Our unfinished stories

(First published on June 27, 2020)

Storytelling is no rocket science. Creativity is not the name of a fruit that grows only on the trees of Narnia. And yet Pakistan has mostly struggled in creativity in recent decades. When everyone is obsessed with politics what room is left for creativity.

All of the recent debates on creativity are driven by political considerations. Indian movies are very successful in the world, why can’t we make influential movies? Why are we airing Ertugrul on television channels, why can’t we have similar television series made in our own country? Why are our actors working in Indian movies? The real questions are lost somewhere. For instance, do Pakistanis deserve quality entertainment? In a country with around eighty television channels why do we not have a single children’s channel? How do the state and society treat its writers and artists and what do they do to protect them? What is quality entertainment and how do you produce it?

And then there is nostalgia and false equivalency. Pidram sultan bood. My father was a king. Urdu novel Khuda ki basti could have won this, that or the other international prize. If only Faiz had not accepted the Lenin Peace Award, he could have earned the Nobel Prize. Pakistani dramas were once the envy of the region. Our drama serials Waris, Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinaray were translated into foreign languages and aired in other countries. But what do we have now?

Then there is an unending stream of defeatist excuses. Why have we stopped writing good novels? Because nobody reads books anymore. Why don’t we make good movies? We don’t have enough cinema houses in the country therefore film production is a small niche market where quality content cannot be guaranteed. Why are we not producing impressive television series? Dude, be grateful that we are producing something. Someday perhaps it will lead to its revival but don’t expect anything great right now.

I am not saying that none of these problems exists. There is no dearth of problems. Whatever creativity remains in the system is hounded out by the censors at Pemra and the film censor board. A couple of years ago I had an encounter with a famous Urdu poetess who until then was known to me as a progressive voice of feminism. I was quickly informed that she had joined Pemra’s content board. Within minutes she had flown into a rage complaining about the sheer vulgarity of Pakistani commercials. The TVC responsible for triggering featured a young man holding a young woman’s hand politely if romantically. That is the worst example of a regressive worldview rubbing off on somebody otherwise very open minded. All I could muster up was the question: would she rather prefer if both protagonists were of the same gender? This earned me the look that one gets when one slaps somebody. I am not surprised then that Pemra spends more time in moral policing than taking notice of small matters of slander, hate speech, depiction of violence, conspiracy theories and open threats and blackmail on TV screens.

I will return to the subject of shame and vulgarity shortly but the moral of the story above was that the impediments in the way of creativity are neither few nor small. But in this age of apps like Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime how can there be no scope for good storytelling? As someone who grew up mostly in smaller cities, how can I forget the successful businesses of bookshops that rented out children’s novels to young lads for a small fee? Truth is if you do not want to do something there are a million excuses but if you want to do something correctly you do not need a single one.

Let us look at it this way. Man is a story loving animal. Without good stories you cannot have any decent cultural product. The movies and dramas you want to sell around the world will not find any buyer if they do not have a decent storyline. That will not happen until there is a thriving market for ideas and stories. That will not happen until writers and artists are not secure. We do not treat our writers and artists well. I have always found apolitical writers, actors and other performers being treated very shabbily. They are underpaid (if at all), their works are often stolen and there is no visible legal recourse against intellectual property theft. No safety net, no functioning writers’ guild, no agents and for sure no respect. Consequently when you meet a writer or an artist you are compelled to ask how they support themselves apart from these hobbies. A country that treats its creative minds so badly will always be trapped below the layers of mediocrity.

Then there is a dearth of decent college and university programmes for creative writers. We have invested heavily in the study of English and Urdu literature but there are precious courses to teach you how to write better creatively. Here and there you might find a few private academies but usually they are cost-prohibitive. With the space for critical thought shrinking in the educational institutions you can see how much hope there is for creative writing.

When the previous government installed columnist and right-wing ideologue Irfan Siddiqui as the PM’s adviser on national history and literary heritage, reports rapidly emerged that the gentleman was more interested in using clout to install Jamaati professors in universities rather than his own portfolio. It was common knowledge and no one even questioned him. And now we complain about the shrinking space for critical thought at campuses.

And now a word on presumed vulgarity on television screens. Which century do you think you are living in? Do you honestly think that anything can be really censored in this day and age with so much technology around? Do you honestly think that the society is so innocent and impressionable that it cannot exercise discretion? If the answer is no then stop stifling the creative impulse. Nobody argues that television content should be totally unregulated. But at least allow enough leeway that reality can be depicted properly. Without clever stories you will never have the culture industry you yearn for.

Let me leave you with a brief interaction between renowned Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder and Qudratullah Shahab, which the latter documented in his biography. When Gen Ayub was consolidating his grip on power, he also imposed restrictions on writers among other things. In those days Hyder met Shahab, then Ayub’s secretary, and asked if ‘barking’ was also banned. When she got an answer in the affirmative she left. Shahab was convinced that that was the moment when Hyder decided to leave Pakistan for good. She died in India in 2007. We cannot repeat such grave mistakes.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2020.


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