Monkey see, monkey do

By Hajrah Mumtaz

A local reality TV show on air these days purports to be looking for the most himmatwala Pakistani – the one who displays the qualities of bravery, derring-do, power, strength and endurance that the Urdu term denotes.
It sounds like a good idea, given that this country could do with some heroes and role models. But what is this channel’s – and that of the citizens who choose to appear on the show – idea of himmat? In the episode I watched it was eating cockroaches. A misguided young man decided that this was the one thing he could do to show that there were himmatwalay people in Hyderabad. The show’s host, having first humiliated, belittled and mocked the contestant, presented a tray of insects and pointed out the insects to be eaten – which the discomfited himmatwala proceeded to do.
The contestant before him was a young woman who said that she would hold live coals in her bare hand to prove her strength. The host asked her a series of embarrassingly personal questions, which he concluded with a comment to the effect of “Well, why would you have a boyfriend given that you’re ugly.” He then stated the test she must pass: “Mujhe zaleel karo,” he said. “Haan, mera bilkul yehi matlab hai, mujhe gaaliyan do.” In response to which he received the stuttering and increasingly incoherent monologue usually delivered by angry but impotent women who have had their bottoms pinched in a busy bazaar.
I’m told that this is a very popular show. And while I may be offended deeply by the show’s utter boorishness and total lack of any sort of aesthetic value, even in terms of technical production qualities, I’m willing to accept that I’m free to not watch it. I’m also willing to accept that shows such as this – or Fear Factor, or the Jerry Springer Show, or Big Brother – depend as much on a producer’s willingness to consider them valid entertainment as on the participants’ lack of objection to being publicly stripped of all dignity. After all, there would be no reality TV if people weren’t willing to expose themselves – literally and figuratively. We live in a world where we are offered enough rope to hang ourselves with, and frequently do.
But here’s what disturbs me about the subtext of this sort of entertainment: just as what we eat reflects and shapes what we physically are, what we create and consume through the media not only says something about the ideals we admire and aspire to, but in turn also actively moulds societal mindsets. What is the subtext in displaying your himmat through using unparliamentary language or eating insects? A total lack of respect: the contestants’ lack of respect for themselves, the host’s for his guests, his profession and his audience, and the viewers’ for their compatriots and, by extension, themselves.
In the brave new world in which we live, media organisations must sell themselves, of course. But that does not – ought not – mean that the first victim to fall by the wayside is the recognition of some measure of social responsibility. Like monkeys, we in Pakistan have picked up the more controversial or shock-and-awe trends in the west without apparently realising that in other parts of the world, these are balanced by informed, aesthetically-immaculate programming that furthers the debate instead of merely mocking it. We haven’t realised, it seems, that Jerry Springer is balanced by Larry King, and Big Brother by something such as Yes, Prime Minister or As Time Goes By. We have plenty of farce but very little satire, lots of drama but hardly any tragedy, rumour-mongering by the bucketful but a static debate and poor critiques. And where the monkeys on television – all of them – lead, the monkeys in the audiences follow.
Programming of all sorts can exert a powerful influence and in turn recreate society in its own image. Consider a potato crisp ad that a colleague was talking about: a man joins the back of a queue, so he throws a fistful of the product packets into the air. Everyone ahead of him scrambles to catch them and he ends up in front. The subtext, as my colleague pointed out, was that cutting corners, breaking lines – and by extension, the norms of civilised behaviour – and bribery are good.
It is time for the country’s television producers to realise that they have a seminal role to play in the abstract ideals of humanism and tolerance projected on-air. The media freedom we love to exhort carries with it the responsibility to inculcate in the citizenry a respect for their own selves and society, for decency, humanism and for law. In these areas which belong to the ideological spheres, entertainment programming is of as much, if not more, value as news programming. It’s time to evolve beyond merely mimicking what others do and get to the substance that underpins it.
Postscript: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.” — Khalil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet.