Pakistan’s ’Voice Over Man’
Pakistanis appear permanently stranded between tradition and transition. There is always a human inclination towards ‘disorder’ that creates a sense of freedom and adventure. Disorder challenges the regular monotonous order of life, and its rights and wrongs. In a web-based interview series Voice over Man (VOM), the talented producer/director, Wajahat Rauf tries to achieve this – dressed in a Safari suit with Woody Allen-style round specs and a fourteenth century English Ivy cap.
Using a combination of blue/off-colour humour, burlesque, hyperbole and parodic techniques in his show, VOM quizzes his guests (Pakistani entertainers) on subjects that the nation ordinarily consider as taboo and/or embarrassing. His main themes are sexuality and ‘the forbidden’. His questions and comments are on topics such as virginity, homosexuality, self-abuse and gratification, prostitutes, courtesans, men’s underwear, adult films, alcohol consumption, extra-marital affairs and an endless list of similar items.
The comical output of the VOM team is created within the counter/subculture that they represent. Like any subculture, theirs too is a mix of ‘anomie’ (from Greek a-nomos, meaning without laws, mores, traditions; the absence of norms and the constraints that result from them) and the Freudian idea of ‘reaction formation’. They give rise to a symbolic representation of social contradictions that offer a symbolic eschewal of the established cultural order. This subculture is deviant; formed in reaction to Pakistan’s social, structural and economic arrangements. VOM, despite his comic appearance, represents both the danger and power of a subculture.
Most of his questions are constructively destructive to Pakistan’s culture of silence. His guests have guts to take his below-the belt-humour, either responding through anecdotes or at times being impassive, by playing deadpan – but mostly just responding impromptu: relying on their wit and their presence of mind and body. The diversity of VOM’s content helps Pakistanis gauge the cumbersome levels of ‘morals’ that they as a nation live under, where most things are either a taboo, a stigma, or a risqué cultural obsession.
For example, the marriage contract in Pakistan uses the word virgin (kanwari) to categorise the bride. The groom does have to disclose a previous wife, but nowhere is he categorised a kanwara. This patriarchal social construction of virginity is rendered official through the State via its political administration, its law machinery, and the participation of the clergy and bride’s wali/guardian. In this context, VOM’s counter-obsession with virginity is rebellious. VOM has targeted almost all his male guests (and none of the females), by asking them if they were virgins. He has smartly asked women guests to name anyone (other than him) who might be a virgin. VOM’s counterculture indulges in a kind of a role reversal; allowing Pakistani women to cause men’s ‘sexual objectification’ for a change.
His questions upon male prostitutes serve a similar objective. With this question, VOM makes a razor-sharp attack upon the political economy of transgression: the understated social acceptance of male sexual profligacy, justified on the grounds that men have financial independence and are masters of their own income and assets, and are therefore free to buy sexual services. Pakistani society conceals male sexual profligacy, strengthening distorted gender norms and positioning women as commodities. In this context, VOM asking Pakistan’s financially independent young women artists whether they have availed themselves of the services of male prostitutes is not improper, but thought-provoking.
He has even asked women their favourite pick-up lines that they use on men. Lost, embarrassed, blushing, misty-eyed: the discomfort of his women guests captures the uneven social landscape of morality and gender in Pakistan, in contrast to his male guests and their cheerful laughter when they are asked questions about courtesans, prostitutes and affairs. These gender-based societal contradictions are highlighted through Rauf’s comical abstractions, raising the question: is it really just theology which is implicated in Pakistan’s social inequalities?
Another taboo theme is that of homosexuality, which VOM often mentions. He has humorously labelled a few guests using this specialised vocabulary. Although Rauf does not promote same-sex relations here, he does implicitly try to educate his viewers upon a taboo subject. Even if homosexuality is associated with sexual deviance, profanity and crime under the influence of both Islamic Law and Anglo-Saxon colonial laws, this should not mean that ordinary citizens cannot have an opinion on it. A few guests dropped the question; a few others were neutral.
His question regarding the Pakistani film industry’s most ‘sexful director’ (a phrase that he comically uses as a substitute to ‘successful director’) has generated a range of responses, from hysterical laughter to raised eyebrows, to requests for elaboration. In a society that treasures kinship, clan ties and extended/joint family relations, this should not be surprising. The meaning that we allocate to different words is largely a by-product of social interactions. This can be simply described as symbolic interactionism. Beyond academic/scientific contexts, the word ‘sex’ is not a linguistic norm among Pakistanis, mainly because it is culturally understood in terms of hedonism. The term is generally avoided or resisted.
