Fazal’s coolest extra gene

A graphic artist who was born with Down’s syndrome but grew up to make his illness work for him

By Usman Ghafoor

An image of Lady Gaga on the advertising panel of a moving bus — only a person with something extra ‘cool’ about him could envisage converting it into a collage. Case in point: 29-year-old Fazal Shafique (“Faduli” to his loved ones), a graphic artist who was born with Down’s syndrome but he grew up to make his illness work for him. No wonder he calls it “the coolest extra gene”.

In a rare exhibition, titled ‘I Love New York,’ held recently at Taseer Art Gallery, Fazal showcased some of his creative pieces — images of NYC that he had clicked with his Nikon DSLR while he was visiting the city November last year and then manipulated them using different filters to enhance a certain mood or effect.

A total of 24 pieces were displayed on the occasion. These varied in size; most of them were black&white with a spot of colour.

People from different walks of life and age groups showed up at the exhibit which went on famously for a week. Students, teachers, friends and family members were there to cheer Fazal who was also able to sell a good few pieces. ‘Lady Gaga’ was one big favourite with the crowd and got Fazal lots of orders of reprints.

At the exhibition.

At the exhibition.

Seen in a broader light, this little exhibition is actually a giant step for people like Fazal — towards self-fulfillment. In this case, though, the contribution of Fazal’s family can simply not be overlooked.

Being the only boy child — and the youngest — in a family of eight, Fazal was raised like a normal kid. That, says his mother, was the “plan.” God knows it was well thought out and not likely to backfire.
“We decided that Fazal shall not be enrolled in a special institution,” she says, in an exclusive chat. “In Pakistan, people isolate such a child; they do not integrate him into the society at large. We didn’t want that to happen.”

“When you are born with Down’s syndrome, there isn’t much that you can do to check it,” adds Yasmeen, Fazal’s elder sister, a graphic designer by profession. “But you have to intervene very early.”

Consequently, Fazal got admission in a regular school that offered a special education class with 2-3 teachers in attendance. He was taught with special focus.

At home, he had tutors for Maths and English.

A privileged family background came suitably in handy. Fazal was allowed to cultivate his various interests, such as photography and music. Today, he can play piano by the ear. Besides, he was made to participate in all activities of community life.

Raising him “made us more sensitive to and more accepting of the difference in human beings,” writes his mother who is a half-Turkish, in a specially compiled (not for publication) book on Fazal. The idea was to “share my experiences with parents [of similarly diseased children] so that they can know the challenges as well as the rewards of it.”

A genetic ailment, Down’s syndrome occurs when an individual gets a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. People who are born with it possess varying degrees of cognitive delays, from mild to severe.

“In countries like the US, when such people become adults, they are encouraged to live on their own. Here, it’s quite the contrary,” says Yasmeen. “So we had to create opportunities to keep him busy.”

He learnt how to drive a car and has been a gym regular for the past several years now.

He is constantly supervised, though, every time he steps out of the house. A dependable “ghar ka banda” (to quote Yasmeen) is with him everywhere he goes.

A fairly articulate person, Fazal has to only see a speech therapist once a week. That’s it. He is on no other therapy of sorts and virtually no medication.

'Lady Gaga' proved to be a bestseller.

‘Lady Gaga’ proved to be a bestseller.

At the informal chat with the Shafiques at their Canal View mansion, Fazal looked only too happy to flaunt his various photographic pieces as well as the myriad educational certificates mounted on the walls of the drawing and other rooms.

He also spoke fervently of his friends and — a bit coyly — his would-be “girlfriend”.

Having taken courses in photography and graphic designing, Fazal is currently “employed” at his sister’s studio in DHA. “He is treated like the other regular staff. For instance, if he needs a day off, he has to apply for leave in advance.”

All this obviously helps him blend in.

Today, following the success of his first solo exhibit, Fazal has moved on to his next project already. He is also managing a page on Facebook whose stated purpose is to invite young adults with Down’s syndrome “to connect with each other, share experiences, achievements, creations and, most important of all, make friends.”

The page receives traffic from all over the world, chiefly the US where it is believed that there is a greater awareness among the masses with regards to the ailment.

For young and dynamic Fazal Shafique, the page is a reassurance of his faith in the multiple abilities of people like himself. Hence, its title ‘Young Adults with Down’s syndrome: The Coolest Extra Gene.’

Originally published in The News On Sunday — March 16, 2014

Click here to go to the article on THE NEWS‘s official website


Just how real is the ‘ban’?

The government eased up on the import of feature films from India in Musharraf’s time, circa 2006, but the ‘issue’ has kept coming back — only to reinforce the ambiguity surrounding it

By Usman Ghafoor

The Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 makes no mention of it. The 1,209 ‘negative’ (or prohibited) items listed in the Import Trade Policy 2012-13 do not include this. There is no clear provision in the Punjab Motion Pictures (Amendment) Bill 2012 regarding a ‘ban’ of any kind. So, where does the bar on the screening of Indian films in Pakistani theatres come from, in the first place? Even as the government eased up on the import of feature films from across the border in Musharraf’s time, circa 2006, the ‘issue’ has kept coming back — albeit in popular knowledge — only to reinforce the ambiguity surrounding it.

There are those who blame it on “some presidential order” (in the words of leading film critic and academic Ajaz Gul) dating back to Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s time, post 1965-war. Indian films which had been a regular feature in Pakistani cinema houses till then were now declared ‘enemy property’.

The Martial Law Order ’81 sought to decertify all Indian films that had been released between 1947 and ‘81. Furthermore, the Trade Policy prohibited import of any film whose language and/or actors are Indian or Pakistani. These movies needed to obtain NOC from the Ministry of Commerce before they could be presented for review by the Central Board of Film Censors.

