“A writer shouldn’t be constrained within a perimeter”

December 8, 2019

An interview with Navid Shahzad a renowned academician associated with literature in English and the liberal and performing arts

Navid Shahzad is a renowned academician, associated with literature in English and the liberal and performing arts since the beginning of her career as a professor at the University of Punjab. Being the first Pakistani to be awarded a first-class first in the MA literature programme, she was awarded the Diamond Jubilee Purse.

Her credentials as actor, writer, director, poet and academic have been recognised nationally as well as overseas. At home, she has been awarded the President’s Pride of Performance Award for Literature, the Fatima Jinnah Award for Artistic Excellence and silver and gold medals by the Government of Punjab for her contribution to Pakistan Television; in addition to which, she is a Gold Star member of the Thespian Society, USA, has been designated distinguished professor of dramatic arts at the Beaconhouse University, where she set up the first Department of Theatre, Film and TV. As Pakistan School of Fashion Design, principal she was awarded the Best Crafts Person award by La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, Paris, and went on to found Pakistan’s first university dedicated to the liberal arts.

Shahzad started her career in television with the unparalleled satirical show Such Gup. The body of her work with PTV won her several laurels, and two years ago she ventured into film with Punjab Nahi Jaungi. As academic advisor to one of the country’s largest school chains, Shahzad is an acknowledged authority on media studies and literature. Seemingly indefatigable, her latest venture is a book, Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television and the rise of the Muslim Hero.

In a recent email interview with The News on Sunday, Shahzad talks about the rising popularity of the Turkish television, her profound love for Istanbul and how people of her generation are the proverbial Midnight’s Children. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): English literature is classified on a chronological timeline of Classical, Romantic and Contemporary while Turkish TV seems to have erased these boundaries by enjoining epics, romantic ballads and the socio-political contemporary script. Can Pakistani TV do something similar?

Navid Shahzad (NS): Chronological timelines are a rather fuzzy territory. While poets may live at certain times, their works can be classified under ‘movements’ rather than simple chronology. For example, Milton writes an epic in the classic tradition of The Illiad. it is difficult to place everything imaginative within a framework of linear time.

As for Pakistani TV channels trying something similar to Turkish TV; it is not that we do not have stories to tell. Ours is a treasury of untapped literature, poetry and song except that I doubt very much if Pakistani TV could do anything similar in the near future.

The first reason is a dearth of good writers who are familiar with history, literature, sociology and culture. The template that the Turkish dizileris (serials) use is a mix of romance, adventure, scenic locations, folk and contemporary music, poetry and politics. Very few local writers are able to produce content with all these elements.

Secondly, the Turkish TV series have huge budgets and costs. As I have explained in Aslan’s Roar; 45 percent of their budget goes towards contracting a top-notch cast, while the rest goes towards costume, set, music, technical facilities etc. Magnificent Century (locally known as Mera Sultan) cost a staggering amount per episode, while an entire village was constructed for the Ertugral- Resurrection series. This kind of funding is unheard of in Pakistan.

As for Pakistani TV channels trying something similar to Turkish TV; it is not that we do not have stories to tell. Ours is a treasury of untapped literature, poetry and song except that I doubt very much if Pakistani TV could do anything similar in the near future. 

The third factor is the sale of the finished product abroad and the revenue generated by advertising domestically. Turkey relies heavily on the export of its series which sell for phenomenal amounts considering their popularity in Muslim as well as non-Muslim areas such as Latin America where they are the rage. The Balkan states are also an enormous market while Africa and Asia are catching up fast. It was amazing to learn that Kara Para Ask starring Engin Akyurek is being viewed in Israel and South Africa simultaneously.

TNS: Aslan’s Roar projects literary narratives to be seamless on the plains of time and theme, and you insist about writers not writing from the podium of a certain faith, ideology or even gender since they are “like water.” In today’s writing world, there are so many sub-divisions of writing; do you think they hamper the process of writing or reading?

NV: It is true that there is an increasing number of literary categories worldwide. Mohammad Hanif, Ruth Padel, Shaista S Sirajuddin and I had a great session talking about the pros and cons of translations at the Faiz Festival 2019. These categories serve a purpose in placing the writer and the work within a geographical location, history, culture, sociology, anthropology and political climate. But these are not necessarily the perimeters that the writer confines himself to. I have quoted Ruth Jabhwala in my book, who emphasises the fact that the writer is as fluid as water and has the same qualities ie life-giving. Why else would Hardy’s story of Tess appeal to young Pakistanis, most of whom have never been to the UK?

Literature is deemed great and survives the ravages of time only if it speaks in terms of universal truth. Why else does the poetry of Ghalib endure or Shakespeare’s plays for that matter? After all, one is quintessentially subcontinental, while the other is just English. Rumi’s popularity continues unabated in the US and Neruda remained a great favourite with a Faiz-dominated leftist Pakistani audience. Neither the writer nor the reader should be constrained to stay within a certain perimeter. Many people have asked me why I chose to write about Turkey when I could have written about Pakistani TV. I believe this is the prerogative of the writer just as much as a reader’s choice.

