In conversation with Haseena Moin

January 3, 2021

We’ve stepped into 2021 and today, more than ever, it’s important to revisit the 79-year old legendary writer who gave female characters the agency and strength that we so rarely see on television today.

Haseena Moin needs no introduction and yet today it’s imperative for all storytellers and pop-culture artists to revisit Pakistan’s feisty girl-with-the-golden-pen, learn more about her journey, her views, and the challenges she continues to face as an artist in an era where we are still struggling, striving and starving for meaningful stories.

I sat down to interview this legend at the 13th Aalmi Urdu Conference, hosted and organized by the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi. Unable to determine one exact time, we had decided that I would follow her around at the conference, throughout the day.

When I arrived, searching for her, she was busy attending conference sessions, giving video interviews, and speaking as a panelist on ‘Pakistan Main Funoon ke Surat-e-haal’ (The current state of Performing Arts and Fine Arts in Pakistan).

We eventually managed to settle down in a sound-proof corner at the Council’s office so we could speak in quietude.

Instep: Why have you discontinued writing for television?

Haseena Moin: I was continuously writing till 1992 but then I got diagnosed with cancer and I just did not have the wherewithal to continue churning out plays for television. A lot changed between when I fell ill and after I recovered. The people I used to write for either passed away, retired, or quit the industry. I am not comfortable working with anyone if our intellectual wavelength does not match.

Ten years later in 2002, PTV had by then introduced a quota system that brought one person from each province. Earlier there was a rigorous selection process through which only certain visionaries and creative individuals were chosen through a proper systematic framework. When all that changed, people who knew nothing about Urdu dramas just wanted to join the industry because they knew this was probably the fastest and easiest means to fame. I did not want to become part of this rat race.

Instep: Your television play Ankahi (1982) has been adapted for the stage and now will be showcased soon at the Arts Council. Can you tell us what made you decide to adapt it for theatre and not revive it for television instead?

HM: This is the first time I have revived one of my plays and adapted it for the theatre, for which the production got stalled due to COVID-19. I received several objection notices stating that I cannot revive my own TV drama for the stage because it is the ‘sole property of television’. But they need to understand that all of my contemporaries have published their books and there was no objection, and neither were there any grievances when there were re-runs and adaptations of their iconic pieces of work. After a lot of back and forth with various different people I have procured permission to revive Ankahi for the stage.

I now have every intention to revive not just Ankahi but also all my other popular plays like Shehzori for television. My plays were already modern back then, so they just need to be contemporized a bit. This is pivotal for today’s generation. They should be accustomed to what is the true essence of a Pakistani prime-time TV drama, which makes for wholesome family entertainment. Some of the soaps and series I see being aired on television have left me flabbergasted. How can prime time television air foul language, indecent content and misrepresent Pakistani saqafat (culture) on-screen and make it so readily available for our youth to imbibe? TV producers and content creators have a great responsibility on their shoulders and they need to be held accountable for the content that goes on air.

Some of them have ludicrous plots and baysaropa (preposterous) dialogue. I cannot remember the last time I watched a TV drama from start to finish; the television set in my room is gathering dust and it’s been at least two years since I bothered to turn it on.

Instep: Your plays, in particular Tanhaaiyaan and Ankahi had feisty female protagonists who were financially inde-pendent, ambitious, and emotionally secure. We have yet to see a female character as inspiring as Sana Murad or Zara. What drove you to create these characters?

HM: My mother was an avid reader and she had a large library of books. Whenever I read fiction, back in my childhood in the 40s and 50s, I used to ask my mother, ‘Ammi, why on earth are these women always crying and feeling so helpless? Don’t they have any agency whatsoever? Why is every aurat such a bechaari?’ I decided I will never write about feeble, defenseless women who spend their time self-pitying rather than propelling change through their actions or intellect. The women in my dramas were educated, modern, and progressive; they wanted to be financially independent because marriage was not the sole priority for them.

Instep: Who are the real women that have inspired the reel women in your dramas?

