This happened two years ago. I was standing, one morning in October, in the driveway of a cream-coloured pre-Partition bungalow in New Delhi. A film was being shot here, a film set partly in Lahore. Hence my presence on the set: I was the film’s Pakistan consultant, there to improve the actors’ West Punjabi accents and weed out any social-cultural inaccuracies in the dialogue. (Hence too the art deco mansion on Amrita Shergil Marg, which had been selected because it resembled – in scale and attitude – some houses the director had seen in Lahore. The historical irony in this – the idea that contemporary Lahore could be found in dinosaurial Delhi – was not lost on me.)
Suddenly I spotted in a corner of the lawn two fantastic figures: the men wore turbans and long kurtas, and were holding rifles in the style of warrior Pathans. (The rifles were held vertically, like staffs.)
I looked at the script. The scene we were shooting had no such characters.
“Who are they?” I asked a set designer who was rushing past me with a sheaf of hangers.
“Oh,” she said. “They are ISI only…”
I got the men to change their clothes (the turbans went, as did the rifles, and the kurtas were replaced by awami suits). But the image stayed with me. Or rather, an image of the image that an Indian costume designer can have of Pakistan: a land of war and embroideries, a place where people carry outdated weapons and speak a poetical language and generally behave like figures from Orientalist paintings.
[quote]The irony in the idea that “contemporary” Lahore could now be found in dinosaurial Delhi was not lost on me[/quote]
That imagery came back to me this week, when I went to a theater in Lahore and saw Waar, a Pakistani film with an inverted (and therefore curiously similar) view of this country.
The premise is familiar: Major Mujtaba (played by the now professionally emotive Shaan) is a hotheaded-but-good-hearted former secret agent who has lost his wife and son in the line of fire. (A bomb intended for the Major got his family instead.) Haunted by that loss (“It should have been me!”), Mujtaba goes into a black hole of self-loathing and bad-cop excessiveness: for the first half of the film we alternate between stylish depictions of Mujtaba’s grief (dreams, flashbacks, late-night weeping in bed) and the rough, unfeeling behavior that is its outward manifestation (he is in his element when torturing foreign-funded terrorists). Until he gets a chance to revenge himself properly: the very same Indian agent (played by a bald and thick-necked Shamoon Abbasi) who killed Mujtaba’s family has returned to destabilize the government of Pakistan, and Mujtaba is brought back from an early retirement to stop him in his tracks.
What follows is a visually slick, spiritually bereft and ontologically retarded variant of the Hollywood blockbuster: Major Mujtaba and his teammates, all armed with Mac computers and faulty American accents – they say things like “That’s ma way” and “There is an eminent [imminent] threat!” – blaze and blast their way through the Indians’ plans, until their mission leads them – obviously – into Waziristan. Along the way we are made to suffer, in the form of the rock-star-turned-Freemasonry-enthusiast Ali Azmat, a philandering but well-meaning politician (he wants to build a dam – Pakistan zindabad! – but can’t because of those wretched feudal politicians); a shape-shifting NGO woman (played by Meesha Shafi) who wears a pious white shalwar-kameez by day and a sexy black dress by night and uses red wine and expressionist dance, among other un-Islamic devices, to oversee the Hindu armageddon (her name is Lakshmi, but maybe it should have been Kali); a golf-playing, scarf-and-overcoat wearing intelligence wizard (played by Mr. Kamran Lashari, who in real life designed the now-defunct Food Street in Lahore and is the father of Waar’s director); and a bunch of “misguided”, curiously Punjabi-accented Pathans (they don’t deserve American accents, clearly) in the mountains of Waziristan who have been bribed – by the Indians, who else? –into betraying their country.
‘Who are these people?’ I found myself thinking throughout the magic realism of Waar. These people who want us to believe that our intelligence agencies are stuffed with terminators like Major Mujtaba (and not fulminators like Hamid Gul)? These people who want us to believe that yoga-practicing, slow-dancing Hindus (and not jihad-preaching Arabs and Libyans and Egyptians, to say nothing of our military’s homegrown “strategic assets”) are masterminding the suicide bombings and mass killings in Pakistan? These people who, while hotly upholding the ideology of Pakistan, wish to view themselves only in slick interiors and rugged exteriors – as if their experience of Pakistan were basically divisible into hiking trips and Ikea-furnished apartments? These people who love Islam, who love Mr. Jinnah’s portrait, who love firing guns in the air and shouting American expletives with glamorous grimaces? (“Go f***k yourself!” cries Shaan at one point. “That’s so f*****g convenient!” shouts Meesha Shafi at another.) These people who hold NGO women responsible for the corruption of their society?
[quote]They are crassly imitative while perceiving themselves original and rooted[/quote]
They are, apparently, the makers and financiers of a film called Waar. They are nationalistic in the extreme; they are crassly imitative while perceiving themselves to be original and rooted; and they are still, in this time of unfathomable crisis, when the whole world has declared them dangerous and deluded, trying to sell the idea that Pakistan bleeds when Indians dance.
Won’t you join ‘em – cam on! – on their next trip to Waziristan?