The sage, the populist and the dictator

Updated March 01, 2015

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The 1970s are remembered as the ‘Golden Age of Television’ in Pakistan, in which the state-owned PTV produced a series of quality drama serials and music programming.

Though many of the serials either insinuated the Z.A. Bhutto government’s ‘socialist’ and populist overtones, or were an apolitical celebration of various liberal notions of the era, there were also plays that indirectly addressed the perceived dichotomy that emerged when the government-sponsored populism clashed head-on with the new reactive historical narrative being built by the state after the violent separation of East Pakistan in 1971.

The frontline player in this respect was intellectual and playwright, Ashfaq Ahmed. A serial based on his teleplays called Aik Mohabbat, Sau Afsanay (One Love, Many Stories [1975-76]), celebrated the liberal signs of the times and the sense of freedom being exhibited by the middle-class youth; but the bottom-line of almost each and every play of the series was always a plea to balance modern notions of liberalism with the country’s traditional religious lineage.


As governments and ideologies came and went, the depiction of religion and spirituality on our TV screen changed as well


But the problem was, nobody was quite sure exactly what this traditional religious lineage constituted.

Pakistan was (and still is), a diverse population of various ethnicities, Islamic sects and sub-sects and ‘minority religions’. So much so that (as proven by the Bengali nationalist movement in former East Pakistan), one’s ethnic roots started to matter more than the concoction of a singular version of faith shaped by the state.

Ashfaq’s balancing pleas emerged from his Sufi bent, and since for a while he was a supporter of Bhutto’s socialist initiatives, Ashfaq had to first rip into the supposed ‘hypocrisies of the modern bourgeoisie’ before advising a balance between modern materialism and traditional eastern spiritualism.

The above is clearly visible in one of his most popular TV plays, Dada Dildada (The Hearty Grandfather [1976]).

It’s a story of a loving and liberal grandfather and his favourite grandson (played by late Zafar Masood) who (with his long hair, flamboyant personality and liberal ideas), is the stereotypical 1970s middle-class youth.

The grandfather (Dada) also loves to drink and the family is happy radiating within the comfort of their bourgeoisie cocoon, until the grandson falls seriously ill.

The helplessness of the ‘liberal’ belief system is then (supposedly) ‘exposed’ when the doctors fail to cure the grandson and the family (especially the doting grandfather) starts to crumble.

Ashfaq alludes that the glue that was keeping the family together was of superficial nature because it had detached the family from its traditional spiritual moorings.

In a scene inspired by Mughal Emperor Babar’s sacrificial undertaking — in which to save his son Humayun’s life, Babar is said to have given up alcohol — the grandfather prays to God that his life be given to the grandson and for this he is willing to give up drinking.

The grandfather then enters the grandson’s bedroom where the young man lies dying. There the old man starts to walk in circles around the grandson’s bed until he stops and sits on the edge of the bed. The next thing we see is the young man opening his eyes. He is cured. But in a tragic twist, when he approaches the grandfather, the old man has quietly passed away.

Ashfaq Ahmed’s TV plays of the era were a lot more literary compared to the hyperbolic-ism of the time’s ‘social films;’ but the question is, was Ahmad also critiquing Bhutto’s populism, blaming it for encouraging the disengagement between Pakistani youth and religion?

The Bhutto regime seemed to have perceived Ashfaq as attacking bourgeois-capitalist values, whereas to Ashfaq he was simply instating ‘genuine Sufism’ in the ideologically vulnerable minds of modern young people (of the era).

But his creative critique now seems to have had a more pronounced scheme, because during the conservative set-up under the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship in 1980s, Ashfaq Ahmed’s TV plays actually became the social and intellectual rationalisations of Zia’s convoluted ‘Islamisation’ agenda.

Ashfaq Ahmed who had been inspired by the 1940s and 1950s ‘Progressive Writers Movement’ had begun to abandon the Movement’s Marxist and Freudian themes in the 1960s. But his teleplays in the 1970s seemed to have largely supported the populist discourse of the Bhutto regime, even though they had increasingly become critical of the social outcome of the liberal aura that the Pakistani society was emitting (at least on the surface) during the 1970s.

Eventually, Ashfaq emerged as one of the first popular TV playwrights to become conscious of a dichotomy (during the Zia regime) that saw the middle classes become ‘pious’ and simultaneously cynical and materialistic.

Observers believe that after experiencing bitter disappointment with the Z.A. Bhutto regime’s performance, Ashfaq Ahmed himself wanted to tackle the social and cultural dichotomies emerging from Zia Islamisation-meets-capitalism outtakes.

By now he had started to dabble heavily into Sufism, his teleplays became longwinded and somewhat convoluted commentaries on the psychological tensions in the society between materialism (maa’dah pasandi) and spiritualism (roohaniat).

Fakirs danced in most of these teleplays, as urban middle-class families were shown stricken with various psychological and spiritual ills after letting their materialistic desires override their spiritual instincts.

These plays were a symptom of yet another important development. Even though the shrine culture that was glorified by these plays was, in the political context, more associated with the PPP and Bhutto’s populism, however, beginning some time in 1981, it had started to be co-opted by the Zia regime.

In the 1950s, Pakistan’s ‘social films’ had largely portrayed the cleric as an uncouth, illiterate and exploitative scoundrels (mostly in films by famous Expressionist film director, Luqman).

Teleplays in the 1970s continued the tradition, with 1974s Nijat (Riddance) that was penned by Ashfaq going as far as to explore the sexual tension a young village cleric goes through in everyday life, caught between his primal instincts and his puritanical indoctrination.

However, beginning in 1980, the Zia regime ‘advised’ PTV to discourage the practice of showing the cleric the way he’d been perceived by a bulk of Pakistanis.

From then onwards the cleric in PTV teleplays not only became a recurring character, but he suddenly became a wise old man with a white beard, praying beads in hand and blessed with a soft and empathic disposition.

As PTV was announcing the arrival of the good mullah on the mini-screen, the character of the Pirs (directly associated with Sufi shrines) became largely villainous; they were now shown as men who exploited the superstitious disposition of illiterate peasants.

To take the mantra of ‘Islamisation’ to the middle-classes, PTV, apart from using the symbol of the wise and polite cleric in its plays, began introducing conservative Islamic televangelists who could also punctuate their commentaries with English words and terms.

The impression being given was that a preacher who can use and understand English is ‘educated’ and ‘civilised,’ even though the content of these preachers remained to be highly conservative and, of course, in line with Zia’s Islamisation discourse.

Ashfaq’s job now was to present the cleric as someone who was as equipped to run a shrine as he was a mosque. The line between the Sufi and the cleric began to blur in his plays during the Zia regime.

Ashfaq lured the bourgeoisie away from the supposed ‘irreligiosity’ of the 1970s with Sufi-themed plots of spirituality and then once their interest was aroused, the same plots then put them on a path of middle-class piety that attempted to work as a bridge between religious ritualism, exhibitions of piety and modern material desires and aspirations.

To him this was a balancing act. To his critics it was nothing but a way to rationalise moral and material hypocrisy.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 1st, 2015

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