The crying game

Illustration by Abro

In 1975 as a kid, one of my cousins who was many years older than me vetoed my desire to watch a Steve McQueen thriller and instead dragged me to watch a film ‘Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat’ (My Name Is Love) starring his favourite actress Babra Sharif.

Watching it turned out to be a rather traumatic experience for a 9-year-old. I just remember Babra crying in the most animated manner, suffering from cancer and coughing blood all over the place, and the hero, Ghulam Mohiyuddin, shedding tons of tears with a fiercely trembling lower lip.

The other thing I remember was a host of women in the audience crying as well. It was like a collective catharsis of sorts… by watching a young woman dying from cancer. The film was a super hit.

Alas, even though the Pakistan film industry began to cave-in under the weight of General Ziaul Haq’s thorny ‘Islamisation’ project from the 1980s onwards, by then the whole jazbat bit in local films already looked and sounded like a raving self-parody.

Nevertheless, the industry might have collapsed and the once adored shehenshas of jazbat relegated to the dustbin of silver screen history dipped in cheap glycerine, but today, even in one of the most cynical and jaded eras of our existence as a nation, most Pakistanis still claim their people to be quite ‘jazbati’ (emotional).

The claim has become a catch-all excuse to explain away the many embarrassing moments that continue to keep us under the critical eye of other nations.

It may be horrid episodes of ‘honour killings,’ or events in which mobs beat and burn to death perceived ‘blasphemers,’ or people foaming in the mouth and calling anyone they disagree with ‘traitor,’ ‘kafir,’ or ‘foreign agent’. Apparently all this happens not because we have gradually turned into blobs of intolerance, hypocrisy or a nation on the verge of a psychosomatic meltdown, but ‘because we are a very emotional nation.’

The film industry and its kings and queens of jazbat have become a thing of the past, but recently the mushrooming of privately-owned TV channels have proven that there is still a huge market out there for it.

For example, though vapid but animated conspiracy theorist and chest-thumping xenophobe, Zaid Hamid, may now have become an unintentional self-parody who these days draws more laughs than awe, he actually shot to prominence by playing the crying game.

In 2007 during a ‘special lecture’ that he delivered on a local TV channel on Pakistan’s day of independence (August 14), he regularly punctuated his usual spiel against Jews, Hindus, the US and Pakistan’s ‘liberal fascists’ with sobs and tears.

Of course, since we are an emotional nation, most urban middle-class audiences concluded that he must be right; not because they dispassionately investigated his runaway theories, but because his sobbing seemed rather ‘genuine.’

For a number of years now many privately owned TV channels have begun to draw up humungous budgets for ‘special Ramazan transmissions.’

Gone are the days when one simply expected the usual maulvi lot talking about the benefits of fasting on TV in the evenings during Ramazan. They are fast being replaced by actors, actresses, cricketers, talk-show and morning show hosts, pop singers, et al, who suddenly (and for a hefty price) go all ‘Islamic’, as if they’ve been walking on water all their lives.

They along with the channels that hire them know that ever since Ziaul Haq, faith has rapidly mutated into becoming a lucrative industry in Pakistan.

Apart from promising heaven in the hereafter, it also has the potential of turning in huge monetary profits in the here-and-now.

But putting on the screen a pretty and known face with a dupatta or hijab over her head, or a showbiz or sporting hunk that suddenly discovers the health benefits of Arabian dates and camel milk during Ramazan is not enough.

All these are expected to attract maximum pious attention during Ramazan transmission by bolstering their devout talks targeted at the urban bourgeois who are an important target market for food, drink and cooking oil brands in Ramazan — who in turn demand well-known and smartly (but ‘religiously’) dressed men and women on TV during Ramazan evenings to watch religious soap operas with lots of cosmetic dialogue washed by rivers of tears.

Does it matter that the Ramazan circus on TV include a televangelist who some years ago was accused of instigating the slaughtering of four members of the Ahmadi community; or a cricketer who was caught biting a cricket ball during a match and punching a fan at the airport; or a woman who hired extras to impersonate immoral couples in Karachi’s parks so she could chase them down with mic, camera and all; or a talk show host who become (in)famous by plagiarising Turkish conspiratorial crank, Harun Yahya’s book about the ‘end of times’?

It just doesn’t matter because theirs would be tears of joy: about the fruits awaiting them in paradise and, of course, the joy of receiving a hefty pay cheque from their piously pleased employers.

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