Pasoori, like many classics including the Scorpions hit Still loving you, seems like a love song that serves deeper message.
Pakistani pop star Ali Sethi’s new song Pasoori is a rage in India just as in several parts of the world. The song, which Sethi renders with budding singer Shae Gill, has courted headlines for a wrong reason, too, beyond its magical power to mesmerise in a little over four and half minutes. A piece in The New Yorker saw Indian influences in the song and its music video, and scores of Pakistani fans on social media were promptly seeing red.
Pawri to Pasoori, it keeps happening every now and then. Almost every time that a Pakistani work of pop art finds connect in India, a section of social media promptly rises to wage an “our music-versus-their-music” squabble. In the case of Pasoori, all talk of Indian and/or Bollywood influences have been curtly (and in some cases, crassly) dismissed by Pakistani fans as well as sections of the media in that country, and any mention of the hit number signifying a triumph for the “subcontinent” has been outrightly snubbed.
Pasoori is a Pakistani song and a deservedly international hit, let’s get that fact clear and out of the way before getting down to understanding why the parochial cries over Sethi and Gill’s effort is misplaced and ironic. The fact is Sethi himself possibly intended to spread a message against toxicity and hate on both sides of the border with the song.
The seed of such a notion seems to lie in the meaning of his song’s title. Pasoori is a Punjabi word that could mean both conflict and mess. While the song is essentially romantic in its tone and mood, many have spotted a socio-political context beneath the obvious interpretation, which pertains to ongoing cross-border conflict and the need to end it. Songs that survive time invariably have a deeper context that comes alive over the years, and love songs of various moods have particularly been used by artistes to serve a profound message. Sethi possibly kept that in mind.
The Scorpions classic Still loving you would be an instant recall. The song by the German metal band broadly talks of giving love another chance but, written in 1984, was interpreted by many as an emotional appeal to bring down the Berlin Wall that divided West and East Germany back in the day. Like the immortal hit by Scorpions, the power of Sethi’s Pasoori might survive time, too, long after toxic trolls have exhausted their arsenal of hate.
One spots other pertinent reasons why Sethi’s effort undermines the intention of trolls who have engaged in an India-versus Pakistan online war over Pasoori. The song, through its video and also the various musical influences it amalgamates, depicts inclusivity and oneness beyond the narrative of love, angst and heartbreak that forms its lyrical core. The trolling would seem ironic also because the Kamal Khan-directed video, underlining the spirit of such inclusivity, incorporates many vignettes that are intrinsically Indian.
The very opening shot depicts an elderly woman in a yellow sari, with hands folded above her head. She stands smiling at the camera. The protagonist is portrayed by Sheema Kermani, Karachi-based Bharat Natyam dancer and activist. As the melody sets in, she spins gracefully, striking poses of the Indian classical dance form. The woman in sari is one among a myriad mix of protagonists that appears through the runtime of the video, apart from Sethi and Gill.
The idea that Pasoori bears an Indian spirit in its video could primarily be credited to Kermani’s strong screen presence, which she manages to strike within the few seconds she gets through the runtime. It is a spirit that continues into the way the video imagines the romantic melancholia inherent in Sethi and Fazal Abbas’ Punjabi lyrics, representative of how sundry pop numbers on both sides of the border that talk of love are often picturised.
Sethi likes to term the sound of his music as Ragaton, in other words a mix of raga and reggae among other genres. You spot Indian, Arabic and Turkish strains in the sound, too. Yet, the song, filmed in a courtyard of a traditional house where the two singers and their accompanying musicians perform, creates a melody that stays innately Pakistani even as it uses assorted instruments as the acoustic guitar, the synth, the bass and the electronic octopad that blend harmoniously with the baglama (a Turkish long-neck lute) and the mandolin, besides the sound of rhythmic clapping reminiscent of Flamenco.
Made for season 14 of Pakistan’s popular Coke Studio and composed by Sethi along with Xulfi, Pasoori has garnered over 12 crore views (and counting) on its official YouTube page, with a substantial number of these hits coming from India. If the success of any work of art is defined by its fans, the idea that its identity goes beyond political and geographical borders cannot be called appropriation. It is something that defines the element of universality about the particular artistic effort.
India, especially Bollywood, has traditionally been a lucrative stop for Pakistani artistes over the decades, and Sethi revealed to The New Yorker that he was all set for a collaborative project in Mumbai a while back. The musician, who is also a novelist, had been in India more than once in the past, to participate in musical festivals as well as literary dos. He notes he would have carried forward his dream to work in this country but for the political situation of unrest between the two nations that currently overrides any such notion. Looking back at the genesis of Pasoori, Sethi confided that while he “might not have been able to travel to India”, he was confident his music would.
For all the trolling that may temporarily threaten to sour the mood, that is the everlasting power of music.
Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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