Fasih Bari writes about inner city characters from everyday life and his plays come across as a slice of life, offered up without the garnishing of pretence.
Like a mirror, he doesn’t create the image but merely reflects it … sometimes darkly. He mocks society’s hypocrisies and pretentious, sanctimonious values in gritty storylines from Agra Taj Colony, Bihar Colony, Orangi Town, about Dehli wallas, Beharis, hijras, marriage, divorce and halala.
His everyday characters, at once realistic, outspoken and eccentric, are the lecherous landlord, the Bengali black magic baji, the over-the-hill government school principal, the mechanic, the butcher, the salon walli in her garish getup; he weaves a dark comedy that has you in fits. A never-before-seen-formula, Quddusi Sahib Ki Bewa (QSKB) has so far progressed into 150-plus episodes. Yet there are people who think it is too bold for the small screen.
He writes for an audience nostalgic about the past, “QSKB captures the mood of the pre-Zia ’70s when people and things were so much more laid back as compared to now. Then followed Gen Zia’s dictatorial regime and everything was disallowed. The censorship was so strict that if you wrote dilbardaashta, they would say dilbar is okay but daashta will have to be cut out! That is the ideology that the lead character Shakooran follows. She is a pretentious, sanctimonious hyprocrite, a legacy of the Zia theme.”
His comedy is wrapped around serious social issues. “It is the best way to deliver a message. You could create a beautiful play with gorgeous leads and stunning sets which give you a lot of margin to succeed. But if you look around, there are all kinds of people and their stories are dark, not always beautiful,” he adds.
The concept of QSKB stems from Fasih’s purana mohalla in Nazimabad, Karachi, “Previously, Burnes Road Ki Nilofar, Bawli Bitiya, Pichaal Pariyaan, Ronak Jahan Ka Nafsiyati Gharana and other plays that I wrote were also about good or bad characters, with shades of grey and they are not heroes or heroines. Inspiration for me comes from a very popular radio show called Hamid Mian Ke Haan scripted by Intizar Husain; which was the backdrop of Sunday mornings in my childhood. It was about a middle-class family and everyday issues such as bijli ka bill or some guest arriving or aatay ka bhao.”
Fasih’s characters are intricately detailed: Badraqa is a middle-aged school headmistress who reads Parveen Shakir, sings and hobbles in a sari. Wadood Ahmad who thinks he is a girl is bald but coquettishly plays with imaginary hair. “When we go to a channel with a script nobody asks about the characters but twists and turns. I believe that characters have to be ingrained in the plot. For a long time, Mazhar and I wanted to do something that would run long, have nostalgia and feature real-life characters.
“We lifted a chacha mian or a bari bi from our past who actually had names like seeti wali bari bi and khambay wali bari bi, tweaked them a bit for television and put them together. For instance, people find Rooh Afza’s character weird. But I have come across so many Rooh Afzas in every social class that it is not even funny.”
QSKB has been criticised for being crude and cheap. Why?
“A lot of criticism comes from the lower and middle classes whereas the educated audience enjoys it very much. Probably, when people live in economic difficulties, they don’t want to see a portrayal of that. For others, it is a satire. Mazhar and I were very conscious about how Wadood Ahmed’s character was being portrayed with its transgender undertones. It was important not to depict him as ghareloo and not cheap and bazaari, and when he runs around pretending to be a sister his expressions are innocent and cute but not vulgar — just like a regular, middle-class girl from an eccentric but oppressive setup,” he says.
No hunks, no babes, yet QSKB has ratings. How did Fasih make it work? “Punchy dialogue and strong characterisation is why audiences like QSKB. I know for a fact that if my plays did not give good ratings, they wouldn’t ask me to write just because ‘Fasih does great characters and amazing dialogue’. Success is about ratings these days. With Burnes Road Ki Nilofar and Sarayghat Ki Farzana, we developed our own niche audience and became a brand. I cannot follow dictates ke ye line kaat dein aur iss ko aise likh dein. I just tell them that you run it as it is or we can go to another channel. A writer is not a munshi, although I have seen some writers act like one.”
There are more women than men in QSKB; not just that, they are a stark contrast to the women portrayed in other TV plays. Says he, “Women are being beaten, abused, slapped, dragged on the floor, kicked and now I am even hearing ke us ko ganja kardein for more ratings in big banner productions. This tearful Meena Kumari-gone-hysterical icon is being created by ‘digest’ type women writers in a society where men are already out of control with their superiority complex. A woman is just like a man, nothing more and nothing less. I show women as they are. Aqeela and Shakooran are both widows but I’ll be damned if I have to show them crying and succumbing to the pressures of life. Drama producers create a sympathy vote while the audience is gradually being slow poisoned to develop an unhealthy, voyeuristic tendency where they want a bigger and better diet of violence against women.”
With a Masters in Urdu Literature, Fasih Bari creates a rich script, borrowing words and phrases from Tilism-i-hoshurba and Mir Amman’s Baagh-o-Bahar; aiming at the revival of the Urdu language especially for his lead character. “Up till the ’70s, people were familiar with word like khutaama, khojar-peeti. You can’t write about a certain community without researching on them as they have to speak in a particular way.”
What is his fascination with the middle class and its fixation for snob values? “The middle-class of the ’70s is the lower class today. Neck-deep in all kinds of issues, the rapidly disappearing middle class is the fodder for my stories.”
Hina Dilpazir plays both men and women in QSKB. Does she have any artistic limits at all? “Hina doing a dozen roles and also creates the costumes and make-up for them. But as Nazir, she has outclassed every woman actor who has played a man in Hollywood or Bollywood. She astonishes us when she transforms in front of lights and camera,” says Fasih Bari.
There are references to Pakistani celebrities, actors and unlike other plays on TV, QSKB is heavy on Pakistani films and filmi music. “I love Pakistani cinema and I have a huge collection and LPs. Right up to the ’70s, going to the cinema was quite an event. We wouldn’t just get up and go. My mother would iron her sari; my dad would wear a two-piece suit. There were movie theatres like Palace, Capital, Rex, Rivoli, Naz, Jubilee, Paradise Cinema which are no more. Sitting in the balcony was a totally different experience with expensive perfume wafting in the air. The ’70s music with Naheed Akhtar songs; it was a riot watching those films with Mumtaz, Shabnam, Mohammad Ali, Nadeem and Tamanna even with all the idiosyncrasies. Karachi truly used to be a cosmopolitan city with foreigners, Parsi, Hindu and Christian communities; After 1977, it was all gone.”
Hijras are a closed community. How did Fasih get so much exposure to them as his depiction is totally different from what we have seen before on TV. “Back in my student life, when I did a feature for Sheen Farukh when she was in Mashriq, the Urdu daily; I realised that hijras are totally misconceived by people. The media seems to be on a single-handed mission to exploit and then ‘save’ them from their plight by making tragedy queens out of them. The reality is that hijras are a very contented lot and happy to be the way they are. People should just let them be. I was amazed that in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, where Almas Bobby was also involved, they showed hijras without using their particular language which is such a strong attribute that knits the community together.”
Mazhar Moin directs all Fasih’s screenplays and the result is a hit. What is the Mazhar-Fasih chemistry? “Mazhar and l are childhood friends. Our projects are born over a random cup of tea,” he says.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014