media-matters

Enter the Playwright

By: Mashal Usman
Published: December 1, 2017
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Gracious and indefatigable, Haseena Moin is the consummate professional and one of the few living legends who played an instrumental role in forging PTV’s golden era of drama. In this candid chat with Narratives, she reminisces upon her illustrious career in the Pakistani media industry.

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You have had a very intense relationship with the Urdu language as well as the written word. At what point in your life did you realise that you could wield these two as weapons to highlight your emotional intelligence and understanding of the human psyche? 

Urdu is my mother tongue and I inherited some of my love for it from my mother who was an avid reader. Growing up, we had a separate library in our house for the children and every evening we would all get together to discuss the stories we had read. These became some of the most precious memories of my early childhood.

I cannot pinpoint the exact memory of when I cemented my relationship with the written word. It started when I was in the seventh grade, I began writing for Daily Jang’s children’s section. I would save the published cutouts which were a source of immense pride for me. I wrote several stories for them and regularly contributed to their children’s magazine, Bhai Jaan.

What is your earliest memory of literary success? How did you feel about it?

In the late 50s, during my college years, I won the first prize for a story writing competition for one of my pieces titled Shehzadi. During those years, Radio Pakistan sent circulars to every college asking for drama scripts as part of a competition. Our professor, Mrs Shan ul Haq, who was also a poetess, asked me to write a drama. I was totally baffled and didn’t know how to go about it, but she encouraged me to dig into my imagination and see what I could churn out. She was very persistent that way and I wrote for three days straight before submitting my piece. I wrote until I could write no more. Maybe luck was with me then.

The drama was given to Agha Nasir Sahab for production. Karachi did not have television at that time. When that drama went into production, the results of the competition were announced in our college. Our college had won the award and it was announced to all that the drama has been written by Haseena Moin.

My joy knew no bounds. The only blip on the horizon was that an inquiry was conducted against Agha Nasir for that drama as doubts were voiced that a college girl cannot possibly write with such depth and the drama must have been written by someone older. My college actually had to assuage Agha Nasir Sahab that I was the writer – and no one else – as his job was at stake.

Ever since I was a little child, I have had a desperate, secret ambition to stand on one of those victory stands – you know the ones for sports champions – and be proclaimed the first in something. I would whine to my family and friends that I somehow never win the first position in any competition. When I went to the stage for that drama, for the first time I felt that I was standing on my victory stand. I cannot forget how sweet that memory was. I went on to write approximately eight to ten dramas for Radio Pakistan.

A certain worldliness is naturally required if you are to make your way up the ladder in any field, particularly in the media industry. How did you prove your mettle to media bigwigs in the early years?   

It’s been an interesting journey. In 1967, television had arrived in Karachi. In 1969, PTV’s General Manager Qamar Aftab invited me to pay him a visit regarding writing a script for a comedy drama, Bhul Bhulaiyan. PTV was a big name then and so I went. Not alone, mind you, I rounded up several of my friends and we all arrived at his office. Truth be told, I was riding high on my university laurels and naturally a little full of myself. When we arrived, the receptionist asked me to wait saying that Aftab Sahab is in a meeting and we will be called in when he is available. I showed them the invitation letter PTV had sent me, and made it very clear that if his time was precious, so was mine. The panicked receptionist shuttled us to the producer’s room.

The producer, to my consternation, was lounging about with his shoes off and was elbow deep in chicken bones. I still remember looking at him and wondering if all producers are like this. He immediately started off with mansplaining to me that writing comedy is a seriously difficult venture, and I should start with small magazines and random newspapers, and then proceed to television.

I said, in no uncertain terms, that I had been invited and if I was not considered capable enough for the task then I would take my leave without wasting further time. Little did I know then that this man, Mohsin Ali Sahab, would go on to play a very positive and instrumental role in my career for the next 40 years. Later on, when I had established myself in the comedy writing field, it would be a running joke between us that clearly comedy was not my area of expertise.

If my career is to be studied according to the men and women who helped shape and build it, Mohsin Ali, Shireen Azeem, Shoaib Mansoor and Sahira Kazmi would rank high on the list. After my first drama for PTV, Bhul Bhulaiyan, became a major hit, there was no turning back.

How did you navigate your way from writing book adaptations, which were the norm in those days, to acquiring increasing independence and freedom in what you wrote as well as how it was aired?

It’s been a gradual ascension towards literary independence. After Bhul Bhulaiyan, I wrote Happy Eid Mubarak in 1972. A few days after wrapping up that script, my father passed away. We had never been struck by any such tragedy before and it was a very unnerving experience. I didn’t watch this drama when it was aired, but I was told later that it was very well received by audiences. A few weeks after this tragedy, a small programme was organised in our honour in which we were given Rs.200 in tiny envelopes as rewards. It was my first television award and made me very happy.

PTV then tasked me with writing a modern-day screenplay adaptation spanning six to seven episodes of a thin pamphlet sized book, Shehzori, originally authored by Azeem Baig Chughtai. It was a daunting task – stretching such limited content over so many episodes. After many discussions with Mohsin Sahab and considerable back and forth, we added several more characters to the story and Shehzori was aired. This was my first serial and it became a massive hit.

