Friday, November 9, 2012

A decade after 9/11, Pakistan inspires Hollywood for all the wrong reasons

A Femme Fatale from Waziristan?

By Laaleen Sukhera Khan

(Warning: Contains Law and Order SVU spoilers from episode 299 ‘Acceptable Loss.’ Also contains several cringe-worthy *facepalm moments).

TV’s new villain is a virginal seductress from Waziristan.

Hollywood is making efforts to humanize militants and would-be terrorists from this part of the world. A recent Stanford-NYU study might have had something to do with this:

Call me masochistic, but I love crime (as long as it’s within fiction). I grew up on Agatha Christie and have had more than my share of Law & Order shows, whose storylines are often inspired by actual news reports. SVU marathons sometimes make me sick to my stomach, but there’s something to be said for watching rapists and pedophiles actually get caught and dealt with in a court of law.

So when I recently watched Law and Order SVU's current season online, I was taken aback by the show’s 299th episode, ‘Acceptable Loss.’ It started off with sex trafficking—vulnerable young immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe exploited by violent New York pimps into prostitution. But the show’s terrorism side plot is what really stood out; the villain was an attractive young woman in a clingy mini-dress posing as a hooker who was actually—wait for it—a gal from Waziristan out to take revenge on the drone strikes by bombing Manhattan.

The premise is admirable; American and international viewers need to know that civilians and rescues workers are being bombed side by side with suspected terrorists.  However, the rendering could have been more detailed and even more sympathetic. The character Sofia was oblivious to the plight of the sex workers surrounding her, which I find very hard to believe. Any woman would be moved to tears unless she was a madam herself! For someone with so much anger towards exploited people from the developing world dealt with injustices, she was sure thick-skinned towards her own sex.

There was interestingly no mention of ‘Pakistan’ on the show. It seems that enough people have heard of Waziristan to know where it is! And, refreshingly, not one mention of clich├ęd rhetoric referring to ‘jihad,’ ‘honour killing’ or ‘the war on terror.’ Finally!

According to the storyline, by some miracle, Al-Q has expanded their female recruitment  beyond a so-called ‘burqa brigade’ and enlisted the help of svelte would-be prostitutes in terrorizing NYC.

At first glance, the character Sofia seems like a Victoria’s Secret model in her form-fitting garb that highlights her limbs. You’d think she was Latina with her looks or Eastern European with her accent; she mostly gets her ‘v’s and ‘t’s right but to our ears, she still sounds a little foreign, a bit like how we’d imagine a non-American vampire.

When you think of a Muslim or Pakistani woman in popular media, she’s usually either subservient and pathetic or a strong survivor. She is often the victim of stereotypical ignorance and cruelty: either acid-blasted or in danger of being murdered by her nearest and dearest via honour killing.

The guise of a provocative hooker is at least refreshingly different, given that she’s also a victim of circumstances. Like Gotham City villains in Batman movies, Sofia has undergone a traumatizing experience that has caused her to turn dark. In her case, it’s drone attacks in Waziristan that have overturned her ethics.

Sofia is embittered by the killing of her civilian father, a doctor who rushed to aid victims of a drone strike and became a victim of a secondary ‘double-tap’
 strike himself, like thousands before him.

But hey, it’s OK—Sofia’s only pretending to be a prostitute. She’s still a virgin, of course. Because she’s Muslim and there aren’t millions spent on hymenoplasties in Saudi every year .  Just like all Catholics in the world are celibate unless they’re married and never, ever get a divorce.

Sofia doesn’t bat an eyelid when women around her get exploited, beaten and raped, but she’d never get a real tattoo because she’s a good Muslim (*facepalm)! Of course, no one in the Muslim world has ever gotten a tattoo either , we just stick to henna.

I asked actor Evgeniya Radilova, who played Sofia, if there was anything in the storyline that she found perplexing. “Is there anything that you’d change in hindsight, or provide as advice to the show’s writers or producers?”

Her reply:I think that the writer for Law and Order and many other big TV Shows, Ed Zuckerman did a phenomenal job in this complex story. Unfortunately, the show is only one hour long and there is not enough time to see the whole journey of these characters. But Ed Zuckerman picks the most important moment and tells a beautiful and very meaningful story.” Read more at

A blog post on states: “…The U.S. government does not officially recognize drone use by the CIA in those countries” (i.e. Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). “Shows like SVU provide a media spotlight to expose the effects of what has happened and puts the topic on the minds of the public.”  

So yes, on the one hand, we’re glad it’s finally part of popular media.
On the other hand, we wish the writers did just a little more research…like asking us!