It translated as a ‘ban’ nonetheless and continued through decades. The ban was so well placed that it impacted the import of a big Hollywood franchise like Raiders of the Lost Arc because it starred Bollywood actor Amrish Puri. The only two Indian movies that ever saw the light of the day in Pakistani theatres — Meena Kumari’s Noor Jehan and Reena Roy-starrer Kashish — were afforded special permission by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1981 because Sheikh Mukhtar, the actor-producer of Noor Jehan, had migrated to Pakistan for good and Dr Jan, the importer of Kashish, had promised the government to use all revenue generated from the box office collections of the movie in building an eye hospital in the country. (That Kashish flopped and no one ever came around to starting a hospital is history.)

It is interesting to note that even though Indian movies have always enjoyed huge popularity among the masses in Pakistan, it wasn’t until Gen Pervez Musharraf that film was actually seen as a diplomacy channel to improve relations with the neighbouring country. In April 2006, Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal and a digitally coloured version of K Asif’s epic Mughal-e-Azam became the first two Indian films in decades to be officially screened in Pakistani theatres. Both the films were historicals, set in the Mughal era, and ‘gifted’ to president Musharraf.

In August 2007, the release of Awarapan, starring a more mainstream actor Emraan Hashmi, was justified as being an Indo-Pak co-production. The same year, John Abraham’s Goal made it to cinemas in Pakistan. It was now believed that an Indian film that had been shot outside of India — Goal was shot entirely in the UK — could be considered for release here. But most of this was only popular misconception.

In 2008’s blockbuster Race, the Pakistani importers had their first real taste of box-office success in an imported Indian film, which paved the way for similar deals by more and more people associated with the cinema industry. The crooks also had a field day. Bollywood films were routinely smuggled into the country by obtaining the Certificate of Origin (CO) from the UK or Dubai.

On April 4, 2011, the then government of PPP devolved the powers of the Central Board of Film Censors to individual provinces through the Eighteenth Amendment. This move is yet to pay dividends.

According to Senior Inspector Punjab Film Censor Board (PFCB) Imran Shahzad Khan, the situation is “all hotchpotch.”

“There should be a proper legislation on the import of Indian films,” he insists. “Our awaam is crazy about Bollywood movies. They will watch them on DVDs etc, no matter what. The government should understand this fact and also how these movies can generate revenue when brought in officially.

“Direct import of Indian movies shall help us to get rid of those entering through backdoor channels.”

Leading film distributor and the owner of one of the biggest multiplex chains in the country, Nadeem Mandviwala rubbishes all talk about there being a ban in place. “The Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 only gives us the film certification code,” he explains.

For the uninitiated, Section 6, Clause 1 of the said Ordinance states that a “film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the Board, the film or any part thereof is prejudicial to the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or amounts to the commission of, or incitement to, an offence.”

Running parallel to the fight of the cinema owners, distributors and importers for legalising Bollywood movies in Pakistan are the insecurity and vested interests of those belonging to the Lahore-based (almost defunct) film industry aka Lollywood. An out-of-work director Aslam Dar recently got a bunch of ‘like-minded’ producers and directors to throw their weight behind him as he moved court against the exhibition of what he termed “smuggled” Indian movies. To his heart’s content, the court ordered stay.

Earlier, on November 18, the Lahore High Court passed a ruling in response to a petition. That an agreement was reached between the aggrieved parties and the case was withdrawn is no secret.

The film people’s insecurity is not a recent phenomenon. History shows how the release of legendary Bollywood actor-director Dev Anand’s blockbuster Jaal in 1952 was vociferously resisted by the film fraternity on this side of the border. It actually snowballed into a movement, popularly termed the ‘Jaal Agitation’. Earlier, in ‘51, the Pakistan film producers banded together to stop Raj Kapoor’s Awara showing in local cinemas.

The industry has long been divided into two groups — those who were in favour of allowing Bollywood movies in Pakistani cinemas and others who contested it.

Mercifully, the two groups have now met half-way. As renowned filmmaker Syed Noor puts it, “We understand that Indian films have brought a cinematic boom in Pakistan. We aren’t against them, we just want it to be done in a legal way.

“We also want a fair representation of our movies in cinemas,” he continues. “I’m glad that exhibitors such as [Nadeem Mandviwala], Ramzan Sheikh and Faraz Chaudhry saw our point. They invited us to sign on an MoU whereby their cinemas will give half the number of shows to Lollywood movies.”

“The recent court order is only an affirmation of the rule,” adds Mandviwala. “The court has only directed the government not to censor any Indian film in violation of the Import Trade Policy 2012-13. There’s no stopping those who import a film through proper channel.”

Originally published in The News On Sunday — Dec 29, 2013

Click here to go to the article on THE NEWS’s official website

Khalid Masjid.

Reverse culture shock?

By Usman Ghafoor

The glorious, several feet tall minaret of Khalid Masjid, in one of Lahore’s peaceful residential areas, looks over a courtyard that once used to be a calm parking space for the namazi (prayer men). But today, it is populated by armed watchmen, posted in different corners of the mosque like flagpoles. The place still appears ‘calm’ (read quiet), but the presence of guards with their double-barreled guns pointed in the air and the sight of barricades at entry and exit points is menacing, to say the least.

Occasionally, the quiet is stirred by the noise of the engine of a random military jeep patrolling the streets in the distance. This is my first Friday back home from Washington, D.C. — where I went on a 5-week training fellowship with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) — and it marks my re-introduction to some of the bitter facts about living in my own country, i.e., Pakistan.

