Javed Sheikh and Shabnam in the 1974 film Dhamaka | Guddu Film Archive
Javed Sheikh and Shabnam in the 1974 film Dhamaka | Guddu Film Archive

“The answer is simple,” both Umera Ahmed and Farhat Ishtiyaq tell me at different times. “People in the media industry just don’t read.” The fact is an annoyance to both, but one could only judge it from their tone, not their words.

Ahmed and Ishtiyaq are celebrated novelists who became reluctant screenwriters. Despite attaining celebrity status in the world of film and television, they still feel that people in charge of developing content mostly don’t get it.

Ahmed’s works include Alif, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Be Nishan, Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Ishtiyaq’s are Bin Roye, Humsafar and Udaari. With exception to Udaari, which was an original idea for television, all of the aforementioned titles are adaptations of each writer’s novels.

Television, forever in search of pre-established material, has always been a cozy abode for short-form and long-form works of fiction. Every now and then, we see adaptations of novels and afsaanay (short stories or novellas) on television. The practice dates back to 1969, with Shaukat Siddiqui’s Khuda Ki Basti — the medium, however, didn’t limit itself to native works of literature.

Since literature, art and movies transcend borders, so did PTV’s producers.

Pakistani cinemagoers and even filmmakers themselves constantly complain about poor scripts and dearth of good content in Pakistani films. Why are producers then not adapting from existing critically acclaimed literature? Is it because writers gravitate towards better paying television or is it because they don’t even know what’s out there?

Qurbatain aur Faaslay (1974) was an adaption of Fathers and Sons, a Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev; Parchhaiyaan (1976) was based on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, Teesra Kinara (1979) was based on Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, Ehsaas (1986) was based on Florence Montgomery’s Misunderstood — an investigation into the list is deserving of its own article, and we haven’t even touched upon pilfered ‘inspirations’ of international movies.

Shamim Ara and Darpan in the 1965 film Naila | Guddu Film Archive
Shamim Ara and Darpan in the 1965 film Naila | Guddu Film Archive

People fondly remember Imran Aslam’s adaptation of Tootsie (1992) starring Moin Akhtar, but few have a hazy recollection where the actor used the central premise of Harvey (1950) — of a man seeing an invisible six-foot-long rabbit — in a long play (at least, that’s what I remember from my childhood — a grown man talking about a rabbit, with a big portrait of the critter in a suit hanging on a wall, which baffled and scared this writer when he was young).

The question, however, is not about adapting intellectual properties (i.e. characters, stories, or non-fiction original works of an author) into television serials, long plays or telefilms; rather, it is about the lack of adaptations in domestically produced motion pictures.

Sarmad Khoosat and Sania Saeed in Manto
Sarmad Khoosat and Sania Saeed in Manto

Since 2013, when the Pakistani motion picture industry started with renewed boom, there have been only two adaptations of previously written literary works — Bin Roye and Rehm (an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure). A distant addition to the list could be Manto, Sarmad Khoosat’s whimsical flight of fancy based on the life and works of the celebrated author.

Both Bin Roye and Manto were originally set to be television adaptations that were re-tinkered into motion pictures. Suffice to say, they count as safe-bet experiments; if the film tanked, the television channel would cover the financial shortfall. If the film was a hit, common sense dictates that advertising rates would go up. It’s a win either way.

Udaari | Hum TV
Udaari | Hum TV

To ensure quality, Bin Roye had specific bit-parts filmed specifically for cinema with higher-end cameras, while Manto made do with what had been shot; the edited down narrative of the serial was re-labeled under the ‘work of art’ classification when the film came out.

Nevertheless, both titles earned a good payday at the box-office as well as critical acclaim (well, sort of, depending on which side of the industry’s lobby one is standing at, and that includes the critics).

Mahira Khan, Fawad Khan and Naveen Waqar in Hum TV’s Humsafar
Mahira Khan, Fawad Khan and Naveen Waqar in Hum TV’s Humsafar

Bin Roye, in particular, had cinematic longevity — but more than that, to the utter annoyance of this writer (and a few other men in that particular cinema) at the time, it coerced women to fill the cinema hall to capacity. The film spoke directly to a particular demographic of the audience: the women who watch television with fanatical resolve.

Bin Roye’s success also proved one other thing: there was an appetite for motion pictures based on existing literature — especially for stories based on contemporary, familiar themes that ran on television. (It should be noted that family-friendly films, or those that deal with family drama, have historically always worked in Pakistan.)

Deeba in Anila (1969) | Photos: Guddu Film Archive
Deeba in Anila (1969) | Photos: Guddu Film Archive

The question, again, is: why aren’t people adapting contemporary novels into films?

The answer: dumb question.

During my research, I was consistently told to look up esteemed novelist Razia Butt’s contribution in film. An astonishing number of Butt’s works — Naila (1965), Saiqa (1968), Anila (1969) and Noreen (1970) amongst others — were adapted into film.

Zeba in Noreen (1970)
Zeba in Noreen (1970)

Similar to the titles Gemini Films produced in old Bollywood, these titles reached out to female audiences.

