January 18, 2020
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Living It Up In Pakistan

Far from being a prohibition-stricken land of flowing burqas, city lights and the gay life beckon the rich and commoners alike

Living It Up In Pakistan

At the stroke of midnight, Nadira poured herself another vodka and lit her umpteenth Dunhill cigarette. Dressed in a sleeveless fishnet blouse and a black chiffon sari, tucked in well below the navel, the attractive young housewife was the centre of attraction at the unusually quiet party in suburban Lahore. As the evening progressed, a tipsy middle-aged actor turned on by the sight of Nadira's pink brassiere and emboldened by her husband's drunken state, made a pass at her—"what a pity that such a beautiful woman should look so lonely on a lovely night like this"—which she rejected, blowing smoke in his face as she got up to look for some ice.

This was the second party one had gate crashed within hours of landing in Pakistan, and common to both was the ready availability of liquor which, quite unlike Gujarati homes in dry Ahmedabad, was served without fear of domestic servants reporting to the police. The first party, hosted by a European, not only served superior imported liquor, but the bar itself had been set up in the driveway facing the bungalow's main gate. Undeterred by its location, a group of Pakistani guests, men and women, stayed within five metres of the bar throughout the evening and made up for the barman's miserly pegs by switching from scotch to vodka to gin and then to beer.

Far from the popular perception in India, Pakistan is anything but the prohibition-stricken land of the flowing burqas, which are worn by only the most conservative women in downtown areas. If anything, the fire-breathing mullahs and the Islamist revival of the '80s have made the ordinary pursuits of pleasure more devious and banished fashionable women's clothes and western dresses to the drawing rooms of the elite. Without outwardly challenging Islamic traditions, Pakistanis enjoy just about everything behind closed doors.

In the post-Zia era, the nouveau riche, armed with drug money and the spoils of the Afghan war, are living it up with a vengeance. And so are the common folk. While an elaborate and entrenched network of bootleggers and smugglers ensures a limitless supply of liquor, a domestic pornography industry is taking root and prostitution has gone hi-tech. College boys and girls have devised ways of beating the stranglehold of the Islamists and there is far greater interaction between the sexes than ever before.

Lollywood, the Lahore-based film industry, churns out the staple entertainment diet of the masses. Towering cut-outs of busty heroines, thigh-flashing vamps, machine-gun toting heroes and menacing villains—that are rivalled only by Jayalalitha's larger-than-life face staring down from hoard-ings in Tamil Nadu—adorn the facades of cinema halls in the Islamic republic. Posters of the latest release, Sarak, which depict cine heart-throb and mujra queen, Reema, hoisting her kurta high above her flat stomach to reveal a teeny glimpse of a black bra, had audiences at the packed theatres furious as the film contains no such scene.

The news from civil war-torn Karachi is that its famous high life has become more intense ever since the situation deteriorated, though revellers are taking extra precautions. "Like in Beirut, the Karachi party circuit too remains uninterrupted. With people being forced to stay indoors, socialite forays have become far more hectic. People take more precautions and either stay over at the host's place or carry a gun," says Zeba Shahid, a socialite who shuttles between Lahore and Karachi frequently.

There are no discotheques in Pakistan, which leaves the swinging set little choice but to create their own scene. And if 21-year-old management student Salima Shaukat is to be believed, last year a prominent Karachi socialite threw a wild beach party where there was not only an outdoor bar, but also a gigantic dance floor erected on the beach. While the host had goodies flown in from Harrods of London, many of the guests had flown down to Dubai to shop for designer dresses to wear to the party, which they reportedly shed as they, well, went skinnydipping in the Arabian Sea.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, parties are relatively tame affairs, ranging from private mehfilsfor the more culturally oriented, to theme parties for which society women don off-shoulder dresses, mini skirts and backless cholis. It's much the same story in the posh Lahore localities of Gulberg and Defence as in Islamabad's F-8, F-10 and E-7 sectors.

