Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Early this year, a clip from an Urdu play produced by PTV went viral. It shows a discourse between two famous TV actors, Firdous Jamal and the late Khayyam Sarhadi. The clip was from a play called Man Chalay Ka Sauda that was telecast in the early 1990s, and was penned by Ashfaq Ahmed.

In the clip, Jamal plays the role of a modern-day Sufi sage who, through some simplified quantum physics, is trying to explain the complexities of the spiritual understanding of the universe to an existentially lost character played by Sarhadi.

To some, the dialogue delivered by Jamal was brilliantly weaved together by the playwright, while to others it was nothing but pseudo-scientific/pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo.

Playwright Ashfaq Ahmed’s name provokes two distinct responses — reverence or repulsion

But that was Ashfaq Ahmed — perhaps one of the most polarising Urdu playwrights in the country. He passed away in 2004, but his name still provokes the distinct responses of reverence or repulsion.

Many of his admirers see him as a sage. His detractors decry that he was an opportunist who had no qualms about using his writings to serve the ideological inclinations of the governments of the day.

Ahmed was only a minor library figure up until the 1950s. This was the heyday of the much celebrated Progressive Writers Movement which lasted between the 1930s and 1950s. The movement had produced a number of highly innovative Urdu novelists, short-story writers and poets. These men and women commented on various social and political issues through styles of writing inspired by realism, Marxism and the theories of the controversial psychologist Sigmund Freud.

Ahmed tasted his first burst of fame when, in 1962, he began to host a show on Radio Pakistan (RP) called Talqeen Shah. At RP he befriended writer Qudratullah Shahab who was part of the Ayub Khan government that had come to power through a military coup in 1958.

According to an article by Harris Khalique (Dawn, February 19, 2017), Shahab helped the regime usurp the publications of the Pakistan Progressive Papers. Then he made Ahmed editor of one of these publications. No wonder, then, that Ahmed praised the Ayub regime’s ‘modernist’ policies to no end.

At RP, Ahmed also became a close associate of Urdu short-story writer Mumtaz Mufti. It was due to the influence Shahab and Mufti had on him that Ahmed developed a deep interest in Sufism.

However, in the late 1960s, Ahmed became disillusioned by the Ayub government. He believed that Ayub’s ideas about human progress were overtly materialistic.

In his article Khalique quotes the fiery Urdu poetess Fahmida Riaz, who recently passed away, as saying that with the coming to power of Z.A. Bhutto’s left-leaning PPP, Ahmed began to don a Mao cap and began praising Bhutto’s brand of socialism.

It was during the Bhutto regime, in the 1970s, that Ahmed truly emerged as a prominent playwright. His anthology of TV plays called Aik Mohabbat, Sau Afsanay celebrated the ‘left-liberal’ zeitgeist of the era. But the concluding sections of almost every play of the anthology were always pregnant with a plea to balance modern notions of liberalism with the intuitive Sufi strands of Islam.

His teleplays during this period delighted audiences in critiquing the ‘materialism of the modern middle classes’ before advocating a balance between materialism and spiritualism.

In one such play, Dada Dildada, a doting upper-middle-class grandfather who loves his whisky as much as he does his teenaged grandson, plunges into depression when the grandson falls sick and the doctors fail to diagnose his ailment. The grandfather smashes his bar and starts to walk in circles around the bed on which the grandson is lying unconscious. As the grandfather collapses, the grandson awakens, all cured.

Ahmed alludes to the haplessness of the modern liberal belief system, suggesting that the things which were keeping the family together were of superficial nature because they had detached the family from its traditional spiritual moorings.

Sadia Afzal, in her analysis of Ahmed’s plays (Business Recorder, February 28, 2013), writes that “rationality and logical solutions counted for nothing” in his plays. She adds that educated urbanites were encouraged to look for medical, psychological and existential resolutions from wandering spiritualists and even roving vagabonds.

Yet Ahmed did not shy away from also exploring some rather delicate territories as he did in the 1975 teleplay Nijaat, whose protagonist was a village cleric trying to come to terms with his sexual urges.

But Ahmed took off his Mao cap the moment the Bhutto regime fell to a reactionary military coup, in July 1977. Three years later, Ahmed was being called a ‘favourite playwright’ of Gen Ziaul Haq. The admiration emerged when Ahmed penned a teleplay in 1980 to justify ‘Christian’ America’s support (via ‘Islamic’ Pakistan) for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

The 1980 drama is about a Muslim boss of a female Christian secretary who goes out of his way to help her. When asked why he was doing this, the boss says that during the initial emergence of Islam, hundreds of years ago, the Christian king of Abyssinia had helped Muslims, and that he (the boss) was simply returning the favour!

Former general manager of PTV, the late Burhanuddin Hasan, in his 2001 memoir Uncensored, writes that the Zia regime was perturbed by the negative and mocking manner in which the clerics had been portrayed by Pakistani films, TV plays and in Urdu literature. The Zia government issued an ‘advice’ to PTV asking it to start portraying the clerics “in a more positive light.”

Agreeing with Zia, Ahmed told an interviewer, “Those who want to criticise religion [but can’t] begin to target clerics.” Thus, whereas in Ahmed’s plays of the 1970s, those suffering from an existential crisis were soliciting advice from spiritual vagabonds, in his plays of the 1980s they were seen doing the same — but from clerics, who by then (on PTV) had become wise men with flowing white beards and calm dispositions.

Ahmed’s output as a playwright decreased after Zia’s demise. Perhaps conscious of the criticism that he had received for writing plays to suit the regimes of Ayub, Bhutto and Zia, Ahmed is quoted by Dr Afzal Mirza (in Legends of Pakistan) as saying, “The hen lays an egg every day … but cannot make an omelette.”

I personally believe this hen was just too intelligent not to know. It knew exactly how the omelettes would be made.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 9th, 2018