The melodious ‘Yaariyan’ from the Ehd e Wafa soundtrack danced its way around the Shakarpariyan Parade Ground in Islamabad as guests were driven up and seated for a morning of patriotic festivities. We had assembled for the Pakistan Day Parade, originally meant to be held – as custom – on 23rd March. But the skies had other plans and heavy rainstorms had pushed the show to the 25th. The two-day delay meant that a lot of celebrities confirmed to attend had to return to prior commitments but the show went on unperturbed, with as much pomp and ceremony that you’d expect from a morning meant for national pride.
As with all things Armed Forces, there was ramrod discipline in play, something that the folks in entertainment (including myself) have trouble adjusting their biological clocks to. A 6am reporting time, therefore, was an uphill challenge with some celebrities not sleeping at all for the fear of oversleeping the alarm, and others turning in early, to be as bright eyed as possible. A 5am special breakfast was organized for ISPR guests and the PC Rawalpindi lobby bustled with the kind of energy that only patriotism can incite.
A runway of green unfolded as men and women turned up in their finery. Ali Rehman Khan looked elegant in a razor sharp Nomi Ansari black sherwani, worn with a green pocket square. Imran Ashraf opted for an all-white look, designed by Emran Rajput. Host Sidra Iqbal went for an atypical shade of green while football hero Hajra Khan chose an androgynous green tunic and trouser and made the sensible decision of tying up her riotous curls. Hajra, along with many others including animal activist Ayesha Chundrigar, had been invited as two of the numerous people selected by the ISPR to be honoured as Pride of Pakistan.
This is the first year that the Pride of Pakistan recognitions were being made. Over the course of the day one spotted ACCA topper Zara Naeem Dar, Pakistan’s first beauty blogger with the Down’s Syndrome Riddah Zahra Naqvi, World Memory Champion Emma Alam and countless individuals, men and women, from all sections of society. All sorts of success stories rolled in. It was definitely a mood-booster, not that the day required more uplift.
It was a very inclusive gesture, to include and honour civilians on a day celebrating the Armed Forces. The real heroes paraded past us, battalion after battalion, troupe after troupe, proudly displaying weaponry but more than that, a reassurance of security and sovereignty. And as those heroes marched, flew by or descended from the skies in parachutes, a couple of our onscreen heroes sat in the enclosure reserved for National Icons.
Squash Champion Jahangir Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Laila Zuberi and the legendary Ayub Khoso (who has a wicked sense of humour that comes as a complete surprise if you’ve only watched him on TV). Ayub Khoso gave a standing ovation to the Balochistan float in the parade, his love and pride for his hometown radiating brighter than the sun above us.
Amongst the younger lot, and amidst those who made it despite the postponement, were Ali Rehman Khan, Imran Ashraf, Ahmed Ali Akbar and Mashal Khan. More than a dozen more artists had been invited; some like Ahad Raza Mir, Asif Raza Mir, Aijazz Aslam, Behroze Sabzwari and others had even landed in Islamabad as per schedule, but they had to return due to prior commitments. Those who prevailed, beamed through the day.
Ehd e Wafa actor Ahmed Ali Akbar, hot off the heels of his Laal Kabootar success, came well equipped. He remained masked throughout the day and it’s important to note here that SOPs were being followed rigorously. In a stadium with a 16,000 seat capacity, only 3000 were spaced out and occupied. Masks and sanitizers were in constant circulation. Rehearsals, we were informed, had been done in bubbles that had been created a month ago.
“Last year’s parade had been cancelled because of Covid and when we were organizing the parade this year, the third wave was not in sight and the second wave had been levelling off,” DG ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar said in a casual address made at an informal lunch for the Pride of Pakistan honorees after the parade. “We therefore decided that we should go ahead with the parade. Somewhere in the middle things started spiking and there was a lot of thought given to this. But we thought that the kind of uniting factor, the influence that this parade has on the nation, with SOPs in place, we can go ahead with it.”
Addressing the honorees he said, “Whatever your achievements are – each one of you and I have gone through all the stories of our honorees – they’re all amazing stories. I can’t even begin to express the profound gratitude that I have for all of them and the gratitude that the nation must have for all of them.”