As I see the namazi getting into the mosque through the sprawl of the iron fence and the prying eyes of the security men, I wonder if meditation is still possible when fear is struck in your heart. And, I am reminded how a common Pakistani’s peace of mind has been near-hijacked by an ‘imminent’ threat of a terrorist attack at just about any public venue, a worship place being no exception.

At any given street in the city, you meet a check-post every few yards, with security personnel ready to stop your vehicle and frisk whoever they deem ‘suspicious’ (of possessing illegal weapons or something). But, suspicious or not, it is not possible for you to drive through without worrying about getting late to work or just incurring an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the worship places have come to be recognized as having an even greater likelihood of a terrorist incident. Pakistan has a history of sectarian violence that has roots in the basic conflict of beliefs between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia minority in the country. Of late, this has meant life attacks on religious leaders of one community that led to attacks on the leaders of the other community as part of revenge. Last year, we topped our records when a bunch of unidentified militants fired guns and hurled grenades at the namazi inside a prominent Ahmadiyya worship place in Lahore, quickly followed by three suicide blasts in its premises, which killed at least 80 innocent people and wounded many. Ahmaddiya is a religious sect that has been ghettoized by the extremists as “infidels” and also victimized for its claims to Islam.

Khalid Masjid in the cantonment area was never really considered vulnerable, because of its location and also because its imams (prayer leaders) aren’t known to have taken any controversial leads on religious matters. Yet, for the mosque administration to have to beef up security — in just over a month’s time — does not bode too well for the common people living in the neighborhood.

Indeed, these are emergency times for Pakistan. Wistfully, my mind drifts back to my visit to the ADAMS Center in Virginia with my group mates, during the course of our fellowship, in early October this year. Nestled comfortably among the Blue Ridge mountains, the mosque looked a complete picture of serenity. And, when its operation supervisor, Mr. Tanweer Khan, told us how the Center receives faithfuls from practically all sects of Islam and that the administration has to organize two Jumma (Friday) congregations every week in order to accommodate a large number of namazi, it all seemed too good to be true.

Originally published on the ICFJ blog – Oct 25, 2011

Click here to go to the blog on ICFJ official site

Alive and Well in Pakistan launch

“Pakistan is unfairly scapegoated” — Ethan Casey

By Usman Ghafoor

Ethan Casey’s inshallahs are quite endearing, and so is his unwittingly kind view of Pakistan in what must be the two rare books by any foreigner in recent times — Alive and Well in Pakistan (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). Seattle-based journalist, blogger and public speaker, Casey puts it down to his “stubbornly independent” nature. “I’m not really a political journalist,” he explains, “…[I am] a listener.” No wonder his books famously dwell on “conversations” with the general masses of Pakistan rather than with the military and political leaders of the country, during his almost 15 years of stay here, from 1994 to 2004 and, later, from 2008 to March 2011, earning him great reviews from such world-known writers as Bapsi Sidhwa, Edwidge Danticat, Ahmed Rashid and Mohsin Hamid. In 2003, he was also invited to become the founding faculty member of the School of Media and Communication at BNU, Lahore.

He can be reached at http://www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans and http://www.ethancasey.com

The News On Sunday: It was with what assumptions that you came to Pakistan for the first time?

Ethan Casey: I like to say that I just wandered across the border at Wagah. Really, I had become interested in the Kashmir situation and had already spent many weeks on the ground in Indian-held Kashmir before I first visited Pakistan in early 1995. This was well before 9/11, but already I felt Muslims were being unfairly scapegoated. And, in fact, while I happened to be in Lahore in April 1995, an American right-wing extremist named Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, and I remember vividly how many in America assumed that the perpetrators must have been Muslim extremists.

Growing up, my parents and especially my grandmother instilled in me a strong sense of fairness, and I felt and still feel that Pakistan is unfairly scapegoated because it’s a Muslim-majority country and because it chose to separate from India. This is not to excuse unjust or wrong things in Pakistani society, of course, only to say that it’s an imperfect, human society like any other. I’m glad that I first visited Pakistan before the ugly stereotypes kicked in fully, and while I was still relatively young and innocent and could see Pakistan for what it is, and for myself.

Your writings — both your newspaper columns and books — present Pakistan in a not-so-negative light. Precisely what prompts such a kind view? Does it have to do with your background/training as a journalist which would inevitably be different from that of, say, an academic/ research fellow?

I do think that many American academics see Pakistan not as a country in its own right but as a policy problem for Americans to solve, to America’s geopolitical advantage or benefit. But I think that’s true of a lot of journalists also. This is not to take away from the skill or integrity or intelligence of individual practising journalists, but most American journalists are constrained by what their readers and editors want to hear. Perhaps, the difference is that I’m stubbornly independent, both by circumstance (I’ve never been paid a salary by a media outlet, except for about ten months during 1993-94 at The Bangkok Post) and by temperament. A great American novelist, Upton Sinclair, once said: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Ethan CaseyIs Pakistan a difficult territory for a journalist from the West, especially one who’s coming from the US?

Not if the journalist has the right attitude. I’ve always experienced extremely generous and gracious hospitality in Pakistan, in 1995 and as recently as this year. And, Pakistanis love to talk about politics. This is often to their own detriment — Pakistani society is chronically at odds with itself — but it certainly is helpful to a visiting journalist!