Dialogue from 3 Key Scenes:
Sofia (Evgeniya Radilova);
Lietenant Alexandra ‘Alex’ Eames from the City/Federal Homeland Task Force (Kathryn Erbe);
Detective Olivia ‘Liv’ Benson of the NYPD’s Manhattan Special Victims Unit (Mariska Hargitay).

Lt. Eames captures Sofia and smudges her tattoo with her saliva-laden thumb, proving it to be fake.
Lt. Eames: “Did you know that tattoos were forbidden in Islam?” (*facepalm moment). The team enters a room where a Faisal Shahzad lookalike posing as a ‘john’ (played by Shehryar ‘Shezi’ Sardar) is trying to detonate explosives. He’s knocked down and captured by Det. Nick Amaro (Danny Pino).

Sofia: “I keep telling you, I don’t know about bombs. I was just there to have sex!” (*facepalm yet again: no woman in Pakistan would ever admit to that. She’d rather admit to bombing!).
Lt. Eames: “No. See, Sofia, we’re way past that. We can have you examined, and when we do, we’re going to find out you’re a virgin, aren’t we?” (*facepalm once more!).
Sofia:How can a whore be a virgin!”
Det. Benson: “She can’t…It must have been awful for you, living in that house.”
Lt. Eames: “I’m sure you had a good reason. What happened to you?”
Sofia: “You know what happened to me.”
Lt. Eames: “No, I don’t. I want to understand. What happened, did it happen to you? To someone in your family? You’re from Waziristan. Which village? Don’t you think people should know? They call you a terrorist. Don’t you think they should understand? Don’t you want them to understand?”
Sofia: “My father was a doctor. A drone struck some people near where we lived. My father went to help, to tend the wounded. He was not a fighter. He was trying to save lives, stop the bleeding. And then, another drone hit. Your government targets the rescuers. It is standard policy. My father, he was blown into pieces. We buried the ones we could find.”
Det. Benson: “So you came here.”
Sofia: “This is where the drones came from.”
Det. Benson: “And you hid among girls who were being raped, who were enslaved. And you let that happen.”
Sofia: “I was sorry for them. But there are so many people to be sorry for.”

Det. Benson: “It’s a rough story about the father.”
Lt. Eames: “They all have a reason. Something.”
Det. Benson: “And that’s how you break ‘em? Get ‘em to tell their story?”
Lt. Eames: “Isn’t that how you do it?”

More storylines incorporating Pakistan:
The Last Resort
Medium: TV drama series on the ABC network, currently in its first season.
Premise: In the pilot episode, a US submarine crew takes refuge on an island after refusing to launch a nuclear missile attack on Pakistan. A later episode shows a plot twist which results in the brutal bombing of Pakistan: 2 missiles detonate, killing 8.5 million of us (shudder). The upside: we’re not the villains. Source:

SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden
Medium: A documentary-style made-for-TV film containing interviews and archival footage. Produced by the Weinstein Company for the National Geographic Channel. Accused of increasing support for Obama by including presidential footage and broadcasting it two days before the presidential election.
Premise: Director John Stockwell blogs on the Daily Beast: The movie focuses on the men and women in the intelligence community who tracked and located Osama bin Laden, the local nationals in Pakistan who assisted us at great cost to their own safety, and the highly skilled members of SEAL Team Six who brought the world’s most wanted man to justice.” 

Zero Dark Thirty
Medium: Motion picture produced by Sony Pictures and directed by producer-director Katherine Bigelow. For theatrical release in January, in time for the Oscars.
Premise: A grittier take on the gazillion dollar manhunt for the elusive OBL .  Bigelow explains the title in an email interview with Entertainment Weekly : “It’s a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

NBC's 'Joan of Arc' from Waziristan

NBC's 'Joan of Arc' of Waziristan
Laaleen Sukhera Khan

Evgeniya Radilova takes challenging roles in her stride. After playing a Chechen revolutionary and a Holocaust survivor onstage, she’s now appeared as a militant from Waziristan in NBC’s Law and Order SVU (episode 299, ‘Acceptable Loss’).

Viewers first meet her character, Sofia, emerging from a limousine in a form-fitting mini-dress. She has the panache of a Bond girl, though she’s in the improbable guise of a prostitute planning an attack on Manhattan. 

Later, when Sofia is interrogated, her accent may sound a little foreign to our ears but her fiery defiance makes it obvious that the role’s gotten under Ms. Radilova’s skin.  Director Alex Chapple might have called her “a Joan of Arc” because Sofia seems more like a wronged victim than your stereotypical radical terrorist. While viewers may be horrified by Sofia’s thirst for revenge, they can’t but feel anguished by the restrained passion in her voice as she describes the drone strikes that killed her father while he was tending the wounded in Waziristan. 

