Monday, 24 October 2011

Aaloo Andey: Satire with a bite in Pakistan

By M Ilyas Khan BBC News, Islamabad
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
24 October 2011 Last updated at 19:04 ET

Potato and egg curry - the scourge of every Pakistani school lunch box - is the inspiration for one of the most biting and daring satires the country has seen in years. But is it too big a risk? Aaloo Andey (potato and egg curry) is the first single from an underground band called the Bayghairat (Shameless) Brigade and the video has gone viral in Pakistan, with tens of thousands of hits on YouTube.

Its scathing lyrics take on taboo subjects such as Islamic fundamentalism and the Pakistani army chief in a way that no one has done before. “We wanted to create a message against the anti-democratic forces and start a debate, which we have done.”

It also pours scorn on Pakistani society where ruthless killers - such as Mumtaz Qadri who killed a politician for his religious views and Ajmal Qasab the sole surviving gunman from the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks - are glorified as heroes by some. This is a place, the song goes, where a Pakistani Nobel prize-winning physicist, Abdus Salam, is forgotten because he is from the minority, and much reviled, Ahmadi community.

Bayghairat Brigade are three young men with a sense of humour but also, clearly, with a sense of despair about Pakistan. The potato and egg curry of the title is just a way of lamenting how Pakistani society dishes out the same old rubbish year after year.

But do the band members realise that they may have put their lives on the line? After all, journalists in Pakistan are often intimidated for pushing the boundaries of reportage.

"When we were working on the lyrics, we clearly had in our mind that this may happen," says Daniyal Malik, a band member. "But we wanted to create a message against the anti-democratic forces and start a debate, which we have done."
Politicians - 'easy prey'

Ordinarily, satire on Pakistani television is tolerably amusing but not very daring. It only really targets the harmless figures on the political landscape - the politicians. They are easy prey, veteran comedians argue, because they do not truly hold the reins of power.

There are more than a dozen comedy shows that Pakistani channels broadcast weekly. They include skits, rants and Indian film songs adapted to the political situation.
Pakistan"s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar speaks as she adjusts her scarf during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after their talks Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has been the recent target of satire in Pakistan.

But the more insidious presence of Pakistan's intelligence services and also the army - which many believe are the true power-brokers in the country - are conspicuously absent from comedy fare. One recent sketch centres around Pakistan's extension of the most favoured nation trade status to its neighbour and arch-rival, India.

It shows an elegant woman with high cheek bones and a husky voice addressing what looks like a news conference to give "ten solid reasons" why this was done. This is clearly a version of Pakistan's young and glamorous Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar.

"First reason, the Indians like us more than their own people," the character says. "When I visited India in July, they paid more attention to me than their own foreign minister... their TV channels continued to show my hand bag and my bracelet." This goes on until she reveals that "jewellery and make-up kits are cheaper in India".

Although politician-bashing is the rage, many feel that truly free intellectual debate and parody are lacking as far as TV goes. The youthful Bayghairat Brigade released their song on YouTube pointing to the liberating potential of social media.

But some of Pakistan's best political satire was produced in the 1970s and 1980s, when official censorship was much more overwhelming than it is now. In the 1970s, under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when politicians really did have power, satire was directed at them.

"We would pore for hours over each line of the script to make sure we put across a point without being hit by the rules, or use words that could be interpreted in other ways than we intended them to," says Arshad Mahmud, a veteran actor and musician, who was part of that scene.

Now the pressures of producing a large amount of material day after day results in repetition and half-baked skits that are more libellous than comic.

So what happened?

Mr Mahmud has an explanation: "Previously you used to end up in jail for some time. Now they give you a bullet in the head." 'Weeks of harassment' But as the level of threat grows, so does the artistic urge to break down the barriers. Music and social media are more convenient vehicles.

A recent sketch by Mohammad Zahoor, one of Pakistan's best known political cartoonists, shows a Taliban militant who has weapons for arms and is wearing an army boot on one foot - a subtle suggestion that the army is a part of Taliban's overall ensemble.

It is an implication the military has long resisted, denying any links or support for militant groups. Nevertheless the cartoon mocks Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a civilian, for asking the Taliban to give up arms - as if a civilian government can order the military in Pakistan.

"I discover their offensive potential only when I see them [the cartoons] in print”
Mohammad Zahoor Pakistani cartoonist

Mr Zahoor recalls living through weeks of harassment in 2007 by some "clean-shaven" men who would come knocking at his door at midnight. "I don't know who they were, but those were the days when I had done a series of cartoons about the military and the Taliban," he says.

He resisted the urge to put his perceptions in a cartoon when Osama Bin Laden was killed in May. But sometimes cartoons can fall off the scales which balance personal safety and judgement with laughter. "I discover their offensive potential only when I see them in print," he says.

Others, like the Bayghairat Brigade, issue more direct challenges to those elements in Pakistani society they seek to mock. "If you want a bullet through my head: like the video," reads one placard displayed at the end of the clip on YouTube.