for the sake of it
with a mission
“If you want to make a
movie, get up and make it!”
Inspired by this Tarintino
quote, Mazhar Zaidi, an aspiring film-maker from Lahore, physically got up,
went to his phone, dialled the number of Naseeruddin Shah, and told him he
wanted to make a movie for which he had a good story, an enthusiastic
writer, an energetic director…but that was all he had. There was no money
for big stars, glamorous sets, song-and-dance numbers at exotic foreign
locations and A.R Rehman-type music.
“You’ve got what you
need,” came the answer from Bombay and Naseeruddin Shah himself was in
Lahore the very next week.
“When Shoaib Mansoor
offered me a role in Khuda Ke Liye, I was reluctant to accept it because I
didn’t have a good impression about Pakistani movies,” says Shah. “But
that film changed my perception altogether and now I consider it the most
important movie of my professional career. I missed a second chance to act
in Bol but couldn’t afford to lose this third chance to work with
Pakistani filmmakers, so I instantly accepted Zaidi’s offer and headed for
The movie is called Zinda
Bhaag and it portrays the adventures and miseries of three Lahori kids who
aspire to go abroad to earn petro-dollars and become rich. Shah’s
character is that of a small-time crook who exploits the young boys’
genuine desire to better their lot. “These twisted and crooked characters
always attract me; they are much more interesting and challenging than the
so-called honest, honourable characters. But the main reason why I’m in
Lahore is that I want to extend a helping hand to a group of aspiring
filmmakers who are involved in making a purposeful movie.
“The story touched my
heart deeply, ‘cause I have seen cases in India during the last 25 years
where unscrupulous travel agents and human smugglers made illegal deals with
young adventurers to get them into Middle East, Europe or America. In our
own profession, some shooting units and performing groups have been doing
this business; when they go abroad, they include two or three non-performers
in the group, and charge them hundreds of thousands of rupees. These people
are actually ship-jumpers and called kabootar in India, because they fly
away when the destination comes. This is a universal problem in third world
As it happens, Naseeruddin
Shah is the only known figure in the cast; the rest are new faces, mostly
chosen from among the street kids of Lahore. “They have no previous
experience of acting,” says Naseeruddin, “so my first task was to train
them for the job, and I ran a ten-day workshop for new actors. My very first
advice to a new actor is: go and look for the meaning of the word “act”
in a dictionary. I can promise you all, that it will surprise you, because
it does not mean speaking great dialogue, it doesn’t mean to wear great
costume, to become another person, to examine a character…or anything of
the sort. It has a very simple meaning.
“The second thing an
actor must know is that acting is not an end in itself: you don’t act for
the sake of acting, you don’t act for showing off your abilities; you act
for a purpose, and that purpose is to communicate a text to the audience.
That is more important than your own performance.”
Naseeruddin Shah is proud
to be a protégé of Geoffrey Kendal (1909-1998), the famous British actor
who devoted his life to “spreading Shakespeare” throughout the world.
“As a young boy I appreciated his acting abilities: his mastery over his
voice and intonation, his control of muscles, and his ability to instantly
adopt the persona of Macbeth, Hamlet or King Lear. But, later on, I realised
his true greatness lay somewhere else: his real mission was to communicate a
text; all other activities were subservient to this main purpose —
communicating a particular text to the audience. Today, when I talk to young
actors, my emphasis is always on this — to act means to serve a text and
an actor is, by definition, the servant of a text.”
When Shah started his
career as an actor back in the 1970s, “method acting” was the buzz word
and there was hot debate about the validity and superiority of
“spontaneous acting”. How relevant is this debate today? Can the new
actors benefit from these concepts?
“There is no such thing
as spontaneous acting,” says a defiant Shah. “Acting should appear
spontaneous, but it cannot be spontaneous.
“I’m a spontaneous actor…why should I remember these lines word
by word? I don’t need any rehearsals; it makes my performance
artificial…” These phrases are invented by lazy and arrogant actors, who
only want to enjoy stardom.