HM: I am a huge admirer of Qurulutain Haider. She was a fierce young woman, writing ahead of her times and of course I know her closely because she is related to me. Not only was she a role model but even the women she wrote about were exemplaries in their own way. Secondly, my mother has always been a role model for me. She was so stern, composed, strong and such an adept disciplinarian that we had to always go through our father if we wanted our way with anything. I still remember this room, which was a treasure trove of antiques my father used to collect, and we were terrified to ask our mother to let us inside and play with those artifacts.

Instep: You lost your father at a very young age. Did that loss impact your writing in any way?

HM: I was fortunate to be born into a very close-knit, caring family and I have truly received a lot of love and affection throughout my life. Yes, the loss of my dear ones did impact me in many ways. I lost my father in a sudden road accident, I didn’t get a chance to process it and he could never live to see my television plays or awards. I was very close to my two brothers and both of them passed away, one battled with cancer and one had a heart failure. Yes, the wound that loss leaves is inevitable, jarring and painful but my wounds were embalmed with love that I received both from my parents and my siblings. And so my plays touch upon similar themes like strong family values, love, loss, memories and also the strength that one receives from having to cope with loss and move forward.

Instep: How is writing today different from how you used to write plays in the 70s and 80s, both in terms of technicalities and content?

HM: Actually back in the day, people had the gift of time; and they knew how to invest it well. Content heads would sit together to read, re-read, proof-read and approve or disapprove each word I wrote. Directors sat down with me to have discussions with me ad-nauseum till we were all on the same page. Even though there was a tight broadcast schedule we all had to stick to, we still invested ourselves wholeheartedly into producing content that was wholesome, meaningful, thought-provoking and solicitously scripted. What I never had time for was the ‘writer’s block’ (she chuckles).

In terms of technology, I used to write my scripts by hand and simply hand them over to producers. There was a running joke at PTV about my illegible handwriting.

Even today, whenever I sit down to write, I write with a pen and paper and have never used a laptop or a fancy scripting software for my stories. This is a bit sad because I unfortunately do not have any published, printed, typed or even hand-written manuscript of any of my scripts. I wish I could go back in time and retrieve the manuscripts to publish them today for people to read and reminisce.

Instep: Can you tell us about your writing process?

HM: Research is key, and drawing from personal experiences is crucially important. I remember once I had to write a play based on the life of a machchera (fisherman). The play was titled Sagar Ke Moti and Bushra Ansari was acting in it. I actually went to visit a far-off fishing village. I met several fishing families, and the actors also accompanied us to interact with them. Only then did I begin to write the play. I made sure I incorporated the tiny details that I observed on my trip. You can’t simply rely on your imagination for nuances or details. That does not make for effective writing or a script that will have a long lasting impact.

Instep: Did you face resistance from producers initially for your unconventional stories and how difficult was it back then for people to digest the fact that a young woman like you was writing voraciously for radio and television?

HM: You know, myriad things come into play when it comes to being successful; there’s luck, mentorship, family support and several other factors that contribute to a single project’s success. Syed Mohsin Ali, Aslam Azhar, Kamr Aftab, Agha Nasir, Iftkhar Arif, Saira Kazmi, Shireen Khan and so many others who were my mentors and fellow colleagues really fostered an environment where I could learn and thrive. There was a tradition to have two directors and one writer, and there was a lot of camaraderie between all of us. I would have frequent discussions with one director, sometimes with another director, and there was such mumaaslat (homogeny) between both of them that you would never be able to tell the difference that certain episodes were directed by two different individuals. I was fortunate I never faced any hostility on set and never had to knock doors for work. I know things have drastically changed now; young girls tell me their ideas and scripts are stolen by channels and they are not credited for their work even after their story is aired on television, which is a very tragic surat-e-haal (state of affairs).

I decided I will never write about feeble, defenseless women who spend their time self-pitying rather than propelling change through their actions or intellect. The women in my dramas were educated, modern, and progressive; they wanted to be financially independent because marriage was not the sole priority for them.

Instep: Without quality state run television or media educational academies, what do you think is the future of entertainment for Pakistan?