That sense of gratitude, coming from the country’s most revered organization, was appreciated by the artists.
“This bridge between the ISPR and the artist is very important,” Ahmed Ali Akbar spoke to Instep at the event. “Artists need to be heard, they need the cooperation of people in power and the people in power need artists for gently spreading the message. The west realized it ages ago and we’ve seen countless films and programs, subtle or direct, pushing patriotic narratives. I’m glad we’re finally talking about it here.
“Ehd e Wafa created a huge bridge between the Armed Forces and the people,” he added. “It actually affected CSS recruitment numbers. It’s that bridge that is important.”
It was, therefore, important for artists to be seen at the parade.
“I felt so proud that the country’s most respected organization had invited me, because of the work that I do, and that reinforced the pride I have for doing what I do,” award-winning actor Imran Ashraf spoke to Instep. “And then sitting there, watching the parade, you, me and all of us were like kids. We had so much fun. This will go down as one of the most memorable days of my life.”
Now that the ISPR was being very vocal about creating uplifting content, how did he feel the collaboration could benefit the entertainment industry?
“When it comes to ISPR support in the entertainment industry, I feel work needs to be done on budgets,” Imran said. “Our drama industry is already highly respected in the world and with a little more support on productions, I feel we can do even better.”
“I feel the Army and Armed Forces have always had a connect with the entertainment industry,” Ali Rehman Khan added. “Whether it was Alpha Bravo Charlie or any other drama serial, they wanted to give you a peek into the inside world of the Army, the human side of it. Most countries already have a strong military narrative and it’s time ours did too. We need to tell stories of our martyrs, soldiers and real life heroes.
“We, in the entertainment industry, are more than willing to participate,” Ali continued. “As for how the Army can help, there are places that are inaccessible to us. They can allow us and help us access those areas, give security. They’re custodians of so many beautiful sites in the country and they need to also help us make content, even travelogues and perhaps help with tourism. We also need new national songs. We have timeless, classic tracks but we also need new songs that connect and inspire a young generation. Ehd e Wafa was a great show; we need more like that. So yes, of course there’s so much room for collaboration.”
One of the strongest collaborations seen at the Parade was the ‘Jaag Raha Hai Pakistan’ float headlined by Ali Hamza and participated by numerous young artistes including Sadaat Shafqat, Zaw Ali, Hadia Hashmi, Young Stunners (Talha Yunus and Talha Anjum), Haroon Shahid and many others including instrumentalists who played alongside the Pakistan Army Brass Band. It was a collaboration of sorts, bringing together the military and civilian, the established and the upcoming.
“The performance for Pakistan Day Parade 2021 was the grand finale to a four-month long journey,” Ali Hamza spoke to Instep after the parade. “It’s first crescendo happened with the release of #AoEhadKarein, an ISPR - Coke collaboration where I played the role of an intermediary.
“It has been an unprecedented happening in Pakistan’s music history, and I along with my entire team are truly honoured to have been part of this monumental project,” he continued. “Juxtaposing the traditional yet less-celebrated Pak Army Brass Band with fresh upcoming Pakistani talent, supported at the back-end by the best in the media industry, I don’t think we could find a more perfect combo to initiate the Pakistani music narrative of 2021.”
Ali went on to appreciate individuals who had supported the effort.
“There is a new team at ISPR Productions, starting with the DG Gen Babar Iftikhar himself, supported by his dynamic team of Brig Imran Naqvi (Director), Col Zaamin and Major Ali Sohail (I personally mention them because they genuinely deserve every bit of credit in making this magic happen - and usually don’t get it). This team is experimenting and exploring how to support Pakistani entertainment with the right intentions and directions.
“We have seen how ISPR has recently upped the ante on supporting young and upcoming Pakistani Film Makers and Animators and ‘Jaag Raha Hai Pakistan’ is the beginning of a similar support mechanism coming into play for Pakistani music. I cannot say much about how it will unfold, but I’m very hopeful and confident that it will be more than putting out National Songs and embracing the broader depths of Pakistani music and musical talent, especially the future potential.
“As I said, I genuinely believe that this new team at ISPR has grand visions and pure intentions; and I have great hopes from them in playing a big role in turning up the ante of the Pakistani music scene - for significant growth!”