“Acting is a profession
and, like any other profession, has its own techniques and mechanisms; its
own tools and instruments. Can you think of a carpenter working without a
hammer and a saw? Can you imagine a gardener who doesn’t know how to hold
a water-hose or how to use his spade? But, strangely enough, some actors
will come up and blatantly say, “we don’t have to learn anything about
acting, it comes naturally to us” I wish they knew how Kabuki actors in
Japan are trained for decades before they are allowed to appear on stage. In
our own country, Kathakali performers undergo years of rigorous discipline
and labour before they are permitted to perform. Even our singers undergo
hours of riyaz (practice) as a daily routine, but most actors think they
don’t need any riyaz to polish their performance.”
Well, a singer has his
ascending and descending notes to practice, a dancer has his steps to
remember, and they can both do their riyaz when they have free time, but how
can an actor do it? What’s an actor’s substitute for riyaz?
“Here you are!”
Naseeruddin Shah smiles triumphantly, as if this was the direction he wanted
the discussion to take. “This is an important point, and all new actors
should listen carefully. An actor must know about his instrument and look
after it: he must be physically healthy. His body should be supple and
strong, capable of that expressiveness that the audiences’ bodies are not
“An actor must fully
understand the physiology of his sound-producing apparatus: the function of
lungs, throat, jaws, pallet and especially the tongue. An actor must
discover his own natural voice as he discovers his own natural body. An
actor should be constantly involved in exploring his craft, and this is what
I call an actor’s riyaz.”
When stage-actors come to
movies, they are often disillusioned to note that there is no instant
recognition of their skill: no immediate audience reaction, no applause, no
clapping…they are facing a deaf and dumb movie camera, totally indifferent
to the actor’s emotional ups and downs. How did Shah cope with this
handicap when he moved from the lively stage performance to the dead movie
“The presence of
audience can be helpful, but it can also be damaging. An immediate response
can be contrived; it can often be misleading for the performer. In a crowd
situation, the reaction becomes contagious: if one person is laughing,
others too start laughing, and if one person starts yawning the whole crowd
follows suit. I avoid meeting audience immediately after a stage performance
because it’s all superficial talk at that point. I prefer seeing them
after a couple of days when they are in a better position to give me their
“The sound of applause
is so intoxicating for performers that they get carried away. It sometimes
happens in movies too. I have experienced it in several outdoor spells that
a big crowd of on-lookers is gathered and if the scene involves high-pitched
dialogue exchange, the crowd starts clapping at the end of each shot. In a
situation like that, some actors forget the scene requirements and start
pandering to the wishes of the on-lookers. That’s where the immediate
audience response becomes counter-productive for a performer.”
“The new generation of
actors is far ahead in understanding their craft,” he says, “because
video camera is a household item now, and a child is filmed at the very
moment of his birth. Internet has exposed the whole world to the new
generation and they are far ahead of us in every walk of life.”
Shah believes that English
is the world lingua-franca of the future and, though Urdu is not in danger
of extinction in India because there are millions in that country who speak
and understand Urdu, the number of Urdu readers and writers is certainly
dwindling. He wonders if the days of Manto, Ismat and Bedi are over, and
they are giving way to Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Mohammed Hanif and
Mohsin Hamid, just as huge classical bungalows are being demolished in
Bombay to give way to new commercial plazas. “But that’s what evolution
is all about,” says a smiling Naseeruddin Shah.
Mumbai to Lahore
Born in 1950 in Barabunki
(UP), Naseeruddin Shah did his schooling at Ajmer and Nenitaal. He graduated
from Aligarh in 1971 and then attended the National School of Drama in
After some memorable stage
performances he appeared in film Nishant (1975) directed by Shyam Benegal.
The movement of parallel cinema was at its peak in the mid-1970s and Shah
was one of the busiest actors in those ‘art movies’. In 1980, he
accepted a commercial film Hum Paanch, after which he has regularly appeared
in mainstream Bollywood movies. The highlight of this phase was film Karama
in 1986, when he worked alongside Dilip Kumar.
He says the most important
film of his career was Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye.
Shah was recently in
Lahore to work in another Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag written and directed by
Farjab Nabi and Meenu Gaur and produced by Mazhar Zaidi.
