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Pakistan's Cultural Renaissance Amid Economic Turmoil

© AP Photo / K.M. ChaudaryFILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 file photo, a woman walks past a promotional hoarding of an upcoming movie "Joyland" displayed outside a cinema, in Lahore, Pakistan
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 file photo, a woman walks past a promotional hoarding of an upcoming movie Joyland displayed outside a cinema, in Lahore, Pakistan - Sputnik India, 1920, 27.02.2023
Sputnik takes a look at how Pakistani artists are reclaiming cultural space and gaining international acclaim despite the turbulent time that the country is currently going through.
Pakistani movie Joyland won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival 2022, also receiving a standing ovation after its screening. Joyland is Pakistan's submission to this year’s Academy Awards for best foreign film.
Despite being criticized at home by some, Director Saim Sadiq and the cast behind the movie did not get disheartened as they believe the film broke many stereotypes.
The movie highlights several social issues, from discrimination against the transgender community to fear-based perceptions of "what will people say?"
Joyland is one example of how Pakistani artists have managed to shed light on numerous societal nuances and let the world see them from their perspective rather than some whitewashed version depicted in Hollywood.

Stories That Linger

Pakistan is currently facing a serious economic slump as the country's fiscal and monetary policies have led to a large current account and fiscal deficits and high public debt levels. The unprecedented loss of official reserves and a weak financial system have further created economic busts.
Despite this, for those who know Pakistan, Joyland's acclaim comes as no surprise because the country has a rich cultural heritage and Pakistanis are aware this: from the beautiful Urdu language poems by Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, or Ahmed Faraz, to Qawwali singers (a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing, originating in South Asia) as unique as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, to television dramas and films.
For decades, Pakistani dramas have been a popular choice of television for millions of people. Scriptwriters, directors and actors touch upon various themes such as class hierarchy, women's rights, gender bias and other similarly important topics.
The popular drama Dil Lagi was set in the back streets of interior Sindh, where a young woman Anmol lives with her mother and younger sister after their father died. A feudal lord claimed her father owed him money and told his son, Mohid, who falls in love with Anmol, to collect it. The drama highlighted the issues of class divide and depicted struggles the couple had to face in order to be together.
Similarly, another drama Zindagi Gulzar Hai focused on a school teacher who was left by her husband with three daughters. The story brought to light gender bias and the issues a single mother in Pakistan faces when her marriage breaks up.
Such real-life stories are one of the reasons why Pakistani dramas are receiving recognition across the border. Stars such as Hamza Ali Abbassi, Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan are widely recognized in India, Canada and the UK as well.
Today, Pakistani artists are receiving international acclaim with their movies. The Legend of Maula Jatt, a remake of a 1979 film, brought in $10m at the box office last year.
Likewise, Seemab Gul’s short film Sandstorm landed among the top three films at the HollyShorts Film Festival 2022, an Oscar-qualifying festival for short-film categories.
The film revolves around Zara, whose life overturns after she shares a sensual dance video with her virtual boyfriend, who later starts blackmailing her. Zara struggles with questions of privacy and coercion while navigating romance in the digital age.
Pakistan is also the setting of Jemima Khan’s debut film as scriptwriter, What's Love Got to Do With It? starring Lily James and Pakistani actress Sajal Aly. British-born Jemima Khan is the ex-wife of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, with whom she shares two sons.
Most of the work produced by Pakistani artists is not that commercial because it lacks the funding and Bollywood-styled equipment needed for action-packed movies. However, there is no universal formula to create a good piece of art.
A good piece of art should connect with the public as it needs to have some element of truth to it that resonates with the viewer. It must make them see something that they didn't see before and Pakistani artists have managed to show the world a different side to Pakistan - a self-aware, resilient and human side.

Songs, Paintings and Super Heroes

The progressive cultural wave in the country extends to Pakistani musicians. US-based Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani female singer to win a Grammy in 2022. The singer reimagines traditional love poems in modern yet melancholic compositions.
Meanwhile, a song called Pasoori by singers Ali Sethi and Shae Gill is the first Pakistani song to top Spotify’s global viral chart. It was the most Googled song of 2022.
Other notable singers that are making Pakistan proud beyond the border include Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Kaifi Khalil, Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar, Shafqat Amanat Ali, and Momina Mustehsan to name just a few.
In the art scene, Pakistanis are also leaving a notable mark. Contemporary Pakistani artist Salman Toor recently sold a painting called Four Friends for $1.2 million at Sotheby's auction. Toor’s paintings are notable for reimagining classical masterpieces from Caravaggio to Édouard Manet.
Meanwhile, Rashid Rana a Lahore-born artist who constantly pushes on the country's socio-political boundaries through contextually challenging works of art, was the man behind Pakistan's pavilion win at the Dubai Expo. The structure designed by Rana and his team won the Burj CEO Award for the “Best Pavilion Exterior Design.”
There are many other painters and calligraphers, such as Sadequain, Abdul Rehman Chughtai, Wahab Jaffer, who have contributed to Pakistan's art scene globally.
These people are heroes with passion and dedication to make Pakistan shine. They are resilient in the face of adversity because many can make art, produce films and write music in high-tech, multimillion-dollar studios, but producing impactful art when the country reels from political and economic crisis takes another level of courage.
Talking about heroes, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has also been touched by Pakistani artists. The release of the Ms Marvel miniseries marked the first Muslim and Pakistani diaspora superhero.
Played by Iman Vellani, a Pakistani-born Canadian actress, Ms Marvel has received positive reviews, particularly for its creative visual style and Vellani's performance. The creator behind Ms Marvel is also a British-Pakistani stand-up comedian and screenwriter Bisha K. Ali.