There are as many opinions about Pakistan as there are Pakistanis. Emma Duncan, author of the fine book Breaking the Curfew: A Political Journey through Pakistan (1989), wrote that “for a political journalist, a politicised country is thrilling”. She understood the appeal that Pakistan has for someone like her, or like me. But I’m not really a political journalist — what I really am is a listener. I’m a sucker for the many fascinating stories of personal and family history and how those have been affected, in Pakistan especially, by public events. I think sensibility of mine comes through in my books. Certainly, though, there are still many things about Pakistan that are opaque or unavailable to me.

Did you face any challenges while travelling inland from Karachi?

The biggest challenge, specifically travelling inland from Karachi, was hoping we would run over reckless pedestrians or die in a head-on crash on the terrifying highway into interior Sindh! You can read about that particular day trip near the end of my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. Karachi and provincial Sindh are two areas of Pakistan that I still don’t know very well. I look forward to getting to know them better, inshallah, on future visits.

You’ve been to India as well. If you were to draw a comparison between the two rival neighbours, what would you say?

Pakistan is a lot less crowded! That was my first impression of the difference. In 1995 it was very strong, immediately after crossing, coming from Amritsar to Lahore. In India, a Western visitor is either tolerated or disdained as a tourist — though I’ve been treated well in India and have friends there. In Pakistan, a Western visitor — in my experience at least — is treated as a highly appreciated guest. And all I’ve ever had to do to deserve such treatment is show up.

In your 2004 book Alive and Well in Pakistan, you famously write about the common Pakistani as not necessarily hating America. Does that reality still hold true, in the wake of the drone attacks, the bin Laden episode etc?

During my most recent visit to Pakistan, in March of this year, things did feel different. That was during the very unfortunate and ugly Raymond Davis episode, of course. It didn’t colour my personal experience or the way I was treated by people who hosted me or whom I met, but the mutual suspicion at the state level between Pakistan and the US did permeate the air of the country, so to speak. It was sad, but it didn’t damage my love or friendship for Pakistan; far from it.

In Alive and Well in Pakistan, there’s a long scene where I recount my conversations in the general enclosure at Gaddafi Stadium during a one-day Pepsi Cup match in September 2003 between Pakistan and South Africa. To me, that scene sums up how I’ve been welcomed in Pakistan as a friend and a guest.

Whereas you seem to believe that mistrust at the state level [between Pakistan and the US] continues to deepen?

Certainly, it does. That’s why it’s more important than ever for individual, non-official Pakistanis and Americans to cultivate and maintain our friendships on the personal level. States come and go, and states are, as Noam Chomsky aptly put it, violent institutions. Our first loyalty should never be to a state but to humanity.

What do you have to say about Pakistan’s rather new-found civil society groups? How effective are they, in your opinion?

I’m sure they’re not effective enough, but it’s very important that they exist and make their presence and priorities known. Civil society is the best thing about contemporary Pakistan, and its best hope. They’re not perfect, but then again — to put it mildly — neither are any of Pakistan’s official institutions.

Do you agree that a lot of research and analysis on Pakistan by American think-tank today looks at the country in a way so that the US can secure its own interest in South Asia using Pakistan as an ally?

Yes, I absolutely agree with this. To me this tendency is not only damaging, but tedious. The real Pakistan is so much more interesting than the Pakistan that American think tanks analyse. I’m pleased to have this opportunity to tell you that I’ve contributed a chapter to a book to be published soon, edited by a serving U.S. Army colonel, Laurel Hummel, and Rick Wolfel, and titled Understanding Pakistan Through Human and Environmental Systems. Col. Hummel welcomed the chapter that I contributed, titled ‘The Pakistan That I Know’, particularly because it emphasises Pakistan as a real society that I have experienced at firsthand, rather than as a U.S. policy challenge.

Are there any issues that most foreign writers [writing on Pakistan] are ‘obliged’ to gloss/look over?

Well, see my response to the second question above! I don’t know whether I have a good answer to this question, but I think that it’s a shame that more foreign writers can’t get to know Pakistan personally, as I feel I’ve been privileged to do. I’ll draw a bit of a distinction here between journalists and ‘literary’ writers, and I’ll take the opportunity to scold a writer who is actually one of my favourites, Paul Theroux. Theroux’s body of work demonstrates that it’s possible for a writer to be at once unapologetically American and genuinely cosmopolitan, and to me he’s been a very important role model in that way. But a few years ago, when he retraced the route of his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar to write Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he actually skipped Pakistan entirely, even though it had been on his itinerary for the earlier book, and mumbled some lame excuses in passing about bombs and terrorists. Shame on him for that. If Pakistan is safe enough for me to visit, it’s safe enough for Paul Theroux.

What future do you see of Pakistan?

Pakistan zindabad! Seriously, Pakistan and Pakistanis have an amazing talent for survival. Pakistanis are among the most resourceful people I’ve ever met, because you’ve had to be throughout the perpetually challenging history of your country. That in itself is a great resource. I love Pakistan, and I look forward to returning inshallah many times, over many years to come, come what may.

Originally published in The News International, on Aug 14, 2011

Click here to go to the interview on THE NEWS official site


“State has the right to punish”

A dialogue with Asif Iftikhar, a PhD student of Islamic Law at McGill and a visiting faculty member at LUMS and Pakistan College of Law

By Usman Ghafoor

Asif Iftikhar. Courtesy FacebookThe News On Sunday: In a recent interview, you said that there is “no prescribed punishment” for blasphemy in Islam. Elaborate.
Asif Iftikhar: When one speaks of Islam, one is not referring to a monolithic whole in terms of interpretation. The foundational sources may be the same — mostly, the Muslim people would like to invoke the Quran or the Sunnah or the Hadith — yet the interpretations, right from the earliest times to the modern times, have not just been one monolithic whole; there is diversity of opinion. So, the first question is, whose Islam? When I say that there’s no specified punishment in Islam, it is actually vis-à-vis the understanding of those scholars who I believe have more correctly deciphered the message of Islam.

