Good old days
A regime change has become a prerequisite not only to stability and democracy, it is needed for survival. That makes tomorrow's poll a make or break event
By I.A. Rehman
Circumstances have invested tomorrow's general election with extraordinary significance. The events of the past few months have no precedent in the people's memory. The forces of continuity and change are locked in a contest which may determine Pakistan's capacity to emerge from the many crises it faces as a modern, stable, and democratic state.
The forces of status quo, a garrison state supported by 150 million galley slaves, started hacking away at the foundations of the state almost a year ago. The judiciary was ambushed not only to punish the judges for what they had done or were doing but also to give the praetorian rulers the cover they needed for a new lease on the country.
The Nov 3 manoeuvres were designed to tell the people that they could find refuge neither under the constitution nor under the law and, at the same time, to allow the forces of status quo (continuity is the term they prefer for themselves) to occupy the high ground of presidency -- the forward line of defence against the forces of change. What has been happening since then amounts to an all-out war to destroy the people's right to change their rulers as a step towards changing their lives. The scale of pre-poll rigging witnessed over the past few weeks has no precedent in our people's history, which includes electoral experience over almost a century.
It was right to conclude that the general election had become meaningless in the sense that high blocks had been placed on the road to change. A boycott of the polls was the only option for forces of change. But then these forces suffered a split. Most of the major parties, so described on the basis of their performance in the previous general election, opted to join the battle of the ballot and those calling for boycott of the polls crossed the point of no return when the phase of nomination of candidates was over. Both sides found themselves stuck in their holes.
The disagreement between the two sides calls for serious reflection. The boycott camp says the election will not bring the desired change. Those joining the electoral race have no answer to the argument that the election will not instantly result in a transition from the garrison state to a democratic one, in a dispensation that will allow the exploited masses a say in their affairs. At the same time the boycott camp has not been able to convince their critics that the Pakistan society has the organisation and the skills needed to offer an alternative to the electoral route. Above all there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the autocracy's attitude towards elections.
It is necessary to bear in mind that authoritarian rulers do not like elections. They suffer the sight of the poor, ugly, dirty rabble assuming airs of masters of the land under compulsion because the people through their decades of struggle have obliged them to hold elections, often earlier than they should he held. But they want elections to be held in a manner that serves their interest.
Martial law was imposed in 1958 to deprive the people of their right to a democratic election. Then the coup designer himself staged elections in a way that served the oligarchy he had nursed. Gen. Zia carried out a coup ostensibly to hold a fair election but did not hold one till he had completed his plans to ensure an unfair election. On the eve of the 1985 polls he wanted the opposition parties to boycott the exercise and they obliged him. The 1985 lesson need not be forgotten. It reminded us that preventing the people from voting is infinitely more difficult than persuading them to vote. The boycott weapon did not work even in the hands of Khudai Khidmatgars who in 1947 were the most popular force in their land. The situation in 1977 was materially different from the present one.
Now, the present regime has done everything possible to ensure that if some of the opposition parties do not stay out of the electoral process the people must be scared away from the polling stations. In this crusade the establishment has been joined by the militants who are abusing people's belief as it has rarely been abused before.
The regime started panicking soon after the general election was notified because its hopes that the polls would deliver a fragmented National Assembly, that all autocrats from Yahya Khan to this day have favoured and desired, proved to be groundless. Further, Benazir Bhutto's assassination did not help; the PPP did not pull out of the electoral race, and its vote bank, instead of shrinking, appeared to expand. It is no coincidence that as reports of opposition parties' rising fortunes, especially in Punjab and Frontier, started pouring in the use of explosive devices to unnerve them increased. Everybody knows why the 'terrorists' are targeting PPP and ANP leaders/candidate/voters. The minions of autocracy have openly joined the game by telling candidates to stay away from scores of polling stations. The warning is clearly meant for voters. The establishment wants only its supporters to reach the polling stations. That is the last card with the forces of status quo (continuity).
With this weapon the statusquowallahs hope to kill both the birds -- the boycotters as well as the contesters. The former will lose points if a low turnout is ascribed to voters' fear of terrorists than to their call and the latter will lose because a poor turnout will favour sarkari candidates, as it always does, everywhere.
