Who to look up to?

There have always been certain individuals who have defined a ‘generation’. The ‘90s were marked by the arrival of the Spice Girls, other boy bands and, outside the pop industry, by Monica Lewinsky. In Pakistan, perhaps, we had the Vital Signs, Junoon and Hadiqa Kiani but virtually no one outside the entertainment sector. That period for the Pakistani youth was marked by political instability and there was a huge gap as far as the evolution of local pop culture is concerned. It was only in the next decade, with the increasing use of the Internet, the liberation of the media and the rapid rise of the café culture that the current generation (Generation Y) woke up and rubbed their eyes, and the realisation that now they had a chance of developing their own identity dawned on them.

After hours of searching and taking a good look around I was forced to conclude that we live in a world of GT (Good Times magazine). We aspire to be the people smiling back at us from the printed glossy paper: the ones with the perfect hair and makeup, those who seem to have a successful life, a lot of friends and a good time. Take a look at any random group in any popular café or joint: they sport almost the same hairstyle, co-ordination of outfits, behave and talk similarly and if frozen they’d look almost exactly like the younger version of the people we see printed in social pages. Someone who is hung about the Eighties will still sport the coiffed look that was popular then. An older person who was young and adventurous in the ‘50s or ‘60s will still style his hair after Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley or Shami Kapoor. People like to follow trendsetters and generally trendsetters are the icons for the masses.

You still come across the odd Amitabh Bachan, a Waheed Murad, an Imran Khan and a Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a crowd. These people were overwhelmingly popular and powerful, with massive fan following due to their charismatic, magnetic personalities. Although Amitabh must still be an icon for many middle-aged men.

Bachchan’s first major box office success came in the leading role for his film Zanjeer. The movie was a sharp contrast to the romantic-themed ones that had generally preceded it and established Amitabh as the ‘angry young man’ (action hero) of Bollywood. The next decade catapulted him to the pinnacle of Bollywood superstardom. He churned out at least one major hit every year. Although the above-mentioned films cemented his status as Bollywood’s pre-eminent action hero, Amitabh displayed a flair for more than just action roles. His remarkable comic timing was on display in films that were box office hits in late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He also emerged successful as a romantic lead. Any tall, lanky man with big features, thick hair and some charm would still love to be called Amitabh, especially if he had a nice voice to go with it all.

Young men (and women) idol worshipped Z A Bhutto for his dynamism, for his hardline confrontational policies against India. Large crowds would gather to listen to his speeches. A tall, bald man with fair complexion, an aristocratic nose and an arrogant attitude and people start calling him Bhutto Sahib.

Practically the whole generation of young men in the ‘80s aspired to be Imran Khan with looks and sex appeal, if not with cricketing abilities. Imran is seen as one of the finest all-rounders the game has ever produced. He was one of the fastest bowlers of the world during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in the latter half of his career one of the best batsmen in the Pakistan team. Perhaps more significantly, as a captain, he transformed the Pakistan team, previously known for its exceptional talent but lack of coherence, into a well-moulded unit. And perhaps a whole generation of young women were fatally and frantically in love with him, so much so that one could say that to this day, Imran remains a phenomenon that happened in the ‘80s. No Shoaib Akhtar, Humayun Saeed, Shaan, Abrarul Haq or Shahzad Roy has at all the clout nor the substance that Imran Khan was made of. He was probably the equivalent of Elvis Presely in the West.

These days, the world over Generation Y is becoming increasingly defined by socialites like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie or by young divas like Lindsay Lohan. The days of the strong, graceful beauty personified by Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Jacky Kennedy are over.

The real question is: who defines Generation Y in Pakistan, especially when desi influences might be concerned? We don’t have hugely popular socialites (they would probably get bombed especially if they were anything like Hilton) and our fashion and music industry, although not highly developed, is evolving. Only a small section of Generation Y is concerned with the societal, ecological and political environment – constituting an extremely small percentage of them – and none so far have managed to stand out in their efforts.

Bringing us back to the entertainment sector, ask any random young individual walking down the street as to who their favourite celebrity is, from any place in the city, and you’ll almost always be confronted with ‘Atif Aslam’ as the answer. A media-shy but gifted vocalist Atif Aslam (previously part of the band Jal) personifies the rags-to-riches story that has a somewhat universal appeal. Becoming an almost instantaneous hit, when the band Jal released the Umar Anwar-directed video of Aadat, they found themselves catapulted from near obscurity to extreme stardom. Aadat was everywhere – it voiced the frustration felt by most of the youth.

Just when they were learning to grapple with the implications of their new-found popularity, Atif Aslam left the band. What followed was a court case and a premature album launch by Atif Aslam in a bid to cash in on the media hype following the breakup of the band – all of which worked. Today, two albums later with a third one on the way and after having performed numerous international tours, Atif Aslam is one of the most popular and highly paid entertainers of the music industry.

His mass appeal can perhaps be credited to the fact that he is one of the very few individuals in the industry who really can sing, his songs are in Urdu, are lyrically simple and easy to relate to. Most important, he doesn’t belong to or tries to embody the characteristics that define the country’s social elite: he talks, dresses and behaves the way an ordinary youth from the masses does. He is one of them and they see themselves every time his music plays or his face flashes on TV.

On the flip side we also have Fasi Zaka – the corpulent, humorous, Rhodes Scholar who rose to fame via the show On the fringe directed by his cousin and musician/producer, Zeeshan Parwez. Recorded with a home camera and jabbing humour at the ‘serious’ artistes predominant in the entertainment industry, On the fringe and with it, its host Fasi Zaka, was a huge hit and managed to amass a strong cult following. Several newspaper columns, massively popular radio shows and an additional show dealing with socio-political affairs later, Fasi Zaka is everywhere.

At first glance, nothing about Fasi Zaka except for his intelligence and wit is cool. He is the class clown – the one who makes everyone laugh but isn’t somehow part of any particular ‘group’. His appeal may be attributed to the fact that other than his innate ability to make us laugh, he represents the misfits predominant in all of us. He doesn’t conform to a social ‘type’: he doesn’t look perfect and he doesn’t act it either. Fasi Zaka defines new kind of ‘cool’– the kind that allows you to look, behave and be what you are, as long as you can enjoy a couple of laughs in the process.

Try as I might, I haven’t come across a single female icon for today’s youth, whether in the entertainment sector or outside, there isn’t a single woman big enough. Mohtarma, Mukhtaran Mai, Sherry Rahman? This is baffling in itself, how long will it take for a woman to match the appeal that Nazia Hasan had in the ‘80s or Hadiqa Kiyani had in the nineties? And considering that breaking into the industry was much more difficult for women back then as opposed to now.

Do the divas today have the clout. Is the upcoming generation in the 21st century at all affected by Meera, Reema, Amina Haq or Annie the mahiya girl? Do people in the limelight have no substance that shines anymore? Do young men aspire to be Shaan?

Keeping all of the above in mind, it would be safe to say that we don’t have a highly developed youth culture – although compared to the rest of the age brackets, it is by far the strongest. With the increasing globalisation of the media both conventional and new media (blogs, podcasts, ezines etc), influences are also becoming global and it is becoming difficult to separate desi youth icons and/or role models from the international ones. What can be said without a doubt that these role models are important in the sense that they provide the already confused youth with a sense of identity and belonging – your parent’s heros aren’t yours. Unless we have individuals who are willing to break from the GT-inspired mold that has taken over us and promote their individuality, we might not have an ‘icon’ to define Generation Z.

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