Pakistani Pop Culture Has Had a Global Year

From Cannes to the Grammys, the country’s arts shone on multiple occasions in 2022

Pakistani Pop Culture Has Had a Global Year
Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab poses with her award at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards in Las Vegas on April 3, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

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Between the first Pakistani win at the Grammys, the first Pakistani film to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival, a Pakistani song topping the most-searched list on Google, local actors featured in international series, and the highest-grossing film in the history of Pakistani cinema, 2022 has been a banner year for Pakistani art.

Pakistani music and television dramas have long been popular cultural exports in South Asia and its diaspora communities. Yet some legendary artists and performers have enjoyed legacies transcending the subcontinent, placing the country squarely on the global map. The singer Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, known as the “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali” (the “King of Kings of Qawwali”), single-handedly popularized the musical form among international audiences. A form of devotional song, qawwalis were originally performed at Sufi shrines across South Asia. He toured extensively, performing in over 40 countries in the 1980s and ’90s and becoming an inspiration for musicians the world over, from the United States to India and beyond.

In 1981, 15-year-old Nazia Hassan and her elder brother Zohaib made history when their album “Disco Deewane” became one of Asia’s best sellers. It broke all records in Pakistan and India and charted in 14 countries, including the West Indies and Russia. Nazia went on to pioneer disco revolution in Indian film music in the 1980s. In the ‘90s, the four-member band Junoon put Sufi rock on the musical map when they merged elements of rock with Sufi poetry and instruments such as the tabla and dholak. Dubbed the “U2 of Pakistan” by Western media, Junoon performed at New York’s Central Park in 1998 to an audience of over 20,000, quite apart from other concerts in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Japan.

After two decades, Pakistani pop culture and art finds itself in the limelight once again this year. Coke Studio is the longest-running musical program in Pakistan, ongoing since 2008. Now on YouTube, the show creates studio-recorded collaborations between established and emerging artists in the country, fusing a myriad of music influences such as classical, folk, Sufi, qawwali, ghazal and bhangra with hip hop, rock and pop. It is extremely popular in South Asia, with fans awaiting it with great anticipation. When season 14 was released this January, it was no surprise that it was a success.

What no one had expected, however, was that the song “Pasoori” — a collaboration between the Pakistani singer Ali Sethi, who has a huge following in South Asia, and Shae Gill, a newcomer popular on Instagram for her covers — would turn out to be a global hit. Apart from racking up almost 460 million views on YouTube and becoming the most watched Coke Studio video, it also became the first Pakistani song to top Spotify’s global viral charts. Last week, it was revealed that it topped the list of most-searched songs on Google in 2022, beating the K-pop band BTS.

“Pasoori” — which roughly translates to “conflict” or “difficulty” in Punjabi, a language spoken in both India and Pakistan — draws on the age-old story of forbidden love. It emerged from Sethi’s experiences in engaging with the walls that exist between India and Pakistan, countries that share histories and cultures but are always at the brink of war. The song’s popularity prompted several Western publications to take notice of Sethi and commission stories on him. He now has over 5.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Fans flooded social media with their covers and remixes of the song, which fused South Asian motifs with electronic dance tunes. Coke Studio itself released a remixed version in August, featuring a global collaboration between Sethi, the Egyptian rapper Marwan Moussa and the Nigerian singer Reekado Banks. To celebrate the success and popularity of this season, an in-person concert, Coke Studio Live, was held for the first time in Dubai. On Friday, Gill and Sethi released an acoustic version of the song in collaboration with the Grammy-winning American artist Noah Georgeson.

Following the runaway success of “Pasoori,” Pakistan enjoyed another high moment in April. In Los Angeles, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani to win a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance for her single “Mohabbat,” her reinterpretation of Pakistani singer Mehdi Hassan and poet Hafeez Hoshiyarpuri’s famed ghazal. She was also invited by the White House to perform during Eid celebrations in May and went on a tour of over 15 cities in Europe and North America. Aftab has been nominated again this year for “Udhero na,” her collaboration with the Indian-origin sitar player Anoushka Shankar.

Another triumph came in May, when the filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s directorial debut “Joyland” became the first Pakistani film to be selected as an official entry at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition to receiving a long standing ovation — which in itself is considered an award at Cannes — the film won the Jury Prize and Queer Palm Prize. It later became Pakistan’s first-ever official entry to the Oscars and has generated much buzz among moviegoers globally. It was invited to the Toronto International Film Festival and also screened at the Busan International Film Festival.

Unpacking nuances of gender and patriarchy, the film follows Haider, the youngest son of “a happily patriarchal joint family” in Lahore, who yearns for the birth of a baby boy. Though married, he falls in love with a trans starlet he meets after secretly joining an erotic dance theater group. “Their impossible love story slowly illuminates the entire Rana family’s desire for a sexual rebellion,” read the Cannes synopsis.