The fact is that the differences between the boycotters and the contesters have become irrelevant. Both of them face a common adversary who hopes to defeat them by frightening the voters. The most important question today is: Can the two opposition camps, that together claim to represent the forces of change, see their common interest in foiling this design? If the people are kept away from the polling stations the odds in favour of the forces of status quo will improve, if they come out in great numbers the odds in favour of the forces of change will improve.
The boycottwallahs are likely to say, that, firstly, the electionwallahs do not stand for change and, secondly, their verdict about the election being a farce will hold the ground regardless of the size of the turnout. The first argument should not be pressed because it will degenerate into acrimony as to who is holier than the other one. The second argument needs to be reviewed, because the boycott camp should not be complacent about any extension of the status quo. They should see their interest in the weakening of the forces of the status quo, howsoever small the margin of change. They may also realise that in a long-drawn-out war small battles do not always matter and a tactical retreat is preferable to rout, for it is crucial to survive so as to be able to fight for another day.
The situation at the moment is that for the common citizens the issue has been reduced to a choice between a National Assembly dominated by the party of the status quo and an Assembly in which the forces of change can keep the government on the run even if they cannot dominate the house (or in which they can dominate the house). Whether one likes it or not the political scenario will change after the election. The regime will try to hide behind a new facade and the new faces in offices (not necessarily in authority) will become its props and apologists. The democrats will have the task of ensuring that the movement for the realisation of democratic ideals, beginning with the restoration of the judiciary, continues and becomes irresistible. For this it may be necessary to forge an understanding between the democratic forces outside parliament and whatever like-minded elements can be found inside parliament, because any rift between them will harm the cause of democracy.
The foundation of this grand alliance can be laid tomorrow if the boycotters and contesters both defend the people's right to freedom from fear and their right to vote. Since the interests of terrorists and the regime appear to have coveraged on an anti-democratic agenda, the people should also close their ranks. Although the justification for boycotting the polls is no longer as strong as it was a couple of months ago, the decision of those still for a boycott is worthy of respect. Let them not vote but they can gather at polling stations to support the voters' bid to stand up to merchants of fear.
The overriding reason for unity in the people's ranks is the realisation that Pakistan's crises have reached a scale that any extension of the regime (status quo) will be an irreversible disaster. This regime has made a mess of governance. Its failures have gravely undermined the federation. On the one hand the Baloch, the Pakhtoon and the Sindhis feel more alienated from the state than ever. On the other hand the militants are threatening to tear away a sizable part of the country. The citizens have no security of life and liberty and the economy is in ruins. A regime change has become a prerequisite not only to stability and democracy, it is needed for survival. That makes tomorrow's poll a make or break event.
When the characters of his stories become putty in his hands, Muhammad Ahmed says a writer achieves his catharsis
By Usman Ghafoor
Not so much by a twist of fate than a 'quirkiness' of mind that young Muhammad Ahmed -- growing up in a conservative middle class home in 70s' Karachi -- landed a diploma course in fashion design at a local institute. His father wanted him to take up medicine. "It went against the grain," he says getting reflective. But, Ahmed says, his heart has always ruled him. A few years after he got married, he was learning Bharatnatyam at Sheema Kirmani's dance school. Dance, again, would be a complete taboo. More so, for a married man. "I must say, I began to see life after marriage," he goes on, "I had had a very protected adolescence. I was never allowed mistakes that actually teach you things about life."
But he was a precocious child, anyway, and was drawn to classical music and theatre and arts at an age "when kids are mostly out in the field, playing some sport". He was a big reader and an avid film buff. Interestingly, however, Ahmed hadn't tried his hand at creative writing, till a few friends in television pushed him "to scribble something". A Mystery Theatre play for the freshly launched Indus TV happened in early '90s. But it was Tum Se Kehna Tha -- a light-hearted, dramatic adaptation of the Hollywood movie While You Were Sleeping for Sahira Kazmi -- that got Ahmed big-time notices.
Today, he is one of the most sought-after playwrights on TV, having worked with some of the best producers and directors around -- chiefly Mehreen Jabbar, Humayun Saeed and Marina Khan. He is also famously writing his way towards the silver screen, with Mehreen's debut celluloid venture, Ramchand Pakistani, the first film projects of Humayun, Marina and music video director Saqib Malik and now an untitled Bollywood movie.
