Does Samina Peerzada's talk show normalise the dark side of celebrity culture?

In an effort to present sanitised images of Pakistani celebrities, Rewind might be doing a disservice to its viewers.
Published 22 Jul, 2019 08:30am

Kabhi darakht pay charhi ho? Kabhi chai main biscuit dooba hay? Kabhi kisi nay poocha ke roza kahan rakha?

Memes will tell you that no one thinks to ask... except Samina Peerzada.

Samina Peerzada’s YouTube web-show channel features video titles that are often provocative and make bold claims: “We Bet You Have Never Seen Nabila Like This Before”, “Ali Noor’s Most Shocking Interview”, “Noor Khan Breaks Down”, “Hina Altaf in Tears”, “An Interview That Will Make You Cry”.

With over 160,000 subscribers, and over 400,000 views on its most popular uploads, the channel is dedicated to broadcasting the show Rewind by Samina Peerzada.

The web show host went viral recently, as the Pakistani web-world had a couple of field days making memes out Samina Peerzada’s tendency to ask strangely intimate details about her guests’ lives. The format of the meme implies that there is a conversation happening between no one (absolutely no one) and Samina Peerzada.

As hilarious as these memes are, they also beg the question: why does Samina Peerzada ask what no one else seems to ask? Why does her web show feature these strange details about a celebrity’s life? And to what effect?

The stand-out feature of this web-show is that it is often a public display of vulnerability on a celebrity’s part – Samina Peerzada gently excavates life stories and experiences, and as one moves through the episodes, the pattern to each interview becomes familiar: the host asks unusual questions about childhood toys, habits, dreams (both literal and metaphorical), upbringing and most importantly, personal trauma that instantly becomes public through this web-show.

Each interview is an intense journey, hinges on both joy and pain, and often involves a celebrity breaking down and crying as they recount their memories.

Rewind provides a complex portrait of each Pakistani celebrity – one of the results of this public exploration of trauma is that Pakistani women in the media industry come forward with their struggles with family, domesticity, abuse and hardship.

Maya Ali, for example, tears up on the show as she remembers her family’s opposition to her career choices. Juggun Kazim’s interview is a gut-wrenching tale of a survivor of domestic abuse.

Qurratulain Baloch’s interview is a thought-provoking exploration of how language and loyalty becomes turbulent when moving families, homes and countries. Hina Altaf’s story is a fascinating narrative of a struggling, young woman who has made it in the Pakistani media industry against all odds.

But does vulnerability always create conditions for empathy? And how are we invited to empathize with some of the most powerful people in Pakistan?

When efforts to 'humanise' celebrities become a blanket acceptance of questionable behavior

When Hira Mani appeared on Rewind, she was, as is customary on the show, invited to share her life with the audience.

Hira Mani detailed how she became romantically involved with Mani, which involved lying to both Hira and Mani’s respective partners at the time. There was no exploration of remorse.

Instead, the interview maintained the “motherly” tone Samina Peerzada has become known for, and allowed Hira Mani to tell her story without any repercussions. In the same interview, Hira Mani also says, “Mard ko ham bura khud banatay hain. Mard bari pyari cheez hay.”

Hira Mani was on the receiving end of much criticism after this interview, as the complete lack of self-reflection on Hira Mani’s part was pointed out: how there was no understanding of how toxic masculinity has less to do about making men “look bad”, and more to do with the different forms of violence that are a result of toxic masculinities.

These tone-deaf statements and narratives are allowed screen-time in the pursuit of presenting “humanizing” portraits of celebrities – both the host and the guest can consider these statements acceptable for the web-screen in the guise of exploring their life for public consumption.

Ali Zafar was also invited as a guest on Samina Peerzada’s show. Despite having harassment allegations to his name, his work, words, thoughts and life were given space on Rewind, and yet again, as audience, we were invited to consume this public figure through his vulnerability.

Ali Zafar has repeatedly used his image as a “family man” in an attempt to dispel harassment allegations to his name by multiple women, and his interview also emphasised his belief in family values. The harassment allegations were not discussed on the show, meaning that while the show believes in an exploration of life, it also seems to skirt around other kinds of explorations that although controversial, are essential to think about vulnerability.

Because when vulnerability is a tool to reinforce the societal power that these celebrities hold, and present them in a light in which we can better ‘understand’ them, there is not much room left for the hard-hitting questions that matter.

Asking questions is a huge responsibility. Is Samina Peerzada asking the right ones?

Consider an interview in which a celebrity with sexual harassment and violence allegations to his name is held accountable: when Gayle King interviewed R. Kelly, who was accused of sexual harassment, and openly discussed the harassment allegations, the interview was remembered as “explosive” – a striking contrast to the mellow, emotional tone of Samina Peerzada’s show.

Is Samina Peerzada actually going easy on her guests?
Is Samina Peerzada actually going easy on her guests?

Rewind seems to deliberately avoid such explosions, and relies instead on ‘sellable’ images of Pakistani celebrities. As a consequence, celebrities like Ali Zafar are invited to talk about their life philosophies, childhood memories, and ‘success stories’ – without any expectation of accountability.

When one’s vulnerability is used to present their goodness and humanity to a large public, it can be an immense source and form of privilege. Asking questions no one has asked before, and answering them, then, is a great responsibility that the show takes on.

While Rewind features incredibly powerful interviews that yield insight on how the Pakistani media, sports and music industry function, and the struggles of those who are relatively marginalized within these industries, it must also be careful in over-empathizing with these big names.

There is, absolutely, value in asking questions no-one asks, because, for one, they make for good television, and for another, they give us access to information and perspectives that might potentially change the way we see things.

But when rewinding as Samina Peerzada does serve to tap at public attention through an interview format that is unique, it ends up ‘playing safe’. Playing safe avoids explosions, controversies, and most importantly, discomfort, which is a function of holding talk show guests accountable.

There is value in asking questions no-one asks, provided they are the right questions.