An unforgettable legacy

April 4, 2021

There was a time when the entire industry was beholden to Haseena Moin’s magical pen

I woke up to find journalists calling me relentlessly. When I finally read the messages, I realised that Haseena Moin was no more. I would never be able to tell her how much I loved her, what she meant to me and what I owed her. In the thirty years I had known her, never once did I hug her or truly talk to her about her immense influence on my life. I will never get a chance now to thank her. It had never occurred to me that she would die. She had that kind of formidable persona. She was a very strong person, and forever young.

A condolence reference for her was held at the Arts Council and I was one of the scheduled speakers. I couldn’t speak. All I could think about was her absence and the tears wouldn’t stop. Anwar Maqsood and Ahmed Shah were as teary as I was. The headlines of the next day quoted Behroze Sabzwari as saying that as long as Urdu survived, so will Haseena. These words eased my pain. Haseena was a legend while she lived; now she is a myth – the stuff of stars. Iftikhar Arif, Kishwar Naheed, Asad Mohammad Khan, Arshad Mahmood, Dr Alia Imam, Talat Hussain, Mehtab Rashidi, Misbah Khalid, Zaheer Khan and a teary Ahmed Shah shared their grief at the reference. But these are just a few of the millions she left mourning in both Pakistan and India.

I remember meeting her at my first job at the TV Times, owned by Riaz Ahmed Mansuri. She was the editor of the Urdu version of the magazine. She was also the principal of a school. She was very famous by then. When PTV ruled the roost in every household, her work was ubiquitous. Since there was only one channel, PTV had a complete monopoly and everyone who appeared on TV became an instant hit. Haseena was a star amongst all of them. All actors, famous or not, dreamt of being in her plays and fought one another for roles, but she had her own way of choosing her stars. Before meeting her, I thought she would be very reserved and full of herself; on the contrary, I found her vulnerable, sensitive and shy.

I was working for the English TV Times and The Cricketer, as assistant editor, at the time. I had never wanted to become an actor. I didn’t think I had the looks. She would discuss articles with me and I would boast about it to all my friends, who probably didn’t believe me. When Rahat Kazmi started a theatre company, I would run errands for it, picking up actors and arranging rehearsals. Haseena was one of the founding members. I was offered a small part in the theatre company’s first stage-play. Haseena praised my performance. Of course, I thought she was just being courteous.

I had already done three stage-plays and a TV serial with Sahira Kazmi (Khalij), when I was offered a role in Dhoop Kinaray. I wasn’t too excited. Little did I know the impact that this one play would have on my life and career; it made me a star. To this day, Dhoop Kinaray is all anyone wants to talk to me about. For a while, I absolutely loved it, but then I wanted more. I thought of transitioning to film. Haseena would say to me, “television is far more intelligent. You will be a misfit.” She was right. I continued with television and became part of her regular cast. My career took other turns but she would cast me every time she could. “Apa, why don’t you write political stories,” I would ask. “I don’t care about politics,” she would say and shrug me off.

As the years went by, the demand for her screenplays began to wane. She has become predictable, they started saying, and, slowly, she was sidelined. The industry wanted more masala and Haseena would have none of it. “I can’t write more than 13 episodes,” she would announce, “and I can’t write anything that a family can’t watch together.”

“Things are changing,” she would be told, “you must write at least 26 episodes.” But she would not acquiesce. “They are not offering me anything,” she told me one day, “what am I going to do?” I reassured her, “you are a legend, how can they refuse you?” But they did. She became a very vocal critic of the changing content on television. And, therefore, even less of her work was approved.

The last ten years of her life were spent fighting cancer and endless rejections. She wanted to be relevant again as the iconic television writer that she was. Tragically, that didn’t happen. The Arts Council in Karachi, under Ahmed Shah, was her last refuge. She would go there every day and that made her life easier. She was financially insecure, like most of us. Royalties promised to her never came, and she was dependent on odd jobs and the Arts Council till the end. Last year, Ahmed Shah and Dawar Mehmood, of Kopykats Productions, did an adaptation of her play, Ankahi, much to the displeasure of the PTV authorities, who said that it was PTV property. She was devastated.

As a part of the team that adapted the play, I saw how excited she was at the prospect. At the press conference she asked me whether audiences would like the stage version of the play. “They will love it,” I assured her. Alas, the PTV authorities stopped us. The case is still pending.

In all the years I knew her, she was a constant in my life. She was a friend and a mentor I could talk to in times of distress. She was brutally honest. Knowing how she struggled in the end, and how we couldn’t do anything to help her, haunts me. There was a time when the entire industry was beholden to Haseena Moin’s magical pen. She produced one hit after the other.

She was against the depiction of violence on television, as well as sexual innuendo. “Apa, you are a true mullah,” I would sometimes joke. She would get angry; “do you want your children to see such immoral themes.” I would say, why not? To me, life was more than just romance. Now, with shows like Game of Thrones, anything goes. But her question was: What do the audiences glean from such open subject matter? “Love is innocent, naive and selfless,” she would say and I would just shake my head in disagreement. It took me many years to realise that hers was a different world – a world where relationships were pure.

She was a true feminist, known for creating strong female characters. “Women need to be respected no matter what, and my characters not only demand respect, they get it,” she would say. “The society needs to understand that women deserve respect as much as men do, only then will we truly prosper.” She was critical of modern TV serials that showed “women grovelling, accepting anything from men and being forced to accept second marriages or the other woman.” She was also critical of the depiction of violence on TV today.

She would say, “I can’t write what they want me to.” And she didn’t. After her, many writers have been similarly sidelined. The ones that audiences had adored have been replaced by novices who will write anything for ratings. Few have the courage to say no to crass storylines. With her passing, a stalwart defender of women’s rights has bowed out. For me, it is a personal loss. For Pakistan and Urdu, it is a loss of true genius and grit. May the magic of her creations never dwindle.

The writer is a veteran film and TV actor

An unforgettable legacy