Ahmed was recently in Mumbai where he had been invited by leading film company Adlabs to script dialogues when TNS caught up with him for an interview. He spoke at length on writing being a cathartic experience and also about having to contribute "dialogues for a pre-scripted screenplay". Excerpts follow.
The News on Sunday: Is it your first experience of writing dialogues for some one else's script?
Muhammad Ahmed: Yes, very much so. Though I never thought it'd turn out so well, something for which I must give credit to the team I got to work with. They were a very professional lot and gave me a brilliant screenplay to work on. But, yes, it did seem to be a task, initially.
TNS: How did you prepare yourself for the task? Did it require you to go over the script again and again and have long discussions with the story writer and director?
MA: Well, we had to have long discussions because I needed to get into the skin of the characters that had been conceived by some one else. But, like I said, I was fortunate to be working with the people who knew their script like the back of their hand. They gave whatever details I asked for. Eventually, every character came alive in front of me.
TNS: Were you a passive listener in all these sessions?
MA: No way. I'd give my own inputs wherever I wanted. And, they'd comply gladly.
See, I didn't reach that stage of understanding overnight. It was gradual and it took me a good deal of talking with them (the screenplay writer and the director) on the phone, even before I was to leave for Mumbai. Finally, I was game. But I wanted to test myself, so I scribbled dialogues for one character, initially, and went ahead only after they (dialogues) were approved.
TNS: Back home, you are said to be a 'camper'; you work only with a certain group of people such as Mehreen Jabbar, Humayun Saeed and Marina Khan. Comment.
MA: See, film as an art form is a collaborative effort. Film makers the world over like to work in their specific teams, because it means less hassle and stress and more creative output. A good team is about a great rapport. So, if I have worked more frequently with the people you just mentioned it's because of the lovely equation that we have enjoyed.
TNS: When writing a script, do you generally insist on being provided an absolute creative freedom?
MA: It's not that I insist, though certainly one would like to be given a free hand. It becomes difficult when the director gives you a oneliner and expects you to develop a script accordingly. For me, writing is an emotionally consuming experience; I live the characters I create.
TNS: As such, can a writer afford to get involved in a number of projects at the same time?
MA: Certainly not. That's why I like to finish with one project and then take up another.
See, when you create a character on paper, you take leave of a part of you that was so intrinsic and integral to you. I've experienced this myself and now I know why most writers end up losing their sanity.
TNS: What is the best part of writing?
MA: The fact that you can shape the destinies of your characters (laughs). It's very cathartic. And, it's almost god-like.
TNS: They say a film is made 70 per cent on paper. Why, then, do the writers not usually get enough recognition and it's the director and actors who walk away with all the credit?
MA: That's very true. But, I won't say it's very unfair, because I have seen directors at work and I know that their job is decidedly the toughest. You may have written the best of scripts, but it needs a good director to translate it into great visuals that also evoke the intended emotion.
TNS: How many 'stages' does your script usually go through -- in terms of storyline, drafts, dialogues, screenplay, etc?
MA: When I started writing plays, I just followed my instinct and listened to my heart. I never thought I needed to break it up in stages. I'd just put pen to paper whenever an idea prompted me, and take off from there. It's like being on a free-wheeling, unconsious ride.
TNS: You trained as a classical dancer and also taught Bharatnatyam for a while. Ever thought of teaching 'script writing' at a film school?
MA: I had a chance to take Script classes at a university, but to my horror I found that they had a very confused syllabus for the course. It couldn't possibly bring out the writer in you.
I personally believe students should be asked to write, and their works should be exhibited frequently so that they feel encouraged and inspired.
TNS: In your early plays, especially Tum Se Kehna Tha, you seemed heavily influenced by Hasina Moeen's brand of humour.
MA: That's a very correct observation. See, my introduction to the world of TV drama was through Hasina Moeen. The impact of her plays was so huge that whenever I attempted comedy, it was as if she was holding my finger through.
TNS: Creatively speaking, which has been your most satisfying play to date?
MA: Khamoshi, which was directed by Irum Bint e Shahid. Unfortunately, it landed problems with the censorwallahs and never went on air. But it's reality still haunts me.
