last three decades of the 20th century. According to the filmmaker, almost everyone used to go to cinemas in those days. The consumption of cinema was not a strictly stratified activity. Films managed to get through the censors. And as far as the themes of Lollywood films of that era are concerned, they ranged from risqué to horror, from action thrillers to romance, films that had room for the other and the otherized, the funk and the dynamic, the surreal mix of everything that we essentially were. The cinema of that particular era was very much concerned with the aesthetical, political, and social questions of its times. And more importantly, it was entertainment for all, largely free from the influence of the powerful elite. Most of the Khajistan podcasts endeavor to revoke that lost spirit of Lollywood – that surreal mix of strange horrors, acts of intimacy or vulgarity, and subversive practices rooted in indigenous experiences; of the times when we were a little less afraid of each other’s dance moves.
The death of the cinema and its supposed new birth, to put in harsh terms, has not been an organic process. It was a project that was inseparable from the larger project of building a collective national identity; the desperate attempt to homogenize our existences, to make sure that we are not left chasing vulgarity, and to maintain a clear divide between what’s national and what’s foreign. In such a scenario, powerful actors of the state, driven by their elite morality and nationalism, took ownership of cinema and TV entertainment. This made sure that art didn’t come from people, it only came towards them. We were anticipating the “first truly great film(s)” without realizing that such a promise flourished on erasure and disrespect of our cinematic history. The entertainment of the majority was now slowly moving toward the fringes. What kind of cinema we would consume was largely up to a few men sitting somewhere in a state building. And today, as I write this, there are a number of projects being sponsored by the mighty institutions of the state, and unsurprisingly, they are all hyper-nationalistic and stale. Khajistan shows no concern for such cinema because it doesn’t reflect anything about the times we live in; it is invested in projecting us as something we are not. It is almost shoved down our consciousness through repetition and over-representation. And it hopes that we’d eventually start believing it like good, conforming, respectable citizens of the state.
The state’s attitude towards apps like TikTok has not been much different either. The regulating authorities, the courts, and the self-anointed moral police ban and subsequently unban it throughout the year. It’s almost treated like that worn-out shoe we are ashamed to wear in public but can’t get rid of either. Platforms like TikTok and BIGO LIVE have allowed marginalized communities to celebrate and archive their own existences and histories, giving them space where only they can define who they are, and connect and relate with each other’s lived realities on social, political, and existential levels. Every now and then, someone would tell me that the number-plate designer in the neighborhood has reached over 2 million likes on TikTok, or how a guy from Nankana Sahib has over 5 million followers now, and I often start wondering who these people and what their stories are. Why do we not get to hear anything about them elsewhere in the media? And what is their place in the hierarchy of national culture? Any artistic practice that doesn’t come through state-run cultural machinery has almost no representation in the mainstream media, not even in its footnotes. They only elevate a few and discard the rest. As long as an artistic expression doesn’t challenge the very language and outlook of the dominant culture, it is deemed reasonable and necessary, even if it’s a mediocre, little slow embarrassment at best, something our generation has become accustomed to witnessing. It is promoted and sustained by the powerful elite because it is designed by and for them. While the mainstream media continues to repetitively produce shows that normalize and reinforce certain ethnic stereotypes – among other horrors – about Baloch and Pashtuns in particular, avenues like TikTok are the ones with a proper range of diverse lived experiences and localized entertainment. They allow people to document their own histories, without any burden or moral gatekeeping. From circus-like stunts to casual hugs, from poetry to curses, from food recipes to Mujra dances, TikTok has it all. Such practices dismantle our binaries, our supposed moralities, and our very definition of art forms. It’s the art that comes from people, not to them, and therefore there’s a certain honesty about it. The mere fact that working-class people and marginalized communities are outrageously talented, that too with a platform where they can put it all out, and that they have a huge following in the indigenous circles, is too hard a pill for the elite and the powerful to swallow. Khajistan, on its Instagram page, celebrates these people and what they do, highlighting all of their joys and fumbles. It doesn’t pity them. It doesn’t look at them with fascination or shock. It just acknowledges their life and artistic endeavors. It laughs and cries alongside them. It becomes them.
My first interaction with Khajistan was, in fact, through their Instagram page – The Khajistan Archive. The archive shows that whatever remains of the old Lollywood is still alive. It has only moved to the fringes of the national culture. It has become the entertainment of the working class, especially in the rural landscape. It shows that no matter what the larger discourse on the TV and the internet reveals, no matter how vehemently certain practices are dismissed as vulgar and intolerable, there are people still dancing to the rhythms of history. The library is committed to the local forms of entertainment – whether they come through TikTok, WhatsApp forwards, snippets from BIGO LIVE shows, popular memes, film posters from the yesteryear, private party scenes from Punjab to Kabul, or just men wearing goatskins for fun. Much like the podcast, the Instagram page is also a surreal mix of everything: ranging from updates regarding the worst power outages in district lower Dir to muscular men half-nude and posing for photoshoots. The film section of the old newspapers. Pictures of hash cigarettes or watermelons by a canal. The unfettered and unfiltered dance moves of showgirls and showboys of Pakistan. Popular memes. Innocent jokes. Special programs. Kabbadi players. Signs of God. Posters about much-anticipated dog-fights. Photoshopped images of celebrity butts. Hair oil commercials. You open Instagram and you cannot anticipate what Khajistan would throw at you on the day. It could be anything. You can’t define the content using your convenient binaries. It’s subversive, political, funny, and thought-provoking simultaneously. One of my favorite video features two young boys in a park – a soft, romantic beat runs in the background, the guy making the video tries to hold the hand of his friend, the other guy gives off a shy smile, as if for him the camera is too aggressive an instrument to be allowed to capture our moments of intimacy, or as if someone sitting in a high place might take offense, but they eventually hold hands, smile, and the video is done. In the end, it looks nothing short of a triumph.
Khajistan should be seen as an important cultural archive, a parallel internet space that documents the lesser-known, the lesser seen, and just acknowledges people’s right to take ownership of their own lived experiences. Those who dismissed Lollywood as too vulgar and shallow are also deeply disturbed by the idea of sharing space on the internet. I often wonder how TikTok would have been treated if it wasn’t largely used by the working class and the marginalized communities. And if it wasn’t constantly challenging our very understanding of the relationship between mainstream media and the state institutions. Class and privilege dictate what we see as important and what we refuse to see all together. Khajistan is only interested in the latter. It is the last tea stall in a city overtaken by the cafes. It swallows our moral bubble, spits it out, and stares back at it triumphantly.
Khajistan essentially shows that no matter what the national culture and its saviors say, no matter what the remnants of colonial legal systems imply, no one can tell us how to live, breathe, and feel joy. The culture and the art – so too life – refuse to breathe within the constraints of moral convictions enforced upon us. We shall continue to be a surreal mix of everything, in a place where the divine, absurd, vulgar, funny, and subversive will continue to immerse and dance in each other’s honor. We are not either this or that or anything that is said and shown about us. Our joys shouldn’t belong to the men of state. What we consume as art shouldn’t be up for any national discourse. To pose threats to upper-class morality, whether it’s through art or the way we dress up on certain nights, is an act of resistance and honesty. And on quiet afternoons, when I open Instagram, Khajistan whispers these words in my ears: when it’s not safe out there, we do not disappear, we only hide, lurk around the corners, and patiently stare at avenues that we shall make less lonely with our art and acts of love.