frame outside the frame
The second life of drama
It's time to celebrate the brave and talented new lot that has contributed to the revival of TV drama in Pakistan
By Arif Waqar
Yes, TV drama is back with a vengeance, and it is news to the viewers who, in utter disappointment, switched off their drama channels years ago. The generation that grew up with Khuda ki Basti, Waris, Tanhaiyan and Ankahi, had no interest in watching the trash that dominated our mini screen at the turn of the century.
Who could forget the excitement of those weekend nights in the 1970s and 80s when the whole family, and some neighbours too, would get together to watch a new episode of Jazeera, Uncle Urfee or Jhoke Seyal. Birthday and marriage parties were rescheduled to accommodate the viewing of an upcoming episode, and the roads were literally emptied on the drama night. Such was the zeal and enthusiasm of PTV drama viewers.
Privatisation of air waves was so rapid a phenomenon in our country that suddenly dozens of new channels popped up from nowhere. They were all 24/7 channels and needed bulks of software to fill the 24 hour cycle. The task was easier for the news channels, but all the entertainment channels had to bank upon a small group of writers, actors and directors, mainly trained by Pakistan television. Most of the directors were regular employees of PTV and had to secretly work for private channels, under pseudonyms. Obviously, this clandestine arrangement didn't allow them to use their full potential, and consequently a steady flow of badly-written, poorly-acted and half-heartedly directed plays was the order of the day in the entertainment market.
In a parallel development, satellite and cable TV had pushed open the tightly shut doors of the Indian entertainment channels to the Pakistani audience and our housewife was enjoying for the first time, the Saas-Bahoo saga on the one hand and the Mythological epics on the other. The attraction for these fabulous fantasies however turned out to be short-lived and once again we were looking for something more attractive and engrossing, something more indigenous and domestic, something that rose from our own soil. While we were only worrying about the state of affairs, some mavericks were making practical effort to change the situation, and in fact a silent revolution was underway in the world of entertainment media.
A brave new lot of TV entertainers is now in the market. Most of the directors are young, with foreign degrees in media production. From the simple theme of boy-meets-girl to a complicated relationship under the social pressures of a rapidly changing value system, and from a seemingly innocent love story to the underlying mysteries of the unconscious mind, these new media teams are dealing with all sorts of subjects. They are doing wonders in deed, and it's time for us to celebrate their outstanding work! Let's look at some of the Pakistani dramas on air at present:
Daam is an old fashioned, multi track story, based on Social Realism, constructed on the classical PTV pattern of 13/50 (13 episodes 50 minutes each). This was exactly the drama culture I was trained in, when I joined PTV as a young graduate, in the mid 1970s -- a time when PTV play was king, and had become an inspiration for the Pune Film Academy graduates in India to start the movement that is now known as Indian Art Cinema.
I have watched with keen interest all the episodes of Daam so far. Written by Umera Ahmed, what puts Daam in league with the Golden Age plays is its strong characterisation, naturalistic dialogue, superb acting and, of course, two watchful eyes of director Mehreen Jabbar. I was particularly impressed by the character of the oldest daughter in that lower middle class family. The dilemma of an unmarried older sister, the plight of a working female and the miseries of a lonely woman are all so meticulously demonstrated by that little known actress Nimra Bucha. In the leading roles are Sanam Baloch, Amna Sheikh and Adeel Hussain.
Behroz Sabzwari has accepted the challenge to perform a role just contrary to his well established TV persona of an urban educated westernised gentleman.
Haissam Hussain is another young director who, like Mehreen Jabbar, has been trained abroad. Of his two serials on air currently, Daastaan and Ishq Gumshuda, I have watched the latter and found it absolutely amazing. The whole story is built on a very subtle point: the thing itself, and the perception thereof; love perceived as friendship, or perhaps, friendship perceived as love. The character entangled in the horns of dilemma is that of Sarwat Gillani, a superb performer, supported by equally good artistes.
Javed Sheikh who started his career with television, has returned to the medium after a long enriching journey through the realm of filmdom. Samina Peerzada, who has been rather choosy in accepting a role in a TV play, has carefully made her selection. The role is a real tight rope walk: a slightest distraction could throw her into the abyss of melodrama, but Samina has been masterfully balancing herself on this trembling rope that is getting thinner and thinner with each step forward.
