Of clever ways

September 17, 2023

Devious and satirical, Fifty-Fifty is a lesson in how to tread a political landscape rife with censorship with poise

Of clever ways


hroughout its history, Pakistan Television Corporation (or PTV) has navigated a challenging landscape of censorship and obstacles while striving to create content critical of those in power. Yet, amidst these challenges, the PTV has managed to produce a plethora of memorable drama serials that delve into various social issues. However, it was in the realm of satire and comedy that PTV truly excelled, elevating its social commentary to new heights in terms of both quality and fame.

The legendary Shoaib Hashmi deserves credit for pioneering content in this genre. In the early 1970s, he penned and launched two groundbreaking satire shows: Such Gup and Taal Matol. These shows not only garnered immense popularity but also served as a platform for introducing future stars such as Nayyara Noor, Arshad Mahmood and Samina Ahmad, among others. These shows took a sharp focus on exposing the hypocrisy and snobbery of the elite, resonating with audiences across the nation.

As time passed, the PTV continued to push the boundaries of satire with shows like Saat Rang, which drew its material from satirical pieces written by Irshad Ahmed Khan. These pieces were expertly delivered through monologues by the show’s comperes – the incomparable trio of Moin Akhtar, Farid Khan and Mushkbaar Fatima.

In the meantime, Arshad Mehmood had struck up a friendship with the renowned filmmaker Shoaib Mansoor. Together, they embarked on the ambitious project of creating a new show. They enlisted the talents of Anwar Maqsood, already celebrated for his work as the writer of the famous production, The Zia Mohyuddin Show. Maqsood enthusiastically agreed to join forces for their new venture which they named Fifty-Fifty.

As fate would have it, by the time the formalities were settled, Gen Ziaul Haq had seized power, toppling the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In this new political landscape, Fifty-Fifty had to tread carefully, mirroring the restrictions of the regime’s ‘ideology.’

While they were forbidden from openly criticising or commenting on the policies of the new government, they were granted some creative freedom to address the bureaucratic shortcomings or poke fun at the lackluster performances in two of the nation’s beloved sports at the time: hockey and cricket.

Undaunted by the constraints, Maqsood devised clever ways to outsmart the censors. He employed a subtle and dry style of wit to critique the regime often crafting remarks so nuanced that the members of the censor board would miss their deeper meanings.

One memorable skit that slipped past the censor board’s scrutiny involved a commentary on the regime’s practice of publicly flogging petty criminals.

While the double meaning behind it remained a mystery to most, Gen Zia-ul Haq was quick to catch on. He personally picked up the phone to let Maqsood know that he had indeed deciphered the subtle critique. Gen Zia became a regular viewer of the show and frequently called Maqsood to provide his feedback on the show.

Of clever ways

…the undeniable truth is that the show’s cast along with the exceptional quality of its writing, direction and acting remains unparalleled. This achievement is particularly impressive given the show’s constant battle against a powerful and proactive censor board that scrutinised every dialogue and scene. Despite these challenges, Fifty-Fifty not only entertained the masses but also kept the spirit of rebellion alive.

Some of the most iconic moments from Fifty-Fifty have found a second life on YouTube, where they continue to captivate audiences.

One standout clip features a trailer for the Punjabi film Bashira in Trouble, featuring memorable dialogue delivery by Ashraf Khan and Bushra Ansari, a delightful blend of English and Punjabi words. Another fan-favourite skit involves Ismail Tara’s hilarious performance as the Disco Chor (thief), a role that left a lasting impression. Tara also shone in another skit where he portrayed a traffic cop who, in a comical twist, let’s go of a traffic violator simply because the cop couldn’t spell the rider`s name: Mustansar Hussain Tarar.

Recalling the show’s history, Maqsood reminisces about an incident when Gen Zia invited the entire Fifty-Fifty team for a meeting but omitted him.

When he inquired about the reason for this exclusion, the then-information secretary, Gen Mujeeb-ur Rehman explained that the show’s success was primarily attributed to its acting, suggesting that the writing had a secondary role.

Following this, Maqsood decided to part ways with the show and Mansoor and the leading stars took on the responsibility of scriptwriting. The show wrapped up its first run in 1982.

It was briefly revived the following year but tensions soon arose within the team, leading to Majid Jahangir’s departure after a falling out with Ismail Tara, effectively ending the popular duo’s run on the show.

Reportedly, external interferences had become too burdensome for the creative team, leading them to make the decision to permanently conclude the show in 1984.

The illustrious cast of the show included talents like Ismail Tara, Latif Kapadia, Majid Jahangir, Zeba Shahnaz, Moin Akhtar, Ashraf Khan, Umer Sharif, Bushra Ansari, Khalid Abbas Dar, Durdana Butt, and Anwar Maqsood. Many, who started as relative unknowns, went on to become household names and stars in their own right.

While the show was once available exclusively through YouTube, it has continued to gain fame and maintain a dedicated fan base.

Today, it can be accessed through the mobile application PTV Flix, ensuring that its legacy endures. Whenever discussions arise about the most popular comedy show in the country, Fifty-Fifty consistently takes the top spot, with each fan having their favourite skit or performer.

Critics have occasionally raised concerns about certain skits targeting specific aspects or groups of society. However, it is undeniable that the show’s cast and the exceptional quality of its writing, direction and acting remain unparalleled. This achievement is particularly impressive given the show’s constant battle against a powerful and proactive censor board that scrutinised every dialogue and scene.

Despite these challenges, Fifty-Fifty not only entertained the masses but also kept the spirit of rebellion alive. As a result, the show rightfully continues to reside in the hearts and minds of the people, a testament to its enduring impact on Pakistani comedy and culture.

The writer is a digital communication expert and consultant currently working in the public sector. He is the mastermind behind the digital platforms, Sukhan, Mani’s Cricket Myths and Over The Line

Of clever ways