TNS: There is a line in your book, “What we believe is an outcome of not our actions but our own active imagination.” Would you comment, how this belief can be applied to life in general?

NV: This is really the age-old debate between an a priori (causes) and an a posteriori (effects) truth. The latter is formed in response to real-world evidence, imaginings are responses to the will. Superstitions, ideological and religious beliefs are a direct manifestation of our active imagination. The latter is not just a tool for escaping but actually plays a direct role in our understanding of reality. The dilemma for us is the simultaneous existence of both kinds of truths simultaneously and our freedom to choose between the two.

After all, what is human nature but the summation of our beliefs and imagination? Both work simultaneously with one either strengthening the other or negating it. Descartes said “I think, therefore, I am.” In the middle of the 20th century, it was popular to suggest that we are a species of killer apes since we had mastered the science of making weapons and used them when we felt the need. If the foundational idea that leads us to war is incorrect then our actions will also be wrong, for example, in making war especially for conquest (or economic reasons) we are not really responding naturally. This should not be taken to mean that I do not accept the fact that humans can be violent. From domestic savagery to full-scale war at the state level, human beings are capable of the most horrific kinds of violence. But I believe that our essence is one of sociability. We need one another to survive. Why else would the hunter have settled in communal abodes, turned to agriculture, evolved from nomad, warrior and conqueror to build cities and vast empires that ruled the world?

We are the species whose young need the longest time to reach adulthood and independence. In the animal world, it requires a few weeks for a young lion cub to mature, a few weeks for a nestling to fly, a mere season for a crop to ripen. We are neither the fastest nor the strongest. We only succeed because we work together. Indeed, our lack of natural advantages such as extraordinary speed or strength points the way to the only conclusion: what makes us superior to other forms of life is our capacity to imagine, think and perhaps, foresee.

TNS: Your book aims at addressing masculinity in narratives but one understands that without exploring femininity and co-relating the flexibility of both in texts, a cohesive discourse cannot be achieved. Are literary or screen narratives alone responsible for this principle to be applied to real life?

NV: Of course not. Literary and screen narratives serve to reinforce the principle that both genders are equally important and cannot evolve without the support of the other. Men without women are just as incomplete as women without men. In Aslan’s Roar, I attempted to counter the accepted and popular concept of the western hero by drawing attention to another kind of hero who had, unfortunately, been demonised in contemporary narratives for being a Turk and a Muslim.

TNS: In your essays, you have treated some of the Turkish plays as case-studies, reading into the acting, screen representation and textual narratives to immaculately fictionalise the screen and script’s discourse in your own words. Can we expect a work of fiction from you, in the future?

NV: Well, I am already working on gathering material for my second book. I am not quite sure if it will be fiction but there are a number of short stories which I want very much to share. So, just waiting for the muse to decide!

TNS: There is an incident of you having a vision about Engin Akyurek, you write Turkey is one of your homes; you seem to be fluent in the Turkish language, politics, Turkish culture and the intricacies of everything in between. Has this association with another set of people, brought many changes in you as a person or have you found yourself to naturally fit in that culture?

NV: The first time I visited Turkey was in 1970. The forty years since have been spent living in and visiting other parts of the world but with hindsight, I can say that I felt most at home in Istanbul. Perhaps it was the people; always kind, helpful and gracious. You would be surprised to know that my knowledge of the Turkish language is purely rudimentary; I constantly use a dictionary, look up translations and cannot speak it at all except for a few phrases. I love listening to Turkish music despite the fact that some lyrics escape me so the relationship is almost always that of an apprentice and master. Lahore and Istanbul are magical cities steeped in history and cultures. I have lived in landlocked Lahore all my life except for a year while studying abroad; Istanbul is the spirit’s home, where surrounded by water, one experiences a profound spiritual peace.

TNS: In the section called Apologia, you have written, “Political disappointment is underlining artistic narrative.” In what way can the political disappointment be construed into a useful narrative for Pakistani TV, a medium you have made metaphoric with the ‘tribal bonfire’?

NV: I am the generation that has lived through martial laws, survived a dismembering of the country, seen an elected prime minister hanged, justice made a mockery of, and history distorted and disfigured beyond recognition. We are the proverbial Midnight’s Children, bereft of dreams, mourning freedom and finding solace only in the common man’s profound wisdom and patience. Our disappointments are too numerous to count but every work of art- be it a song of rage and protest, a simple gesture in dance, a fleck of colour on a blank canvas, a story half-told, a performance aborted —has helped strengthened our resolve. Pakistani media and especially TV need to speak the truth. Sadly, only a handful have the courage for anything louder than a whisper, let alone attempt to present Islam and modernity as co-travellers on a long road to freedom.

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women

PTV actor and academic Navid Shahzad on literature, arts and Turkish dramas