Ishq Gumshuda is written by veteran playwright Nurul Huda Shah. She started with Sindhi plays in the 1980s and soon moved to Urdu drama. Her forte was considered to be her insight into the intricacies of the rural society in interior Sindh. In her early plays, she painted the atmosphere in rather wide strokes where the oppressor was clearly distinguishable from the oppressed, but in her later work this distinction became less obvious. If you look at the case in point, it's hard to tell the culprit from the victim, and that is the real achievement of the writer of Ishq Gumshuda.
The third item I want to discuss is a down-market play, Ijazat, chosen neither for its psychological subtleties nor any intricacies of acting or production, but only for its tremendous popularity. The writer, Seema Ghazal, had written hundreds of stories for digests and women's magazines before she finally hit the jackpot of television. At present she is the most sought-after writer in the entertainment channels.
The story of Ijazat is as old as the institution of marriage itself. The eternal characters of husband, wife and the "other woman" are no strangers to our audience, but this time the husband is a modern day TV star and the other woman is a femme fatale from the world of showbiz who is determined to win over this man by hook or by crook. She doesn't have to struggle much, as the wife is a spineless creature who takes pride in obeying her husband's orders and wants to keep him happy at any cost.
Originally planned in 15 parts, the serial is running into its 21st episode this week. The submissive housewife is played very successfully by Ayesha Khan. Humayun Saeed is his usual self in the role of the husband, but the highlight of the play perhaps is Saadia Imam in the character of the other woman. In the current episodes, she is suffering from a guilty conscience that leads her to believe she would soon lose the man. This feeling is gradually developing into a paranoia which Saadia is depicting so brilliantly that the play can be watched for her performance alone.
Adapting novels for television was another great tradition that we completely ignored during the rat race of ratings, but the young novelist Umera Ahmed was lucky enough to get all her major novels serialised. Her latest was Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan. Don't worry if you've missed it: the DVD has just been released and now you can watch this star-studded serial at your leisure. It's directed by Babar Javed and the cast includes Samiya Mumtaz, Faisal Qureshi, Sarwat Gillani and Khayyam Sarhadi.
I had given up watching TV drama long ago, but these recent productions have brought me back to the couch. If you are also among the disillusioned lot, it's high time you return to your TV set and enjoy one of the current Pakistani drama productions. You can watch the previous episodes on Youtube and many other sites before you tune in to the latest episode.
One of the founding members of PTV, Kunwar Aftab Ahmed worked through the hard times of censorship and state dictates.
He passed away on September 10, 2010
By Sarwat Ali
Kunwar Aftab Ahmed who died recently in Lahore was one of the founding fathers of PTV. During the first three decades after television was set up in 1964, he teamed up with Aslam Azhar, Agha Nasir, Muhammed Nisar Hussain, Fazal Kamal, Ghufraan Imtiazi, Yawar Hayat and Mohsin Ali to make it a truly outstanding network.
Television played a greater role in Pakistan than has been assigned to it by experts because it also substituted for areas not sufficiently developed -- such as theatre. It was apparent from the very start that television was to fill in the slot that was not properly attended to by theatre. So, teleplay became one of the most prized primetime spots -- and Kunwar Aftab Ahmed was one of those who contributed to it wholeheartedly.
In a way television was an inheritor of the great tradition of radio play, which had blossomed when it was set up in the 1930s. Radio play especially from the Lahore station was considered to be exceptional and many of the well-known writers contributed to its being. The same tradition continued with the setting up of television as it was able to retain a great deal of virtues of the radio play -- and did not let it be dimmed by circumstances.
And the circumstances were most of all censorial in nature. Both television and radio were state-run organisations and one had to tread carefully in saying and stating what and how. The people working in these organisations developed the art of saying and showing much through indirection. During the years of the strictest of censorships -- Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ziaul Haq -- television was able to hold the attention of its audiences much more than it does now because it had developed the art of saying more than it showed. Mastering such a technique became almost an artistic device.
Teleplay was important and its glares remained undimmed because what it dealt with were not slogans and statements but genuine human problems. The writers and the producers had learnt the art of keeping the human content centrestage and weave the play around it. Though the authorities preferred a slant, the human content was so strong that it outweighed the censorial pressures. The play did not in the end suffer the consequences of that intervention.
Kunwar Aftab had got training as a filmmaker and produced a film, Jhalak. The film bombed at the box office because it was minus the frills usually attached with popular cinema. He turned to television where box office was not the final arbiter.
As a producer of plays most of all though, he rose up the ranks and held many decision-making positions in the top echelon of the organisation, he was happier handling drama than being an administrator -- that is where his major contribution also exists.