Looking at the new work of Farida Batool reminds me of a German film that I watched some years ago. In the movie, Run Lola Run, the heroine keeps running, crossing various people on her way. She does not stop but, with each new ‘passing’ encounter, spectators see the possibilities of her life connected to that man or woman with all future events shown in the form of still pictures. Naturally, these are just assumptions since every chance encounter and its hypothetical follow-up lasts a few seconds till she moves on to the next person.
Lenticular prints of Batool, installed in a sequence on three walls of Rohats 2, can almost be described as run Farida run, or more precisely, walk Farida walk since, in these pictures, the artist’s stroll on specific streets of Lahore is recorded. She is shown mostly in profile against the walls of certain buildings and on sites which have political/religious significance. In a series of visuals linked with each other through the medium of lenticular, the artist moves along the buildings of Lahore High Court, Supreme Court’s Lahore Registry, UK’s visa office, Fatima Jinnah Medical College, a local market, mosque, graveyard and an imposing security gate. Also, she crosses men at roadside barber shops, carts selling dates, clocks placed on a wall for buyers, stalls of cheap sunglasses on a street and rows of large drums erected for security outside a foreign organisation.
She comes across security guards and policemen, in addition to wall-chalking displaying support for Mumtaz Qadri (the murderer of Salman Taseer), proclamations by a students’ religious political party, denouncing Ahmadies, slogans of a fundamentalist outfit as well as advertisements for a clinic that specialises in male potency. The photographs, blended into each other, reveal a particular viewpoint starting from the edge of the footpath and without showing much sky. From this point of view, what a visitor gathers is not just the record of a journey through the city but carefully constructed narrative that deals with our urban situations and current conditions.
Farida Batool has cleverly created a collage of our surroundings that reveals how the city — or a state — operates with its multiple fractions. Actually, what the artist has experienced on her track formulates the network on which the system of a state is established and operates. Like parts of a machine, all these may appear different and disjointed but, in reality, serve to support and uphold a function that safeguards the interests of a certain class and group.
Thus, it would not be possible to detach one visual/area and observe it in isolation, since each seems to be a component of a larger picture that completes our social, political and religious existence. In our routine life, we come across these places which assert power, bar the entry of ordinary citizens, represent faith and everyday commerce, but we are never able to connect these into a larger framework. For example, to an ordinary person graffiti of a certain fundamentalist outfit is something separate from the Supreme Court, or may be the wall-chalking about male potency is not related to the blue drums arranged in front of a foreign agency but, if probed, one finds and forms the connections which do not come as a surprise to many at the end.
Basically, the artist intends to present the picture of our society but, unlike other sentimental and eager ‘reformist’ artists, she relies on a language that is more picturesque than political in its tone — a feature that saves her work from falling in the pit of propaganda art.
Without forcing an ideology or programme, Farida Batool has presented what she thinks is crucial to our environment. Yet, unlike a passive mirror, her decision of selecting certain visuals and sites is significant in order to construct and comprehend her content. Not only does she portray different facets of an urban landscape, somehow the juxtaposition of these carefully chosen pictures adds a new aspect to the works. For instance, photograph of a man selling watches or dates vendor next to the Supreme Court office or repeated lines about matters of faith along with the message to cure sexual disease subvert the ideas of scarceness or sacredness attached to some of our social constructs.
Batool, instead of being trapped into a zealous desire to depict the correct solution through (her) art, has opted for a more remote yet lasting option. It seems that for her, offering reality in a certain scheme is enough to invoke the intended effect. In that sense, she operates like a mirror — an incomplete one — and the viewer seeing the disjointed visuals together is forced to contemplate upon its logic and presence.
Compared to her own earlier work and that of several other artists dealing with violence, Farida does not project blood, explosion or destruction but has decided to concentrate on the real nature of these incidents which are manifestations of bigger issues. The intricate relationship of power with the religious forces, state of security, and public’s reaction are all communicated in an oblique manner.
Perhaps, the shift in the staunch position of Batool has more to do with the choice of her technique. The medium of lenticular provides a means to look at the subject in a delayed form. Much like a video, her movements are captured in time but unfold only with a viewer standing along the work. Thus the spectator can identify with the artist and feel himself as a substitute of the artist in her walk in the city.
