By Ghazala Akbar:
Sonia Gandhi once imperiously remarked that the Indians need not bother going to war with Pakistan anymore, the invasion of Indian TV was enough. She had a point. For a while, the murderous machinations and dynastic power- struggles of Indian soaps had people hooked. Not anymore. Indian soaps are passé. The gripping political drama unfolding daily on our TV screens is a serious challenge not just to Bollywood but Hollywood too. Over the past year, every genre has been represented: tragedy, high comedy, farce, buffoonery, drama, action, war, murder, spy thrillers, musical extravaganzas and a bit of soft porn too.
Such is the quality of live political theatre that I cannot remember the last time I watched a film on television. Who needs expensive blockbusters from across the border to feed our fantasies? Why would anyone go channel surfacing — when our rulers, allies, security forces, politicians, cricketers and celebrities provide non – stop 24/7 entertainment? Who needs a burger when we can all have steak at home!
2011 began tragically with murder most foul — the death of the Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, heroically championing the cause of a poor Christian woman, sentenced for blasphemy. If that wasn’t maudlin enough, what followed was a worse tear- jerker. Clerics — usually in surplus in Pakistan suddenly became scarce – too scared to lead the funeral prayers for the slain Governor.
The final dénouement in the sorry tale was the odious spectacle of the self- confessed smiling assassin showered with rose petals by Lawyers — the very same that had marched up and down Constitution Avenue in support of the Rule of Law. Thankfully, a judge had the courage of his convictions to sentence the killer. The long-awaited decision of the Appeal Court is another story.
February brought us an international spy thriller complete with a car chase, shootings and carnage in the streets of Lahore. Footage of the arrest and interrogation of Raymond Davis by the ‘Keystone Cops’ of the Punjab Police went viral. Intriguingly, a miniature camera located between the suspect’s feet activated the filming. A support car coming to his ‘rescue’ also ran over a couple of bystanders adding to the body count. And just who was this trigger – happy, gun – toting suspect? A ‘diplomat’ allegedly fleeing armed motor- cycled muggers at a busy intersection in Lahore who just had to shoot in self- defence. Naturally.
No less a personage than the US President vouched for his credentials. And since we are a hospitable, law- abiding people who honour diplomatic immunity, we bent over backwards to find ways to absolve him of guilt. Shariah law ironically came to the rescue. A clause was invoked and Davis ‘forgiven’ after the payment of blood money to the victims’ families– but– not before another sad twist : the young wife of one of the ‘alleged robbers’ overcome with grief, ended her own life. End of story.
The ides of March claimed yet another fatality. Poor Shahbaz Bhatti, the outspoken Minister for Minority Affairs was gunned down for having the temerity to remind the Majority about the rights of Minorities! The brave man should have read George Orwell and learnt not to speak out of turn. In the State of Pakistan, all men are created equal but some are more equal!
Riveting as these episodes were, they were a mere trailer for May Day’s mega blockbuster: the Death of Osama Bin Laden. Without our censor’s knowledge, this film played to packed houses globally. Audacious US Navy seals swooping down in helicopters, shooting their way to bag and bin the world’s most wanted terrorist in his ‘luxury pad’, was an instant hit worldwide.
Our US allies in the War on Terror, didn’t think it worth their while to give us a role to play. Not even as an extra. While champagne corks popped at the White House in an orgy of self- congratulation, we had to eat humble pie and suffer the additional agony of our picturesque garrison town continually mispronounced as A – BBOT- A- BAD! Surely, the BBC ought to have known better!
As if things were not bad enough when another scary episode sent us cringing for cover. Masked terrorists disguised in ‘Star Wars’ attire sneaked into a naval airbase in the heart of Karachi. Only the bravery of our security forces foiled their evil intent after a tense gun – battle lasting several hours. Reassuringly all through the crisis, the Minister of the Interior provided a running commentary soothing shattered nerves.
Soon after, another jolt shook our equanimity: the mysterious murder of a journalist, Salim Shahzad. Nudged gently but firmly not to poke his nose in sensitive matters relating to state or non – state actors, he did not take the hint. Neither did the unfortunate Wali Babar in Karachi. After too many questions about ‘target killings’ the TV Reporter became a target himself –confirming our prime position as a dangerous place for journalists.
In July, the citizens of Karachi decided to steal the show with a gory episode of their own: the killing fields of Karachi. More mayhem, more body bags and even more confused incoherence from the Interior Ministry were the main themes of this sordid drama. Not to be outdone, trigger- happy Rangers started their own sideshow. A petty thief, pleading for mercy was shot at point blank range, in full view of the camera in a public park.
