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The Pakistani Invasion

Posted on: November 24, 2014

The placard – raised in a stadium at an India-Pakistan match – had evoked considerable mirth. “Keep Kashmir, give us Madhuri,” said the sign put up by a Pakistani fan of the Bollywood actress, who had then just danced her way into the subcontinent’s collective heart.

The slogan seems set to change. “Take Kashmir, give us Fawad,” may well be the new message from this side of the border. Fawad Khan is a Pakistani actor who features in television series broadcast on an Indian channel devoted to Pakistani soap – and who has wowed Indian viewers.

An infiltration of a different kind seems to have taken place in India in recent months. The social face of Pakistan has captured the hearts of people across India. Zee TV’s Zindagi channel is a rage – and its Pakistani stars including Fawad, Mahira Khan and Samira Peerzada, are all talking points.

But that’s just one facet of the silent invasion. From Pakistani humour to textiles, from fashion to food and films, the social media platforms are brimming with comments from Indian fans of all that is Pakistani.

“Pakistan is the flavour of the moment,” agrees social commentator Santosh Desai. “Yes, a change is on its way. It may be subtle and it may be silent, but it’s definitely there,” stresses Pakistani social media commentator Alia Suleman.

The current interest in Pakistan has been triggered by the success of Zindagi, no doubt, but there have been several other recent developments as well. The Pakistan stall – with its onyx and textiles – at the ongoing International Trade Fair is besieged by visitors. Pakistani food and film festivals are taking place in the Capital, and eateries are serving Pakistani cuisine. A great many Pakistani comic videos are also being circulated in India on whatsapp and social sites.

“There is always a curiosity among Indians about Pakistan and its culture,” says an official at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.

Pakistani social commentator Bina Shah stresses that strained bilateral ties had always come in the way of easy relations. “But because of social media, it isn’t just jokes that are being shared – folks on both sides of the border can observe the latest trends and what’s hot in our respective countries, and share it,” she says.

And among all that’s hot is fashion. In a first for Lakme Fashion Week (LFW), four Pakistani designers were invited this August to showcase their collections. “So far only a niche category was aware of our brand. But now there’s a huge buzz around Pakistani fashion,” says Sania Maskatiya, one of the designers who debuted at LFW.

The market — from a tony South Delhi mall to the local dress material shop in West Delhi — is stocking up on cuts, prints and fabric either procured from Pakistan or replicated in a wholesale market in India. “We are attracted to their stylish cuts and lace,” writer-columnist Shobhaa De points out.

That there’s an overwhelming interest in Pakistani textile and fashion was evident at the Aalishan Pakistan exhibition held earlier this year at the Pragati Maidan. Organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and The Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, it showcased fashion apparel, home textiles, leather goods, furniture and marble handicraft.

About 100,000 people are believed to have visited the exhibition on its second day. “We marked sales worth Rs 15 lakh over four days,” says Muhammad Yasin of Pakistan-based clothiers Gul Ahmed.

Wardha Saleem, the chief executive officer of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, a non-profit organisation which facilitates the promotion of Pakistani designers, says that most of the designers had sold off their stock in the first three days of Aalishan Pakistan.

“We presented buyers with fusion wear — shirts (kurtas in India) paired with trousers or palazzo pants or skinny pants or form fitting cigarette cut pants,” Saleem says. “Our flowy chiffons, cotton silk and chamois silk are very popular in India.” The Council has also opened an outlet in Delhi’s South Extension in association with an Indian retailer where Pakistani collections are sold.

The Pakistan High Commission has been facilitating the exhibitions, and has also helped organise food and film fests in Delhi. “Chapli kebab and Kabuli Pulao are the two most popular Pakistani dishes in India. Both come from Peshawar,” says Mazhar Allahyar, the general manager of Islamabad’s Monal restaurant, which will collaborate in another food festival to be held in Delhi next month.

Restaurants serving Pakistani dishes have also opened up in the city. “Indians are keen on Pakistani cuisine because of its variety. Each region of Pakistan has something different to offer,” says Sanjeev Verma, manager of the Hauz Khas Village restaurant Raas, which has a Pakistani menu.

