‘Media censorship is a virus that keeps changing its guise’

A conversation with playwright Shahid Nadeem, well known for his lifelong commitment to human rights, social change and peace

People still remember Junjal Pura, the popular TV series from 1997-98 that touched the everyday folks’ issues with a witty flair. Shahid Nadeem, its writer, had adapted the play from one of his stage shows produced under the umbrella of Ajoka Theatre.

Shahid began his career as a PTV producer in 1973 and rose to administrative positions serving as general manager, programmes director, and deputy managing director.

Besides being part of the glamorous world of TV, theatre has been the love of his life, he says. Today, he is known as the country’s leading playwright and the man behind Ajoka Theater’s popularity. His plays touch on socio-political and gender issues using real-life characters, dance and music.

His plays, Bulha and Dara bring forth Sufi traditions of the subcontinent; Charing Cross narrates the legacy of a cultural landmark in Lahore, and Saira aur Maira is a tribute to human rights activist Asma Jehangir. His theatrical tales of writers like Manto and freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh have kept the stage drama politically and socially relevant to the times.

Above all, he is known for his lifelong commitment to human rights, social advance and peace. These themes have become a hallmark of his plays performed in Pakistan, India, England and the US.

He has also directed critically acclaimed films and documentaries screened in film festivals in Hong Kong, Manila, and Tokyo. He currently teaches film and television at the Institute of Art and Culture in Lahore and trains young aspirants in theatre crafts at Ajoka Institute.

Several of his plays have been published in Urdu and English, including Selected Plays by Shahid Nadeem, published by Oxford University Press. He is widely recognised for his creative talent and has received prestigious awards in Pakistan and abroad, including the presidential award for Pride of Performance, the Gurshan Singh Award in India, and Otto in the United States.

His journey has included being arrested, imprisoned, deported and sacked from PTV. In this revealing interview he talks about the same life-long journey. Excerpts:

The News on Sunday (TNS): You have come a long way from being a TV producer to becoming a playwright and stage director. Which part of your professional life was most challenging, and why?

Shahid Nadeem (SN): My work as a TV producer was quite challenging when I joined Pakistan Television in 1973. It was a new and exciting medium, but there were no training opportunities. We started working after receiving a three-week crash training. We were supposed to lead a large team of cameramen, designers, engineers, scriptwriters, music composers, actors, and singers. The PTV was the only TV channel in the country then. A TV producer was a household name and a drama producer a celebrity. As they say, “with great power comes great responsibility”. You had to be sure you didn’t walk on any toes or offend your eager audience. The day after the telecast could bring accolades or dirty looks from the people on the street; a letter of appreciation or a warning from the management or the government. I had to learn the art of making socially meaningful, mildly subversive programmes without getting caught or sacked (though I did get sacked twice). Those were the days of PTV monopoly; there were no competitors, the advertisers queued up to place their ads, and experimentation was not frowned upon by the marketing department the way it is today. The government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was progressive and liberal in its culture policy. (News and Current Affairs excluded, of course). But then came the military dictator, Ziaul Haq and things changed. However, my heart always remained with the theatre where no one can give you directives or marching orders. You are your own master.

TNS: You were a trade unionist when you were a PTV program producer. Later, you also became part of the management as its deputy managing director. How do you feel working on both sides of the institution, often in conflict with each other?

SN: Actually, I never changed sides. When I got involved with the PTV workers’ union, I did not follow the stereotypical union activities. My reasons were political, to hasten the arrival of the revolution. The TV union was my revolutionary base. I would lecture my co-workers for hours about class solidarity, systemic change and world revolution. The TV management was inexperienced in managing a growing establishment and the governments wanted to be on our right side for our “nuisance value”. In the programmes I produced, I always tried to have a social message. Even the qawwali programmes I produced had “progressive qawaalis”. Of course, I paid the price when the military rule was imposed, I was thrown in (prison) and then kicked out (exiled). I remained out of the PTV and out of the country for many years and only got reinstated when the General kicked the bucket. My managerial skills were only ‘discovered’ when the Benazir government came to power. Zia had packed the organisation with right-wing activists of Islamist parties, and the new PTV management found it hard to find trustworthy professionals for key positions. For me, it was the continuation of my left-wing unionism. I was approached for advice more often by the unions than the management. My revolutionary fervour had somewhat diluted, but the challenge of radical extremism and the need for peacebuilding inspired me to plan and produce programmes for tolerance, peace and moderation in society. Interestingly, some of my major Ajoka plays were written when I was perched in general manager and programmes director’s office. My play Dara was written during my spare time in the deputy managing director’s office in Islamabad and directed during my weekend visits to Lahore.