For new age yuppies like Salima and her friends, there is tremendous peer pressure to party for party's sake. Says she: "Our GTs (get togethers) never start before 11 pm. Salwar kameezes are infra dig, and we girls must wear western designer clothes, preferably bought personally at select stores abroad. CK (Calvin Klein), DKNY (Donna Karen, New York) and Versace are in at the moment. For boys, there is tremendous peer pressure to get drunk as you can't do it publicly. Everybody seems desperate to have fun. Parents understand that we need recreation, and don't object to our staying out late so long as there are no scandals."

Looking good and keeping fit is a priority with this generation who work out regularly alongside golden girl Jemima Khan at Shapes, an elite gym, and make good any minor shortfall in Mexx, Hugo Boss and Christian Dior clothes and French cosmetics at Pace, the month-old London style superstore in which Imran Khan has a stake. Shapes is also the ultimate 'poondi' (a yuppie custom of hanging out at places to watch, and be watched by, the opposite sex) spot in Lahore, followed by Cafe Zouk, the Copper Kettle restaurant and the Al Hamra open-air theatre, venue of amateur plays and rock concerts by local bands, where they go in their 'Beamers' (BMWs) and Toyota Cruisers, the Pajero having become passe. While the elite take care to dress conservatively in public, Islam has little or no meaning in their daily lives. "The rich can afford to ignore it. When you travel by car rather than public transport and run your own business, who's to determine how you dress or whether you say your prayers or not," says Beena Sarwar, human rights activist and editor of The News on Friday.

Unlike the cloistered revelry of the elite, the ordinary folk are a very outdoor people. Even the supposedly conservative population of the inner city is, in fact, a very lively community. Passionate about food, they patronise the traditional food stalls and while the oldies often gather to recite heer (traditional rendering of the Heer-Ranjha love story) in the evening, most others are regular cinema and theatre goers.

Slapstick, laugh-a-minute comedies, in which irreverent mimics lampoon everybody who is anybody in Pakistan, draw large family crowds as well as groups of women. Such is the demand for the standard stand-up routines, that star comedian Amanullah confessed in a recent interview that the only time he heeded the director's instructions and stuck to the script, the audience booed and threw eggs and tomatoes at him.

The menfolk, however, are slave to the charms of Lollywood divas like the 'bubbly' Reema, 'thunder thighs' Neeli and their pulsating mujras that prop up otherwise shoddy remakes of Hollywood and Bollywood hits. When it comes to vulgarity, Lollywood is not far behind its mentor across the border. The Herald, an English monthly, reviewing the most expensive Pakistani film, Jo Darra Woh Marr Gaya, an adaptation of an American film, Consenting Adults, shot in the Philippines on a Rs 1-crore budget, describes Neeli's entry as "straight from the airport into (leading man) Nadeem's lap. Dressed to cheap thrill in a tiger printed mini skirt that appears to have been stitched into the curves of her body—you have to see the film to truly grasp the idea—Neeli instantly pumps life into the limp proceedings." In one scene, Nadeem is "compelled" to reach deep into Neeli's blouse to remove an insect as she suggestively moans, "nikalo na, nikalo naa..." (take it out...). Interestingly, even at the height of the Zia regime the sleaze factor in films remained largely unaffected. However, portrayal of drinking and drunkenness was banned from the screen, leaving the stars gulping Rooh Afza endlessly.

While most film actresses have their roots in the kothasof Hira Mandi, Lahore's red light district, of late the medium has acquired sufficient respectability and lucre to attract professional TV actresses like Atiqa Odho. In Lollywood too, orchestrated media hype is essential to boost the fortunes of stars. The likes of Reema and Neeli earn six-figure sums per film.

Still, Lollywood comes a poor second to Bollywood, the most popular source of entertainment, despite the official ban on screening Indian movies. Madhuri Dixit's is a household name and visiting Indians are repeatedly told a popular joke: "Madhuri dey do, Kashmir ley lo" (give us Madhuri, take Kashmir). The desire to see their favourite Indian stars on the big screen drives die-hard film buffs to organise clandestine screenings. A recent showing of Khalnayakdrew a packed house, fetching Rs 200-Rs 300 per seat. "Had the Jamaat-i-Islami volunteers got wind of it, the hall would have been burned down," says the organiser.

