Why Pasoori has nothing to do with India or Bollywood

A recent article in the New Yorker about the Coke Studio song Pasoori claimed that it was “uniting” Pakistanis and Indians, and attempted to explain/analyze the song’s provenance through that lens. Perhaps the author, Priyanka Mattoo, was looking for a feel-good angle, a little bit of good news in a time of division and discord, where Indian Muslims are subjected to increasing violence and discrimination every day.

But what ended up happening instead was that the article made an implicit assertion that everything good that comes from Pakistan is actually derived from India. I do not think the author meant to say this; she wrote her article in good faith. But let me say it clearly: there is nothing Bollywood about the video for Pasoori or the song itself. It is quintessentially a Pakistani vibe, beat, and aesthetic that has been developing in Pakistan for the last 20 years.

Let’s decode some of the elements in the video that an Indian viewer may not be familiar with: Sheema Kirmani, the classical dancer featured in the video is a pioneer of the Pakistani women’s resistance movement. Her devotion to Indian classical dance is about upholding a South Asian art form that has been seen as suspect since the 1980s, the time of military dictatorship that also, interestingly, spawned Pakistan’s pop scene.

Unlike a Bollywood actress, Shae Gill sits sedately in a shrub-filled sehen (a courtyard, typical of Islamic architecture in mosques and homes of Muslims), without gyrating even once — bringing to mind the Benjamin Sisters of the 1980s. Her innocent dance with Ali Sethi reminds me of Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, Pakistani pop stars from the same era.

The song itself is composed by Xulfi and Abdullah Siddiqui, homegrown musicians whose influences are anything BUT Bollywood. Entity Paradigm, Xulfi’s former band, was one of the hottest rock acts in Pakistan 20 years ago. Abdullah Siddiqui, talented artist and producer, is a frontrunner in the electronic music scene in Pakistan, which has been bubbling over very nicely for the last decade or so, and includes shoegaze, trip-hop, and psychedelia. Not very Bollywood at all.

The video is NOT shot in Bollywood technicolor style. This is a style that evokes Pakistan of the 1950s, with its own thriving movie industry, visuals, colors, and lighting. It makes me think of Manto, who wrote for Pakistani cinema in its golden age, of Pakistani actresses in kameezes and crisp white shalwars with motia in their hair. (I can’t really understand Ali Sethi’s outfit, but it brings to mind safari suits and materials from East Africa, rather than a Bollywood style shirt-pant combo in violently clashing neon colors.)

To say this video is derived from Bollywood traditions, or that it’s “uniting” Pakistan and India, is something that could only be said by a writer viewing this video through an Indian — hegemonic — lens. Through the eyes of a Pakistani, it means something completely different. a coming of age of our music scene, that can stand on its own and command global attention and respect.

Oh, and one more thing. Nobody in Pakistan calls it a “jingle truck.”

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