He held steadfast to the many virtues that television propagated -- realism, understatement and sensitivity to issues not that overwhelming. The small screen also facilitated in toning down the traditional larger-than-life rhetoric of stage and cinema. Some of the plays and serials were Aik Haqeeqat Aik Afsana, Sone Ki Chirya, Akhara, Abhi Tau Main Jawan Hoon, Azadi Ke Mujrim, Shehzoori, Sunday Ke Sunday, Ya Naseeb Clinic, Kun Rus, Mirza Ghalib Bunder Road Per, Khawab Jagete Hain, Mantorama and Nishan e Haider.
Another genre that he also excelled in was documentary. These won awards at the international level. His documentary A ball named Tango has been assessed by many as one of the best documentaries made in the country.
It was easier for Kunwar Aftab Ahmed to thrive in the secure environment provided by a state-run institution. He found the cut-throat competition of the market, the ability to jazz up the product and the mercurial relationship with owners more difficult to handle than the state dictates. He would not find a way round this market mechanism, as he was able to do with overbearing ministers, generals and bureaucrats. He just faded away after the private channels mushroomed in the last ten odd years.
PTV was the mother of television in the country and all networks drank from its pool. Many of the producers were able to work by keeping a foot each in these two boats. But Kunwar Aftab Ahmed's temperament did not let him and he just faded away and did very little work in the last 20 odd years since his retirement from television.
Narrative of a nation
The imaginative world spread on Tasaduq Sohail's canvases sums up our reality, where an individual is more important than the system
By Quddus Mirza
To an average man, all beautiful girls are equally charming since all seem to fit a certain type. Likewise, to a viewer, all of Tasaduq Sohail's paintings may appear similar because not only are these attractive, they follow a set of specific pictorial and technical ingredients. His imagery, method, size of painting and choice of medium have remained constant for years; and the new works from his recent solo show, that was open from September 21-28, 2010, at Chawkandi Art in Karachi, appeared almost similar to his previous pieces, at least on surface.
However, like the fallacy about all pretty women being equally charming, one can sense a misunderstanding about the art practice of Tasaduq Sohail too. What seemed like identical works are actually part of a long process of modification, which has not been perceptible due to the large body of works produced regularly by the 80-year-old artist. A number of other artists also make works which are a continuation of their earlier art pieces, but the long gap in their artistic output somehow obliterates this aspect of uniformity from their art.
If analysed, one is bound to note some minor yet crucial changes slowly taking place over the years in the art of Tasaduq Sohail. An important element that has undergone transformation is his technique. Previously, one could glimpse a number of scratched surfaced but lately the artist prefers more painterly marks; in many works from his recent solo show exhibition, flat areas are rendered in bright and vivid shades of greens, blues, turquoise and yellow. More than that, the artist has now evolved a special technique for himself -- a kind of mixture of scratching and layering of paint, in which the paint is applied and then dragged producing prominent textures.
One may wonder why is the technique or method of painting so important in order to approach his work. Technique, in the art of Tasaduq Sohail, can not be detached from the imagery and content of his work; because one leads to the other. The method of using paint, style of drawing and composing the pictorial elements, all denote the presence of an untrained painter (it does not matter if he studied art at St Martin's School of Art for several years because the work invokes a sense of naivety, much favoured by many artists, all with professional qualifications in art). The scales of different things do not correspond to the natural order either; for example, in one work, parrots perched on trees are as big as the elephants below.
This shift in the logical sequence of objects and species indicates the unmistakeable aesthetics of Tasaduq Sohail, but the latest works suggest a new development in his usual imagery. In his earlier canvases, naked and luscious ladies, bearded preachers, or animals such as goats, lions, unicorns, or demons were placed in a landscape which overpowered these entities. Now human presence dominates the canvas, as one could see faces or figures covering the canvas in a more pronounced manner.
There can be several factors but his migration from one country to the other may have some connection to this slow and swift change in his imagery. In 1961 Sohail moved to England, where he worked to earn his living by doing different jobs till he managed to survive on his art. After spending many years in England, Sohail came back to Karachi, Pakistan in 2001, where he had been showing (at Indus Gallery) during his absence from Pakistan. After returning to Pakistan, Tasaduq Sohail has been painting and exhibiting regularly.