Swaranlata and Nazir was the first pair that got its act together to put the film industry back on track
By Sarwat Ali
The death of Swaranlata last week was a sad occasion for the leading lady of the films had signed off. But it also brought back memories of the early days of Pakistan and the Pakistan film industry, when like almost everything a fresh start had to be made.
Both the scale of violence and the migration must have been unexpected because nobody had made any preparation for it. The studios in Lahore were vandalised and some even torched and most of the technicians being non-Muslim also migrated. By putting the pieces together Swaranlata and Nazir were the first pair that got their act together and started making a tangible effort to put the film industry back on track. The industry was given a great boost by the movement of Noor Jehan and Shaukat Hussain Rizvi from Bombay to Lahore.
Lahore emerged as a hub of film making in India, though not as big as Calcutta and Bombay. For the aspiring talent from the North and Western part of India it was the first staging post before they graduated to Bombay and Calcutta. Abdul Rasheed Kardar started his career in Lahore before moving to Calcutta and Bombay; becoming the first real Movie Mogul in the true sense.
One of the first films that were released after independence was Sachai and then Pheray both starring Swaranlata and Nazir. It was produced by Saeeda Bano which many say was Swaranlata herself. Pheray did very well at the box office, completing a silver jubilee run. Confident Nazir made more films like Naukar, Bhigeen Palkain, Haveli and Hamida. He also made Larey, Shehri Baboo, Anookhi Dastaan, Heer, Khatoon, Noor e Islam, and Azmat e Islam. His last film Shohar was never released.
Swaranlata, leading lady of several films also came across as homely and housebound, more in the nature of long suffering woman. What came through in her acting were not glamour or sensuality but candour and care -- more in synch with the self sacrificing subcontinental woman who puts the life of her husband and sons above that of her own.
Nazir was already an established artist. He was part of the team that Abdul Rashid Kardar had put together in the 1920s and 1930s and he was given a breakthrough by him in the films that he made under the banner of United Players from Lahore. In 1933 Kardar went to Calcutta and in 1934 he made Chandergupt in which Nazir played the role of Chanakya and was much-admired. He then acted in more films directed by Kardar like Sultana and Milap before Ezra Mir signed him for Zareena as a hero, considered to be the first in the genre labelled as Muslim Social in India. This film had a kissing scene on which there was uproar and Ezra Mir fled to Bombay.
Nazir also moved to Bombay because Kardar had already shifted to Bombay which was overtaking Calcutta as the capital of film making in India. He then acted in Baghban and was elevated playing the lead role opposite the heroines of the day like: Yasmeen, Sitara Madhuri, Gulab, Khursheed and Sobhana in Shookh, Dilruba, Sher ka Punja, Shama, Midnight Mail, Dheka Jai Ga, Swami, Pooja and Apni Nagarya .
He set up his own film company and a studio Hind Pictures and made Sandeesa. He followed it up with Cher Chaar, Abroo, Salma, Laila Majnoon Wamiq Azra, Yadgaar, Malka, Maa Baap ki Laajand Abida. He also played the lead role in Gaon Ki Gori.
There were few in the beginning to bolster the nascent Pakistani cinema. Teri Yaad released in 1948 was directed by Daud Chand with a musical score by Amarnath. Nasir Khan also starred in it before marching off to Bombay to meet with his illustrious brother Dilip Kumar, and Asha Posley soon faded from the scene. The others in the early films who stuck it out were Sudhir, Himaliyawala, Alauddin, Nazar, Ragni, Ilyas and M.Ismail. The musical scores were given by Chishti, Inayat Hussain, Ghulam Haider, Karim Dad, Rashid Attre, Feroz Nizami, Mubarak Ali, Fateh Ali Khan, Hasan Litif, Lal Muhammed Sabri, N.Jaffery and Amarnath.
As film activity picked up Swaranlata and Nazir saw the industry through the first decade and then started to fade away. The ban on Indian film import was also imposed and that gave a fillip to the local industry. Perhaps the films never recovered from the loss of 1947 and even when many more films were made in the 1960s and 1970s the state of the studios remained pathetic with minimal resources. Directors looked for avenues to process post production for no such facilities were installed in the country.
Even in those abject conditions some people stuck it out till the very end. Nazir died in 1983 and Swaranlata, almost a recluse, was rarely seen on the media, only occasionally making an appearance on an odd programme recalling those good old days.