The artist could not resist the temptation of naming her solo exhibition in Urdu, ‘Kahani Aik Shehr Ki’ (the line from a poem by Siddiq Alam). This is in contradiction to the way the artworld operates or the way art is generally perceived (as a Westernised activity), regardless of the attempts of our artists to package their work in an indigenous mode. Even the work is installed in such a scheme that a visitor begins looking at it from left to right, till he reaches the end.
This little aside notwithstanding, Farida Batool has managed to make us aware of a reality which, because of its medium and subject, in the words of Christopher Hitchens ‘was hard to look, and hard not to look’.
exhibition started on April 8 and will remain open till April 20, 2012)
“Radio news is bearable. This is due to the fact that while the news is being broadcast, the radio jockey is not allowed to talk.”
I read this quote by Fran Lebowitz, an American writer and humanist, for the first time in 2008 while working on a feature. His words still ring true to me.
Perhaps, things have not changed much for Lebowitz or the regular radio listeners. Or have they? Lebowitz may have had different reasons for calling radio news ‘bearable’ but I have my own.
It’s 2pm, time for news headlines. “Gilgit main aaj Barkat Ali zakhmion ki tab na latay hu chal basay…” (In Gilgit, today, Barkat Ali succumbed to the injured [instead of injuries] and died).
I switched over to another station, “Folks, it was an interesting day, today, I was challing (she means walking) and I saw a black cat that by the way crossed me…”
I switched the radio off.
These comments made by FM radio presenters are not typical of news reading but also music shows, talk shows, chat shows, celebrity interviews.
“For me, the new breed of radio presenters seems to have come from a different planet,” says Tariq Aziz, veteran actor/host/broadcaster who started his career from Radio Pakistan Lahore.
Back in those days, not everyone could make it to the radio. The essential skills required were voice quality, language, proper accent. Your radio career ended before it actually started if you didn’t possess these. “People with nasal twang and shrill voices or incorrect pronunciation didn’t stand a chance on radio. Now I’m amazed at the voices, the content I hear on air,” says Aziz.
There was a time when presenters made their own scripts; they thoroughly researched the subject and had it all written down. As Aziz says, “We could not even think of deviating from the written word. I recall once I was to read the weather report, ‘Aaj mulk kay beshtar hisay main mausam khushk rahay ga (the weather is expected to remain dry in most parts of the country)’, just then I saw heavy rainfall from the studio’s window, and thought it would be a good idea to update the report and say, ‘Bunda-bandi ki twaqa ki ja rahi hai (light rain is expected today)’.
“I was immediately called by the producer and given a warning. He entered the instance in my file. There is no such pressure on the current lot; there is no censorship,” he laments.
Usman Shah, radio broadcaster at FM 100 Lahore, says “There was a time when radio was a passion. Now, the youngsters are given the microphone after short training — at some stations even that’s not done.
“The radio jockeys of today are confused. For them, talking fast is the solution. They chatter for the sake of it. It all depends on how you define good entertainment. We were taught it comprises information, good music, quality content and words that mesmerise listeners. Now it’s a turnoff, seriously,” Shah regrets.
The content being shared on air lacks originality. Making a radio programme off the internet is the order of business, get a print-out of the day’s horoscope and discuss it for an hour or give long, winding news roundup and go on and on.
“They make an intro from trashy news items, then start to discuss various points of views, get two guests on show and explode a non-issue into an issue. Where is their hard work?” asks Tariq Aziz.
Taking phone calls, reading SMSes, playing back-to-back songs and selecting a theme for the entire show saves the radio presenter from working hard. In the good old days of Radio Pakistan, presenters were trained to choose the correct word, what to speak on air and what not to. “Yes, we were conditioned to use socially acceptable language. Once while reading a news headline about Pul Kanjri, I stuttered, and changed its intonation,” Aziz recollects.
Usman blames the producers and station heads for changing the priorities from quality to money and advertisements. “The more mediocre you are, the more radio ratings you’ll get. Earlier programmes were brands but now they are anything but brands!” he says.
Seema Anil Sehgal became very famous when she sang the poetry of Ali Sardar Jaffery, released in form of an album, title ‘Sarhadain’. The same album was carried by then Prime Minster of India Atal Bihari Vajpai to Pakistan as a peace gift for the summit conference with his Pakistani counterpart in 1999.
