Lessons on grace, gender and class
The towel video was vulgar. How could you do this? This was the question posed to social media star Nasir Khan Jan when he came on SAMAA TV’s show Naya Din hosted by Muhammad Shueb and Kiran Aftab on May 6.
Nasir’s towel video was posted on Facebook on April 30, featuring another popular social media name, Nouman Khan. The two young men had donned white towels and shot a video in a bathroom. Nasir doesn’t have a shirt on. They dance and squirm, jiggle and fumble, barely able to contain the laughter. They are clearly channeling Ranbir Kapoor’s towel dance in ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’ from Saawariya. They muss each other’s hair and hop around. In the middle the towels slip off but because they are wearing knee-length shorts underneath there are no gasp-worthy moments. Nouman Khan is a more seasoned dancer and Nasir Khan tries to keep up as best as he can. You get the sense that they will collapse into giggles at any moment.
This kind of video is emblematic of material young Pakistanis have increasingly been making and posting online. The internet is seen as a space that offers certain freedoms that are otherwise unavailable in the real world. If you have a passion for dancing, this is perhaps one of the only places where you can explore it in this country. (Qandeel Baloch is a sober reminder of the risks as well).
But real world reactions collide up against expressions of individuality in cyber sphere and unspool into controversy in both realms with extreme radical positions being taken along the opinion spectrum.
“The towel videos were vulgar,” said Naya Din host Shueb to Nasir Khan Jan. Dancing in a bathroom in a towel and shooting it as a video is vulgar. If you took a random poll, you’d probably find plenty of people who would agree with Shueb—and Nasir Khan Jan.
Nasir responded that he worked hard on his body. “Big stars show their bodies off when they build them,” he said. It wasn’t “vulgar” as Shueb was putting it, he added. It was simply meant to be a funny video.
And indeed, Nasir has a point. He is hardly the first person who has posted a topless video. Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities have been doing this for decades. It is generally accepted as a norm for a male celebrity across cultures. Pakistanis are a part of the global audiences that have made these people celebrities.
So what makes Nasir’s topless video so offensive to some people? And more interestingly, as we saw in the fierce defenders of Nasir Khan Jan, what makes this video so acceptable to just as many other people?
According to one argument, which I would agree with, one reason among the many for negative reaction to the towel video is a classist double standard. It is acceptable for a big ticket box office name to appear without a shirt. But when an ordinary joe like Nasir Khan Jan does the same thing, it is seen as vulgar. The beauty of the Internet is, however, that it is a great leveler of humanity. We can fawn over global celebrities but we are also in just as much awe of people who look like us, the Nasir Khan Jans of the world. Things are changing.
Another reason why I believe the towel video could make some people uncomfortable is its gender fluidity, for lack of a better phrase. (I am no gender studies specialist). In their cyber personas, Nasir Khan Jan and Nouman Khan are acting in a gender fluid fashion. Nouman is pulling off some super sexy feline moves. The two men do not embody what many people associate with Alpha masculine aesthetics. (Ironically, Attan is seen as an acceptable masculine expression of culture and that of North Waziristan includes men with long hair which they liberally incorporate in the moves). In fact, the towel video is an example of what seems to be a kind of Pakistani camp. (How ironic the Met Gala just took place). The young men were clearly just having fun with exaggerated moves in the video and made it on a lark. One definition of camp is that it is ironic.
The second most important lesson learnt from this exchange was that Nasir shows us how young people’s perceptions of their bodies are changing. “Work on your body, then show it off,” he said. “Show the folks out there that you’ve worked hard.” He added: “My gym trainer actually tells me show the world. This is me. I’ve worked hard. Show your cuts.” If women across the world have been calling out body shaming, Nasir took body pride to another level. And perhaps we are seeing a generation of young people develop completely different perceptions of their bodies and what it means to be in them. The world is changing and television channels that wish to attract young viewers have to understand this.
There were lessons in this for Shueb. He was, and indeed SAMAA TV was, roasted online. Much of the criticism was completely valid, but as we know, plenty of it was pretty nasty too. The young anchor got a taste of cyber bullying as well. And when he apologized on Wednesday, it was Nasir who reminded him of how cruel cyberspace can be. “Social media ka kaam yahi he,” Nasir said to Shueb. In fact, people who had bashed Nasir on the Internet were now siding with him in solidarity, he said.
Nasir is familiar with strong reactions to his work. In February 2017, he was arrested under Section 107 of Pakistan Penal Code after someone complained that he was making and posting videos, which were supposedly against Pashtun values. He was granted bail by a lower court in Lower Dir within a few days.
The social media star, who has a Master’s degree in English, comes from Lower Dir. He started his Facebook page in 2015 and has over 0.2 million followers. He quickly became famous for his quirky persona. Some videos involved the challenge of stuffing a carrot in his mouth or licking ketchup off a bowl. His videos singing covers of English songs and applying black eye liner on his lips have been hits. He has even given people skincare tips using fruit and vegetables.
There is a sobering reason why Nasir does all this. He told Aqsa Mansoor of SAMAA Digital that he turned to social media when he could not find a job. “I tried at various places, went for interviews, but ended up being rejected every single time,” he said. “Now I get around Rs40,000 for just posting birthday wishes.” And many young people like him, who have not been able to find jobs in this economy, have long been trying to make money by putting their creative skills to work on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.
Nasir Khan Jan is the face of a Naya Pakistan as well, in my opinion. The old world values are crumbling and giving way to more inclusive ones. People who do not conform to mainstream social values are finding ways to assert their identities. The Internet is a refuge for those who have been marginalized, ignored, condemned and rejected. And when mainstream media covers them, the old norms can simply no longer apply.
But perhaps the biggest lesson Nasir Khan Jan teaches is grace. He responded to hostile questioning with dignity. And when Shueb apologized, he was gracious about it. “I will come to your show again Inshallah,” he said. “Wo show is se bhi ziada super hit jaega.” And perhaps, given how the show’s reputation has taken a hit, this might be an infinitely good thing.
With additional reporting by Aqsa Mansoor for SAMAA Digital.