“Nowadays, no one works for the ‘art’ part of the performing arts,” says Mazhar Moin in an interview to Images on Sunday. This new wave television director is known for focusing on lower-middle class themes, sans artifice, in his plays. His critically acclaimed works include Burns road ki Nilofer, Saraye Ghat ki Farzana, Qudoosi Sahib ki Bewa, Raunaq Jahan ka Nafsiyati Gharana, Taare Ankaboot, Mithoo Aur Apa and many more.
“There is too much commercialism in productions these days,” he continues, while lamenting the dearth of creativity, “We are losing the true essence of drama. Audiences think that drama is just about beautiful frames while the creators make good money on producing package-line plays. Why is there such a lack of stories? I make plays for myself, not for the ratings.”
Which is why he ventured into what others thought was a ‘risky project’ after he saw Roohi Bano as a guest in a morning show. “I’ve always wanted to work with certain senior actors,” said Moin, “As I did Taare Ankaboot with Uzma Gilani, I also wanted to work with Roohi Bano. She is an icon. We all admire her work. Because she’s so popular she gets invited onto morning shows, and channels get their high ratings, but no one actually gives her any work to do.”
Moin decided that the veteran actor still had a lot of potential. “I felt that that there is still a lot of actor in her, despite all the fuss about her being unwell,” he said.
He discussed the idea of casting Bano in a play with Fasih Bari, the writer who he has teamed up with for nearly all of his hit plays. That play turned out to be Aik Aur Aurat. Bano was to be the lead.
Whoever the director discussed the project with tried to dissuade him from doing it. He was even told that working with Bano was like throwing money away and that donating funds was a better way of helping her. “I felt that we hadn’t lost the person in Roohi Bano. We’d lost the actor,” said Moin caringly, “To make her feel good as an actor, she needs to work again. She already has her own house and my objective wasn’t to replenish her bank account. If you give a person the right kind of work and environment, there is much they can revive of their old self.”
With the script in hand and preparation for production complete, the director was ready to fly to Lahore to begin filming. The night before he was to set out, however, the producer got cold feet. “He called me in the middle of the night and said we should drop the idea: why throw money away, she can’t act anymore,” related Moin, “I told him if he had any reservations, he could opt out. Fasih had written a beautiful script, her co-actors were gung-ho about the drama, and I was ready to finance it myself.”
Once in Lahore, the director and writer met with one of their dear friends, Asma Abbass, who was also close to Bano. She introduced the veteran actor to the duo. Meanwhile, discouraging calls from ‘well-meaning’ people in the industry continued coming through. And the ‘advice’ contained in them was dutifully ignored.
The first time Moin met Bano, he ended up spending the entire day with her. Needless to say, the actor left quite an impression on the director. “She is very interesting company,” he said adding that sometimes she appears lost and experiences abrupt mood swings. “She will be talking to you and suddenly she will say that she is tired and would like to go,” he said, “With her you never know what she will say next.”
“I don’t find it weird at all because I see that kind of demeanor in other artistes too,” he said thoughtfully, “Some people are very intelligent, high-strung and ultra-sensitive. They may have gone through some disturbing times in their lives or may have been in environments that are not suited to their sensitivities. They become vulnerable and it gets noticed and easily branded as some ‘disorder’.”
“Apparently 18 years ago, she got up and left the set quite suddenly, where she was filming, and never returned to that project,” he said.
Despite having been away from the camera for over two decades, Roohi Bano gave a stellar performance in Aik Aur Aurat. She starred opposite Salman Shahid and Asma Abbass. The director described how Bano was completely involved in her character and they would often discuss her lines and overall look.
“She would watch her scenes on the monitor right after we’d take the shot,” said Moin, “We kept the make-up light and I didn’t get into the technique of it so much because if I did, Roohi Bano would’ve gotten lost in it.” He therefore kept the production as organic as possible.
