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All in the family

April 15, 2000

IS NOTHING sacred? Must just about everything and everybody in Pakistan be tainted by sleaze? Can't we even make a film about Jinnah, the founder of the country, without accusations and counter-accusations?

The production itself was mired in controversy as everything from the original surreal script to the choice of Christopher Lee to play the Quaid was questioned in the press. In the face of this raging debate, the government decided to withdraw its financial support. To his credit, Akbar S. Ahmad, the moving spirit behind the project, persevered and finally prevailed. Last year, the film was completed and has since been shown to a few select audiences. Not being part of this august company, I will withhold critical comment until have seen the movie; however, audience response has been somewhat mixed.

Although the film is due to be finally launched in Pakistan later this month, it has yet to be accepted by a major distributor abroad. Meanwhile, the Guardian of London ran a major story last month carrying serious allegations of financial impropriety by those responsible for raising funds for the project and authorizing expenditure. Apparently, Jamil Dehalvi, the director and producer of the film, has sued Akbar S. Ahmad and has made a a number of serious allegations in articles he has written for various Pakistani publications.

For me, the most shocking charge was that not only did Akbar Ahmad charge 50,000 pounds for himself as "writing fees," he also doled out 70,000 pounds to his son and his son-in-law. On top of this, his wife is the managing director of the Quaid Project. None of these accusations have been denied by any member of the family. Akbar Ahmad's money went into an offshore account which is pretty fishy in itself.

All this would have been par for the course in a country that has witnessed a depressing amount of corruption at the very highest levels. But what makes it all so much worse is that after the movie was made, this government appointed Akbar Ahmad our high commissioner to the United Kingdom. Initially this was perceived as a good move as he was generally well regarded in academic circles in Britain because of his TV series on Islam as well as his anthropological studies (hence the nickname "anthro-panthro" bestowed on him by columnist Khalid Hasan).

Now, however, this government is in the highly embarrassing position of having its representative to the Court of St. James's dragged through British courts on charges of sleaze, Presumably, members of his family will also be called upon to testify. It goes without saying that, given the nature of the case, the media will have a field day.

Apart from the unsavoury financial details that have surfaced, Akbar Ahmad's intellectual integrity has also been questioned as it has been alleged by Dehlavi that although the former did not contribute to the script, he has claimed equal credit for it with the director. In actual fact, it appears that Farooq Dhondi was the principal scriptwriter, and he agreed to stay in the background. However, now that the matter has become public, Dhondi has confirmed his role in the film.

Quite apart from the legal, artistic and intellectual questions raised by the Guardian article and the subsequent publicity, the most pressing issue to my mind is the morality involved in paying large sums to close relatives who have no qualifications for the work they have been paid for. How can somebody with a lifetime of government service behind him be unaware that such rank nepotism is unacceptable even in Pakistan? and since most of the money for the film was raised abroad, surely our high commissioner should have maintained an even higher standard of probity.

In her somewhat disjointed and confusing defence published in the monthly Herald, Mrs Zeenat Akbar Ahmad has stated that the money received by her husband was put back into the project. This is good to know, but some documentary evidence would have been more convincing. She justifies the payments made to her son and son-in-law as being in the interest of the project. She does not, however, tell us their qualifications for this work. Dehlavi is categorical in dismissing their contribution to his film.

Nepotism is endemic in our part of the world, and people think nothing of giving jobs, junkets and contracts to close relatives when they are in positions of authority without seeing anything wrong with this practice. One would have expected that as a scholar, serving civil servant (now a diplomat) and somebody with much exposure abroad, Akbar Ahmad would have refrained from doing the desi thing of putting his whole family on the project payroll. Unfortunately, the temptation of furthering family interests at the expense of the film seemed to have proved too powerful to resist, and the project is in danger of entering the long and dishonourable list of scams made in Pakistan.

This is a pity because I am sure Akbar ahmad had entirely honourable intentions when he started off to make the film. Virtually from the time Attenborough's film "Gandhi" made such an impact on the world nearly 20 years ago, he has been dreaming of producing a cinematic response based on Mr Jinnah's life and struggle. To have achieved his goal and then get bogged down in such a sleazy saga is as sad as it is unnecessary.

What makes this scandal specially reprehensible is that the subject of the film was a man of such absolute and towering integrity. Not even his worst enemy has ever accused him of fiscal impropriety, and if he was seen as uncompromising, it was because there were no skeletons in his closet. For his name to be associated with a project that has become the centre of controversy, even posthumously, is a national disgrace.

Both Akbar Ahmad and his wife have tried to brush off these accusations as being part of a plot concocted by the "Indian lobby" to discredit him and the film. I'm afraid this is not good enough a defence. Surely this lobby did not make him involve his immediate family in the project and pay themselves large amounts of money. The fact that the foreign office has recently written him a strong letter pointing out various financial improprieties alleged to have been committed by him would seem to indicate that where there is smoke, there is a fire. Incidentally, the press reports carrying excepts of this letter have not been denied or contradicted.

No Pakistani could derive any pleasure at the unfolding of this saga, but it is in the nation's best interest for the government to intervene before it turns into an even bigger international scandal.