So, again, why not now? Is there a dearth of material, or are writers more inclined to work in television, where the payday is far better?

Saiqa (1968)
Saiqa (1968)

Money, as an afterthought, is an irrelevant matter. “The first is time,” Ahmed tells me. “A writer needs a year to properly think a story through. It’s not that easy.” One production she is working on for Indian producers Zee5 — an adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s Eidgah — took more than a year of writing and rewriting. In Pakistan, immediate deadlines are flung on to a writer, she says.

According to Ahmed and Ishtiyaq, surprisingly very few producers (read: almost no one) approached them to adapt their pre-existing works for film.

Mahira Khan and Humayun Saeed in Hum Films’ Bin Roye
Mahira Khan and Humayun Saeed in Hum Films’ Bin Roye

“Those making films want Farhat Ishtiyaq’s name on their ideas. They do not want to make Farhat’s own ideas — or the novels she had written on her own,” Ishtiyaq tells me.

Both writers feel film could have been a better medium for their works — irrespective of the pain they would feel when slashing down their material.

Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed in Hum TV’s Zindagi Gulzar Hai
Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed in Hum TV’s Zindagi Gulzar Hai

But then again, adapting novels for television presents its own set of problems. One has to expand and divide scenes, characters and situations into television’s format. Both writers, it seems, have made peace with their reservations.

“It’s a different medium with its own set of requirements,” Ahmed tells me. “One learns by experience.” Ahmed admits that on her first screenwriting job, adapting her own material to television, she didn’t want to cut down the events in her novel. She was quick to realise that she had mucked up when the show aired on television. Ahmed didn’t make the same mistake twice.

She also didn’t contest when I suggested that Alif would have worked quite well as a motion picture.

Now, one might be inclined to argue why a bulk of this article is focusing on a specific genre — drama and romance — when literature has much more variety.

The reasoning, again, is simple to comprehend. Since the early 2000’s, no one, either in the film business or vaguely associated with it, has mentioned adapting a novel that has action or thriller elements to this writer. A widespread myth everyone believes in is that action and thriller are expensive genres; raunchy comedies work best, executives and filmmakers say time and again.

When prodded about past examples, the oldest ‘action’ title one industry executive recalls is Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s Gandasa, which became the basis of Wehshi Jutt (1975) and Maula Jutt (1979). (On that same note, crediting Bilal Lashari’s adaptation as an extension of Qasmi’s work is both unwarranted and immature, because the matter of its literary legacy is still up in court — and that the teaser looks nothing like the author’s work. Think of it as a derivation of a derivation.)

One other title is Dhamaka (1974), a lost film that gave Javed Sheikh his debut, based on Ibn-i-Safi’s Baibaakon Ki Talaash, a novel from the once-famed Imran series.

Coming back to the present, one has few other choices when one goes out hunting for material. The names that routinely pop up during highbrow, pseudo-intellectual conversations are Mohsin Hamid, Muhammad Hanif and Omar Shahid Hamid.

Hanif’s novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, I’m told, had never been taken up in Pakistan and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has long been in development. Unverified sources also claim that Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner was also looked into by producers, but abandoned because it would be un-filmable in Pakistan. Of the three, Mohsin Hamid’s works had better luck being turned into motion pictures. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) was a foreign production by director Mira Nair, while Moth Smoke was adapted as a badly filmed, ponderous, made-for-TV movie by writer-producer-actor Shehzad Nawaz.

Ahmed says that one of the main reasons our literary works lack visibility is the language. Since people aren’t inclined to read Urdu novels, they have little awareness of promising novelists, or new or old existing novels that have the right cinematic panache for film adaptation.

We only know a handful of names (such as the aforementioned two Hamids and Hanif), because their works are in a universally preferred language and have gained international recognition. It’s the same case with prominent names in Urdu literature, whose works have been adapted into English.

Ahmed, however, tells me that she has a solution in the works. Her publishing house, Alif Kitab, is striving to create original voices, with an aim to mentor those with talent. The publishing house is also striving to adapt novels in English, she tells me, which might also help.

As it happens, we need all the help we can get.

Self-induced illiteracy — or at the very least, an utter contempt for reading — coupled with the absolute reluctance to set up story development divisions at production houses, has brought us to our present state of misfortune.

Even if there are story executives in place, almost no one has the training, the experience or the acumen to design motion pictures. Developing ideas for film, as we’ve painstakingly learned, isn’t the same as developing episodic stories for television.

Even if, for the sake of argument, there are intelligent people helming story divisions, independent filmmakers — especially the successful ones — have no desire to work under supervision.

In a state of ego-driven imperative to pitch and make their own ideas, filmmakers choose to disregard other alternatives. Stories, then, becomes the default casualty.

Now, I’m not saying that novels are an absolute solution to save the dwindling industry — far from it. Poorly defined stories and bad prose pop up in novels, or in well-thumbed yellowing pages of a digest too — but at least, it is an alternative worth looking into.

Who knows, the next big blockbuster could be lying at a rickety book-cart at Sunday Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 8th, 2019