This, in itself, is a coup for the show’s writers. As Radilova puts it, “Sofia is a volcano ready to burst.”

Born in Bulgaria to an actor mother and director father, Radilova was 20 when she arrived in New York with a green card and big dreams. She studied acting and English and launched a politically themed theatre company aptly named Dare to Speak Productions.

Now 28, the actor reveals her insightful portrayals of distinctive Muslim characters from strife-ridden regions:

You've portrayed riveting characters in SVU and in the play, ‘I Plead Guilty.’ How would you draw parallels between the two?
Both characters have lived very difficult lives and have had to face almost the same fate. Sofia lives in Waziristan, dealing with the Taliban and the War on Terror and has lost her father. Seda lives in Chechnya, trying to stop the Russian troops killing and bombarding her country and has lost her husband. Their freedom of choice had been stripped away. In the conditions they were living in, these women had no other choice but to seek revenge.  

How did you research Seda?
I watched secret footage of the Chechen hostage takers and survivors from the 2002 Theatre Siege of Moscow. One of the so-called terrorists told her story about how the Russians killed her entire family. She couldn’t bear life anymore and was ready to give it up in the name of stopping the Chechen war.

Did you base Sofia's accent and mannerisms on any real-life women?
I took inspiration from different Pakistani New Yorkers for my accent. I also read about women from Waziristan who’ve spoken about the drone attacks.

Had you ever heard of this region before taking on this part?
I was aware of Waziristan and the war that has been going on for a long time. The most important part of your job as an actor is to research and investigate where your character is coming from and what they’re going through. I watched documentaries and studied Pashtun tribal culture.

What is your opinion on the realism and humanity of Sofia?

It is very difficult for me to even imagine how you would feel when everyone alive around you has been killed…when you wake up every day with the fear that today might be the day that the drones hit your home. I believe in the realism of Sofia’s past and in her plan for the future. 

Has it come as a surprise to be contacted by a Pakistani journalist?
Honestly, I was very surprised and honoured to be contacted by you. After performing the role of Sofia, I feel like part of me is Muslim and it feels like I have already been in Pakistan. I hope one day I have the chance to really see it.

So you’re a professional fire performer too?
Fire is my light! Some people do yoga, others do martial arts, and I dance with fire for relaxation, meditation and excitement.  It’s the other me. Poi is a Hawaiian fire dance that I learned on my own in Bulgaria using long chains attached to kevlar balls and dipped in fuel. I love to dance!

Evgeniya Radilova can next be seen in the sixth episode of CBS’ Elementary and as a Roma gypsy in the film, HorrorCon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Raageshwari brings peace, love and harmony to Pakistan

Peace, love and Raageshwari
Laaleen Sukhera Khan
ISLAMABAD: Raageshwari Loomba has moved on siginicantly from her chirpy 90s persona as Bollywood actor, pop singer and VJ. Overcoming Bell’s Palsy with great courage and determination, she is today a sagacious motivational speaker and yoga devotee who surrounds herself and others with positive affirmation.

“Pakistan is my largest fanbase outside of India,” says the elfin Ms. Loomba in an exclusive interview in the capital city. “I am honoured to be here. My father’s father died with the dream of visiting Lahore and Karachi, and my mother’s family had their home in Lahore.” The multifaceted star is currently on her first trip to here and has visited Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib gurdwaras with her parents.

Back In India, Raageshwari is an ambassador for AIDS awareness and leads a choir for vision-impaired children. Her trip across the border has highlighted causes including the Pakistan Sweet Home for children orphaned from terrorist attacks and natural disasters as well as SKMCH, where she taught ‘mirror therapy’ techniques to a group of young cancer survivors.

Known as ‘Ragz’ to her friends, she reveals how her ‘peace, love and harmony’ mantra has formulated her journey from entertainer to healer and how it isn’t necessary to be a “yogi in the mountains” to “heal the world together.”

“Spiritualism is about great balance,” she says. “I need to pay my bills too. I felt I should go out of my comfort zone to see if I could stick to my beliefs and lead my example on reality TV. Bigg Boss opened avenues for me and I now deliver motivational talks to thousands in corporate circles.” Raageshwari has also appeared in a children’s TV show for ARY which she scripted with her father and recalls various characters whose role was to encourage healthy eating and outdoor play.