PTV then wanted me to commence with adapting another book. I asked them to put their faith in me and let me pen down my own ideas instead. The producers kindly told me that had to produce an episode every week and if I stopped generating original content in the middle – due to an artist’s block or whatever other reason – they would be left in the lurch.

But then Iftikhar Arif Sahab and Mohsin Sahab agreed that greater literary freedom was the next logical step ahead in my career, and they allowed to give me a chance. Then I pitched Kiran Kahani to them. Thankfully, we didn’t have any roadblocks. It was widely watched and appreciated. This was the first script that was entirely my own. After that, I started writing scripts that were entirely my own.

Most of the other script writers at that time were completely occupied with writing serious dramas with heavy themes and concepts. No one was writing light-hearted family entertainment. I quickly made it my niche. After that I wrote Zair, Zabar, Paish. It was a lovely comedy featuring old artistes like Qazi Wajid Sahab and Roohi Bano, and became widely popular.

By then, Shireen, Mohsin and I had become a solid team. I would write and those two would direct. We then had the idea of Uncle Urfi in which we cast Shakeel. He was a young hero then and was terrified that the label of “Uncle” would stick with him and he would get uncle roles only in the future.

However, the show went on to become such a massive hit that its episodes used to be aired in weddings. People would send heartfelt entreaties that the show should not have a tragic end, however, that was exactly what we had in mind. I had never seen such an intense involvement of the audience with dramas – so much so that we would get sacks of letters from the GM’s office. The end deeply disturbed many fans, hundreds of whom penned and mailed us their thinly disguised disappointment by letter. Some went as far as cursing us by saying that we too would die the same deaths as the main protagonists in the story. And maybe curses follow you and haunt you through life. Shireen ended. Mohsin ended. I am all that is left.

By that time, colour television had arrived and we were asked to write a serial for it. I was reading a book that I loved dearly, the Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. We enquired up the ladder whether we could go about dramatising it. We were told that we should attempt it only if I was writing it – me and no one else – as the subject was too intense for anyone else to do justice to it. I wrote the first episode and went off to Lahore for a wedding.

When I came back, it had been recorded. The show had been given to another producer in my absence. I saw it and hated everything about. The casting and direction was all wrong. You can gauge how good those times were for artists because I went straight to the GM’s office and demanded that I be given my old team back and that Sahira and Rahat be cast for the roles, as I had written it keeping those two in mind. My demands were met and the show met resounding applause. That was Pakistan’s first coloured serial – Parchaiyan. Talat Hussain, Shakeel and the Kazmi’s lit up the screen.

Now bear in mind that this was the Zia-ul-Haq era. There was a mention of a mistress in the book. We made no such direct mention, but we established that the male lead had a past, that had been hidden from society. Everyone understood. The point being, the written word has a spirit. You have to wield it responsibly, conveying your message but not offending people in the process.

Once, while we were midway through another project, Bandish, we got a request from Zia-ul-Haq’s office that we send them the fourth episode. This ominous request took the wind out of our sails. We sent the episode ahead and then spent four days trying to understand what mistake we had done with it. In those days, if a mistake happened, the GM, PM and the producer were immediately suspended. So we were all terrified. However, about four days later, when we enquired about it from the president’s office, we were told that Zia Sahab had gone for Umra and missed the fourth episode, which is why they had asked for it. You can imagine the hilarity that ensued.

During that period, Shireen fell ill and Mohsin Ali had been transferred out of the city. She gave the greatest revenue to television from Karachi but when she fell ill, she was smoothly sidelined. This is how ruthless the media industry is. That broke my heart. For a long time, I didn’t produce any further work.

I wasn’t very close with Shoaib Mansoor in those days. However, he had been requesting for a very long time that I write for him. I was a little cautious because he was young and inexperienced and I had neither Shireen nor Mohsin by my side. Once, while passing through a corridor, he pleaded with me again that I write for him and I offhandedly agreed. He immediately grabbed on to my words and took it as a done deal. I began to write.

This would go on to become Ankahi. For this, we took Shehnaz Sheikh. She was a very big fan of mine. Shoaib put immense effort into the drama and it became a monumental success. Shoaib has had a very hard rise to the top – but he always had an unshakeable conviction in his worth. It was such a pleasure working with him.

Dhoop Kinaray too has a fun story behind it. Sahira, Rahat and I were vacationing in Murree once when Rahat took me to a really beautiful dark, old house, owned by a prominent trader. It was quite gloomy and a little unnerving but quite unforgettable.

The house owned by Rahat’s father in Dhoop Kinaray was inspired from that. In the story, the child (Rahat) inherits everything from his deceased father except the house which goes to his father’s niece. But that knowledge, that his father didn’t love him enough to bequeath him the house, keeps eating him up from inside. The darkness that surrounded the actual house seeped into my fictional story as well.

Is it a burden to toe the delicate line between culture, religious sensibilities and progressive thought while writing a script?

It is a shared responsibility that must not be taken lightly.

About the Author
Mashal Usman
is a sub-editor who has graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences. She has worked with the Express Tribune before joining BOL Media Group.