If you ask any scholar for what is termed as ‘Ibaaratal-Nass‘ — any explicit, unequivocal statement in the Quran — which says that such-and-such is the punishment for blasphemy, no scholar worth his name will be able to point that out. There are only inferences which have been drawn from different verses and ahadith. My own point of view is based on the works of certain scholars that I believe have interpreted these verses more appropriately. And, that interpretation is that the Quran itself has specified all the cases where death punishment is possible. Blasphemy against the Prophet (peace be upon him), for instance, is one of the gravest sins in Islam that renders a person devoid of faith. But as far as worldly punishment is concerned, the Quran, according to some scholars, still does not specify death punishment for such people. God may, of course, punish such people even in this world as happened during the times of the Prophet.

Furthermore, there is no concept of lynching in Islam.

Does the state have the right to award any kind of punishment?
The Islamic state does have the right to punish the person who commits blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (PBUH). But the laws for this purpose should be made through a democratic process in the light of the Quran and in accordance with the constitution and the principles of justice. It should not be imposed by any dictator or religious sect. My own preference would be that in case a person is duly found guilty of committing a crime — that is, if there is sufficient and reasonable evidence that the person committed this act purely out of malice and not unintentionally — through a court of law, through a proper procedure, punishments can be given. But, again, the Quran does not specify death punishment, according to some highly meritorious scholars.

Besides, there is no concept of an individual or a group taking the law into their own hands for the purposes of indicting and punishing any person on blasphemy. At best what a person can do is to report the matter to the police; they can then investigate the matter in an appropriate way which does not infringe upon the basic human rights of the person. And if he is found guilty, the court can see what punishment can be given in accordance with the law.

Don’t you think the right to free expression is exploited thereof?
In the European Convention of Human Rights, there are clear indications that free speech must be limited by a regard for the religious sentiments of people and there are precedents in Poland and other countries where certain punishments were given for the purpose. So, this is a right.

Any person, whether a Muslim or a non Muslim, who desecrates any religion or divine/revealed book, for instance, the Bible or the Gita, should be reprimanded to some extent. Quran variously asks us not to abuse other peoples’ gods.

Are there any precedents of foregoing punishment in Islamic history?
Yes, there are incidents where the Prophet himself preferred not to give any punishment to the people who had blasphemed against him. Why, because — his statements clearly indicate — he did not want Islam to be presented this way. And this is exactly our situation right now.

How do you view the blasphemy law?
Two most important sections of the blasphemy law are always a subject of debate. They look not only like prescribed punishments, they also to some extent prescribe a procedure which is at times whimsical. For the procedure itself, there is hardly any foundational text. It’s so whimsical that any person can accuse anybody of blasphemy.

See, accusation also requires an elaborate procedure, because it puts a person in a very difficult legal and social situation. In some way, a punishment of sorts already begins as soon as a person is accused and is considered to be a legally suspect person. To go to the extent where somebody’s accusation can be considered worthy of merit itself requires a lot of elaborate investigation before that person is made to go through the ordeal. For instance, in case of the punishment for fornication, the religious texts of Islam very clearly prescribe that there must be four witnesses, four honourable people whose reputation is impeccable; they go and testify that they’ve seen this person doing the act in its last form with their own eyes; only then the case will be registered. If they are unable to do so, they will be punished for wrongly accusing the person.

So, where you are talking about a person who in our society is likely to be either maltreated by the law enforcing agencies themselves or lynched, even before the matter goes to the police the mere act of accusing itself has to be brought within the ambit of reasonable laws. And I would go to the extent of saying that one can draw some analogy from this case of fornication.

You have said before that the blasphemy law should not be repealed.
What I said was that it should not be repealed through an executive order. See, the democratic norms should not be bypassed. Just as the religious laws created issues because they were imposed without democratic norms, if you repeal them in the same way, you will be harming the democratic process.

There are two ways of going about it in a democratic fashion. The court reserves the right to say that, in certain situations, the law can be suspended to safeguard the basic objectives of the Shariah which include protecting the lives of innocent people. Another way is to revisit the law in the parliament, discuss its religious, social, cultural aspects and then change it.

What would ‘revisiting the law’ entail?
In cases such as ours where it is very likely that this law will be misused and innocent people will be killed, the court can say that even though the law is correct in its own right, let’s suspend it for now.

My contention is that if the law is revisited in the parliament and the democratically elected majority decides that the death punishment will not be awarded and that the person who has committed blasphemy will be extradited or exiled, this kind of punishment will not be against Quran or against human and moral values.

What could be the balanced approach?
The balanced approach, according to me, is that it will neither be against Islam to revisit the laws based on human interpretations nor would it be wrong to suspend them in a proper, democratic way until they are replaced by appropriate ones.

Secondly, I believe, a punishment, such as extradition or exile or a penalty, is possible if there is no reasonable fear of misuse or injustice or loss to innocent lives. Why, because it is the right of Muslims in any country where they have the majority to see that no one desecrates their religion or blasphemes against their Prophet. Furthermore, if you don’t have even these laws, there is a greater possibility that the people will start lynching.

The role of the Imam masjid or the clergy has been quite crucial on such matters. Do you agree?
Well, the religious scholars do not have the right to present themselves as the final authority in the enactment of law. At best, they have the right to interpret religion. It is up to the parliament which represents the majority opinion to enact laws.

