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First person: The world ac­cord­ing to Bari

May 18, 2014

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Photography: Mohammed Farooq
Photography: Mohammed Farooq

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.

“I ac­cept that it is con­tro­ver­sial; it is meant to be. When I was young­er I wrote even bold­er stuff than this. Madam Shabana Aur Baby Rizwana went on air once and was ban­ned by Pemra so I have to be more sub­tle now,” says Fasih Bari.

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