A Very Sindhi Take on the Natalia Gul Controversy 

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So, a young lady named Natalia Gul did a comedic bit for an online entertainment page, and then death threats happened. Now, the video of Natalia lambasting her Sindhi self has been viral for a few days, so I’m hoping you’re caught up. I also feel compelled to warn you, this is going to be a pretty wordy post. So, if you faint at the thought of reading, maybe come back when we write about cakes again?

Slight prelude: Natalia Gul is a young stand-up comedian based in Karachi. She performed a bit titled ‘Sindhi Encyclopedia’ for the online entertainment portal The Circus. It was a combination of self-deprecating humour and accents, and received mixed responses (to put it mildly). There was enough backlash for the portal to pull the video, and for Natalia herself to release an apology.

As I said, I’m expecting you to be caught up at this point. But if you are not, here is a video of her comedy set and then, her apology.

Okay, now form your respective opinions as I foray into a long form discussion. And please be prepared, for I may represent more than one opinion.

 

The Never-ending Trail

As one who relishes in digging up forgotten facts, I feel obligated to tell you that Natalia Gul’s antics were not new. And no, I don’t mean that other comedians have made similar jokes in the past. I mean that some months ago, she performed this exact set. Nearly exactly as she did recently.

But never-mind the fact that she has already said all of this before. For it takes just one, ill-fated viral video for the crazies to come out; there’s the internet for you.

Of course, it is also true that comedy poking fun at some rather demeaning Sindhi stereotypes is not new for Pakistan. In fact, no ethnic group in Pakistan has ever been spared when it comes to below-the-belt humour. What is new, or appears to be at least, is the outrage.

Veteran comedy legends, who we continue to remember fondly, always dished out rather demeaning caricatures. The likes of Omar Sharif and Moin Akhtar, have at varying intervals given us some version of a heavily accented, mustached, bumbling Sindhi. I might also add that some of these veterans went fifteen steps ahead of Natalia Gul.

ahem…

I have stated that these caricatures can be funny, and when trudging down the satirical route, can even be poignant. But, regardless of their intent, and their achievements, the jokes are always relying on stereotypes. They always conjure up qualities that apparently plague an entire nation, and always rely on making fun of these qualities.

So what exactly is so very different? What changed, so that after generations of ethnic bashing being fair game, we’re suddenly not here for it anymore?

 

Acquired Tastes

To recall another incident of someone crossing a proverbial line; remember when Anwar Maqsood was called ‘racist’? For his online sketch comedy series, Anwar Maqsood gave his audience a fictional dialogue with a Sindhi man. To be honest, nothing about that skit should have been unexpected. This after all was the writer who penned most of Moin Akhtar’s most memorable performances. And most of his renditions of Sindhi men (and there were many).

The antics, the accent, even the implications were not new. That a Sindhi character should be lazy, devious and annunciate his speech with multiple utterances of “saieen”. All of this echoed Anwar Maqsood scripts of old.

But something different did happen. The Twitter spat was almost instant, with the likes of Ali Gul Pir and Mooroo calling out the veteran. Ali Gul Pir went as far to insinuate that the video was ‘racist’.

(Side note I don’t know who’s deciding the definition of racism anymore. But apparently anything that offends now is racist.)

And while many taking offence did try to explain why they didn’t like this particular skit, there was very little clarity.

 

The Thing About Stereotypes…

For example, Ali Gul Pir said that the problem wasn’t just the stereotypes but that it relied on generalisations. Because the skit was titled ‘a conversation with a Sindhi’ it could be applied to all Sindhis, and not just one person. To quote him directly, “When I made Wadere ka Beta, it was centered on Sindhi wadera. Not all Sindhis. It was made clear. If there is a wadera villain in a film, it’s not racist because every story needs certain characters.”

Okay, I have to call Ali Gul Pir out, on two fronts.

Firstly, differentiating a character from a nation doesn’t immunise your performance from generalisations. By virtue of relying on stereotypes, whether they are addressed to all Sindhis or not, your performance can be generalised. The audience is free to take whatever you give them and do whatever they want with it.

You might have a healthy disclaimer about, “hey not all Sindhis are feudal, and all feudal lords don’t look like this”. But people may just see another, in a long line of stereotypical renditions, and make generalisations any way.

Secondly, and this is why it is so difficult to censor comedy, Natalia Gul also made generalizations. She prefaced her jokes with, ‘this is what Sindhis do…this is what we’re like’. The fact that she was including herself as the butt of a joke doesn’t alter this.

So, why did Ali Gul Pir, and others, have a problem with Anwar Maqsood’s skit but not her set?

Well, because humour is subjective. Simply put, this didn’t bother him. Even if it’s disparate parts were very similar to the earlier skit.

I would also say that because popular people, like Mr. Pir himself, called Mr. Maqsood out, this may have even caused the outrage. Opinion makers have a way of making you upset about things that you weren’t upset about before.

 

A Silencing

Now, please do not mistake my intent. I think that the fact that Natalia Gul has had to delete her social media accounts because of harassment is terrifying. It is a reminder of how digital rights are violated. Particularly when the person being harassed is in a vulnerable position.

