Writer of the gritty and gripping social drama Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahi, Amna Mufti talks about the research and creative process behind her scripts
It is hard to label Amna Mufti with a single title that may define her career. A credible novelist, journalist, screenwriter, farmer, professor, mother and altogether a uniquely progressive thinker, there is very little ground that Amna Mufti has left uncovered when it comes to storytelling in Pakistan. Her exemplary pieces of work are centered on social issues relevant in Pakistan, like dowry, vatta satta (sibling exchange marriages), domestic violence, feudalism and sex trafficking. Some of her celebrated television dramas include Jahez, Ullu Baraye Farokht Nahi, Ghughi and Sabz Pari Lal Kabootar.
Whilst teaching screenwriting at the Punjab University in Lahore, Mufti is also in pursuit of a doctorate degree in Journalism; she firmly asserts that research refines and defines her style of writing. Her latest groundbreaking drama, Dil Na Umeed Tou Nahi (DNUTN), is based on flesh trade and sex trafficking in Pakistan. Produced by the Kashf Foundation, not only does the show unveil the brutal business in the country but also sheds light on several parallel issues like child abuse, animal abuse and violence against women. The drama has inevitably received an objection notice from PEMRA for “highly objectionable and indecent” content.
This is Mufti’s second drama with the Kashf Foundation; the first was Aakhri Station, a mini TV series based on the intersecting lives of seven women who remain strangers till they meet on a train to realize they have complex and intriguing yet similar stories to share. Mufti has written and published several novels, one of which is a piece of environmental fiction, titled Paani Mar Raha Hai. Her drama Ghughi was based on Amrita Pritam’s 1950 novel Pinjar which was the story of a Hindu woman, Nirmala, who gets abducted by a Muslim man named Rashid.
With a decade of credible work under her belt, Mufti is inspired by Urdu literary geniuses like Qurutulain Haider and Altaf Fatima when it comes to storytelling.
We connect to discuss the incredibly diverse and unconventional drama Dil Na Umeed Tou Nahi (DNUTN) and end up talking about much more. Excerpts from the conversation…
Instep: What inspired you to write Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahi?
Amna Mufti: This is the second play I have written for the Kashf Foundation, after Aakhri Station, and the process they follow is that they collate extensive research on several pressing women’s issues and then they hold a large workshop with several writers to discuss those issues, facts, figures and the research at hand. Everyone present at the workshop contributes to that discussion and then a story theme is decided after which all writers submit a one-liner. I did the same and Roshaneh Zafar, the founder of Kashf and show’s producer, asked me to write the entire play. I have also written a novel, Yeh Bhi Aik Kahani Hai where I wrote about the brutalities faced by women entrapped in illicit sex trade.
Instep: What are your thoughts on the most recent notice served by PEMRA which states that DNUTN’s “script/ dialogues and gestures being shown are highly objectionable and indecent.”
AM: Whenever you write something that disrupts the existing status quo, there is bound to be resistance. And PEMRA is a regulatory authority; they have to find something to remind people of their existence. I have only written what my conscience permitted me to. In my opinion, there should not be a regulatory organization that has the authority to ban, censor, or alter a piece of creative work. If such institutions continue to curb freedom of expression, societal growth will stagnate and dramatic content will cease to bring any momentum amongst audiences. If they ban DNUTN, my producers will definitely try to engage in a legal battle to repeal the ban. That being said, the likes of Manto, Ismat Chugtai were censored, sentenced and summoned to court, but could anyone ban their stories? They live in people’s hearts till date. Interestingly, this recent notice has reminded me of the poetry from which we derived the name of this drama…
Dil na-umid to nahin, nakam hi to hai
Lambi hai gham ki shaam, magar shaam hi to hai
Instep: What does your research tell you about the current state of brothels in Lahore, where the drama is based?
AM: Today the reality of the kotha culture is very different from what is romanticized on screen. Now the business of flesh in Pakistan is no longer limited to Heera Mandi and courtesans who wear bejeweled clothes, ghungroos and dance to classical music at mehfils. Now kothas have dispersed throughout the city and have turned into kothi-khanas and party houses. At the face of it there may be a singular woman, or a daai in-charge of such brothels, but there are big investors behind such establishments who dictate the terms and conditions which govern such illegal bordellos. Women and young girls are abducted, abused, assaulted, traded and mistreated to an alarming extent. They are basically slaves who are not even permitted to keep or have access to a cell phone in captivity.
Instep: What drives you to tell such stories?
