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When Munoo Bhai met the masses

Updated January 20, 2018


IT is a matter of conjecture how he would have fared as Munir Ahmed Qureshi, the title he was given at birth. However, his adopted name, Munoo Bhai, immediately endeared him to so many around him and helped him establish a life-long relationship with the masses, their causes and their dreams.

There were so many dire, dark issues he and those he spoke with and for were confronted with. Another person with a lesser, or let’s say, a different kind of sense of humour, could well have made heavy weather of it. He in his turn did it with a lot of aplomb and natural cheerfulness. There was a certain innocence, a certain cuteness, associated with the Munoo stamp.

Born in Wazirabad in February 1933, Munoo Bhai had the opportunity to spend parts of his life in various cities of Punjab. He was educated for some time in Attock and began his journalistic career with Tameer in Rawalpindi. It was in the same city that he wrote his first television play, in the second half of the 1960s. He later recalled that it was a play about the 1965 war with India, entitled Pull Sher Khan, recording the story of a valiant soldier who held his own against the advancing Indian army.

Munoo Bhai’s memories of that particular moment in his life provide a peep into his mind that was blessed with extraordinary powers of imagination and a rare talent to not only create drama from popular issues — to deliver to popular demands — without being crude and resorting to sloganeering.

He was also lucky in that for the first play he wrote, he had by his side Aslam Azhar, the man who is credited with firmly setting up television in this country. PTV might have gone without commissioning the services of Munoo Bhai, one of its most outstanding playwrights, had it not been for an insistent Aslam Azhar who gave Munoo Bhai only a few hours to write his first play.

Munoo Bhai went on to pen some of the most popular plays of PTV — such as Jhoke Sayal (which was adapted from a novel by Shabbir Hussain), Jazeera and Sona Chandi, in which a couple working as domestic help was shown moving from house to house, exposing the ordinary lives of those who lived in these houses.

But before he moved to Lahore and shone as television playwright and journalist, and of course as poet who came up with some of the most popular verses of his time in Punjabi, the Munoo Bhai-Aslam Azhar team came up with at least one more play in Rawalpindi. This was important because it gave Munoo Bhai the foundation he was to develop a solid edifice upon.

Around this time his newspaper column, written in his inimitable popular style capturing the pathos of an every-day Pakistani, was getting increasingly noticed. He wrote prolifically and was in the forefront of the journalists’ trade union activities, forever saying it with a sentiment that betrayed a gentle but determined soul committed to progress and progressive ideals.

In those conflict-ridden times, these progressive ideas — decidedly socialist to befit that world — were liable to land anyone in trouble. Munoo Bhai’s ‘kala pani’ banishment came in 1970, when as an employee of Imroze he was transferred from Lahore to Multan.

In his own words, the punishment came in the wake of his face-off with Sher Ali Khan Pataudi, Gen Yahya Khan’s all-powerful information minister who had a special interest in the government-controlled Pakistan Progressive Papers Limited of which Imroze was a part.

In this case the subject spent the period of exile with his trademark ebullience. He emerged from it unshaken and resolute and with many Multani admirers.

Munoo Bhai’s cause was then greatly helped by the prevailing political atmosphere in the country. Like so many of his tribe he was greatly inspired by the person and politics of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — so much that in later years Munoo Bhai worked as the editor of Pakistan Peoples Party’s mouthpiece Musawat, before getting back with Imroze.

Finally, he joined Jang as its star columnist when the paper came out from Lahore in 1981 at a salary of Rs3,000 that he said was a 33 per cent increase on what he was getting at Imroze.

His column ‘Gareban’ or introspection retained its flavour till the last. If anything, amid the fast-changing media landscape it took on another, additional hue signifying defiance in the face of all-usurping, all-occupying forces. But then resistance was something always close to a very aware and very well-read Munoo Bhai’s heart. His translation of the resistance literature — notably from Palestine — introduced many a big foreign name to the Urdu readers.

Likewise, the ‘Bhuttopian’ dream never deserted the man as the underprivileged and the disadvantaged — the Sona-Chandi types — Munoo Bhai worked for all his life increasingly distanced from the PPP.

Amongst some of his last messages, he had recently asked Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari for help in establishing his Sundas Foundation for blood cancer patients in Sindh, and wishing that the grandson would be able to retrace ZAB’s steps to resurrecting the party. And not too long ago he was heard lamenting how Ziaul Haq still pervaded the creative spaces from where emerged the television in this country.

By all signs he left with his belief and his resolve to resist intact.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2018