As Pakistan struggles to eke out funds from IMF & Gulf, its military profits from sale of patriotism, propaganda on screen
Pakistan as a state is almost spreading its apron to get funds from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and friendly states in the Gulf, but its military is minting money in ways unheard of in the annals of professional armies. Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the communication wing of the military, is not merely limited to its job of briefing media and public of military’s various activities. It has established itself as the only arm of any military in the world that is producing, and controlling, the entertainment content in the country.
Be it Television series, movies, songs and advertisements and reality shows, the ISPR are producing all like a professional production house. Buried within its content, however, is hardcore propaganda that portrays military as saviour of Pakistan and the cause of Kashmir as a cherished humanitarian mission.
The entertainment industry has been collaborating with governments and the defence establishments world-over. The most glaring example is Hollywood enjoying long-standing relationship with the US Department of Defense. However, this association has largely been for the benefit of productions of movies dealing with wars and conflicts.
But, in case of the ISPR, it seems a matter of smoothening military’s image in the eyes of Pakistani public, selling patriotism and smartly peddling propaganda. As expected, the Kashmir cause is highlighted prominently in the ISPR productions.
Selling Patriotism, Spinning a Web of Propaganda
The ISPR has created or financed more than 60 patriotic anthems, 20 documentaries, and around ten television series and motion pictures apiece over the years. However, in the previous two years, there has been an increase in activity with an emphasis on establishing a favourable image of the nation and the military. When Major General Asif Ghafoor, then-Director General of the ISPR, spoke about the necessity for the media to raise public awareness and underlined its frontline position in fifth generation warfare a few years ago, he underscored this.
The involvement of the Army in Pakistan’s entertainment industry has evolved over the decades. During the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), severe censorship was imposed on the performing arts sector. Later, under President Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), the sector was liberalised, resulting in the burgeoning of private television channels. Today, it is an active partner and co-creator of popular content.
One prominent recent production of the ISPR is a telefilm titled Aik Hai Nigaar, which is based on the life of Pakistan’s first female three-star general, Lieutenant General Nigar Johar, was released on August 14, 2021. It featured Mahira Khan, who is the country’s biggest star. She also wore the producer’s hat for the project (on behalf of the ISPR).
The film was released around the country’s Independence Day and the ISPR was tagged on various social media posts along with the teaser of the flick. The ISPR then made the teaser viral by sharing it widely in different linked networks, giving the project its stamp of approval though it was not credited as a producer or co-creator.
The telefilm was well-received by the audience and grossed considerable moolah for the producers. More importantly for the ISPR, it was successful to generate goodwill for the Army, especially among the women viewers.
Another ambitious recent project of the ISPR has been a women-oriented drama series named Sinf e Aahan (Women of Steel). Centred on young women from different Pakistani cities and ethnicities joining Pakistani military, it stars all leading ladies of the Pakistani cinema like Sajal Aly, Kubra Khan, Yumna Zaidi, Ramsha Khan and Syra Yousuf. The series broke records of popularity and became a huge hit – the purpose that the military had aspired to achieve with its production.
Besides attracting youth and women towards Army, the ISPR has used references to Kashmir and enmity with India in the contents of the productions it has been associated with. It was no surprise that Squadron Leader Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured by the Pakistani Army during the 2019 Balakot air strike, found a place in the ISPR drama series Ehd-e-Wafa, which also went on to become hugely popular among the viewers.
The ISPR also conceived and hosted the first National Amateur Short Film Festival in June 2021 to promote young talent “to produce high quality short films projecting a positive image of Pakistan”, which was attended by then Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The ISPR also produced a 26-episode military reality series called 60 Hours to Glory, which was based on one of the most difficult military contests dubbed the “Pakistan Army Team Spirit” and included eight local and four international teams. According to the ISPR’s Instagram post, it will “demonstrate the rigours of the Pak Army’s training regime, portraying ‘Why We Are the Best’.”
The goal of the programme was to “stimulate the entertainment industry to produce an innovative stream of thrilling and adventurous content.”