Secondly, many of these people who are using the forum of the mosques are not even qualified to be there, in the first place. In the Islamic tradition, there was no concept of a religious scholar being the Imam of the mosque. The Imam of the mosque used to be the head of the state, the governor and his representatives. Because this tradition has been thrown away and has been taken over by the maulvis, the mosques have become citadels of sectarianism and of extremism and militancy. This needs to be checked.

What precisely is the concept of ‘desecration’ in Islam? A lot of Quranic text is casually printed in newspapers without considering that these papers often land into trash bins.
There are three aspects to the issue. First is a deliberate act of desecration. There is malice in the mens rea. This is something which can’t be condoned by any decent society. Another situation is where your academic opinion is seemingly different from that of the other person. If you take that to be blasphemy, then there can be no intellectual discussion on anything. The Brelvis will kill the Deobandis because the opinion of one is blasphemy to the other. Quran grants you the right of difference of opinion.

Then, there are problems at pragmatic level. For instance, how should you hold the Quran, how should you keep it, et al. To a large extent, these problems are dependent on social conventions. A lot of people on Hajj have read it while sitting on the ground. These conventions have their limitations and can be rectified through a social mechanism. Legal measures in such cases are not always possible or desirable.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — Aug 9, 2009

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Humayun Saeed, Mahira Khan and Deepti Gupta on the set of Mehreen Jabbar's play, 'Neeyat'.  (Photo courtesy: Laajstudios)

A ban for all seasons

Whatever India knows of Pakistan TV programmes today is primarily a ‘memory’ — passed on by a previous generation or two. The ban on TV channels by authorities across the border has only pushed it further behind

By Usman Ghafoor

Mumbai-based Mr and Mrs Agarwal, both in their late 60s, have an all-time favourite TV show: Dhoop Kinarey, one of Hasina Moin’s best-liked Urdu drama serials that acquired an equally cult status in India at the time when it went on air.

“My parents loved to buy home videos of Pakistani serials,” recalls Kartik Agarwal, 34, a media entrepreneur now settled in Singapore.

Till the late 1980s, Pakistan television was a very popular entity on both sides of the border and its shows were a rage. Ankahi, Tanhaiyyan, Dhoop…, Anarkali — you name it. Our actors were household names, and so were comedians like Moin Akhtar and Umar Sharif. Interestingly, for most Indians today, Pak TV programmes are only a fond ‘memory’ — passed on by a previous generation or two. The reason, most agree, is the ‘official’ ban on Pak TV channels that has coincided with the mushrooming of a plethora of cable network channels available to people at nominal rates. While a Hum TV and an Indus have some (negligible) presence in Mumbai, and ARY’s QTV finds favour in the Muslim majority areas in the country, most Indian telly viewers remain oblivious to what Pakistan’s small screen looks like today, thanks to the state policy.

Srinivas Rao, General Manager, Distribution, Lehren Entertainment Private Company, relates how the cable operators in Mumbra (a Mumbai suburb) are not allowed to play even QTV “because of the sermonising nature of its content.”

International news channel Al-Jazeera has also faced a ban on account of its (alleged) provocative material.

Cable operators in states with Muslim population such as Utter Pradesh occasionally — albeit discreetly — run Pakistani channels, since ETV, the only Urdu language channel, headquartered in Hyderabad, does not meet the demands of the locals. “Its programmes are mostly dubbed versions of Telugu and Hindi shows. They don’t quite agree with the cultural milieu of the community,” adds Srinivas.

Correspondingly, the Pakistan government has always been criticised by certain quarters demanding all Indian content on television to be blocked. But the ban, says an official at PEMRA, requesting anonymity, “is a farce.

“That’s a wrong notion,” he explains, “It’s just that only those foreign channels are permitted that have got the landing rights. From 1999 onwards, Pemra has followed this policy.”

Geo fares better. It’s a “very popular brand in India”, according to Srinivas, and a lot of its footage and content is shared by the Indian broadcasters for their news channels. Ditto for Express TV.

There are some 350 TV channels on show in India. They can be divided into three categories: a)terrestrial, b)free-to-air, and c)subscription-based channels. The terrestrial are those the cable operators are bound to carry — such as the state-owned network. The rest are either free to air or subscription-based channels, both national and international.

Interestingly, a cable operator can only carry about 100 channels at a time, due to technical constraints and bandwidth issues. The frontline entertainment channels are Star Plus, Sony and Zee TV. The second tier is composed of news channels like NDTV, Aaj Tak and Star News. Lastly, there are the religion-based channels such as Surya, God TV and Miracle TV.”

Srinivas claims there is no public demand for Pakistan TV channels in the given cluster.

Komal Nahta, leading Indian film critic and editor of the weekly Film Information and its web portal, thefilmstreetjournal.com, puts it more candidly: “People today have got a lot of choice. Come to think of it, we have at least 50 popular shows on air every day on different TV channels. It’s a completely different world.”

Saurabh Kanwar, Vice President, Content & Communication, Channel V, adds, “If the content is good, there will always be a place for it in the mainstream; unless, of course, there are legal issues involved.”

Earler, the airing of PTV, Geo, ARY and Aaj News was banned in Srinagar, Kashmir, following directives from the Information & Broadcasting ministry.

Komal says Pakistani channels were always a no-no, and it is wrong to assume that the situation was any different prior to 26/11.

For its part, Pakistan saw a (temporary) period of ban on Indian channels in Dec 2001 when the two neighbouring countries came to the brink of a war. That the cable operators had to give in to immense pressure from the local subscribers — chiefly the housewives, hooked on the myriad saas-bahu soaps — is another story.

