FLASHBACK: ‘THE MOTHER OF ALL SERIALS’

October 20, 2019

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Zaheen Tahira, Munawwar Sultana and Zahoor Ahmed in the 1974 production of Khuda Ki Basti
Zaheen Tahira, Munawwar Sultana and Zahoor Ahmed in the 1974 production of Khuda Ki Basti

Few Pakistani television serials have enjoyed the kind of iconic status that Khuda Ki Basti has, which has often also been dubbed ‘The Mother of All Serials.’ When it was telecast on Pakistan Television in 1974, it broke all records of popularity and took a firm hold on the entire nation — it was the first drama during which streets wore a deserted look during the time it was televised, as people huddled in homes to watch it. It became the centre of every conversation due to its powerful plot about the early days of Pakistan and the perils of modern society with its story of social and sexual exploitation.

Such was its legend that it was re-telecast in 1990, a full 16 years after its most memorable run. But most people are unaware that the 1974 version — which is the version available for viewing on YouTube as well — was itself a recreation of the original serial first telecast in 1969, in the very early days of television in Pakistan, and a full half a century ago. The story of why that recreation was necessary is also a story in itself.

Written by the late Shaukat Siddiqui in 1957, Khuda Ki Basti was the first ever Urdu novel to be translated into 11 languages. It was also the first Urdu novel to win the Adamjee Adabi Inaam [Adamjee Literary Prize] in Pakistan under the aegis of the Pakistan Writers Guild (PWG), in 1959.

This year marks 50 years since the late Shaukat Siddiqui’s celebrated novel Khuda Ki Basti was first adapted for the screen. Most only know the serial through its 1974 recreation and the original 1969 production was considered lost…

The story, set in the slums of Karachi in the 1950s, revolves around a poor and struggling single-parent family and the deprivations the family suffers at the hands of the corrupt and those out to exploit them. A widowed mother of three is romantically pursued by a man from her neighbourhood, but rather than becoming the family’s hope for a better life, the man has other dastardly motives. It becomes apparent that he is interested in using marriage to the widow to gain access to her young daughter Sultana and to exploit the mother for insurance. Not only does he connive with a doctor to medically murder the widow after marrying her, he then proceeds, in tandem with other shady characters from the neighbourhood, to exploit both Sultana and her younger brothers Nausha and Annu.

Zahoor Ahmed and Arsh-i-Muneer in the 1974 recreation
Zahoor Ahmed and Arsh-i-Muneer in the 1974 recreation

The novel was later banned by the then government of General Ayub Khan, which considered it too influenced by communist ideas and because its social commentary painted a less than flattering portrait of Pakistani society. The ban was contested by the PWG, and it was finally lifted in 1968.

In 1969, Khuda Ki Basti was dramatised for Pakistan Television (PTV) Karachi Centre by Shaukat Siddiqui himself, with the 26 episodes of 25 minutes each directed by Ishrat Ansari and the late Rasheed Umar Thanvi. Eminent litterateurs such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jamiluddin Aali and Shaukat Siddiqui reviewed each episode before its recording and broadcast.

The main cast comprised Zaheen Tahira (as the widow), Zahoor Ahmed (as the conman), Qazi Wajid (as street urchin Raja), Zafar Masood (as Nausha), Tauqir Fatima (as Sultana), Qayyum Arif, Shakeel Chughtai, Mahmood Ali, Zafar Siddiqui, Mohammad Yusuf, Arsh-i-Muneer, Shahji, Shahzad Raza, Andaleeb, Iqbal Tareen, Seema and myself, among many others. Tauqir Fatima died tragically during the recording and was replaced in the last few episodes by Mussarat Sahaf, who bore a striking resemblance to the deceased actress.

Zafar Masood as Nausha and Tauqir Fatima as Sultana in the 1969 version
Zafar Masood as Nausha and Tauqir Fatima as Sultana in the 1969 version

The serial turned out to be a super-hit and won many laurels and accolades, and also became a reason for the first unofficial television awards which took place at the Rio Cinema in Karachi in late 1969.

Then came the tragedy of 1971. Pakistan was torn asunder and its eastern wing seceded to become independent Bangladesh. After military rule was finally lifted, a new constitution was written and democratically approved for Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the prime minister of the truncated Pakistan.

In 1974, PM Bhutto ordered PTV to re-run Khuda Ki Basti, since it was a favourite of his and also because its social commentary against exploitation fit well with the ideals of socialism that he espoused. But there was a problem.

It turned out that the original video tapes of the 1969 production had been erased and recorded over with other programmes because of a shortage of tapes and cost-saving measures. Bhutto was adamant that the serial should be run, even if it meant re-recording the entire serial. So it came to be that the serial was re-recorded, this time with PTV stalwarts Qasim Jalali and Bakhtiar Ahmed in the director’s chairs. The new production comprised of 13 episodes of 50 minutes each.

Same scene, different productions: Raju Jamil, Zooni Butt and Saqib Shaikh in 1974
Same scene, different productions: Raju Jamil, Zooni Butt and Saqib Shaikh in 1974

Most of the cast from 1969 reprised their roles, with the exception of three or four main cast members, replaced for various reasons. Munawwar Sultana took on the role of Sultana (earlier essayed by the late Tauqir Fatima and Mussarat Sahaf). Behroze Sabzwari replaced Zafar Masood because the latter had grown too big to convincingly play the young Nausha. Zooni Butt replaced Andaleeb who had left for Dhaka after the creation of Bangladesh. And Saqib Shaikh took on the role earlier essayed by Iqbal Tareen since the latter had emigrated to the US.

As we all know, the production was once again a stupendous hit. This 1974 production became the face of Khuda Ki Basti for all generations after, and the 1969 production was thought lost forever.

But like all good stories, there was yet another twist in store.

About nine or 10 years ago, during a visit to Islamabad, a Bangladesh TV delegation promised their hosts a great surprise. Before they left, to the absolute wonder and delight of the Pakistanis, they presented to PTV original tapes of the 1969 version of Khuda Ki Basti.

Same scene, different productions: Andaleeb, Iqbal Tareen and Raju Jamil in the original 1969 version
Same scene, different productions: Andaleeb, Iqbal Tareen and Raju Jamil in the original 1969 version

It turned out that, during the early days of PTV, when there were no satellite link-ups, copies of tapes of programmes produced in one centre (Karachi, for example) were shipped off to the other centres (Lahore, for example) for broadcast. Dhaka being one of PTV centres also used to receive the copies of tapes for their broadcast in East Pakistan. So copies of the Khuda Ki Basti tapes had also been sent off to Dhaka for broadcast there, but in the confusion of the ensuing troubles and eventual civil war there, this transfer had been all forgotten.

It is to the credit of Bangladesh that it had preserved the tapes of the early PTV serial in its archives, which had been discovered and returned as a gift to Pakistan.

Hopefully PTV will take better care of its archives now and also make the original 1969 version of Khuda Ki Basti available to a wider audience through the digital medium of the internet. It’s the least it can do for a serial that is now 50 years old.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 20th, 2019