Commentator Desai describes this interest in Pakistan as cyclical. Indeed, in the late eighties and early nineties, too, there was a deep interest in Pakistani television drama series. A decade or so ago, it was the age of Pakistani music as bands such as Junoon and Strings became popular in India. Then the last few years saw another invasion – of the literary kind. Pakistani authors — Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif and others – were lapped up in India.

But what’s given a boost to the trend is the growth of the social media.

“Social networking sites are abuzz with praise for Pakistani shows. In fact, there are continuous requests for repeat telecasts and that’s why we have also had re-runs of some of our popular shows,” says Priyanka Datta, business head of Zindagi, which Zee launched five months ago.

Apeksha Harihar, content head, Social Samosa, a Mumbai-based social media knowledge storehouse, says she has noticed a “fascination” for Zindagi channel shows on social media platforms. “Most tweets favour these Pakistani shows over Indian shows,” Harihar holds.

Indeed, Pakistan seems to have entered the lives of many people through their television sets. “Till now, whatever we read about Pakistan or watched on TV through news channels was political. But these dramas gave us a glimpse of Pakistan which we’d never thought about,” says an ardent Fawad Khan fan, Shipti Sabharwal. Sabharwal, who runs a boutique in West Delhi, adds that Pakistani long kurtis “sell like hot cakes” in her shop. A trader at the Pakistan stall at the trade fair points out that women buyers often ask him for specific designs or styles sported by Pakistani actors in the serials.

The channel already has over 90,000 followers on Twitter and 300,000 fans on Facebook. “The platforms are abuzz with discussions,” Harihar says, adding that viewers have also started fan pages.

Fawad Khan’s fan clubs include ‘_FawadKhanFan_’, ‘Fan_FawadAK_Fanatic’ and ‘Fawad Khan Fever’. With a fan base of the kind, Fawad has not surprisingly made his Bollywood debut. The actor starred in the recent release Khoobsurat. Another Pakistani actor who debuted in Bollywood in recent times is Imran Abbas Naqvi, who was paired with Bipasha Basu in ‘Creature 3D’.

Talks are on for a role for Mahira Khan, too. “I consider myself among the lucky few from Pakistan to have their work recognised and appreciated in India,” says the female lead star of ‘Humsafar’, the blockbuster serial which was premiered on Zindagi in September. “I recently joined Twitter and have experienced craziness since,” she says.

The use of Urdu words in the series may have sparked an interest in the language, too. Zindagi now runs a scroll that acts as a thesaurus for Urdu phrases — a word is explained in Roman letters every day. About 65 per cent of people who log on to an Indian website on Urdu poetry called Rekhta, launched in 2013, are from India.

“We have close to 7000 visitors every day, up from the 300 that we used to get last year. We are now planning a festival for which poets from across the border will be invited,” Rekhta founder Sanjiv Saraf says.

Back in Pakistan, too, the trend has been appreciated.

“The segment of the population that had begrudgingly viewed the influence of Indian culture in Pakistan, openly opposing the airing of Indian movies in our theatres and on TV, is now pleased that this influence is reciprocated on the other side of the border too,” Suleman says. “The segment that sincerely wishes to see the two ‘bullies’ finally call it a day sees this as a step towards that goal.”

Samira Peerzada, a popular character actor from ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hain’ and ’Dhoop Chhaon’, points out that she grew up watching Indian shows and films in Pakistan. “We always dreamt and hoped that the work of Pakistani artists also got the same kind of response in India. It seems the dream has come true.”

Suleman has noticed another outcome of the trend – a difference in attitude in her Indian relatives. “To them, Pakistanis had always appeared to be too ‘fast’, too ‘modern’, too ‘unreal’, and too ‘foreign’. But now, it is all changing.”

When she phones them in the evening, her Indian relatives tell her “somewhat irritably” not to call when they are watching Pakistani serials on TV. “For the first time, they want to hear about the other good serials, writers and actors, something they never wanted to do before… They are interested when I talk about Pakistani fashion for a change. For the first time, they are interested in me as a Pakistani rather than just a relative.”

So it’s not just India that’s rejoicing in this friendly invasion. This could well be the season of hope. After all, the twin siblings -– separated at birth, like so much of Bollywood — just shared the Nobel Peace Prize, too.

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