Shahnaz Sheikh, the iconic star of 1980s’ Ankahi and Tanhaiyyan.

The popular belief is that the black-out is always “on a reciprocal basis”.
23-year-old Natasha Sahgal, a student of Masters in English Literature at Mumbai University, says she’s not sure what is the state policy, “but I know for a fact that Pakistani serials are my grandparents’ favourite. I presume they’d still be popular in the north, among those who speak Punjabi. But I don’t think they get them now with the dish TV.”

India’s young generation, Natasha adds, is fed on MTV and American shows. While the elderly lot, especially in urban areas, is “hooked on the many soaps on Indian channels”.

Clearly, times have changed. The days of the ‘aerial’ — a flat structure of aluminium wires mounted on the rooftop — are over. It used to be very simple. With one-odd TV channel on either side of the Indo-Pak border, the viewers would commonly switch between Pakistan Television (PTV) and Doordarshan (alias DD). Also, there was no concept — locally, at least — of a ‘repeat telecast’ or a 24-hour, hybrid or dedicated channel. For Lahorites, Sunday evenings would be a popular feast on the only-colour cinema viewing in the entire week, telecast live from Delhi — via Amritsar studios. Likewise, PTV’s Lahore centre would famously beam its glorious shows into the neighbouring cities of East Punjab.

In came the dish antenna and things began to change — dramatically. From being an ‘elitist thing’, the parabolic satellite vehicle gradually made inroads into the homes of the common masses, with its groovy mix of (the initially) free-to-air, entertainment and news channels available at the mere tilt of an LNB. The private broadcaster was having the time of his life.

In the subcontinent, the old order had been replaced. India, with its Zees and Stars and Sonys that catered basically for the Bollywood-crazed audiences, now ruled the roost. Pakistan’s private satellite TV channels were rather slow to come up.

Originally published in The News On Sunday – May 3, 2009

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Pakistan’s ‘new age’ cinema

A breed of new, independent film makers is successfully filling the void left by an obsolete industry known as ‘Lollywood’

By Usman Ghafoor

In many ways, 2013 was an era-defining year for Pakistan’s near-extinct film industry. While Waar and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) together raked in a staggering Rs 260 million at the box office, the kind of collections that hadn’t been seen in a long time — since 1998’s Choodiyan, to be precise — a Zinda Bhaag qualified as our first official entry to the Oscars in decades and Seedlings won many a prestigious award at different international film festivals. All this was enough to galvanise aspiring film makers, especially those who had always wanted to make movies but were forced to work on TV or adverts because they had no takers.

Rabia Butt with director Farouq Mengal on the sets of HIJRATOver two dozen films are currently either in the works or being readied for release. And to think that a lot of these are expensive propositions and have huge amounts of money gone into them — whether it is Waar producer-cum-storywriter Dr Hasan Waqas Rana’s multi-crore Yalghaar and Waar II, Shaan’s home production Mission 5, Zeba Bakhtiar and Azaan Sami’s maiden venture Operation 21 (also called O21), TV director Farouq Mengal’s film debut Hijrat; soap specialist Syed Faisal Bokhari’s Indo-Pak co-production Sultanat (opening on Eidul Fitr), or Bilal Lashari’s modern-day spin on the 70s’ cult Punjabi Maula Jutt.

There are some moderately budgeted projects in the pipeline too, such as fresh-from-the-success-of-MHSA Humayun Saeed’s comic caper Jawani Phir Nai Aani starring Ayesha Khan, Humaima Malick, Saba Qamar, Ahmed Ali Butt, Wasay Chaudhry and Saeed himself; Hamza Ali Abbasi’s farcical Kambakht, with TV’s newest heartthrob Sheheryar Munawwar Siddiqi in the lead alongside Sohai Abro; ad film maker Jamshed Mehmood aka Jami’s Moor; and serial director Anjum Shahzad’s Iman-Ali-Fahad-Mustafa-starrer Mah e Meer, scripted and produced by well renowned poet-writer Sarmad Sehbai.

Anjum Shahzad’s ex-wife Fizza Ali Meerza is also winding up her first big-screen outing, titled Na Maloom Afraad, which is directed by Nabeel Qureshi, the man behind the hilariously funny TV show BNN. As much as its title is intriguing, the film’s rib-tickling trailer is already creating plenty of buzz on popular social media. The toast of the promo is a ‘naughty’ item number performed by TV’s nice girl Mehwish Hayat.

This is decidedly a new film industry that we are witnessing — one which has virtually nothing to do with the good ol’ Lahore-based ‘Lollywood’. It is largely composed of independent film makers who, mercifully, have little or no care for any pre-set formulas for BO success. Most of these are young, educated individuals who are truly global in their outlook and are ready to experiment. The best part is that they are also able to reach out to the right financiers.

This fast emerging industry may not have made it to the stocks yet, it is evident that more and more private companies and individuals are willing to invest in movies now. Needless to say, all this has been made possible because of our films’ recent successes. Big media groups are getting into production or backing passionate film makers. Geo Films, for instance, has a number of projects underway, including an untitled romantic comedy directed by Haissam Hussain (earlier credits include critically acclaimed TV serials Durre Shahwar, Aunn Zara and Dastaan). The film pairs Sheharyar Siddiqi opposite a new girl who is from the UK.

In the past, Geo Films backed an entire series in collaboration with a leading milk product. It also distributed such off-beat films as Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (released in 2007) and, not to forget, Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Khuda Ke Liye (2007). Up next is Columbia University graduate in Film Afia Nathanial’s Dukhtar which is said to be a poignant tale of a mother who is on the run with her little daughter because she wants to save the child from a forced marriage in a rigid, patriarchal society somewhere in the northwestern Pakistan. The film which boasts a wrenching performance by Samia Mumtaz, releases on August 14 this year.