Meanwhile in the badlands of Baluchistan, some unlucky Chechen men and women were mistakenly ‘taken out’ as terrorists by the Constabulary. In other areas, members of the minority Hazaras and ‘dissidents’ were being systematically decimated. Exactly who was killing who and why is of little consequence in this perplexing plot. In Khyber- Pakhtoonwa, the Taliban regularly reminded us of their explosive presence. Drones continued to strike ‘terror’ in South Waziristan adding to a continuous supply of new recruits to their cause.
The festival of Eid released Pandora’s Box, a brilliant, virtuoso, unrestrained performance by the former Home Minister of Sindh. His remarkable presentation received extremely high TV ratings – the dramatic use of the Holy Book as prop was an unforgettable highlight of the two- hour soliloquy. Several weeks later, a London production house came out with a four – hour epic. A vintage rendition of a golden oldie rang the curtain down on this superlative show that ran to packed houses nationwide.
Not shy of being in the spotlight, the perpetual drama queens, our star cricketers entered the limelight with a courtroom drama of their own. Sadly, their coached appearances at Southwark Crown Court, UK were as unconvincing as their play-acting during the Oval Test in England last year. The show flopped miserably with Messrs. Butt, Asif and Amir reduced from fallen heroes to zeroes.
Come September, Admirable Mike Mullen took us all by surprise with his own version of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.’ Mullen’s muddled story – line brazenly accused our security services of sponsoring a network of non – state actors and re-writing a counter script for the end – game in Afghanistan. It backfired. In a remarkable show of unity, the civilian government, raucous TV Anchors, politicians, ghairat brigades and the public booed and hissed in unison. Flying in to soothe ruffled feathers, Mrs. Clinton was publicly but politely accused of acting like a nit-picking Mother-in-law.
Mullen’s story however would not go away. It sprung back with a vicious new twist at the end of October. A rejuvenated and revamped Khan tweaked the tail of the Lions in Lahore with a spectacular televised musical extravaganza. Not only did fans dance in the aisles, his revelations rocked the boat, setting the scene for yet another blockbuster: Memo gate. A 007 wannabe got star- billing in this US- Pakistan joint production. Our Ambassador to the US has a dubious supporting role.
As we grappled with at the turns and twists of this complex saga, a brief exposition of Ms Veena Malik provided us with a moment of light relief. Then all hell broke loose. NATO helicopter in an incident of ‘friendly fire’ picked off our soldiers at the Afghan border, martyring 28 and wounding countless others. With friends like these, who needs enemies!
All this flak was too much for the beleaguered President who suddenly took to his bed. His unidentified ailment and dash to Dubai fuelled yet another mystery: the curious case of the missing President. Was his illness genuine, a reaction to the strain of the on-going Memo gate saga or something entirely unrelated? Who knows! Anyhow, it was short and sweet with a happy ending when the President returned to Islamabad with his customary grin. Who will have the last laugh is a moot question.
Finally, as the holiday season approached we settled in front of the box in anticipation of yet another extravaganza. (The Information Minister’s impromptu crying act on the morning of the holiday was a dampener but did not deter us from making merry). Billed as the greatest show on earth, the Tehreek- i- Insaaf spectacle promised to be like no other. For weeks, we had watched in bemused incredulity as self- proclaimed rebels and all the King’s men of yesteryears, shaved, showered and applied fresh make-up in preparation for supporting roles to the Rising Star, the man of the moment, Imran Khan.
Could he walk where angels fear to tread? Would the cast of thousands rally to his call? On the founder’s birthday, in the city of lights, by the dramatic setting of the Quaid’s Mazar, the Hero finally took centre stage. Amidst a glow and a roar, He came. They saw. He conquered. Move over Shahrukh, Saif, Salman and Amir. We have the real thing, our very own King Khan.
Come December 27, we remembered Shaheed Mohartama Benazir and other fallen comrades. The cameras panned towards the dusty plains of Ghari Khuda Bukhsh and the graveyard of the martyrs in the towering tomb of the Bhuttos. There was pathos, passion, poetry and the evolving script of a new work- in – progress: the son also rises.
And so we come to The End. As we usher in the New Year, book your seats early for the next episode of Pakistan: 2012. It is still a working title and your guess is as good as mine. Will it be Great Expectations, Gone with the Wind or the Night of the Generals? Whatever we choose to call it, you can be sure it will be a sensational international box- office hit! As Larry King used to say on CNN, Don’t go away!