There is a strikingly curious par adox about the relationship of the Pashtoons, otherwise Pakhtoons or Pathans, with music and the performing arts in general. In this deeply religious and conservative society, the musician is held in a certain contempt. The use of the derogatory term damm (drummer) that is often employed against singers and performing artistes is an index of this low regard and social status. And yet, Pashtoon society as a whole is very music-minded. This fondness for music is almost on a par with their other legendary passions—guns, fine food and having a good laugh. This paradoxical relationship has extracted a cultural price. For years, social stigma has deterred young Pashtoons from taking to the performing arts. Without Pashtoons being active in the cultural sphere of modern-day Pakistan, their society became susceptible to negative depictions on cultural screens dominated by other ethnic groups. Other ethnic groups, particularly those against whom the Pashtoons have fought in the course of their drawn-out freedom struggle, found it easy to depict them as uncivilised and aggressive. Thus, Pashtoon success in the military theatre was in a sense offset by their defeat in how they were represented culturally and in the media.
Perhaps the most notable instance of this contradictory process was the Pashtoons’ encounter with the British. The toughest resistance the colonisers faced in their conquest of the Subcontinent was in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the traditional territory of the Pashtoons. So it was but natural that the British would depict their most formidable foes in rather uncharitable terms. Once the seeds of such depiction were sowed, they acquired purchase in the wider cultural plane of British India. For the vanquished elite, desperate for Anglo-Saxon recognition and approval, it was a rare moment of privilege to join the victor in poking fun at the very people who had resisted conquest. This is how the caricature of the violent and unrefined Pashtoon was added to the inventory of cultural parody, readymade for the time when cinema came along.
When the British quit the Subcontinent after partitioning it, the opposition to Pashtoon independence and the caricature of Pashtoon society both remained in place. The dominant Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking elite of Pakistan could not countenance the Pashtoon urge to promote their political and cultural identity. In obviously conscious ways, attempts were made to question the patriotic credentials of the Pashtoons and to lampoon their tribal lifestyle. Caricature, once again, was how this opposition expressed itself.
The flowing salwar kameez and turban in which the Pashtoon men attired themselves, the idiosyncrasies of their Urdu diction, their conservative attitude towards women’s rights, their penchant for settling disputes with the gun, and their prolonged blood-feuds stretching over generations, became the butt of much insensitive and vapid mirth. Comic Pashtoon characters in the role of chowkidars and durbans, speaking Pashto inflected Urdu, were needlessly inserted into Pakistani films (in the manner the ‘Gurkha’ chowkidar entered the Hindi film about this time), television dramas and radio plays to provide the light interludes. When the need became great, the Pashtoon was made to assume, unsurprisingly, the role of the villain.
If this was the dominant trend, there fortunately was also a modest tendency in reverse. This was the result of a gradual change that overtook Pashtoon society over the recent decades—increasing levels of literacy in the community made a difference to the ways in which the Pashtoons could respond to the cultural lampooning. The subject people’s awareness of the problem filtered to some degree the kind of imaging that was going on. There has also been an increasing presence of Pashtoon writers and artistes in Pakistan’s mainstream audio-visual media. At the same time, to give them due credit, some non-Pashtoon authors and artistes also consciously avoided the tendency to caricature and condemn.
There has thus been a corrective trend in Pakistani cinema, with Pashtoons finally coming in for some sympathetic portrayal. Movies and dramas on the lives of freedom fighters, such as Ajab Khan Afridi, glorified the sacrifice and achievements of the Pashtoons.
The cultural scene in India, in stark contrast, provides an interesting reversal of trends. In Bombay’s prodigious cinematic outpourings, Pashtoons used to receive sympathetic portrayals but now there is a rush to tar them with a vicious brush, as malevolent aliens.
Perhaps it was the impressive presence of Pashtoon artistes among the celebrities of the Bombay silver screen which helped in projecting a positive image of the community for a long time. Starting from the Partition generation and continuing through their offspring, Pashtoon celebrities nicely populated the Hindi film world—Yusuf Khan (Dilip Kumar to his fans), Gul Hameed, Feroz Khan and brother Sanjay Khan, Amjad Khan, Madhubala, and Gohar Jan Anbala Wali, were among the recognised Pashtoon Bombay celebrities of the past.
