In the opening sequence of Showgirls of Pakistan (2020), we watch as a qaari does a soulful rendition of ‘Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim’ with the Arabic text wafting in and out of the screen. This is followed by credits written in classic Urdu, reminiscent of the golden days of PTV (Pakistan Television). Just as we are lulled into a comforting sense of nostalgia, the definition of mujra – as a lost art form originating from the Mughal era – flickers on screen, and then, instead of a Haseena Moin drama, there unfolds a deliriously dazzling montage of thrusting bodies – gyrating, spinning, twerking – in front of a largely male audience. We are led to deduce from all this that the makers (both US nationals) are set to view these showgirls as artists condemned by a conservative society holding on to its pre-colonial traditions; that we will spend the next 90 minutes being lectured about our moral hypocrisy as nation. But the documentary doesn’t have such petty aims.
Shedding The Gaze
By entrapping us with its supposedly moral-high-ground gaze, by juxtaposing the opening words of Quran with the kaleidoscopic showcase of glittering female bodies, it has set the stage, quite literally, for these women to prance around in their domain without giving a damn about who is watching and where. The opening credits with their authentically Lollywood flavour are followed by an attempt by the self-aware neo-liberal makers to get chummy with the queens in their own domain, to have their forced empathy dismantled by the girl’s acrobatic moves, and to willingly end up kneeling before them with a newfound reverence. The smokescreen pays off, in moments big and small throughout, and we, the viewers, end up with a shameful realisation of how belittling our preconceived notions were.
Following The ‘Star’
The documentary should be credited with seamlessly culling out three distinct narratives (Afreen, Uzma and Reema) from what was hundreds of hours of footage, as the makers followed many showgirls in the Lahore and Multan stage-show scene. We first meet Afreen, a rising stage star in Lahore in what appears to be a behind-the-scenes chaotic candour akin to a Taylor Swift or Beyoncé documentary. Afreen idolises Rihanna and Shakira though. Her makeup room can be considered as the sanctuary of the marginalised. We meet her trans secretary (‘the she-male’), who prefers the pronoun ‘he’, to which Afreen respectfully agrees. We meet her mother, dressing up her daughter in shimmery outfits that best exhibit her assets. We meet her rival dancers, comparing the quality of each other’s padded bras. The banter (both on and off stage) is steeped in vernacular Punjabi (the kind my Punjabi parents warned me to stay away from, hence the English subs were a blessing) and laced with comedic dialogues only the performers and their audience in the theatre (a section of a society) would feel at home with. As the male audience sits in rapt attention and breaks into laughter whenever they are supposed to, it feels as if some endangered community is having some discreet fun underground. One clip showed a father along with his teenage son, excitedly buying tickets. It all looks too normal to be true.
Naturally, in the milieu of misfits, no one is a misfit. The instability of Afreen’s profession – run-ins with the censors (some of whom take front-row seats and can call off the show if the girl’s neckline is too deep), art council (mostly upper-class ladies trying to outdo each other in ‘social work’) or jilted lovers (with guns) – has forced Afreen to diversify her portfolio. She is a desi cam girl of sorts with active Facebook and Tik Tok accounts to keep her ‘fans’ titillated when she is off stage. She knows we are judging her, and she judges us for precisely that reason.
The last hour of the documentary (uploaded to Vice News’s YouTube channel) has Suroosh Alvi interviewing the makers of the film. Saad Khan candidly incriminates everyone from the white documentary world that saw no narrative in this ‘Pak porn’ footage (and rejected every pitch to fund the film) to the media and the clerics, who seems to have mentally fixed the adjective fahaash (vulgar) for artists like Afreen, and finally, to the classist society that cringes upon a showgirl’s provocative moves and simultaneously labels the item songs in Indian films as empowering to women for laying bare their sophisticated feminine sexuality.
The street lingo (Punjabi, Seraiki, Farsi) already sets a showgirl’s world at a safe distance from the literary Urdu and elite English-speaking quarters. It is obvious that both the white documentary world as well the Vice viewers are culpable in judging what is vulgar and what is empowering, depending upon who is grooving to what music in front of which audience. The entertainment for the working class (rickshaw drivers, street peddlers) would always lack the refinement that merits the feminism-spouting institutions’ support.
