Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Everybody knows about Fifty-Fifty —the satirical skit show that debuted in 1978 on the state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) and ran till 1984.

The show’s legacy has been such that it is not only instantly recalled by those who saw it first-hand on their TV sets, but also by those who were either too young at the time or not even born!

The show was still attracting a large, loyal viewership when its producers decided to call it a day.

In 1988 Shalimar Recording Company (SRC) released the first official VHS release of the show that was a compilation of some of its most popular skits.

The release was converted to DVD in the 1990s and this took the show into the 2000s — a period when skits ripped from these DVDs began to be uploaded on various websites (especially on YouTube).

Fifty-fifty dished out satire during an oppressive regime, and that too, right under the dictator’s nose

Fifty-Fifty never really went away. Its uploaded episodes on websites still get a large number of clicks and its DVDs remain best-sellers.

Fifty-Fifty has a rather curious history. It debuted in 1978, hardly a year after a populist government was overthrown in a reactionary military coup.

The show ironically emerged when a new military regime had begun to embark on a banning spree, cancelling TV shows, films and songs it deemed ‘immoral’ or ‘detrimental to the well-being of the country’.

And yet, PTV somehow managed to launch a social satire show helmed by a maverick producer, Shoaib Mansoor, who was still in his early 20s and almost entirely inexperienced.

In an interview that he gave to an English daily in the 1990s, he suggested that despite the fact that an intransigent dictatorship had taken over in July 1977, the situation (in 1978) was fluid and one could still make his or her way on TV with ideas which, however, a few years later, would become almost taboo.

As a college student Mansoor had been a fan of Such Gup and Taal Matol, the two satire shows penned and produced by Shaoib Hashmi (for PTV) in the early 1970s.

One of the main cast members of Hashmi’s shows was actor, singer and composer, Arshad Mehmood. Mansoor befriended Arshad and both began to visit the house of Anwar Maqsood whose main claim to fame at the time was the fact that he used to write the script for PTV’s flamboyant variety programme, The Zia Mohyuddin Show (1970-73).

Mansoor and Arshad began to talk about producing their own satire show and call it Fifty-Fifty. Highly impressed by Hashmi’s satirical style, they began to look for a writer who could match his panache.

Mansoor was convinced that Maqsood was that writer. Maqsood agreed to do the script but by the time the show was given the go-ahead by PTV, General Ziaul Haq had overthrown the government of Z.A. Bhutto.

So Maqsood had to tailor the script according the new regime’s dictates and ‘advices’. The regime was not to be spoken of (in a satirical manner) and nor were the policies that it was introducing in the name of morality and faith.

Maqsood instead turned his guns squarely towards the bureaucracy, the film industry (that had begun its slow decline) and popular sports such as cricket and hockey.

A cast of relative newcomers was assembled and these included small-time stage comedians like Ismail Tara, Majid Jahangir and Zeba Shahnaz; and debutants, Ashraf Khan and Sakhi Kamal.

A tall hefty man who used to work for a travelling agency also became a regular and so did experienced actor, Latif Kapadia.

Soon, the then unknown (but future comedy stars) such as Umer Sharif and Bushra Ansari too would sporadically appear on Fifty-Fifty.

Maqsood became a regular too, often appearing in skits where he played a serious looking man interviewing a wide variety of idiosyncratic characters that he had written.

Some performers from Hashmi’s defunct shows too migrated to Fifty-Fifty, including Arshad Mehmood.

The show debuted in late 1978 to instant acclaim. Though it began by satirising the incompetence of the bureaucracy and the volatile nature of the country’s cricket and hockey cultures, Maqsood began to devise methods through which he could trick the censors.

He would use a subtle and dry style of wit to critique the regime that the members of the censor board would often fail to pick.

For example, during the show’s third season in 1979, Maqsood and Mansoor were able to slip in a skit that (on the surface) was about a crooked cloth merchant bemoaning a police raid on his shop.

However, the merchant (played by the versatile Majid Jahangir), also talks about a cream he’d been applying on his back that has ‘long painful marks’ (‘lumbey, lumbey nishan’).

With this skit, Maqsood slyly managed to satirise the regime’s habit of publicly flogging petty criminals to insert a sense of fear in society. Many years later, Mansoor told a newspaper that though the censors failed to pick this up, Ziaul Haq did!

On various occasions the show’s core team members have stated how Zia became a regular viewer of the show and would often call Mansoor to discuss his (Zia’s) observations.

The first time this happened was right after the episode that had the cloth merchant skit.

Fifty-Fifty also became one of the earliest in Pakistan to satirise the influence of ‘Arabisation’ in Pakistan — especially after hundreds of Pakistanis (from the late 1970s onwards) had begun to travel (for work) to oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries.

In a 1980 skit of the show, an Arab Sheikh is shown having tea at a café. One by one he is approached by Pakistani men of all classes and professions, asking him for a job in his country.

They also express how close they are (in habits) to the Arabs, until another man appears and tells the aspirants that the Sheikh was actually a PTV actor playing the role of an ancient Arab warrior in a TV series.

He also admonishes them, telling them, ‘what’s wrong with being a Pakistani, that you all are grovelling at the feet of a sheikh …!’

The show also often lamented (in a highly satirical manner), the decline of the local Urdu film industry and the rise of the loud and ‘crude’ Punjabi films.

To highlight the supposed absurdities of Punjabi cinema, the show produced what is perhaps its most popular skit in which it creates a trailer of a Punjabi film but with dialogues that are fused with English (Bashira in Trouble).

When calls from Zia became too frequent and the team had to quietly listen to his rambling critiques, Maqsood decided to quit. Some believe he also had a falling out with Mansoor.

Mansoor, Ismail Tara, Majid Jahangir, Zeba Shehnaz and Ashraf Khan now began to script the show, but when spontaneous lobbies began to bemoan the way it was mocking Punjabi and Pushtu speakers, the members decided to call it a day (1982).

An intense letter-writing and call-in campaign from fans forced PTV to revive the show in mid-1983. But soon the show’s two top performers, Majid Jahangir and Ismail Tara, had an altercation and Jahangir stormed out.

Calls from Zia resumed, making Mansoor and co. wonder why the head of the state was always stuck in a room watching TV! Then a lobby demanded that the show stop making fun of Urdu-speakers.

Exhausted and frustrated, the team decided to wrap up the show once again in 1984, this time for good.

Most of the members of the Fifty-Fifty who began as unknowns went on to become stars.

Many continue to insist that the reason the quality of writing, direction and acting on the show was so polished and high was mainly due to the fact that the actors, writers and director of the show had to continuously be on their feet and devise intelligent ways to dodge an extremely suspicious censor board and a dictator who thought he was an insightful critic.

A joke is still popular among the show’s team. It goes something like this: decades after the show ended, a man who (in 1979) was on the censor board suddenly began to smirk. When someone asked him why he was smirking, he replied: ‘I just understood an (anti-Zia) joke that Anwar Maqsood had written in 1978 and which I had let go thinking it was about a goat. Hehe.’

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 5th, 2015

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