It’s that time of year again. Amidst cancelled meetings, cross-border shelling, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the governments of India and Pakistan, the task of defending national pride and whipping up patriotic fervour has once again fallen to a select group of individuals who can always be relied upon to provide direction and guidance to a confused but grateful citizenry. When the diplomats, politicians, and generals fall silent, it is these intrepid men and women who move once more unto the breach, fighting the good fight and standing up for truth, justice, and Pakistan. Indeed, we owe our celebrities a tremendous debt of gratitude; without their timely interventions, Pakistan would have succumbed to Indian hegemony long ago.

The fixation people have with celebrities is not difficult to understand. Other than the fact that they entertain millions through film, music, and other media, they also have a certain vicarious, aspirational appeal; rich, beautiful, and charismatic people leading lives that most can only dream of. It is ironic that these same attributes also fuel the darker side of celebrity obsession; the constant scrutiny and judgment, the lack of respect for privacy, and the pettiness that finds satisfaction in seeing celebrities humiliated and brought down in the latest ‘scandal’. Either way, the fact that celebrities are so constantly and prominently thrust into the public eye helps to explain the tremendous number of people who listen to them and take them seriously.

This is all well and good, and harmless enough. Nonetheless, one of the most frequent objections to the ubiquity of celebrity in modern society is the notion that it contributes to a dumbing down of the public discourse. This idea is rooted in the assumption that individuals using their celebrity to promote particular causes often do so from a position of ignorance, with their contributions ranging from the vacuous to the dangerously misinformed. In the West, the tireless work of model Jenny McCarthy to discredit vaccines and, more famously, U2 frontman Bono’s attempts to campaign for debt relief in Africa by sycophantically associating with the institutions and leaders responsible for the debt crisis in the first place, come to mind as examples of celebrity folly. At a more general level, it could be argued that for all their goodwill ambassadorships, patronage or charities, and advocacy of issues ranging from environmentalism to world peace, the actual impact celebrities have is disproportionately low given the amounts of attention they have garnered over the years.

While there is some truth to these arguments, it would also be a bit unfair to take them as a basis upon which to flippantly dismiss everything celebrities might have to say. After all, they have as much of a right to voice their opinion as anyone else, they are often able to highlight issues that might otherwise suffer from a glaring lack of publicity and, more often than not, are motivated by a genuine desire to see things get better (even if the ideas they espouse are counterproductive or incorrect).

Nonetheless, it would also be a mistake to simply let celebrities off the hook, if for no other reason than the fact that their platform, and their prominence, necessarily requires them to act more responsibly. The latest fulminations coming out of Bollywood and Lollywood are a case in point. The decision to ban the Indian film ‘Phantom’ in Pakistan (itself a questionable act with troubling implications for free speech and expression in this country, especially amidst a more general crackdown on the media and the internet) prompted one of its stars, Saif Ali Khan, to express his disappointment in Pakistan. This in turn led stalwarts of the local entertainment industry to weigh in on the ‘controversy’, with serial offenders like Faisal Qureshi, Hamza Abbassi, and Shaan castigating Khan for his comments. Shaan in particular took things a step further; after appearing in numerous films (most notably the technically sound but narratively execrable paean to jingoism that was Waar) that saw him play the role of a patriotic warrior dedicated to defending his country from all who would threaten it, Shaan attacked Mawara Hocane for daring to suggest that the viewing public were mature enough to decide for themselves if they wanted to watch ‘Phantom’ or not. For Shaan, anyone who does not subscribe to his professed brand of patriotism, which apparently revolves around parroting the same anti-Indianism that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s official nationalist discourse, automatically becomes an anti-state actor worthy of opprobrium.

The problem with this entire approach is its inexcusable narrow-mindedness and, unforgivably for the performing arts, its utter lack of creativity. Every time the subject of India comes up, it is routine to see elements of the entertainment industry line up to reproduce and reinforce the same old tropes and categories; India is bad, Pakistan is good, and anyone who says otherwise is suspect. Like the narrative promoted by the government and establishment, the one espoused by people like Shaan sees little room for growth or change; while some might argue that free speech and expression are not incompatible with Pakistani identity, and that there is ample space and, indeed, need for dissent and debate within society, especially when it challenges conventional wisdom, the artists and celebrities who have taken it upon themselves to ‘defend’ Pakistan continue to do so by emphasising some of the very things that others might argue have played a role in undermining this country in the first place. Indeed, for all the fire and brimstone that is rained upon India every time one of its actors mentions Pakistan, it is telling to see how little is said by the entertainment industry about what happens within this country; with a few notable exceptions (most of whom are themselves attacked for portraying a ‘negative image’ of Pakistan, as illustrated earlier this week by the way in which local film Swaarangi was banned by the censor board), the Shaans and Hamza Abbassis of the world are content to remain silent about a status quo that is characterised by considerable violence and oppression.

Shaan and his ilk in Pakistan are guilty of having the same parochial outlook that they attack Saif Ali Khan for possessing, and their interventions do little to further the debate or explore the ways in which India and Pakistan could move forward in a more constructive way. Theirs are the voices of conservative reaction, clinging to old certainties at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that the mix of religion and capitalism that has underpinned Pakistan’s development is one that needs to be radically re-evaluated. Art has often played a revolutionary role in society, giving rise to ideas that explore and critique mainstream society. Sadly, this is far from the case in Pakistan, where the performing arts continue to march hand-in-glove with the custodians of the established order.