The Toxic Lovers
Our introduction to Uzma (who is more of a private party dancer) and her love/hate story with Imran, her manager, is told through a plethora of recorded phone calls and social media videos of the couple. The brilliantly edited saga encompasses everything from a young couple in love to that love turning sour, resulting in the use of choice cuss words, drugs at an airport, two-timing and nasty paid headlines in an Urdu daily. A lovers’ spat (where surprisingly Uzma gets the upper hand) is mostly audio, but then the film goes back to its theme and inserts clips from Lollywood B-movies of yore, which provide a visual palette to the soundtrack of a showgirl’s time-tested ability in handling wounded male egos. This bit also gives us a glimpse of Dubai/UAE prostitution rings that many Indian (one of them oddly named Ram Jannay) and Pakistani dealers like Imran run like a business. The phrases ‘Eid session’ and ‘demand of Pakistani and Nepali material’ are thrown around in an unsettling context here. Unlike Love, Sonia, the girls aren’t trafficked. Setting off in an airplane to the Middle East is the pinnacle of any showgirl’s career.
The Lowest Of The Low
Lastly, we meet Reema, a hijra (trans) woman, an ageing ex-showgirl who is trying to make her way back to a ‘respectable’ stage career. With her, we get a sneak peek into the hijra community clanship. The dynamic of Guru/Chela (mentor/mentee) arrangement has undertones of a dysfunctional family at its best and the mafia at its worst. Each hijra tribe has got dibs on a territory that other tribes can’t enter, in order to collect money at births and weddings, etc. But Reema longs to be back at the stage. She is a misfit amongst misfits and her chela, Sana, is plotting behind her back. A scene from Sonchiriya fits perfectly here, when a female bandit says that women are below even the lowest of the low castes. Well, the transwomen are lower than the lowest with ‘full women’ going up one step in this sickening hierarchy and letting those at the bottom be aware of it. The community’s social media is laden with tribal wars not different from that of Game of Thrones. The State law isn’t trusted by recognised genders here, so what’s the hope for the third gender? Hence, the hijra community has made its own judicial system. Everything is recorded, and posted on public platforms. When Reema is shunned by her clan, the revelation is made on a WhatsApp group. They are their own witnesses and judges. Needless to say, this system of self-preservation provided miles of footage that the makers went to great pains to incorporate. At times one’s head spins at sheer volume of content at disposal. But then, it is just another reminder for the viewer of how much of an outsider they still are to this world unabashedly on display.
‘All problems would be solved if we just cut men’s dicks off,’ a defeated Afreen confesses at one point. For once, she hates the demand of the commodity she is in a position to supply and sustain herself with. With showgirls dropping dead left, right and centre around her, Afreen can’t but long for the utopia where frail male egos would not make life any tougher for girls like her. Long gone are the days when courtesans at Mughal palaces or dancers at Cairo’s bars were at least respected externally. Now these showgirls are at mercy of their own cleverness to navigate the lattice of confused moral edifices of the society they inhabit. They don’t know which one of the patriarchal institutions would come for them next – the law, the press, the judiciary? They all can as easily become their downfall as be a ladder to survive the realm of this hushed industry. The showgirls only have to decide which patriarchal institution to get cosy with at what time. And Uzma, of the three, seems shrewdest at this.
Like all people, all showgirls want to find meaning in their job, to be true artists. At one point in the film, Afreen excitedly calls for her mother’s attention to her recorded performance on screen, as her ‘somersault’ move is about to air. Reema, when making a comeback in a stage drama in Multan, weeps backstage having just delivered her dialogues, overwhelmed with happiness at finding her ‘artistic’ self again.
The opening credits were a smokescreen all along, for an honourable objective: to show that the showgirls have rejected the system that wasn’t made for them. They have refused a seat at the table because the table wasn’t built for them in the first place. But they don’t want our pity. The showgirls take only what serves them.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.