The repressive Zia years gave birth to an underground culture of vulgarity. Even as Jamaatis blacken women's faces from advertisement bills and hoardings, recent years have witnessed a boom in the pornography business.

A couple of years ago, Hala Farooqui emerged as Pakistan's first porn star. He was, however, arrested, along with three others, while shooting his maiden blue film. The half-made film found its way to the rental circuit and was popular throughout the country, second only to Mujra-e-London, a tape of striptease and nude mujras.

Talking of sex, though Hira Mandi's licenced 'mujra dancers' are no longer its sole retailers, it remains the country's sex capital whose tawaifs organised under the Anjuman Fankarana Hira Mandi are headed by ex-tawaif, Mama Mooda. Dancer-cum-sex workers service clients unhindered while policemen pay huge bribes to get the coveted post of SHO of Tibbi police station, under whose jurisdiction Hira Mandi falls.

Over the years, many tawaifshave moved out of Hira Mandi and operate from upmarket localities. Rawalpindi's Kasai Gali and numerous rest houses in Islamabad are known to be patronised by powerful public servants and commoners alike. And in the affluent quarters of Lahore and Islamabad, the term 'call girl' has acquired a new meaning as some girls operate using cellular phones. The asking rate varies from Rs 3,000 to over Rs 10,000 per night "depending on the job and the number of people involved". Streetwalkers are the latest phenomenon, and many a purse waving girl stalks Lahore's uptown Gulberg Main Boulevard in search of customers.

Between the extremes of the Islamised, conservative image of women on the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV) on the one hand, and the vulgarised Lollywood image, the commercialised fan-tasy-oriented world of pornography and prostitution on the other, Pakistani women are struggling to find a new equilibrium and identity. On the fashion scene too, the flowing salwar kameezes and voluminous dupattas which, during Zia's regime, had replaced the short kurtas and dupatta-less dresses worn in the '70s and the early '80s, are fast on their way out. Karachi's fashion designers are churning out trendy western dresses and haute salwar kameezes with equal ease and the ranks of fashion models are swelling.

Says Sarwar: "During the martial law years, women's image became a point of focus. She had to conform to a fixed image of womanhood or be penalised. But all that is changing. There are more women-oriented programmes on PTV and more women professionals. Moreover, the new economic necessities are pushing ordinary folk to send their daughters to schools and colleges."

And in Pakistan's colleges and universities, most of which are strongholds of the Jamiat's student wing, the students have begun to challenge their writ. When it came to the forefront in the '80s, the Jamiat blanked out lovers' graffiti from the walls of the hostels of the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad and emblazoned a call for jihad in its place. In Punjab University, Lahore, boys and girls were forbidden from talking to each other. "We would meet to exchange class notes and seek clarifications. The Jamiat hated it, but couldn't do a thing as boys and girls closed ranks," recalls Shakeel Sheikh, a recent graduate from Punjab University. The QAU and Lahore's National College of Arts now allow freer interaction between the sexes, while the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, has successfully held music programmes and staged plays in the face of threats from the Jamiat. "The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is better known as the university of marital sciences because, on an average, it produces at least five couples per batch," adds Shaukat.

Though dating remains a risky affair, the youth are out to take their chances. The deserted Jauhar Town on the outskirts of Lahore is gaining popularity with romancing couples who increasingly find the city's parks overcrowded. While a thousand affairs bloom and die in the labyrinthine alleys of the inner city, there are always couples who dare to meet on the adjoining rooftops.

Neither restrictive laws nor conservative social and religious norms have ever totally bogged down the quest of the average Pakistani for the little pleasures of life, a growing number of whom are living by the motto; Jo darr gaya woh marr gaya.

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