The Urdu word ‘fahashi’, meaning ‘vulgarity’ or ‘perverse’, carries a heavy weight across Southasian societies, sometimes leaving serious imprints on how certain groups of people are perceived, labelled and stereotyped. In 2020, filmmaker Saad Khan and creative director Joey Chriqui made a documentary called Showgirls of Pakistan which exposed the cultural complexity of fahashi. The film documents the practice of ‘mujra’ in Pakistan: a traditional form of Kathak dance that began in the Mughal Empire during the 16th century. It was performed by women on folk music in pre-colonial Indian courts for royalty, and later for local rulers during the British Raj. Perceived as high culture in pre-colonial India, the British labelled it immoral, and criminalised and demoted it to working-class culture towards the period of Mughal decline. This change pushed mujra dancers, also known as ‘Naachch girls’ in pre-colonial times, to the fringes of Indian, and part of what is now Pakistani, society, and still continues to do so today as seen in the lives of three mujra dancers in Showgirls – Afreen Khan, Uzma Khan and Reema Jaan.
While the film captures the mujra dancers’ conflicted yet powerful humanity, it also reminds us to unearth the grander pop culture of Pakistan’s working class, in particular one of the pop culture variants: the Punjabi subculture. It is loud, colourful and intense – everything that isn’t ‘decent’ or ‘proper’. And Showgirls proudly adopts this noisy aesthetic to represent the dancers’ lifestyles. This aesthetic comes from the cinema of 1970s-80s Lollywood, the film industry based in Lahore, representing an era that was part of the country’s Golden Age of cinema. It is a specific film style widely known for its vibrant energy, but what most do not know is how it was a powerful form of resistance during Pakistan’s most oppressive dictatorship, that of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s, from 1978 to 1988. The films adopted Punjabi culture’s ‘perverse’ stereotypes and unapologetically played with these to express the working classes’ social and political struggles of the time. In doing so, the films transformed the loudness from just perverse to productively perverse.
Before we dig into Zia’s dictatorship and what role Punjabi cinema played during that period, what really happened to Punjabi culture that led to its ill-fated status? Punjab is an important region of both modern-day India and Pakistan, not only dating back to pre-Partition India, but all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation from 2600 BCE. Punjabis are known for their ethnolinguistic identity with a rich culture across philosophy, spirituality, science, architecture, literature, art and more. Despite this history, Punjabis experienced a gradual decline in social status over the course of the British Raj in colonial India, and the region was often associated with ‘low’ culture.
A new film policy, the Motion Pictures Ordinance 1979, was introduced, which restricted freedom of expression and experimentation in films.
The British began to see Punjabis through their colonial moral lens. They directly targeted the Punjabi language as it was a strong representative of Punjabi identity, by creating a language value-scheme ranking in the order of English, Urdu/Hindi, and Punjabi. This produced a form of cultural hegemony through language and created a strict social hierarchy. The former two, and especially English, were formally used and promoted in government and military affairs, as well as education, literature and the news. Punjabi was meanwhile marginalised and kept at bay. It was suited for swearing, insults and jokes but not textbooks, law documents, novels or newspapers. This meant that language was not simply a means of communication, but a marker of social status, class, and power. At the bottom was Punjabi (along with other minority languages) representing marginalised and indigenous groups who were deprived of their linguistic rights, as well as their social rights in an already conflicted and unequal colonial environment. The hierarchy spread from the colonists to the colonised, where distinct social statuses were reinforced and internalised by the locals, leaving long-lasting effects.
Punjabi became, and still is, the identity of the ‘rural’ and working class whose lifestyles are seen as distinct from the ‘prestigious’ elite. This ‘low’ social class uses Punjabi in their homes, local markets, alternative literature and music, and in theatre and cinema – and it should presumably remain there, in the peripheries of society, just like mujra dancers.
Aesthetics as resistance
During the years of the Zia dictatorship, film theatres hidden away in the fringes of cities, such as Capitol Cinema in Lakshmi Chowk Lahore, were often full of rickshaw drivers, truck drivers and food vendors ready to watch a Punjabi film after a long hard day of work. After sentencing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to death, General Zia imposed martial law in 1977, and came to power in 1978. He was head of state for eleven years until killed in a mysterious, possibly random, C-130 Hercules plane crash in 1988. During the regime, he instituted his version of Islamisation: a process of social change that sought to expand the role of Islamic religious institutions across Pakistani society. The dictatorship affected Pakistani society in many ways. It’s known to be the key phase in Pakistani history that turned the country towards the notion of ‘political Islam’ in a very real way. At the same time, the period saw a growing distance between the rural masses and elite groups. The working class felt marginalised and disconnected from the grander vision of Pakistan, its national identity, and its future.