TNS: Most governments in Pakistan promised to make the PTV an independent organisation but in the end they increased their control over its content. In your opinion, what is the best possible role the PTV can play in Pakistan?

SN: The PTV can never be independent in its administrative and policy-making functions. It is tightly controlled by the government through its Ministry of Information, Finance Division and the government-appointed Board of Directors. During dictatorships, this control becomes stifling. Truth and News/Current Affairs are the first casualties. However, there are always opportunities, especially in entertainment channels. As a national public broadcaster with massive terrestrial reach, the PTV can reach out to the remotest or most conservative sections of society, where even a love story can be a radicalising influence. Even now, the PTV has an important role to play as an entertainment channel, which, unlike the private TV channels, is not dictated by the sponsors and ratings. It can provide entertainment that caters to the people in all corners of the country and not just the urban elite.

TNS: There is a long-standing tradition of street theater raising social consciousness in undivided India, which continues to this day. Do you think there has been a similar tradition in Pakistan?

SN: In Pakistan, the street theatre tradition in the political sense has never been very strong and influential. However, the centuries-old folk and people’s theatre tradition has been very popular. Touring theatre groups used to perform at melas and festivals and address social issues. In modern times, politically motivated theatre groups have emerged, mostly leftwing, and had some impact. Street theatre and politically motivated theatre got a boost during the draconian military rule of Gen Zia. Ajoka was established in 1984 along with some similarly motivated groups in Lahore and Karachi. However, this theatre was not restricted to the streets, unlike in India. It was a parallel people‘s theatre movement. When possible, we perform in theatre halls, but we are flexible enough to move to an outdoor venue, a village square, or a community area when denied access. We employ street theatre techniques, use minimal costumes, set and props. We rely on our actors’ bodies, their gestures, their voices, their energy. It is also called the “poor theatre”, poor in theatre embellishment but rich in content and vigour.

“In modern times, politically motivated theatre groups have emerged, mostly leftwing, and had some impact. Street theatre and politically motivated theatre got a boost during the military rule of General Zia. Ajoka was established in 1984 along with some similarly motivated groups in Lahore and Karachi,” says Shahid Nadeem.

TNS: You have been involved in both street theatre for the masses and stage theatre for the elite. How did you manage to address the needs of these divergent audiences?

SN: I don’t think we have ever performed for the elite. Our themes have remained progressive and pro-masses. We have addressed workers’ rights, gender, minority rights, bonded labour, child labour and peace issues and have done it without compromising our integrity. Yes, when we perform at an Arts Council auditorium with proper theatrical production values, we attract a section of the elite as well, but they are people with progressive inclinations and appreciate our bold social assault on the system. Mostly, we get youth from the middle classes. From the beginning, we had taken a considered decision not to perform in English nor accept offers to do dinner theatre. To enable people from all classes to come and see our plays, we do not sell tickets. It is true that the masses are usually not familiar with theatre as we know it, but that does not mean that they do not appreciate high quality theatre if offered. Sometimes we reach out to them by adapting ancient tales or Sufi stories and get a very encouraging feedback. The main thing is our pro-masses sensibility, our commitment to the cause of the oppressed, may it be at a city venue with a mixed audience or at a village arena.

TNS: Media censorship and curbs on freedom of expression have become a way of life in Pakistan these days. Have these restrictions reached the world of theatre yet? Would you give some examples?