Referring to her yoga workout DVD, ‘5 Ancient Tibetan Rites: The Secret of Eternal Youth,’ she says, “Every word has an energy. Cells react at great speed with endorphins and heal. ‘Dis-ease’ is a body not at ease.” She refers to her holistic side in collective terms, as in ‘we,’ explaining, “I feel odd and immodest to use ‘I.’ So many wonderful people are all healing the world, like Jack Canfield (author, Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Louise L. Hay (author, Heal Your Body).”

Raageshwari has a nurturing aura that strikes one immediately in her presence. Her eyes sparkle with keen observation while her speech is peppered with traditional references such as “Allah ka shukar” and “riyaaz karna.”

LSK: What brought you into the entertainment world?
RL: “I was only 15 when I auditioned for Shekhar Kapur for Bobby Deol’s debut film. Bobby said ‘Oh my God, she looks like a child!’ The screen test was a disaster and the film was never made! I was very embarrassed (about overt Bollywood-style acting) and you can see that in the few films I’ve done” (as a leading lady in Aankhen in ’93 and Mein Khilari Tu Anari and Zid in ’94). “Today, I know the best thing for an actor is to nosedive into the part, whether it’s a savitri devi or an anjuman sheikha.”

LSK: How did such diverse inspiration for your musical career come about, from Hindi pop to Sufi music and Tibetan chants?
RL: “All my pop music was been composed and written by dad (award-winning musician Trilok Singh Loomba). HMV Saregama asked me to be the face of their yoga album as Rekha ji couldn’t do it. Lorraine More taught me postures formulated by the monks about the 7 energy vortexes scientifically proven in our bodies. There are whirling dervish moves that centre your body, help with nausea, indigestion and headaches, and then a stomach crunch and so on. You’d find that namaz also has yogic postures because Islam is a religion of peace and science.  I have great regard for the Muslim community and made the Sufi album for this community.”

LSK: How do you manage to still look 17? You look even better now than you did in the 90s…
RL: “I’m 36. The Internet calls me younger but I have great pride in my age! I want women to realize there’s so much more than trying to work at being young. Your biological age doesn’t matter. At Bigg Boss I was with girls who were younger than me but they couldn’t bend down and sweep the floor or clean the bathroom. Physically, I’m 16. Spiritually, I could be 500.”

LSK: How did you completely overcome Bell’s Palsy in your 20s? Is this how you were introduced to yoga?
RL: “I speak openly about it because real stories inspire us. I woke up one day to brush my teeth and couldn’t hold the water in my mouth. One side of my face and chest was numb so when I spoke, my lips reached my ear. I couldn’t recognize myself, couldn’t talk, and had no voice. Doctors were amazed that I recovered perfectly without steroids, it was all yoga and self affirmations. Yoga pumps more blood into parts of your body and paralysis is a nerve related illness. Bell’s Palsy is for people who fail to express anger. I suppose I’d had spiritual arrogance! Now I let it out through meditation.”

Raageshwari’s Picks

Fave Bollywood star: “Govinda. I learned from his great love for his art. He has unbelievable timing in comedy and dancing.”

Fave Pakistani celebrity: “Reshma ji, Abida Parveen, Shafaqat ji is my alltime favourite, Adnan Sami Khan aka ‘Mr. Romantic,’ his mother, and Nusrat and Rahat Fatah Ali Khan. I’ve performed at the same event with Ghulam Ali in Dubai.”

Trickiest dance move you’ve had to master: “With Govinda and Chunky Pandey, I had to do a dance move where my hand was between their thighs in Aankhen and they jerked back and forth. At the time I was horrified even though it was considered cool. No wonder people get  backaches after all those hip thrusts!”

Genre of TV you’d like to try next: “A cookery show. Something progressive for children. Alternative healing.”

The most difficult yoga move you’ve achieved: “A headstand.”

Your most memorable music video:Duniya, directed by my brother, where I was a knapsack-wearing young traveller on the beach with children.”

Favourite fashion designers: “My designer friends dress me up but I’ll never indulge in criminal expenses. I’m wearing Annie & Nimmu today” (she’s dressed in a blue A-lined kameez with shawl-style embroidery).

Fave cuisine: “Everyone asks me if I’m vegetarian and I’m not! I love biryani and Mughalai food.”

Recent fave film: “I really liked OMG.”

Last mp3 you played? “I listened to Paradise by Coldplay on the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad.”

TV viewing addiction: “Cooking shows and the TLC channel. Also, Satyamev Jayate and KBC are great shows that you take something back from instead of watching in semi-coma! My DVD is about beginning and ending your day with positive affirmations instead of with the news and soap operas.”

Some yoga poses to try out:

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