The fact that his work produced in Pakistan has large and prominent human figures may have something to do with the effect of both environments on his art. Being in UK, particularly London, means surviving as a small part of a large arrangement; all individuals, irrespective of their status in society, have to pay taxes; they are fined for wrong parking; and blend with others on the streets and subways. Whereas here, individual is more important; he often tries to overpower the system, challenge his set up, emerge as a leader among his colleagues and yearns to assume power. This trait is visible in every walk of life, ranging from faith to politics to sports to culture to political talk-shows.
The imagery in recent works is still related to the world of fantasy -- imagination, dreams, nightmares and the realm of unconscious. But these are not disconnected with reality. That way, the imaginative world spread on Tasaduq Sohail's canvases sums up our harsh (and unfortunate) reality, where man is more important than a setting or a system!
Poppy Seed's latest show investigates art through local points of reference
By Amra Ali
Once past the red paan stains on the surrounding buildings -- stains or local expression(ism) one may contemplate -- we were at Poppy Seed gallery's newest show titled Framing the Local Context. Now Poppy Seed galley is a relatively obscure space. Located close to the heart of a bustling Karachi and away from the smaller commercial art galleries and framing shops in the more posh areas of the city, its tranquil interior is a luxurious expanse of space, ideal for the display of big art works -- an ambiance where one can simply contemplate at the simplicity of the architectural space.
Once at the gallery, one asks, why "frame the local context"? Sometimes the questions one frames are more relevant than answers and other times questions become possible answers. Likewise, the undercurrents of art -- the relationship between what happens outside the "frame" -- is equally compelling and necessary; to give meaning to what happens inside it. The frame outside the frame, the larger canvas, let's say, authenticates the art, or does it? The relationship between these two frames may not always be complimentary to each other, always allowing for enquiry into the mechanisms that frame the art.
The work displayed was conceived six months ago, when gallery curator Sumbul Khan invited eight artists to engage in a series of lectures and form visual parallels/responses to investigate art through local/historical points of reference and the wider lens of Urdu poetry, literature and philosophy. It is interesting that Danish Raza, one of the participating artists, engaged with the idea of the Musawir Jaadoogar: the power of the artist to create magic. This was discussed briefly by Asif Farrukhi in his lecture.
What started as mark-making on his primary canvas, the computer screen, developed into spontaneous gestural drawings. In the final stage, almost like inverting his sense of space and history, he surprises the participating group with a series of acrylics on canvas that possess a batik sensibility. He engages the viewer to participate in a collective prayer in disturbing times by haunting images of masks. The empowered artist, as shaman, through his images, provides the ultimate illusion or amulet to change his destiny or his times. The work vacillates between the worldly and the spiritual, indirectly invoking questions of art hierarchies.
Lost amid a chaotic far end of the gallery space, one almost misses Salman Hassan's discreet photography-based works. Unfortunately, the frames confine the subtle aesthetics of this body of work which might have created more of an immediate interaction had it been left unframed and placed to view in an informal album.
Titled in Urdu, 'Woh pareey hain roz qayamatain, keh khayal roz-e-jaza kiya', he uses the ant as a symbol of struggle, representative of an anonymous human being. Using Faiz's poem Subah Azadi, (These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light -- this is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom) as his anchor, Salman's frame of reference resides much beyond the parameters of the current show. Literature is not used as bate but prior familiarity and engagement with its layers appears to be part of his inspiration which this project has pushed him to articulate in a more direct way. Text as part of the image also pushes the context of the work, to the struggle of an ant, an individual or colony.
The engagement with earth/matti, provides a strong link to nation/dharti. Though the work was created prior to the floods in Pakistan, it elicits a similar pathos of loss and destruction that is as applicable to the current wave of fragility of existence. References to Gaya's The Miracle of Ants or to the Quranic verses, Soorah Namal and S. Nahab or to Faiz's Firaaq suggest the layers embedded in this series. These are not the layers that are "visible" in the work but transcend the work, just as the notion of spirituality in Sheikh Saadi has been part of Salman's philosophical reference, as part of his larger quest.
The only installation, by Hajra Haider, plays havoc with the uniformity of the framed works of this show, as well as a print show on adjoining walls (a totally different context and sensibility), that has been merged with this one at the last minute. A ball of blue/red nylon, with its lesions stretches like tentacles, disrupts the overall visual and conceptual aesthetics of the entire space. Had curatorial judgment allowed, this statement could have charged the gallery space, simply by a more creative placement.
Faraz Ali and Meher Afroz reside at the furthest end of the spectrum, as far apart from each other as possible. The monumentality of Meher's breakthroughs in her series Gulistan Hamara and the disparity between the two opposing sensibilities is another subtext that will have to find space at another time.