As a woman, indulging in what could be classified as bawdy comedy, I can see how she ruffled feathers. Far too often, we look to the liberal bubble perpetuated by the vibrant Twitterati as a snapshot of what an online Pakistan looks like. But, not all virtual spaces are safe from volatile attacks. And when a young woman is bullied into silence because she made a few jokes, we know things are bad.

But an aspect of this whole scenario that bothers me more is the fact that Natalia Gul had to defend her ethnic identity. If you read some of the vitriol spewed her way, all of it is accusing her of forsaking her roots. That by making fun of it, she has forfeited the right be deemed Sindhi.

 

Natalia Gul: Not Sindhi Enough?

Now, I hail from a somewhat literary Sindhi family. And I can tell you that people being accused of not being truly loyal to their roots is really common. Particularly when it comes to unconventional Sindhi artists.

Remember when I along with the internet fell in love with Abid Brohi? Well, members of my family were not pleased. They didn’t see the inherent talent, the homage to older Sindhi music, and the compelling story. They saw some impolite lyrics and a genre of music that was a far cry from Sufi ballads. If you speak the language you know Abid indulges in some rather lewd remarks. And he’s rapping for God’s sake! A genre of music that has only recently gotten some mainstream love from Pakistan.

The point is that where I saw a fresh new induction to a vibrant musical heritage, others saw dissent from the status quo.

In a completely different way, Natalia Gul is seen as the same. I’m obviously on the fence about her brand of comedy, as I am about her talents as a comedian. But, she, with her brazen commentary on things that are not fit for dinner table conversations, is also fresh. She is also a Sindhi artist of a different ilk. And that is what seems to have irked sentiments.

They do not see her brandishing herself, and encouraging people to laugh at the absurdities of her experiences. They see a mockery of their national identity.

 

The Politics of it all

And now, let’s yank that thread to its very core. The concept of Sindhi culture being disregarded, made fun of or ridiculed is not new. In fact, many an ethnic group in Pakistan will reiterate a history of being ridiculed. This can be tied to political agendas, which wanted to impose a singular identity on an inherently diverse people. Pakistan has always been religiously, ethnically, racially and culturally diverse. And yet, you hear talk of a Pakistani culture, usually when someone allegedly deviates from it.

Nadeem F. Paracha has often written about it. He traces this insistence on a single shade of green back to 1950s policy, when the ‘One Unit’ concept emerged. While this concept of Pakistan promoted a single, right kind of religious identity, it also did the same on a cultural front. Heritage that did not align with state goals was written off as “useless” and even archaic. And so began a tradition of demeaning accents enunciated with unfamiliar dialects. Of mustaches reeking of oil. Of men who were feudal in practice even if they weren’t in rank. And women, who were forever at risk.

Urdu as a language, and the urban identity were given preferences. Sometimes literally, when in the 1960s the national radio could only play programs in Urdu.

According to Mr. Paracha, this is also when resentment from ethnic groups took centre stage. This was when the concept of Bengalis, Pashtuns, Balochis and yes, Sindhis began feeling that their cultural heritage was under attack. I think it is fair to say that it was.

This resentment is still harboured. So much so in fact that Mr. Paracha even links Sindh’s current provincial politics to it. Even lambasting other commentators for not understanding the grievances of a people. Sindh constantly holds onto the PPP, he argues, because the people fear what an alternative would mean for their culture. Sindhis fear the erosion of their ethnic identity, because our history is riddled with attempts to accomplish this.

 

Gaping Wounds

One high profile criticism that was levelled against Natalia Gul was in lieu of this. The exceptionally talented singer Sanam Marvi, accused Natalia of mocking Sindhi heritage. She also mentioned that this is something that as an ethnic group, Sindhis have had to deal with quite often.

I don’t think that Natalia Gul had any intention of demeaning Sindhi culture, but her set was offensive.

I would even argue that stand-up comedy is meant to be. It may not set out to offend, but it is designed to be offensive. We live in the day and age of Netflix comedy specials, where everything from racism to back alley abortions are fair game. These subjects are always triggering, but stand-up comedy never shies away from it. If stand-up is seen more a genre than a medium, then I’d argue that controversy is one of its salient features.

So, let’s not be surprised that Natalia tried her hand at controversy. But, we must comment on the continual ignoring of context. This may not be true for urbane Sindhis, but outside the metropolitan circles, such comedy is not seen as a bonding opportunity. It is seen as a reminder of something sinister. I understand when people say that Natalia Gul should be allowed to say whatever she wants. But I am also done with the lack of empathy.

As I said, she is an artist and I respect her rights to express herself however she pleases. But, before you write off any criticism as ‘people who cannot laugh at themselves’, at least acknowledge the context. Acknowledge what these stereotypes have meant for people. Try to understand why they are offensive, even when they don’t offend everybody. And leave the comfort of your bubble to acknowledge the history, which makes such comedy uncomfortable to say the least.

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