MARIAM ALI BAIG: At the National Design Conference in Islamabad you spoke on the ‘undecided visual narrative’ of Pakistan? What do you mean by this?
SYED YAWAR IQBAL: In an ideal world, the visual vocabulary references a country’s vernacular, be it film, fashion, or characters of popular culture – any visual medium people interact with on a daily basis. This creates a visual vocabulary. It can be a piece of design, a poster; anything for that matter. In Pakistan that reality is altered. We are in a constant battle with what is right and what is wrong. When we think of a vernacular design or visual, we disregard pre-Partition times. Ask someone whether they consider Buddhism, which prevailed in this region about 2,000 years ago, as part of their heritage, and they will answer “of course not”. We don’t want to inherit anything that is polarising. We inherited a simplified version of the Mughal miniature, which is the beautification and decorative aspect, because it works with our sensibility and is Shariah compliant. We inherited calligraphy because we thought since the Saudis have it, so can we. We disregard everything else that was part of our culture and identity and the result is a very contrived visual narrative. We are too scared to do anything that might disrupt the social fabric.
MAB: Is it fear of the State or of public opinion?
SYI: It is not authority; it is fear of each other. We don’t want to be socially outcast. It can be in my house; if I support someone from popular culture like Qandeel Baloch, I may be judged; if I support someone whose ideology may not fit in with the rest of the family’s, I may be treated as an outcast – this is what makes us afraid of making our own choices as individuals and as Pakistanis. The decisions ad agencies take are made very carefully. Will people be receptive? Can we include a plus size model in a fashion shoot? Can we cast a model who is bald? These are easy conversations elsewhere in the world, but not here. This is an everyday problem we all face – it is in our heads. Everything is filtered; we pre-decide what will work and what will not. We want to be in the safe zone. We don’t want to be culturally outcast. Outcasts are killed and unfortunately this is not a metaphor, it is the reality. This permeates our thinking, which is why our advertising is boring and our films and dramas one dimensional. We are left with the safest of visualisations; truck art and the chakor. When brands come to an ad agency they want to talk to the masses who have adopted these things.
MAB: Isn’t the point of advertising to connect with audiences?
SYI: Then I don’t have a job! The highest rated TV drama in Pakistan in the last 30 years was Humsafar, which was produced by Momina Duraid. The reason it was popular was because it gave us a uniform. Mahira Khan played Khirad, the good girl. She was poor but she had high moral values; she covered her head, she was pious and dutiful and her marriage was arranged. She was the prototype of a good Pakistani girl. The villain was an educated woman working for a multinational. She was western in demeanour and in the end, she killed herself. This kind of visual narrative has an impact on all audiences, not just on young girls and what are they learning? That girls who are western are chaalu (fast)? Humsafar gave us a uniform as to what a good girl should be like.
MAB: The fact is that our values are conservative...
SYI: Religion has taken over culture and they are two different things; we have intertwined them. I have no issues if we want to be within the realm of a Muslim state. There are some very progressive Muslim states – Qatar, Malaysia and Turkey, for example. Bangladesh has held on to its heritage; they held on to Satyajit Ray, to Tagore and to their great writers and musicians. Every year they are winning at Cannes. Thirty years post Zia, we are realising the gap that has been created in our cultural narrative.
MAB: Bangladesh has always had a strong Bengali heritage.
SYI: Because it was passed on from one generation to another. Today, in Pakistan, if you open a textbook for a class eight student, the first page is a hamd, the second is a naat and the third is about Muhammad bin Qasim. What does that even mean? That I take Allah’s name first, then the Prophet’s (PBUH) and then I read about a person, who aged 19, killed 300 people and committed adultery with a multitude of women. What will a 12-year-old learn from this? Compare this to a child who reads Tagore. He or she will know that love exists; that there will be songs and that fishermen hope for the next dawn. This is a very different visualisation.
MAB: What is the solution?
SYI: People who work in a visual capacity need to come together and realise that there is a problem and we need to fix it. Our literacy rate is low. People look at a visual more than at a word. We have a responsibility when we produce a visual. Haseena Moin wrote the most profound stories about women empowerment in Zia’s time. She created popular women characters who were neither financially or emotionally dependent. Ankahi, Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinare were about women who wanted to make a name for themselves. They went to work dressed in Teejays outfits. And audiences accepted it. It is important for media to play a role. We are regressive because the visuals people receive are regressive. Today, when women watch TV, (the most important visual medium we have), they are not learning about a cure for cancer or about Mars. They are learning how to make sheermaal and how to be good wives. We need to put different visuals out there and cultivate a culture of acceptance and tolerance.
MAB: Is this beginning to happen?
SYI: The discussion needs to reach our drawing rooms. We don’t think there is anything wrong with our TV content, when in actual fact there is. We need to challenge the narrative and then fix it. This change will then permeate into advertising. Brands will realise that they are dated and formulaic and that they have to change.
MAB: What is JWT|GREY doing to change the narrative?
SYI: We are a business and we try to change things as much as we can. For the Khaadi Independence Day ad, instead of producing a routine chest thumping communication, we featured every minority praying freely for Pakistan in their own spaces. But overall it is very difficult.
MAB: Why difficult?
SYI: Firstly, because brands want the numbers and the only way they can achieve this differently is to invest in groundbreaking communication for 12 months. We do one initiative and when the brand doesn’t get the results, they move back to where they were. Secondly, multinationals have no desire to change anything. They are here to make money; their people manage a brand for about 18 months and their KPIs are the sales that lead their bonus; their KPIs are not about moving the narrative.
MAB: What about the national companies?
SYI: Their benchmark is what the multinational companies do. In India, Myntra.com, one of their largest retail e-commerce brands, produced an ad with a lesbian couple. This gives courage to everyone else; they realised there is a population out there that might think differently. Ariel developed the ‘Share The Load’ campaign; the premise being why is laundry only a woman’s job? The #VogueEmpower ‘Start With The Boys’ campaign was about teaching boys not to cry as well as teaching them not to make girls cry. In Pakistan, Generation is an incredibly progressive brand; they have used models with vitiligo or who are bald. They did a campaign on a woman who remarried at the age of 60. Yet, Generation is a mainstream brand and does phenomenal business. Syed Zaheeruddin Ahmed is the creative consultant for Kenwood and is perhaps the only man in Pakistan doing progressive work with mainstream brands. His ads focus on the common man’s problems with a very vernacular narrative, without trying to imitate India or adding the aspirational gloss we are so good at doing – that slice of life thing, I don’t even know whose life they are slicing.
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