AM: My background in journalism really influences my writing style and has taught me a lot. I cannot write in thin air without facts, figures, or documented information. I write from personal experiences while research refines and defines my writing. Even while working on DNUTN, I presented several arguments which harped upon the fact that we should steer clear from even remotely glamorizing or romanticizing the depiction of brothels and sex trafficking on screen. The reality is far more hard-hitting and uncomfortable than we know it to be.
Instep: Do you feel it’s possible for an unconventional writer in this industry to earn a sustainable living?
AM: It would be unfair to say that I can depend on my writing to earn a sustainable living. I am blessed to have several other forms of support and varied sources of income, which enable me to afford the luxury of picking and choosing the scripts I write. I am not the sole breadwinner in my family and hence that is the reason I am able to reject many of the scriptwriting offers I get. I take over two years to write a single TV drama. This has been possible because I received financial support from my parents, I have a partner who earns, I started farming in the hiatus I took after I became a mother and I also teach at a University. So I consider myself immensely fortunate. The industry is immensely lucrative for those who want to succumb to the standards laid by marketing professionals and you can earn over 200,000 per episode or more. It is just a choice one has to make, and a decision about the kind of writing one wants to associate their name with.
Instep: What advice do you have for young aspiring writers? Is there room for progressive writing which can simultaneously be commercial?
AM: If you are passionate about writing and creating content, be sure to read literature and read the work of the scriptwriter, author or journalist whose work inspires you. To this day I cannot sleep without reading Urdu literature and my writing is influenced by the works of renowned writers like Qurutulain Haider and Altaf Fatima. I continue to read a book every day to acquaint myself with new forms of expression. The second piece of advice is to stay away from arrogance. Haughtiness and pomposity can ruin, terminate and destroy all forms of creativity and your pen will lose its vitality. With the advent of social media, OTT platforms and digital forums, your story will find its forum in due course.
I do not underestimate viewers at all, though the drama has a niche audience. The same audiences that watch daily soaps and serials will comprehend DNUTN as well. Apart from spreading awareness around sex trade in Pakistan, the key value I want audiences to take away from the show is virtue of tolerance.
Instep: You once mentioned that TV dramas have lost their educated audiences. Who do you feel is your audience and what do you want viewers to take away from DNUTN?
AM: Most people, including me, do not watch dramas on TV. They consume it on YouTube and that is where I hope the drama will be viewed and appreciated the most because people can access it.
Instep: Can you tell us about your choice to keep a non-linear narrative for DNUTN?
AM: I have always wanted to write a non-linear script that does not rely on multiple flashbacks to jolt the viewer’s memory. I trust my viewers, and I believe that they have the acumen required to comprehend parallel time frames between which the narrative goes back and forth.
Instep: Many of us have wondered what metaphor the donkey Tomato represents in the drama.
AM: I was devastated when during the 2018 elections, donkeys were tortured and killed in the name of petty politics and hate mongering. I decided to dedicate an episode entirely to a donkey and that’s how Tomato came into the story. How can people be so merciless towards a speechless creature? A donkey is a shy, loving creature who is introverted and cannot express its affection like extroverted pets like cats and dogs. Similarly, inexpressive or introverted individuals who are shy and unable to defend themselves often get exploited by those in power. Donkeys carry tremendously heavy loads behind them and never utter a sound of protest. The reason why Tomato is a prominent character in my story is because I wanted to highlight the abuse meted out to such harmless creatures in our society and I also wanted viewers to understand that it is possible to love a donkey too!
Instep: Why was DNUTN rejected by the top three channels?
AM: The first channel we approached had an issue with the non-linear narrative format of the show. The second channel sent me several queries regarding the story, to which I duly responded. Then they inquired that when will the ‘hero and heroine’ emerge as leads in the story, to which I had to explain that this is not the story of two lovers and their blossoming romance. The third channel was looking for a high entertainment quotient in the screenplay along with social messaging on the side, similar to the format that Udaari adhered to, but DNUTN was clearly different and did not match their requirements. I understand the genuine concerns of these channels; they have to mass produce dramas and maintain a certain high level of monetary profits. However, when we approached PTV and TV One, who are not actively part of the cut-throat race to be one of the top three in the industry, we were met with a sigh of relief and DNUTN was selected without them demanding a large list of changes.
Instep: What is your next project and when can we expect to see it air?
AM: I pitched a show during quarantine based on music, tentatively titled Simporum, to a private producer based in Islamabad. I had frozen the idea for over five years but now we are teaming with Imran Abbas and the script is almost ready. We have not pitched it to any channel yet but it is our hope that you will be able to see it by the mid of next year. There are all kinds of genres airing on television, so I believe our project will also make some room for itself.
– Afreen is a theatre and cinema enthusiast with special interest in Urdu literature and pop culture. She can be contacted at [email protected]