Instep Today

Memes, pop culture and Pakistan

By Haiya Bokhari
Sun, 08, 20

What do Pakola, Dil Dil Pakistan and disappointed cricket fan Sarim Akhtar have in common? They’re all part of our country’s pop culture and have acquired a cult following of their own. Cricket, hit music, movies, conversations about celebrities and events; pop culture is a metric of success, pervasiveness and stereotyping. It dictates what we’re obsessing about in the moment and elevates ideas, symbols and events above the context in which they first became known.

Pop culture has countless dissemination tools at its disposal but a fairly recent, modern phenomena that started out as a response to pop culture, humoring and critiquing it, has now taken over not only how we view and engage with it, but has rapidly metastasized into its own culture: memes.

Memes are ubiquitous; anyone can become the subject of a meme and be propelled into virality or notoriety, depending on the context and the image.

Despite the rather modern phenomena, the word meme was first coined by ethnologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book, The Selfish Gene. Memetics didn’t initially mean a funny/viral internet post but rather explained how ideas replicate, mutate and evolve. Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. Memetics describes how an idea can propagate successfully, but doesn’t necessarily imply a concept is factual.

Meme culture is paradoxical in nature where it is both unifying in the sense of permeation and can be polarizing in terms of content. Like comedy, memes have the ability to tackle serious issues that otherwise might be taboo to talk about. They often sardonically critique popular narratives peddled mainstream and create space for multi-interpretations of a singular event.

Pakistan’s meme game is extremely strong. From Instagram pages that create memes out of local icons and turn them into fashionable streetwear, to Facebook and Twitter users that generate memes dissecting everything from the latest sports results to political upheavals, there’s a meme image, gif or video for every social concern that occupies our collective consciousness in the country.

On Instagram, there are countless accounts that create memes that serve as social commentary; Patri Aadmi, Digink, The Daft Draft are some of the more popular ones that play on cultural symbols, giving them new meaning and identity. We spoke to the creator of Digink, a doctor who chooses anonymity online to discuss meme culture, how he got started and what the memes mean in a larger context.

Digink started out a fan art page that fused different identities together and transitioned from there to an entire business with its own merchandise and collaborations with other brands. The popularity of the account/brand stems from the fact that it took beloved and well recognized faces and images, repositioning them in a modern setting. Take for example the image of Bollywood actress Rekha in her pink denim jacket, which can be classified as peak ‘70s fashion, and its transformation into a trendy, modern image with a single word: Balenciaga.

Digink’s creator also paired up ProperGaanda, a new media platform to create a capsule collection of sweatshirts last winter; they were immediately popularized because they reimagined Pakistani icons in regal, European paintings. Digink’s next collaboration in the pipeline is with the upcoming Lahore based brand, Raasta and brings the meme account’s sense of humor to fashion-forward clothing. Digink also has an eponymous line of merchandise but the pandemic has paused that project temporarily.

As far as content is concerned, Digink’s creator mentions that the initial designs were all products of his imagination and diverse, globally nomadic upbringing but since the popularization of the page he often gets requests from fans, friends and family to create memes regarding particular occurrences.

Memes aren’t just great for turning into fashionable merchandise, they also play a greater role in how we interact with each other. We spoke to culture critic Ahmer Naqvi, an avid music and cricket fan who debuted an alternative cricket commentary podcast, Bowled Opinions that is redefining accessibility to the game as more than a sport. In a recent episode, the podcast matched members of the famous Korean music group BTS with players from our national team in an incredible cultural crossover that is directly a product of meme culture and the informal space it has created for a multitude of voices.

According to Naqvi, cricket and music were unifying forces he grew up with in Karachi in the ‘90s. He gravitated towards ideas and events that local communities identified with and noted that nothing appeals to our collective consciousness more than food, cricket and music in this country. Naqvi opines that despite the idea of homogeny that pop culture imposes, there has always been diversity in how our country relates to events and ideas but the space for different interpretations has been very limited. It is only now, through the democratic digital sphere, that more people have a chance and space to choose how they engage with a particular cultural phenomenon.

It has allowed cricket to evolve beyond television commentary and has amplified the voices of its fans, to the point where the national team members themselves engage with the memes, tagging each other online and building camaraderie based on memes!

As a fan, Naqvi wanted to engage with cricket and music on more than just points of technical accuracy and it lead to the cricket podcast. Hosted on the BBC Urdu YouTube account, it is heavy on meme imagery and has a much more informal tone and relates to cricket as a lifestyle and cornerstone of Pakistani culture, not just a sport. The country’s cricket crazed fans have immediately taken to it, proving that there is space for many more voices to express how they interact with cricket beyond the sport.

Naqvi talks about how two cricket fans, Sarim Akhtar and vlogger Momin Saqib, were propelled into global stardom last year for their reactions to matches we had lost. In fact, the memes generated out of the two reactions have long ago left behind the original context in which they were popularized and have been appropriated for everything else under the sun, especially in the case of Akhtar who has come to represent the face of every frustrated Pakistani citizen.

Memes have not even spared politicians; each guffaw, every misstep and misspoken word is immediately weaponized online and turned into scathing images that often make us laugh at others’ expense. Political memes are not only great for point scoring and pushing propaganda but often help call out those in positions of power who are immune to critique.

Take Bilawal Bhutto and his commentary on rain water flooding Karachi last year; the comments were immediately turned into memes and have resurfaced this year as monsoon rains once again hit the port city, drowning the sprawling metropolis in drain water.

It isn’t all fun and games only though. It is important to note that memes can be mean-spirited and harmful out of context; people, locally and globally have suddenly found themselves to be the butt of jokes, caught off-guard in a moment and turned into comedy, usually without the individual’s consent. The college student in Murree enjoying snowfall became viral sensation overnight for an interview she’d given to a news channel and was turned into countless mocking memes. While social media laughed away, the girl herself struggled immensely and suffered mental trauma, as was later reported by sources close to her.

From being popularized on the website to taking over the world, crossing language barriers and creating a new culture, memes have travelled far and wide from their inception in the ‘90s. It would be fair to say that pop culture is now consumed, appropriated and repurposed through memes. Despite the fact that memes are no more than hot-takes and sarcasm/irony rolled together with slapstick humor, they have the power to change how we talk about things and what is considered cool in this digital age.