In his interviews, VOM often mentions Pakistan’s ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ – alcohol consumption. He has even joined with female artists in acting as if drunk – a condition that they might never get to play within Pakistani drama. Again, whilst there is social acceptance and permissiveness for men, Pakistan has harsh judgments for women who drink alcohol.
As a choreographer, Wajahat Rauf as VOM goes totally burlesque. He persuades his guests to join him in the exaggerated portrayal of film characters, making viewers ponder the role of the entertainment industry and the impactful garbage it has been producing for years. Songs such as Chuma Chuma de dey (immediately dismissed by Pakistan’s singer Momina Mustehsan during her VOM interview with an embarrassed – ‘time to go home’) and Morni o morni. These songs’ popularity and mass appeal endure, despite their substandard lyrics. Rauf is almost always successful in making viewers cringe and thereby question the quality of their media consumption.
Clearly VOM’s script goes against mainstream Pakistani culture. Any form of over-delineation of values between the dominant culture and subcultural groups can create issues, even ‘moral panic’. A delicate balance must be maintained. Pakistan’s individual anthropological dimensions and the impact of the global zeitgeists must be considered. Accordingly – and based on a limited number of VOM interviews that I have managed to watch – I wish to make a few feasible and sincere suggestions for the VOM team:
The script should be fine-tuned in such a way that it remains cognizant and appreciative of the contributions of liberal and radical feminism, and even masculinity studies. At a very basic level, any comments regarding body sizes, measurements and shapes should be eliminated. Theoretical insights based in the body and body politics would provide a clearer understanding of the issue. VOM’s content, though comical, is otherwise mature enough to avoid the body-shaming trap. Similarly, comments such as ‘PC back-entrance’ (in which VOM used the acronym PC to refer to a Bollywood diva during Muneeb Butt’s interview) should never, ever be repeated.
Comparing Pakistan’s TV artist Iqra Aziz to an inflatable doll and then moments later poking at the imaginary doll was quite self-defeating to VOM’s subversive series. Again, it was unwarranted to insinuatingly ask Aziz if she had biked with a male co-star in the front or rear. Comparing women to objects (such as sex toys, or anything else, animate or inanimate) amounts to burning down half century of feminist struggle against women’s ‘commoditisation’. Let’s not forget how Sandra Bullock (54) treated Matt Lauer when he got way bit too much interested in her physicality. By contrast Iqra Aziz (21) did not react. It is impossible to determine whether she was too tired, or whether she decided not to respond. Let’s hope it was the former. Sexual jokes with a female colleague are not really jokes: they almost always have under/over tones of harassment. This should not be VOM’s wicket to play on; this risky tack should be avoided in future.
Scholars working on ‘gender and war’ would agree that it is not humorous to symbolically emasculate and/or feminize men. Such symbols are mainly used as a disciplinary technique, for instance to strip prisoners of their masculine gender identity and transform them into caricatures of terrified femininity. Skits based on this dynamic, such as Pakistani singer Asim Azhar dressed in a red chador and acting like a timid bride on her wedding night should be reconsidered. Such comparisons almost always have a subtext that present women as sexualized objects: as trivial and silly figures (as was shown in this particular case too).
Given VOM’s huge potential to counter the dominant culture of Pakistan, it’s ironic and frustrating to watch these retrogressive slippages in a show which is otherwise so progressive and noticeably avant-garde. What does it serve to make young artists so damn uncomfortable? Some knowledge management would definitely allow the VOM script to overcome these flaws. Young artists are an asset to Pakistan. With the successes of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Riz Ahmed and Kumail Nanjiani, the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globe have already become relevant. It is important for Pakistan to uphold and protect its young talent, facilitating them to achieve professional excellence and to make Pakistan proud on the global stage of drama, art, cinema and music.
Finally, it is true that the cultivation of ‘order’ is done through normative coercion. As individuals, we ‘interiorise’ the symbolic master patterns of thought and values in our society in order to gain ‘a sense of belonging’. This is how cultural reproduction happens, according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. As such, it takes immense guts to become the critical mass of a (counter) subculture. For this, Wajahat Rauf, his whole team, and their guests have to be congratulated. With a bit of fine tuning (as I have argued for above) – this counter/subculture will benefit Pakistan. And so, it would be important for Wajahat Rauf to develop linkages with academic and policy circles in order to strengthen the foundations of his socio-political initiative. With quite a number of videos completed, the VOM team is ready to start owning the series as more of an agentic counter/subcultural movement rather than simply a comedy/interview show.
Editors note: Maleeha has recently started a social science group on Twitter. You can join the community and learn more about Maleeha’s work here.