That is to say that Seema Sehgal is well-aware of the poetical content that she accepts to render and it is clear that the word takes precedence over the note in her composition and rendition.
Last week, when she performed at the Punjab Institute of Language and Culture under the aegis of Faiz Foundation, she left no ambiguity about the mission of her music. The various poems of Faiz as she sang with her own compositions were word-centred and fully engaged in bringing forth the message that was inherent in the poetry.
Some of the poems that she rendered were Phir Bahar Aai, Mere Milne Wale, Chopain Ka Naghma Bajta Hai, Shame Firaq Ab Na Pooch Aai Aur Aa Key tal Gai, Koi Shair Kisi Mehbooba Say, Mere Dil Mere Musafir and Jame Gi Kaise Bisate Yaraan. She also sang the verses of Sahir Ludhianvi and Ali Sardar Jaffery with the intent of rendering into music the language of peace and love.
The antagonistic stance which has resulted in many wars over decades and many battles fought every day has not let this area rest in peace. The antagonism between the two countries had distorted relationships, skewed a shared past and imposed a selective acceptance of a common heritage. And all this has thwarted the desire to build a better future based on realisation of full potential for the good of mankind.
Other than being a vocalist, she is also a peace activist, and has consciously employed her music for promoting amity between the two nations. She launched her project Laho Ka Rung Aik Hai and sang not only across the length and breadth of her country but overseas as well.
She has also been actively lobbying and raising funds for some of the cultural projects like Faiz Ghar in various parts of the world and has been acknowledged by Harvard University for her efforts. Seema was also awarded the Hakim Khan Sur Prize principally for the same reason. She was again noticed when she sang the poetry of Atal Bihari Vajpai.
Hailing from Jammu, Seema Sehgal took serious interest in music and became the shagird of famous vocalist Shanti Hiranand. Her roots were obvious when, in the concert, she also sang a dogri folk song in the native dialect of Jammu. She has also sung Mir Taqi Mir and Iqbal, bringing mainly to an audience not familiar with the Urdu script the fruits of great poetry through her rendition.
It should not be a surprise because the area of Jammu and Kashmir has suffered the most in the aftermath of independence and partition. The unresolved nature of the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan has been borne by the people living in that area. It is often said that the worst tragedy to befall a country or a people is when it becomes a theatre of war, and this is exactly what happened to Jammu and Kashmir.
The circumstances of her area forced her to bring her music more into the political mainstream than would have been ideally desirable.
For accompaniment, she had instruments like guitar, violin, and harmonium and tabla for the percussion.
A few decades ago, guitar would not have figured and it is surprising that modern computerised instruments were not part of the orchestral arrangement. These days, even the most traditional instrumentalists choose to include these contemporary sounds in their numbers.
Many Indian vocalists inspired by the poetry of Faiz have rendered him. Vidya Shah released a CD last year on the occasion of the hundredth birth anniversary of the poet. Madan Gopal has sung the Punjabi verses of Faiz.
Faiz has been sung extensively by well-known singers, not so good singers and by the very average. His stature is such that for a newcomer merely singing him can be a source of gaining popularity or seeking legitimacy, while for an established singer it is a challenge to musical creativity. Singing Faiz would really be an endeavour to break new ground in his or her musical quest.
As far as putting Faiz to music is concerned, there have been three staging posts. The famous Noor Jehan number Mujh Se Pehli Se Mubabaat Meri Mehboob Na Mang, Mehdi Hasan’s Guloon Main Rung Bhare Baad-e-Nau Bahaar Chale and Iqbal Bano’s Dashte Tanhai Main Aai Jane Jahan Larzaan Hain.
Probably it was Noor Jehan that set the tradition of singing Faiz as an essential part of a singer’s repertoire. Mehdi Hasan has sung many ghazals of Faiz and nearly all of them have met with the highest standards of music. Iqbal Bano’s singing of Mehdi Zaheer’s composition Dashte Tanhai Main made her one of the most popular songsters of Faiz. Fareeda Khanum too has sung Faiz’s ghazals and Malika Pukhraaj his nazms. From among the next generation, Nayyara Noor has sung mostly Arshad Mehmood’s compositions with competence as has Tina Saani.