SN: Censorship is a virus that has always been there. Like the coronavirus, it keeps changing its guise and we are looking for an effective vaccine. The censorship during a dictatorial rule is crude and cruel; it becomes subtle or indirect during a (quasi) democratic setup. Then there are non-state censor regimes: custodians of morality or ideology, affluent right-wing sections of society, religious fundamentalists, and more recently, the violent extremists. At present, the censorship forces are busy controlling the hitherto unbridled media and gradually moving in to harness entertainment and social media. The main instrument of control for the theatre is through the arts councils and hall owners. Rightwing ‘influencers’ and agency-driven social media ‘intimidators’ are also effective. Selective use of government funds for culture is also an incentive for those who ‘behave’. Electronic media has dual censors: government and the media moguls, who do not allow any meaningful censure of the unjust system. But theatre groups like Ajoka have learned the art of dodging the system like good kabaddi players with their slippery, agile bodies.

TNS: A popular form of Punjabi theatre emerged from the bhand tradition and disappeared for various reasons. Most of the time, its popularity was based on low-level satire and even vulgarity. Private TV channels are also using this tradition as part of comedy shows in a crude way. Do you think there is a better way of continuing this tradition?

SN: The bhand tradition is a rich and valuable heritage. It displays the Punjabi genius of social satire and humour and has inspired innumerable comedies and humorous plays. It is sad to see it disappearing due to political, social, and religious intolerance and bigotry. However, exploiting the talent of our bhand-style comedians by our media is unfortunate. We should work with the art practitioners to preserve and develop this art form, study it, and enable actors and performers to learn from the masters. I have been inspired by this tradition, which is reflected in my ‘fun’ plays and shows that jugat and bhand-ism can be effectively incorporated in socially meaningful plays with significant effect.

TNS: You founded Ajoka Theatre to “contribute to the struggle for a secular, democratic, just, and egalitarian Pakistan,” as its mission statement says. To what extent were you able to achieve these objectives?

SN: Ajoka was founded at a time when Ziaul Haq’s military rule was at its oppressive peak, and all forms of expression of political dissent had been banned. ZA Bhutto‘s execution was still fresh in people‘s minds and the dream for an egalitarian system was still dream-able. Since then, Pakistan and Ajoka have been on a roller-coaster ride, dictators were replaced by powerless civilian rulers who were then replaced with another military dictator. Now, a manipulated democracy is in place. In between, the monster of violent extremism has played havoc and traumatized the people. Ajoka has remained afloat, trying to navigate towards its stated goals. During this period, political forces have been degraded into family businesses, and the amelioration of the oppressed is no more on the agenda. A theatre group cannot have a significant impact unless it is a part of a socio-political movement. Ajoka has had limited effect in a broad sense. However, it has made a significant impact on two fronts: peace within and in the region and issues of gender-based violence. It has also helped correct historical distortions through its plays such as Dara Shikoh, Bhagat Singh and Manto. Confluence of sufi messages and political challenges of the time has also had quite an impact. Moreover, in its 36 years of sustained activity, it has established that it is possible to have a viable theatre that is popular and entertaining, and at the same time, socially meaningful and politically bold. The road ahead is bumpy and meandering; we have to keep afloat and on course. I am sure we will.

TNS: What are your doing these days when the pandemic crisis has shut down most socio-cultural activities, including performance arts? Would you like to discuss your next theatrical or other creative project?

SN: The pandemic struck us at a very unfortunate moment. We had just finished a successful run of our new play Saira aur Maira and were planning a tour. An exciting collaborative project with a Swedish theatre group on Malala was in full swing. Ajoka’s classes on acting and writing were getting an outstanding response. All of that had to stop. But challenges are not new to us, so we quickly recovered from the initial shock. We converted the classes online, and within a few months, we could organise an online theatre festival titled Corono-logue. Since then, we have been holding online dramatic readings and theatre on Zoom. In recent months, we have resumed face-to-face dance and acting classes, with safety SOPs, of course. But the theatre requires a live audience, which is not possible for the moment. We are also working on some new projects, a play on Raja Porus and another on Lawrence (of Arabia) in Lahore. Ajoka Productions is working on a short film series. We have launched our YouTube channel as well. So we are keeping busy and relevant.

The author is co-editor of a recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States

‘Media censorship is a virus that keeps changing its guise’: Shahid Nadeem