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Entertain the thought

If anything can snap Pakistan out of its current state of lunacy, it has to be Bollywood movies, writes Aakar Patel.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2011 11:14 IST

Recent news from Pakistan has been quite grim. First, Punjab’s governor was murdered by his own bodyguard for showing empathy with a Christian woman about to be hanged. The mother of four’s crime, which she denies committing, was to say unkind words about Prophet Muha-mmad.

Governor Salman Taseer’s other bodyguards knew that murderer Mumtaz Qadri would kill him, but stood aside as he shot over two dozen bullets into Taseer’s back. Then Qadri was garlanded and congratulated by Pakistanis, while Taseer’s body was buried in the absence of President Asif Ali Zardari who sensed the public mood against his dead friend.

The angry Urdu media continues to blame Taseer, indicating he asked to be killed. Even on English newspaper websites, comments from Qadri’s jubilant supporters have overwhelmed the few who are upset. Videos of Qadri singing hymns in custody are on YouTube and being approved by Pakistanis, and Facebook pages in his admiration had to be taken down.

The bar association’s lawyers are defending Qadri for free, and Pakistan’s home minister Rehman Malik admits he would also shoot blasphemers himself. Prime minister Yusuf Gilani says he is a Syed, descended from Prophet Muhammad, and will not change the blasphemy law that Amnesty says is flawed and being misused. At a meeting to support Taseer’s martyrdom, 200 Pakistanis came. To a Karachi march in support of the blasphemy law, 40,000 came.

The last, and most important, signal comes from the Barelvi clerics, who united to condemn the dead Taseer and ordered their members not to conduct his funeral prayer.

Remember, these are the moderate mullahs, who tolerate grave-worship and Sufism. Qadri is himself a follower of the Sufi order of Qadiriyya, as his name indicates. And so we observe that the extremism in Pakistan is no longer limited to the more conservative groups, like the Wahhabis and Deobandis.

In that sense, the battle against extremism is already lost, because the majority is no longer reasonable on matters concerning Islam. They think the war against the Taliban is unwarranted, and given this mood that will soon end in the Taliban’s favour.

Pakistan’s economy will contract over the coming months. There is no growth and no internal investment. How can there be in such an environment? Their International Monetary Fund bailout already happened two years ago, and America is being pushed away because of its hated wars, and because it is seen as the enemy.

Despite their piety, Pakistanis cheat on taxes and have a tax to GDP ratio of under 10%, half of India’s and among the lowest in the world. So, bad as they are, things will get worse as the State surrenders to popular opinion.

Pakistan is at the moment an incomplete ideological state. Some of its laws are Islamic, but most are the same as India’s. Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri reminds them of this and urges them towards the purity of full-dress Shariah. That phase may appear inevitable because, as the events of Taseer’s death illustrate, the movement has the majority behind it.

However, it is unlikely that Pakistan will apply full-dress Shariah. Their State will not fully replicate the misogynist harshness of the Afghan version, or be as dry as the Saudi one. This is because, though they will hate this thought, Pakistanis are culturally similar to Indians, and this madness is not natural to them.

We have one culture and there is as much traffic anarchy on the streets of Karachi as there is on those of Mumbai. But if they are like us, why have they turned out to be so unhinged? The answer is that for decades they have denied themselves access to our shared culture. Extremism is produced by isolation, and it is the isolated ideological state that becomes extreme.

All ideological States attempt to be perfect, and that is what Pakistan is now trying to do by murdering its moderates. However, it will fail because the antidote has already entered the system, though the dosage is weak.

Culture is of two types. The first is classical. This is high culture and in India is represented by things like Hindustani music and formal dance. High culture is for the elite, and its appeal is limited because it engages the intellect. The second is popular culture. This is entertainment, and in India it is Bollywood.

After Partition, Pakistan skewered its high culture because it was thought to be Indian. It is incapable of now producing Hindustani singers or musicians of quality, and can only produce half-trained qawwals like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Pakistan was always unable to produce popular culture because the State stressed piety, and so it was dependent on Bollywood for entertainment. After the 1965 war, this was stopped after Bollywood was banned from being screened in Pakistan. The invention of VCRs brought it back in the 80s through piracy, but only to a few.

Under President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s film exhibitors, who are mostly Gujaratis like Karachi’s Mandviwalla family, demanded that Bollywood be brought back because Pakistani films were rubbish and terrible for business. This happened and now, slowly, Bollywood films are returning to cinema halls across Pakistan. This is a great thing for Pakistan, because popular entertainment makes the nation moderate.

Ideology takes us towards perfection. But the world is imperfect, and popular culture reminds us of that. It opens us up to the idea that entertainment is not opposed to faith, and that uniformity isn’t necessarily a good thing. Popular entertainment is insidious and its power quite deceptive.

To the Pakistani newspaper where I write a column, a woman wrote recently about Indian television. Her children, she complained, had begun using the word sapna instead of khwab. This was traumatic because it made the kids culturally more Indian and less Pakistani. Others complain of Yash Raj-style sangeet and mehndi which are now infiltrating Pakistani weddings.

So long as this stream of entertainment is kept open, the message of bearded piety will not find easy traction.

Even if the State keels over, as is now possible and perhaps even likely, it will revive itself through popular culture’s message of tolerance and moderation. Frightening as it may be to contemplate, Munni, Sheila and Dolly Bindra are the antidote to extremism.

What will pull Pakistan out of its lunacy will ultimately be Bollywood.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media

*The views expressed by the author are personal