On the first day of the shoot, the director found himself locked outside of Roohi Bano’s house for two hours. “I stood ringing the bell,” he related, “I didn’t know whether to raise an alarm because when a person lives alone and doesn’t answer the door for sometime … you start getting all sorts of ideas.”
The door did open eventually. As it turned out the veteran actor had forgotten all about the shoot! “She was very apologetic. She wasn’t ready and hadn’t had breakfast. I wasn’t irritated. I was just glad to see her well. I mean, c’mon, stars take that long to appear on sets!” he laughed.
After a healthy (albeit heavy) breakfast of halwa puri, filming began. “After that little jolt, she was fantastic at communicating with me,” said Moin excitedly, “She would take little notes on a sheet of paper. When she read her lines, including poetry, it sent shivers down my spine because she put so much feeling in it. It was a complicated role and only she could have done it with such honesty.”
In fact they worked so well together that the director is planning to do another play with her this year. “Working with Roohi Bano means that you need time,” he said, “And you should not be under any pressure.”
Aik Aur Aurat was aired on Hum TV recently but to a rather quiet and unceremonious reception. “It was disappointing that no hype was created,” said Moin, “I didn’t expect any accolades for myself, but Roohi Bano deserved more attention for making a comeback.
“She has been dismissed as someone who can’t function anymore. Hell, she can act!” he said forcefully.
“With ratings-driven, package-line drama being produced, audiences are given no variation, no art and no creativity,” he added, concluding with a very important question, “Shouldn’t we value our senior actors while they are there are among us?”
The actress who set the benchmark
It is difficult to pigeonhole Roohi Bano’s body of work. At times her acting seems visceral and uninhibited, as is the case with most of the roles she has played in television plays. On the other hand, she has also done roles in which her work is methodical and measured. This can be seen in some of the characters she has portrayed on celluloid. So it would be hard, for even someone like Constantin Stanislavski, to categorise Bano’s tremendous acting talent.
Roohi Bano shot to fame in the 1970s with her remarkable performances in television drama serials. It was Kiran Kahani, penned by Hasina Moin, which turned her from a budding actress into a household name. Her portrayal of a seemingly confident girl at odds with societal norms was very well received. Owing to the success of the drama, she was inundated with offers from the film industry, because at the time graduating from television to the silver screen was thought to be the natural upward trajectory for actors. In Kiran Kahani she acted alongside seasoned performers like Manzoor Qureshi, Qazi Wajid and Begum Khursheed Mirza and she was never for a moment eclipsed by any of them.
In mid-70s Bano worked in quite a few films — Palki, Kainat, Goonj Uthi Shehnai etc. However, the ‘loudness’ that had begun to creep into Pakistani films in the late 1970s culminating in the gandasa-wielding hoopla of the 1980s was against her grain. After all, she had a master’s degree in psychology. Therefore, she saved the best of her work for the contextually rich TV long plays (tele-films in today’s parlance) of the 1980s.
In that regard, her performances in Zard Gulab, directed by Mohammad Nisar Husain, and Kala Diara, helmed by Iqbal Ansari, immediately come to mind. Kala Diara pivoted around a woman whose husband is unfaithful to her and she can’t figure out or resolve the situation. It’s a portrayal that required subtlety, and that’s exactly what Bano brought to the table.
Those who have followed the actress’s career with a keen eye suggest that it’s the play Darwazah, written by Munno Bhai, in which she outdid herself. Her depiction of a girl troubled by a life-threatening disease was as close to reality as they come. It’s a note-perfect piece of acting that certified her position as one of the finest thespians the country ever produced. Some are of the opinion that the character in Darwazah had a prophetic air about it, because what she went through in real life years later was similar to her tormented role in the drama — a classic example of life imitating art.
It wouldn’t be too wrong to say that ever since Khalida Riyasat passed away and Roohi Bano disappeared from the showbiz radar, the quality of acting in Pakistan, with reference to female performers, has left much to be desired.
Today, when Bano languishes in her home in Lahore all by herself, probably can’t even reminisce about her glorious past, life awaits her return from the clutches of art.