HM: The PTV Academy, in which I along with other media veterans used to train, teach and lecture individuals, has been mortgaged to other private parties for money. Now the PTV channel airs third-class soaps and serials or re-runs from other private channels and that is heartbreaking for someone like me because this is the same place that brought artists of the finest caliber and put Pakistani dramas on the world map of quality entertainment. The decision makers and content creators sitting inside the PTV office today have an annual salary of over 15-18 million, so I would like to ask them what is their contribution to Pakistani entertainment over the last decade? Where is the original Pakistani content that used to be generated by creative individuals at PTV? Why have they discontinued the academy that used to impart training to youngsters who want to learn the art and craft of content creation? Even today, if PTV restarts its academy and asks me to come and teach I will go and give lectures on scriptwriting.

Instep: How stringent were censorship laws for television during the Zia-Daur?

HM: With intense censorship comes immense creativity. And restrictions in various different forms paved the way for innovation in my writing. Writers today have forgotten the art of subtlety or positive mess-aging through television. All I hear and see today is that women begin weeping in the first episode and continue to wail till the very end. There is no sense of balance; no countering of atrocity with strength, no equilibrium between tragedy or humour and there is no ingeniousness invested in new dimensions of storytelling.

I clearly remember I wrote Parchaiyan in 1976 during the Zia-daur and it aired right around the time the martial law was implemented. There was an underlying theme, which touched upon the elements of having a mistress and the play also had an illegitimate child but everything was touched upon gently and with such immense sensitivity and subtlety that those who understood, understood, and those who didn’t also equally enjoyed and appreciated the play for what it was.

Instep: What is your advice to young aspiring writers on how best can they strive to protect their original work in Pakistan to prevent exploitation from channel producers?

HM: As a writer, your biggest asset is your copyright, royalty and intellectual rights. It is written in our constitution that the playwrights are entitled to complete intellectual rights of their work after ten years. It is up to the playwright then what they do with their work. I have not still not received those rights. When I pulled out the agreement I had signed decades ago it read that I would be compensated 1250 rupees and I would receive royalty. My plays have been rerun on television over a thousand times, they have been digitized and uploaded on YouTube, which also generates revenue. I have not received any royalty for my plays, nor have I received a commission from the revenue generated from the international sales of my plays. I cannot emphasize how important it is for playwrights to come together and collectively form a formal framework that protects their intellectual and financial rights of their original work.

Instep: If you were to write a play for television today, what themes would you touch upon?

HM: I would like to pen stories based on old-age homes, stories for children, there are no stories or programs for children these days. I want to write about women, stories and about traveling.

Instep: What advice do you have for young aspiring writers and storytellers?

HM: Be original, and turn to your own country’s culture, customs, stories and characters hidden in Pakistan’s nooks and crannies. There is so much to write about and so many stories aching to be told. The more local you stay, the more global you will become. Meaning, the more culturally authentic your writing is, the more mass appeal it will have both internationally and domes-tically.

Secondly read voraci-ously and continuously to expand your canvas. The world is your oyster but only if you read extensively will you be able to comprehend which word is appropriate or what kind of dialogue or monologue suits a certain character.

The third and most important thing to remember is that writing is simply re-writing. My directors were never easy on me. I remember the last scene of Uncle Urfi did not make sense to my director so he asked me to shred the scene and discard it. They literally locked me up in the writing room all night. He said, ‘We will keep supplying you with cups of tea, but write this scene afresh and only then we will let you leave.’ And I remember I had to re-write that scene four times before they were satisfied and let me go in the morning. It was a 9 minute scene!

Instep: Your fans in Pakistan and all across the globe want you back in action. Tell us what are you working on these days?

HM: I have written a comedy series based on Breast Cancer Awareness for a digital channel RINSTRA under the Dice Foundation. It is the story of a cancer survivor and I wanted to use humour as a mode of storytelling. Just because we are talking about cancer does not mean we should simply weep with sorrow. Humour can be a powerful tool to battle illness and I wanted to show my protagonist not as a cancer patient but as a fighter. I have survived cancer and fought the disease for five long years, without surgery, so there is a lot of me in that story.

After that I have committed to three other projects; a love story and the other one is a comedy short series with 5-part mini webisodes and then a longer full length drama serial about a woman who is an architect, which will also be for the same digital platform RINSTRA. The only sad thing with digital and with the spread of coronavirus is that one can’t meet as much to discuss and debate as we used to back in the day.

In conversation with Haseena Moin