What does ‘being Pakistani’ mean to a celebrity?
There was a time when all it signified was wearing green and making appearances in patriotic shows and videos. All a star needed to do was hold a fluttering green and white flag in his or her hand and pose for the cameras.
But as we move into times that are more socially conscientious, loyalty to one's country may take an all-new meaning. Sometimes, being patriotic can mean taking a difficult stand to talk about conflicts that may have direct impact on a celebrity’s career.
Case in point: Pakistan’s conflicts with India. Cross-border tensions between Pakistan and India have been high for some time and are particularly escalated right now due the current situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir.
India's lockdown in Kashmir has deprived the state of its autonomy. A complete communications blackout means that not much is known about what is happening in the region, although various news reports indicate a curfew has been imposed with Indian troops on patrol.
There are also images of protests in Kashmir’s streets, agitating against the Indian government, and more images of people fleeing firing by Indian troops. The world at large has criticised this move made by the Indian government. It puts our celebrities in a tough position.
The Pakistani identity
Some years ago, stars weren’t expected to use their social media voices for anything more than promoting their own work. Now, though, celebrities all over the world are under the moral obligation to make important, socially relevant points on the Internet.
They are, after all, idolised by millions and have colossal followings on Instagram and Twitter — how can they not use this influence to try to bring about change?
Our stars do talk about so much that matters. So many of them post genuine, prolifically written messages related to human rights and global calamities. They have talked frequently about Palestine and Israel. But when it comes to occupied Kashmir, the words are sometimes more carefully phrased.
Until a few years ago, Bollywood was considered a lucrative destination for Pakistan’s most talented. Even now, with cross-border tensions running rife, Pakistani and Indian celebrities continue to interact frequently in shows and commercials shot abroad.
Is it because they want to extend their support to Kashmir while also not calling out India? Would they rather get by with saying ‘it’s inhumane’ without pointing out precisely who is responsible for this inhumanity? The Indian government may be responsible for the lockdown in Kashmir but, nevertheless, India is also where our celebrities have millions of fans and friends.
Until a few years ago, Bollywood was considered a hot, lucrative destination for Pakistan’s most talented — among them, Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan, Saba Qamar, Adnan Siddiqui, Sajal Aly, Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Mawra Hocane and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.
Even now, with cross-border tensions running rife, Pakistani and Indian celebrities continue to interact frequently in shows and commercials shot abroad.
Actor Yasir Hussain, never one to mince his words, says out loud, "I don’t understand this. If we can name and shame other countries, why do so many of us take a step back when it comes to naming India? Why are the stars who have worked in India in the past only making sad comments about ‘Kashmir burning’? It isn’t burning from a forest fire. Someone has burnt it. Someone is killing people ruthlessly. We need to name them."
Even Malala Yousufzai, someone who represents Pakistan internationally, has lamented over the conflict in occupied Kashmir but hasn’t named who is responsible for this conflict.
Mehwish Hayat has been similarly vocal. “India revoking Article 370 is an outright betrayal of Kashmiri ppl...” she had tweeted soon after the siege in Kashmir had begun. Talking to Images, she said, "No religion in the world supports violence and killing of innocents. As artistes we cannot ignore the inhumanities taking place in Kashmir. For so many years, this land has been torn by bloodshed."
"They don’t even know what independence feels like. I think that it’s very important that, with our extensive influence on social media, we speak out for Kashmir. And why not mention that our neighbours are responsible for this outright infringement of human rights? We know where the problem lies and we need to be brave enough to address the solution."
Fahad Mustafa, who prefers to use social media sparingly, says that he doesn’t feel that every view needs to be expressed on Twitter. "I am just not accustomed to tweeting about everything, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel what the rest of my country is feeling."
"And now that you have asked me about it, I will not deter from saying that what is happening in Kashmir is wrong, what India is doing is wrong."
The personal is political
But while all stars may not be entirely open to talking about what's happening in our backyard, one can sense a change in their stance.
Earlier, any disapproving statements about the Indian government would be avoided entirely, simply because moving beyond politics, our celebrities do end up interacting frequently with Bollywood beyond the film set.
Now though, Atif Aslam — generally reticent on social media and despite the colossal amount of work that he has done in Bollywood — says out loud that he will ‘pray for Kashmir’.
Mahira Khan and Mawra Hocane, actresses who have worked in India, express their sorrow over oppression in the region.
Some carefully worded comments, some pointed ones — these are all signs of Pakistan’s rising celebrity culture, as actors slowly solidify their stature.
Mahira Khan tweeted, "...this is beyond lines being drawn in sand, it’s about innocent lives being lost,” implying that human lives should not be put on the line for the sake of Indo-Pak cross-border tensions. At another point, she retweeted how heartless it was for certain quarters to be celebrating the siege of Kashmir.
Saba Qamar, who gained a huge fan following in India following her work in the Bollywood hit Hindi Medium, says, "Bloodshed is wrong, whether in India or Pakistan or anywhere in the world. I feel sad when artistes, from anywhere in the world, decide to give preference to their nationalism over humanity. The taking away of lives cannot be celebrated or supported."
Imran Abbas, who has also worked in Bollywood, comments, "There are human lives suffering in Kashmir. I will always speak out when I feel that innocents are being targeted, whether in Kashmir or Afghanistan or Balochistan or on the other side of the border."
"There is nothing beyond your country’s dignity — not personal friendships, relationships or even your career," stresses actor Ahsan Khan. "We need to set our priorities right and support our government. I do believe that our nation is a very mature one. We don’t launch into rude commentaries on Twitter and attack senselessly. But we do need to put our message across. We do need to raise our voice against inhumanity. That’s very important."
Adnan Siddiqui, who starred opposite Sridevi in 2017’s Mom and frequently mentions having many friends in India, puts out a balanced statement: "I will speak out against anything that I feel is wrong, including things that may be wrong within my own country. If human rights are being thwarted, I will speak against it."
"Yes, India has revoked laws in Kashmir and what it is doing there is wrong. But this is not just about India — I am not afraid to speak out against brutalities taking place anywhere in the world."
Some carefully worded comments, some pointed ones — these are all signs of Pakistan’s rising celebrity culture, as actors slowly solidify their stature across the world, build massive fan followings on social media and then, looking beyond their work, are making important social commentaries in support of their country and significantly, in support of humanity.
A caveat, however, is necessary. While it is encouraging to see celebs call out injustice where they see it, there should be no expectation to see them align themselves with jingoistic or hypernationalist elements — and nor should they do so.
It’s a tricky time for celebrities to ‘be Pakistani’. It is also a time when it is more important than ever for them to be so.