The film generated great interest and controversy for its storyline and for featuring the trans actor Alina Khan. It was almost banned in Pakistan ahead of its release in November, amid a heated campaign against trans rights by religious hardliners. Yet the global interest in the film and a dedicated social media campaign prompted the federal government to intervene and pave the way for its release. This was unprecedented: Film bans are common in Pakistan, but reversing them is not. However, the film is still not running in Punjab, where it is based, and distributors have no hope for its release.

“The feat achieved by ‘Joyland’ is remarkable as Pakistani cinema is at a nascent stage,” said Shaheera Anwar, a Pakistani entertainment journalist. The country “neither has a thriving film industry like India nor an indie film culture. It has no film festivals like other countries to showcase local stories.”

The year was also marked by several international outings made by Pakistani actors. In June, a web series on Disney+, “Ms. Marvel” — based on the first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic — featured the Pakistani-American teen Kamala Khan, who finds herself imbued with superpowers emanating from a bangle passed down by her grandmother in Pakistan. It was one of the first international series to star some of Pakistan’s most prominent actors, including Samina Ahmad, Fawad Khan, Mehwish Hayat and Nimra Bucha.

The series was well-received by critics and viewers alike for breaking from stereotypical screen portrayals of Pakistani women, while at the same time getting the religious and cultural nuances of a Pakistani household right. The show also referenced a subject sensitive for many South Asians: the Partition in 1947 that resulted in the formation of India and Pakistan as two independent countries. Considered one of the greatest migrations in human history, nearly 15 million people were displaced and 1 million were killed in the riots that followed.

In November, Humayun Saeed, a leading actor in Pakistan, featured in the fifth season of “The Crown,” Peter Morgan’s celebrated Netflix series on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Saeed played the role of Dr. Hasnat Khan, the British-Pakistani surgeon who dated Princess Diana for about two years. Elsewhere, the actor Ahad Raza Mir was seen in “Resident Evil,” an American action horror series, also on Netflix.

The British film “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” written by the screenwriter Jemima Khan, who lived in Pakistan for many years during her marriage to former Prime Minister Imran Khan, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A cross-cultural rom-com set in both London and Lahore, it was directed by the veteran Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur. From Pakistan, it features the leading actor Sajal Aly in its star cast. The team was recently in Jeddah for the Red Sea Film Festival.

“All the outings are significant for Pakistani actors, as the country does not have a local streaming platform, and none of the major platforms, such as Netflix or Amazon, have commissioned any original series in the country,” said Anwar. “There is Zee5, an Indian platform that is bankrolling original web series in Pakistan, but, unfortunately, they are not available for viewing here.” The bread and butter for Pakistani actors to date has been local television dramas, which are often exported around the world and dubbed in multiple languages.

The Punjabi film “The Legend of Maula Jatt,” which took almost a decade to produce, was released this October. Some of the best actors in Pakistan came together for the film, including Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Mahira Khan, Humaima Malik and Mirza Gohar Rasheed. A remake of a 1979 cult classic, it follows the local folk hero Maula Jatt as he takes on Noori Natt, his archnemesis and the leader of a brutal clan. Apart from rave reviews, in which one critic described it as “‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Gladiator,’” the film broke all records at the box office and became the highest-grossing Pakistani film of all time. The most expensive Pakistani film to be made, it drew sold-out screenings in several countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and France, and collected about 2.3 billion Pakistani rupees or 230 crores ($10 million) worldwide.

Perhaps, after two decades, Pakistani pop culture has now come of age. In 2002, when electronic media was liberalized in Pakistan, ironically under the dictatorial rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, it paved the way for the entry of private players. A number of TV channels sprung up, such as Geo TV, ARY and Hum TV. It served as a breeding ground for local talent and revived the entertainment industry, which had taken a hit due to the Islamization drive by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

This was further fueled by social media and streaming platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Spotify, which democratized content creation. Moreover, careers in the field have also become more acceptable in the past 10 to 15 years. Before then, it was looked down upon in Pakistan. As the leading screenwriter Vasay Chaudhry said in a recent panel discussion in Lahore, people either didn’t want to enter the industry or their families didn’t allow them to.

In addition to music and cinema, it has also been a good year for Pakistani art. Last month, the New York-based Pakistani artist Salman Toor’s most celebrated and powerful painting — his 2019 work “Four Friends” — sold for a record price at a Sotheby’s auction. Highlighting an intimate moment in the life of young brown queer men in New York, it was the key painting in Toor’s widely acclaimed solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020-21. At this auction, it was expected to sell for a maximum of $400,000 but instead fetched $1.2 million. Toor, who hails from Lahore, has become one the most sought-after artists in the contemporary scene. “Demand from collectors remains very high for Toor,” wrote Lucius Elliott, Sotheby’s head of The Now Evening Auction in New York, ahead of the event. “As Toor continues to gain institutional recognition, as well as interest from the general public, I think there will continue to be increased interest from collectors.”

All in all, Pakistani pop culture, which has always enjoyed popularity locally, in South Asia and its diaspora, has had a remarkable year. It can pride itself on having cut across languages, borders and cultures and left a global mark.

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