At the bottom was Punjabi (along with other minority languages) representing marginalised and indigenous groups who were deprived of their linguistic rights, as well as their social rights in an already conflicted and unequal colonial environment.
These changes also affected cinema. A new film policy, the Motion Pictures Ordinance 1979, was introduced, which restricted freedom of expression and experimentation in films. During this year, several films were banned repeatedly, significantly affecting the Lollywood film industry. While there’s much public discourse on the rise of media censorship laws during Zia’s time – which are still impactful today – there’s less discussion on how Punjabi cinema boomed in response to this fearful dictatorship.
In his book, Pakistan Cinema: 1947-1997 (1997), Mushtaq Gazdar explains how during Zia’s regime, “people were in the grip of terror but were unable to express their resentment”. This expression found its way into Punjabi cinema which helped give Punjabi identity a new and fresh imagination. In a way, a specific cinema aesthetic became a framework for expressing social injustice. Heer Ranjha (1970), Uchi Haveli (1971), Wehshi Jatt (1975), Maula Jatt (1979), and Chan Veryam (1981) are a few of many films that were part of this transformation. They unapologetically used stereotypes Punjabis were associated with – of being loud, crude, vulgar, violent, uncivilised – to make a powerful political statement. These films took these ‘negative’ elements and visually re-emphasised or re-appropriated them instead of denying them. It was a shocking contrast to the history of denial experienced by Punjabi culture for hundreds of years. The cinema aesthetic became a tool to express the common (working class) Pakistani’s experiences of extreme social and political oppression under Zia. Through images, texts and sound, the films gave rise to an ‘aesthetics of excess’ that represented working class realities.
The ‘too-much’ in Punjabi cinema aesthetics
In this aesthetics of excess, there was a ‘too-much’ of everything: too much sexual play, too much verbal and physical violence, hyperemotional storylines and narratives, and exaggerated use of colours, images and sounds. Most films followed a battle story of a common male villager who struggled for his rights against an uncaring unruly feudal lord, or for his right to love whom he wants against an unfair family member or village rival – or in real life, a dictatorial regime. Here, unfairness, injustice and melodrama triumphed, sensationalising and dramatising the story’s characters and events to appeal to the audience’s emotions. There was strong pathos, heightened emotionality, and moral polarisation.
The film Maula Jatt (1979) is known for this hyperemotional and hyperviolent characteristic of Punjabi identity. The storyline is extremely melodramatic with images of horror, bloody revenge, violence and vigilante justice. It follows a ‘revenge-seeking peasant-warrior’ narrative played by actor Sultan Rahi. The opening scene immediately sets the melodramatic ambience – set in a village in Pakistan, a young girl is running away barefoot from a horse-riding goon from the evil Nath clan. No one ever questioned this clan’s authority as unjust feudal lords except Jatt and his friend. This melodramatic style in Punjabi cinema also used heightened verbal violence, known as ‘bharrak’. It’s a high-pitched, full-throated, frightening verbal duel or yell that was used to challenge or insult the enemy. The loud bharrak used exclamations like ‘oye!’, invoking feelings of courage, strength, honour, community and revenge.
The Urdu word ‘fahashi’, meaning ‘vulgarity’ or ‘perverse’, carries a heavy weight across Southasian societies, sometimes leaving serious imprints on how certain groups of people are perceived, labelled and stereotyped.
Other Punjabi films are also famous for their themes of injustice, cruelty and aesthetics of melodrama. Heer Ranjha (1970) is based on a classic epic folktale written by the famous Sufi poet Waris Shah in 1766. The film follows two lovers who fight to love one another and get married, who are constantly threatened by the eponymous character Heer’s evil uncle who has devious plans to separate the couple, and possibly kill them. In Basheera (1972), an angry young man vows to take revenge for his loved ones from enemies. Similarly, in Silsila (1987) there is violent rivalry between families where Jeva takes an oath to marry her son to her enemy’s daughter.
