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Can pakistan laugh its way to a revolution?
A new wave of music with hard-hitting messages wrapped in humour is all the rage in Pakistan. The lyrics are ironic, the videos satirical and the targets encompass everyone and everything from the president to power cuts.
Pakistani audiences are quite used to parodies and spoofs. The state-owned TV channel has hosted some very popular shows in the past. One of the most popular was 50/50, called the Saturday Night Live of Pakistan. Turn on any TV channel today and chances are you will see the country's politicians being lampooned. The tone, however, is more playful than pungent.
For pungent, go to the new songs being shared and spread online. That's where the action is. Pakistan's social media evangelists believe in talking to their viewers and talking back to the establishment. Instead of love songs, you have protest music. Qismat apne haath main (Your fate is in your hands), Laga Reh (Keep on going), Apne Ulloo (Grind your own axe), Bum Phata (Bomb Blast) and No Saazish No Jang (No Conspiracy No War) talk about corruption and extremism and are sung by mainstream singers Shehzad Roy, Ali Azmat and Shahwar Ali Khan.
YouTube has been a game changer. Senior artists have been left behind by YouTube activists who mock religious extremism, militancy, feudalism and the shortage of power in the country. Humour is selling in Pakistan despite, or because, of the many problems the country faces. Sarcasm is being used as a means to raise awareness and express social and political dissent.
Last year a track called Aaloo Anday (Potato Eggs) by a band Beyghairat Brigade (Shameless Brigade) became an instant hit, racking close to a million views. The Lahore band is made up of 15-year-old Hamza Malik, economist Daniyal Malik, and Saeed, who works as a director at a local news channel. "Although we've made a song that picks on the way things are happening in Pakistan, we are not revolutionaries, " Daniyal told Express Tribune. The song was a hit mainly because it highlighted issues no musician had touched before. It ridiculed the powerful army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiani for extending his position by another three years and criticised the popular support for Ajmal Kasab (the lone surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Mumtaz Qadri (assassin of liberal politician and Punjab governor, Salman Taseer). Qadri was greeted with rose petals when he made his first appearance in court.
People were not over Aaloo Anday when a 26-year-old stand-up, Ali Gul Pir, won overnight fame for Waderai ka beta (Son of a Feudal Lord), in which he poured scorn on the mighty life of a feudal landlord's son in Pakistan. Driving around in a Hummer with a gunman in the back seat, Pir rapped about the lives of the arrogant, over-privileged sons of feudal landlords who roll around in their fancy cars acting like they own the streets. In his own words: "The term 'waderai ka beta' is so generic yet so expressive that my job of addressing the issue regarding their misuse of power was done without my having to make any ethnic or religious references. " The video got half-amillion views in less than a week. What made him think of the piercing put-down : Saeen to saeen, saeen ka kutta bhi saeen (Even the dog of a feudal lord is a feudal lord)? "I have grown up seeing sons of businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians taking advantage of 'daddy power', " says Pir. "Thus, the obvious reaction for me would be to make a song about them (I'm being sarcastic). "
Criticising the chronic power outages in Pakistan is a song called Wapda (Load-shedding gift available 24X7) by Akash. It speaks to every Lahori who swelters in the heat for up to 15 hours at a stretch. Akash's catchy rap rhythm Light aayi, light gayi and Pir's Saeen to Saeen are the new love interests of bloggers who can't stop praising the singers for having creatively voiced these everyday problems.
On television too, political humour is blossoming like never before. Historically, Pakistani governments have heavily restricted media freedom, but General Musharraf, the last military dictator in Pakistan, introduced substantial media liberalisation. The most popular political satire, BNN, aired on the country's most-watched satellite channel, creatively parodies everyone important in politics - and we mean just about everyone. It also carries spoof celebrity interviews but political comedy is the reason the show is popular. From the president of Pakistan to the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to former cricketer Wasim Akram, everyone has been mocked.
Murtaza Chaudhry, executive producer and host of BNN, thinks satire is a way for the public to talk to their leaders. "This new form of satire is not mere criticism of the system errors, " he says. "It provides news, views, entertainment and more. It calls for a self-assessment by those in power, bidding them to reflect on how a common person thinks about their actions. "
Several Western journalists think new media helps powerless people to coordinate, collaborate and give voice to their concerns. But the huge public protests in Moldova and Iran, that were dubbed the Twitter Revolution, were found to be hyped up dramatically. So, will social media activism trigger a social revolution in Pakistan? Probably not, but mocking the mighty is deeply satisfying.
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