Even the Prithvi Raj Kapoor family (Raj Kapoor, et al) took pride in its Frontier connections and Peshawar origins. There is a substantial Pashtoon presence on the Bombay movie sets to this day. The popular contemporary Khans of Bollywood—lead actors Aamir, Saif, Salman and Shahrukh all—have Pashtoon ancestry. Beside films, music too is well served by distinguished Pashtoons. There are several Pathan gharanas of musicians from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Amjad Ali Khan, who are acknowledged maestros in a wide range of musical forms.
So impressive a presence no doubt contributed to the emphasis on such positive signifiers of the Pashtoon character, like loyalty, friendship, chivalry and tolerance in the various Indian media, most particularly cinema. Hindi movies like Kabuliwala and Zanjeer, which showed Pashtoons as good-natured, honourable and courageous, come easily to mind. Amitabh Bachchan’s depiction of a Pashtoon character in Zanjeer is arguably one of his most memorable performances.
Pashtoon, the terrorist
But times are once again changing as geo-politics casts its shadow on South Asian culture. Hindi cinema has in recent years been held hostage by patriotic and jingoistic influences. There has been a sudden flaring up of nationalistic feeling among the emergent middle class, which now forms a formidable centre of economic power. The patriotic leanings of this segment has been seen as something to be exploited by Bollywood as well, and so it did at a time when Indian society became increasingly intolerant in communal and religious terms, and as the 1998 nuclear tests and the 1999 Kargil war added to the nationalistic fervour.
The result, as it affects the Pashtoons, has been a sudden rise in the production of films that deal with ‘terrorism’. These films depict the community as part of the external conspiracy against the Indian state. This tendency came to the fore with the rising levels of conflict in Kashmir from 1990 onwards, with the increasing involvement of the Indian military and the Indian state’s finger-pointing at agent provocateurs sent in by malign neighbours to wreak havoc in the Valley. Film producers discovered that the unfolding real-life scenario in Kashmir could easily be integrated into the standard formula of the Hindi movie, and the heroic Indian male thus got innumerable opportunities to foil the designs of mercenary foreign hands bent on breaking up the Republic.
While Pakistan was significantly absent from the Hindi film screen for decades, the crop of new films has now taken it head on. These films, which target not only Pakistan but also the Pashtoons of Pakistan/Afghanistan, are now coming fast and furious. This trend started with movies like Border in 1997, followed by Hindustan Ki Qasam in 1998, and three more in 2000, Mission Kashmir, Fiza and Refugee. Directly or indirectly, these productions deal with alleged Pakistan-backed terrorism in India, particularly in the Indian part of Kashmir. Exploiting the nationalist sentiment for the sake of box-office receipts, these films pay scant regard to the consequences of such depictions for geopolitical relations in a nuclearised Subcontinent.
In more than one of the new genre of ‘terrorist films’, Pashtoons have come in for extremely negative portrayal. The central villain of Mission Kashmir, played by Jackie Shroff, is a Pashtoon mercenary who is godfather to militant infiltrators in Kashmir. The film builds up its case of the Kashmir uprising as being foreign- or Pakistan-sponsored, on the basis of Jackie Shroff’s role. In the process, Pashtoons are presented as nothing more than lowly mercenaries. It is rare, in these days of communal political correctness, for a Bombay production to be so blatantly against an entire ethnicity, but this is perhaps possible because the target here is seen to be living outside Indian boundaries.
Pashtoon/Afghan tribesmen do have a long and enduring attachment to Kashmir, having ruled the Valley in the past. They also played a dominant role in liberating and occupying Pakistani Kashmir, or Azad Kashmir as it is called, in 1947-48. There is no doubt that some Pashtoons from Pakistan and Afghanistan have fought in Indian Kashmir and are still fighting. But their numbers are small: certainly not of the magnitude that warrants such an exaggerated portrayal of Pashtoons as terrorists and criminals.
There are good Pashtoons and there are surely a few bad Pashtoons, but nuances are rapidly being buried in the sweeping onrush of Bollywood generalisations. In a South Asia where we will ultimately have to learn to live together, let not this demonising of the Pashtoons irretrievably affect their image.