With such storylines, Punjabi cinema was dominated by visuals of glamourised violence in battle-like scripts. Often a warrior would seek revenge from an unjust ruler in scenes rampaged with blood and gore; or would fight till death for his true love in an unjust world. These narratives played into existing social issues that were represented in the films’ characters’ subjective experiences of daily moral battles. The Punjabi hero, uneducated and unruly, was not seen as a direct threat to Zia and his dictatorship. What went unnoticed by officials were the deeper symbolic meanings within the film narratives and aesthetics. In fact, the cinema quite literally adopted and reflected the regime’s violence, especially its practice of public punishments, which used violence as a tool for moral instruction and control. For Gazdar, Maula Jatt was more than just a story about violence and war: “It is a battle between the forces of the jungle and civilised ruler.”
Jatti women’s hypersexuality
Most films followed a battle story of a common male villager who struggled for his rights against an uncaring unruly feudal lord, or for his right to love whom he wants against an unfair family member or village rival – or in real life, a dictatorial regime.
Next to the intensely emotional feature of melodrama, excessive sexuality is an important characteristic of Punjabi film’s aesthetics of excess. Women or ‘jattis’ – the male counterpart of Jatt men – challenged traditional passive victim-heroine tropes. In fact, they openly played with sexuality and deviated from the traditional portrayal of women in Pakistani cinema. For 1970s-80s Pakistan, this was definitely ‘too-much’, and is possibly so even for today. Jatti women are complete opposites of ‘chhooi-mooi’ – innocent and shy – girls from Urdu cinema. Chhooi-mooi female characters were often associated with innocent girlhood rather than mature womanhood, and represented the ‘respectful’ middle and upper classes. They never raise their eyebrows before men, possess an invisible guard of self-respect and honour, wear clothes that cover most of their bodies, and are timid in their sexuality. Jatti women, on the other hand, are fierce, and fully embrace uncensored sexual freedom in their bombastic dialogues, actions, clothes, songs and dances. The demeanour is often associated with poverty and lack of morality. But instead of hiding or shaming any of it, the films openly engaged with it.
In films such as Insaniyat (1967), Phul Mere Gulshan Ka (1974) and Mera Nam Hai Mohabbat (1975), we see the portrayal of typical chhooi-mooi girls. Whereas in Maula Jatt and Sher Khan (1981), conventional female characters are strictly replaced by jattis, presented as bold assertive women. They carry weapons, wear attire that is similar to Jatt clothing, and also perform the bharrak. They aren’t afraid of voicing and establishing their dominance through verbal and physical acts of power, which were often laced with violence. Despite such portrayals, there’s still debate about how far the jattis challenge patriarchal conceptions about women in Pakistan. While they took part in the larger Punjabi resistance cinema during Zia’s regime, they still experienced a constant tension between trying to break free from conventions and being forced back into traditional female characteristics as lovers, daughters or sisters.
Punjabi productive perversity
The melodramatic features in Punjabi cinema aesthetic – in characters, stories, texts, images and sounds – do not hold meaning in themselves, independent of context. But they do hold and practice meaning based on Punjabi identity’s place within Pakistani, Indian, and the larger Southasian history which gave rise to the cinema’s almost camp style in the 1970-80s. The films acknowledged Punjabi ethnic identity with pride, confidence and freedom. They used distinct features to produce content that expressed working class struggles during Zia’s oppressive dictatorship. Generally, when media forms like film positively engage with stereotypes rooted in class divisions, the too-muchness of it turns from perverse to productive perversity. The unique film aesthetics of excess re-appropriate stereotypes.
Women or ‘jattis’ – the male counterpart of Jatt men – challenged traditional passive victim-heroine tropes.
And what does this mean for stereotypes? The process of re-appropriation transforms previously ‘negative’ and derogatory stereotypes into something affirmative. It essentially gives back agency to Punjabi characters, Punjabis in general, and the Pakistani working class they represent. Onscreen, we see them acknowledging their ethnic identity with pride, confidence and freedom, espeically sexual freedom for jattis. Not only are these characters in power – and not shy of their ethnicity and heritage –, audiences too can find the opportunity to re-evaluate the stereotypes they have grown up with and participated in. Such cinema shows us a way to re-evaluate any hypersexual, emotional, violent representations of the working class’s supposedly ‘low’ culture. It helps us see how in the past Punjabi cinema was used as a political force to challenge institutional and cultural dominance, and how its aesthetic can still hold true today, as seen in Showgirls and the upcoming remake of Maula Jatt.