Burns Road ki Nilofer and the YouTube ban
The subcontinent is haunted by dualities. Muslim-Hindu, Jinnah-Nehru, Wasim-Waqar, Lata-Asha – far too often an idea is sought aggressively by its double, emerging as an anti-thesis at times, at others being a reflection.
Shahrukh and Amir, the two antithetical Khans, in many ways have defined the contours of Indian cinema and its post-material reboot. But if Shahrukh and Amir were defining middle and upper India’s search for herself, Salman fashioned the dreams of the rest. His ripped jeans and even more ripped body defined the future for laundas, mailas and lafangas. One of his defining roles was in a film called ‘Tere Naam‘.
In Pakistan, a parody of the film, ‘Tere Naam Part 2‘ allowed another artist to break out of an entrenched duopoly. The career-defining role in the Salman-spoof helped launch Sikander Sanam out of the shadows of Umar-Moin. Sadly, Sikandar Sanam passed away recently. Tradition demanded that we pay homage by revisiting Sanam’s greatest hits, but we weren’t able to this time.
Why? Because we had all been barred entry to Pakistan’s most important cultural museum – YouTube.
There are many other, more articulate and better referenced arguments on why the YouTube ban is a travesty/farce/embarrassment. Most arguments also segue into the question of blasphemy, and whether one poorly made film should even be given this much attention.
As if these were the reasons for the ban.
After all, there are probably thousands, if not millions, of texts, videos and images available online that can easily be deemed blasphemous by the powers-that-be. For each that gets blocked, others will arrive. The ban is not because of these materials.
One of the least heralded artistic outputs over the past decade in the visual realm have been the scripts and works of Fasih Bari and Mazhar Moin. While they have several truly original works, perhaps their zenith was provided by ‘Burns Road ki Nilofer‘. (I would add a link to the teleplay, but YouTube is websita-non-grata these days)
Before we go any further, let me urge you to search for and watch this play. My words are honestly not that interesting and littered with SPOILERS.
So yes, Burns Road ki Nilofer. The play, suffused with savagely witty colloquialisms and devoid of overwrought melodramas, explores the life of a middle-class family in dilapidated urbania through the eyes of a young, naive Nilofer.
Shorn of any escapes or hopes for a future, Nilofer tries to find solace in the elaborate soaps on the ‘Sitaray wala channel‘. For her cantankerous father, these shows and the cable connection are forever the easiest thing to blame whenever he finds his daughter being impetuous.
Through out the story, the cable’s existence remains hostage to the father’s whims, who keeps cutting it off, then allowing its return only to threaten to take it away again. He says that it’s the cable that encourages Nilofer to speak crude words and it is the cable that encourages her to fall in love with the cable wala.
And yet, just like the YouTube ban, these threats are not about the content at all. In fact, the ban is simply about control.
The cable for Nilofer, and the internet for us, are not merely gateways to sin (though they are that too) but the possibility of alternatives. To the Pakistani authorities – the courts and the ministries that are so ban-happy – the terror of losing control comes closer each day. And the reaction is always to try and whip the most pliable fall-guy and hope that everything goes away.
But what is causing this control to be lost?
On one level, it is because of the pace of change all around us, the onslaught of modernity and the ubiquity of technology.
But on another level, it is also happening because like Nilofer, we have been only taught through being prevented knowledge, rather than being provided it. Our guardians have felt that the only way to ensure our safety and to protect us is through being prevented choices and information.
The internet, or cable television, or any of these communication technologies, are by no means the purveyors of the sort of ‘knowledge’ one goes to China for. But they are constant providers of information, of new concepts, of bits and bytes that even in their gaudiest or most mundane forms represent the fact that our society chose to prevent knowledge being disseminated.
But why make such a choice?
In the play, we eventually discover that for all his ranting and raging against his daughter’s character and intentions, Nilofer’s father [SPOILER ALERT] had been surreptitiously carrying out his own affair with a friend of his daughter’s.
The armchair-psychologist-reaction to the revelation of this hypocrisy would be to simply blame the father’s/authorities’ repression as a reaction to their own indulgences.
But these actions are also about a fear of being exposed as fallible, of being shown to having the same desires and making the same mistakes as the ones they are responsible for.
It is a fear that unless Nilofer is protected from all sorts of exposure to the outside world, she will make the same human mistakes they did.
Our authorities are in charge of a volatile, poorly imagined, twice-partitioned, hard-luck country. Despite the largesse, their jobs are not easy, and mistakes are counted in thousands, if not millions of lives. But to blindly run around preventing and repressing any possibility of mistakes and choices is not the answer.
By the end of the play, [SPOILER ALERT] Nilofer – having her heart, attempts at a relationship, and cable broken once – falls for the next cable wala. Yet, it does not feel like a happy ending, but rather the realisation that the only dreams she’ll ever realise are the brief, escapist ones she can create herself.
YouTube remains banned today not because of some blasphemy. It is banned because in a society where knowledge is not nurtured but controlled, YouTube and its ilk offers brief moments of escapist fantasy.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.