Tuesday March 28, 2023

No escape from the formula

January 14, 2023

Back in the days when there were no 24/7 news channels around we had accomplished actors hogging popular attention. They essayed the audiences’ favourite characters over and over; and naturally stereotypes developed.

Despite the umpteen twists in the script by the formula-bound writer, we knew from the outset which actor was going to end up as the villain and who was to prevail upon whom. Until the formula was replaced by a new formula in which the veteran bad men of the screen surprised and bluffed the audience by emerging as the ‘surprising’ good guy ultimately.

It was so much relief to see a Pran being freed from his notorious past to play as an all-important friend to the hero of the film. Others such as Amjad Khan made the transition from the despicable to the virtuous faster than their predecessors. Redemption came the way of most of them but if you look at it only a little more carefully, the story remained the same – yet more faces stepping in to fill in the slots left vacant by the now rehabilitated villains. The cycle continued; in time the new generation of villainous faces readied for graduation into the pious club. With these transformations under way, occasionally a more adventurous merchant would have a hitherto hero suddenly turn into a bad man in the climax scene. The current Pakistani national soap has been free of such surprises, notwithstanding the so-called crossovers that we are regularly witness to.

With its Pervaiz Elahis and Asif Zardaris and Shehbaz Sharifs, the scene that unfolds 24-hours-a-day before us these days may not look dissimilar but only at first glance. We have yesterday’s rioters trying to cleanse their image as responsible minders of the state and the old rulers of the stage struggling to stay just relevant with their promises of resurgence and indeed of miracles. Many of these old horses in the Pakistani political arena would appear to be looking for a redemption on the model of the old film actor, even if their ideal of a good soul bound to win public approval differs from one another.

Many old members of the cast are trying everything within their powers to prove that they have changed and are fit for redemption. It is another thing however that their effort often brings them little respite, pitted as they are against citizens who have a deep distrust of who they are led by. The change is meaningless because the story hasn’t changed but only the dialogue of some of the players.

At the heart of the drama is still a dispute between a director whose productions we have become so used to and his cast. The media tells us that ‘only’ a major-level officer in the army is now available to address any questions raised by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But before anyone can point out that a major was for long sufficient command for most politicians in the country, there’s someone from the top cadre of the PTI not just nudging but downright trying to shake the military into action against the current set in the government.

The complaints may vary from doubts about the police inquiry into the Imran khan assassination attempt to the holding of the local government polls in parts of Pakistan, but the tone of the pleas makes it abundantly clear that the characters are just too fond of the directors to allow them retirement from the job. All the assurances about how the erstwhile presenters of the fare now wished the cast to come up with a story of their own seem to be falling on deaf ears, as they did on the previous occasions when the move was ostensibly attempted. No one is ready to risk trying it without the old mentor despite having a personal history of having been hurt by the same hands, maybe many times over.

The old rule says the most intense public involvement in an issue must lead to some kind of reform. In the present case the Pakistani people cannot help but participate. They must push on and, as they do so, the crucial question that needs to be asked again and again is: are they as much against dictation by the non-elected elite as is often claimed by those who write and speak in favour of the current opposition to the formula dispensation? Or are we again at the same turn where the people are going to be happy to be assured of the care and sympathy of those they have grown up to know as their rescuers and final beneficiaries?

What matters is that the cleverest souls on stage visibly believe that they are once again safely moving towards the old formula happy ending that the Pakistanis cannot quite escape – yet, and despite all the popular awareness about democracy. There’s perhaps no bigger representative of this group of faithful than the Punjab chief minister who has just secured a vote of confidence for himself. A pro-establishment nominee of the currently anti-establishment PTI, he remains as loyal to the original story as ever. He is the embodiment of the successful Pakistan politician who cannot be replaced or transformed.

The writer is a senior journalist.