Hum TV is also making a foray into mainstream cinema with Bin Roye, a family drama that marks the return of Bol- and Humsafar-famed Mahira Khan to silver screen. Propelled by Momina Duraid, the project has Khan sharing credits with Humayun Saeed and a fresh import from TV Armeena Rana. A month-long shooting spell of the film was recently finished in the US. (The film is due out on Eidul Azha.)

Interestingly, even the (former?) masters of the film universe are looking at funds from the ‘outside’. Evernew Studios’s owner Shahzad Gul, who is returning to films after a gap of almost a decade, with Imaan, a period love story between a Rajasthani girl and a Pakistani boy, says he might get the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) to pump money into the project. Gul is hopeful of a contract because the film’s subject has an obvious streak of patriotism.

The ISPR is also said to have sponsored debutant director Umair Fazli’s Saaya e Khuda e Zuljilal and Dr Rana’s next two blockbusters.

All these films are expected to push Pakistani cinema into the international limelight, what with their diverse genres and daring themes that are also socially relevant. If Na Maloom Afraad is a dark comedy based on the lives of ordinary citizens caught in a strike-torn Karachi, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s Main Manto will be Pakistan’s first true biopic. Jawani Phir Nai Aani is supposedly a ‘buddy’ flick and O21 a stylish spy thriller. Yasir M Jaswal’s Jalaibee introduces elements of animation and has been shot on ARRI Alexa HD camera which was used in Hollywood films like Skyfall and Gravity, whereas Ali Zafar and Ahsan Rahim’s joint production is supposed to be a coming-of-age love story.

Shoaib Mansoor nearly crossed over to India when he was invited to discuss a biggie with Eros International. But the director who likes to work at his own pace and on his own terms has decided to start a movie at the local level for now. If sources are to be believed, his next will feature pop artist and the lead vocalist of Symt band, Haroon Shahid, who shall also (expectedly) be composing and singing a few melodies. But this isn’t official yet.

Meanwhile, Mansoor’s assistant director from KKL and popular TV actor Adeel Hashmi has begun work on a film script “with friends”. He wouldn’t reveal much on the project, though.

These are indeed interesting times for cinema in Pakistan. The rise of the multiplexes, which was made possible primarily because of Bollywood movies, has created a film audience which is more accepting of unconventional subjects. Case in point: Waar which turned out to be a huge money-grosser even though it had no item songs and its language was chiefly English.

As Bilal Lashari continues to lap up awards and accolades for his record-smashing debut, the 33-year-old New York University grad is twice as charged about his next film that he promises will find a wider market around the globe. He is already eyeing a “1000-screen” (his own words) release for the film.

Lashari plans to send his lead cast (being kept confidential) abroad for an intensive course in martial arts. The man responsible for bringing the high-end RED Epic movie camera to Pakistan shall also be sourcing technicians from Hollywood. (Recently, Azaan Sami Khan also got a couple of small-time actors from Hollywood to work on O21.)

Given this scenario, Lollywood has been clearly edged out. Forget the risqué ‘Gujjar’ movies that the Multan Road studios continue to churn out, even a Syed Noor — once dubbed the ‘Showman’ — can’t seem to grasp the sensibility of today’s cinema. Though he is still the best among the old guard, his deep conditioning in melodrama and an eternal obsession about casting Saima where she doesn’t fit have only led him to make unwise career moves, especially post-Majajan. And the trend is likely to continue into Bhai Wanted and Teri Meri Love Story, both starring his lady love.

Sangeeta, another veteran, has long hung up her boots as a film maker — that is, if you discount her recent filling in for ‘dropout’ director Adeel P.K. on Ishq Positive. She is working mostly as an actor on the small screen these days. And the kind of duds that her later generation Shehzad Rafiq and Ghafur Butt have delivered recently in the strictly old-school Ishq Khuda (2013) and the misadventure The System (2014) respectively, it is obvious that Lollywood shall have to do a lot more if it means to catch up.

If there is one prominent film person who can act as a bridge between Lollywood and the (shall we say) ‘new’ cinema of Pakistan, it has to be Shaan (rechristened Shaan Shahid). Not only is Shaan happy working with indie directors, most of who may be absolute film-firsts but they have given him his career’s highest points (Khuda Ke Liye and Waar), he is still also considered the most saleable star back in Lollywood. And Shaan is every bit conscious of his status and appeal among the masses as well as the ‘classes’. His future projects are mostly films that combine the best of talents from both the worlds.

Before he begins filming his much-talked-about remake of the 1982’s Hindi classic Arth in December this year, with veteran Lollywood scriptwriter Pervez Kaleem at the helm, Shaan will already have moved on to a very “special” project which is inspired by the 20th century Turkish novel ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ and developed by none other than the popular Urdu novelist turned playwright Umera Ahmad.

According to reports, Shaan and his co-producer Sajjad Gul (of Evernew Concepts) were keen on having Umera on board, even though the writer has never scripted a film before. Like his younger brother Shahzad, Sajjad Gul has also been away from films for a long time — his last release was No Paisa No Problem, a washout, in ’99. His company has been producing drama serials for television all this while.

In the final analysis, things are looking up for what ought to be a new film industry of Pakistan. And this industry is likely to last, for the very fact that it rests on a fresh crop of educated and dynamic film makers who know how to keep up with the Joneses. If only the box office remains kind enough, there is no stopping them.

Originally published in The News On Sunday — July 27, 2014

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