In the summer of 1988, Hussain Shah returned home from the Seoul Olympics with Pakistan’s first-ever boxing medal; throngs of admirers greeted him at the Karachi airport but he soon faded away and became just another name in the annals of history. In August 2015, this boxer’s story re-emerged as a movie. This is the power of film; it holds the ability to revive memories of a hero that the nation had forgotten. The Pakistani film industry is representing not only Shah, but others including Saadat Hasan Manto and then Mir Taqi Mir and Imran Khan in upcoming movies. In the wake of these films, the Herald asks a panel of commentators whose life stories they would like to see as biopics.
An urban legend
Arif Hasan’s work and life are intimately tied to the story of Karachi. He has done more than perhaps any other individual or institution has over the past three decades to highlight the needs of low-income groups — designing practical solutions to address their needs, and advocating those needs at governmental and other platforms to implement change. The Orangi Pilot Project, initiated by Akhtar Hameed Khan, is one of the greatest success stories in the world and Hasan’s long-term involvement in it allows him to be an excellent interlocutor to tell the story of the project and its impact. Many of his smaller projects have also had a broad impact on thousands of people, but those stories are still untold.
Hasan has spent a large part of his life trying to understand the problems of the city and working out solutions that are centred on the community’s needs and driven by their involvement. His life and work represent selfless dedication to the improvement of the lives of the less privileged, which will be an inspiration for younger people. His life tells a radically different historical and developmental story of Karachi that will allow a larger number of people to critically understand this city’s past and present problems, and the issues the city will be dealing with for years to come. This will hopefully also enable a different conversation on Karachi, based on an understanding that the interests of the wealthier sections of the city are intimately tied to the welfare of the less financially privileged sections.
By Bilal Tanweer, a teacher, translator and author of the award-winning book The Scatter Here Is Too Great.
My fair ladies
How about biopics on women, to begin with? We now have two women activists from Karachi who have been assassinated due to their commitment to social justice — Perween Rahman and Sabeen Mahmud. Because the patriarchal-militant-media-security complex in the country could not care less about justice or women, I think producers might be enticed by the sheer drama of the plot that can be created on screen. Land grabs, insurgencies, disappearances, the Taliban, the Chinese, ethnic politics, civil society, business students, intelligence agents and, of course, assassinations — what possibilities for “hit” stories! The landscape of Balochistan can be used for good cinematic effect too. The films could be called “Assasi-nation”, an apt, new nickname for Pakistan. We can make a whole series in fact – Assasi-nation 1, 2 and so on – like Rocky, you know. But there would be no feel-good element in these thrillers and they will not produce a positive image of the country — which, of course, is our nation’s paramount concern.
Hence, I offer you other, more realistic, options: in the field of education and development, Akhtar Hameed Khan and Anita Ghulam Ali; in the domain of folk music, Pathanay Khan and Reshma; in the realm of poetry, Sara Shagufta and Ustad Daman; and in the area of the invisible multitude, any one of the millions who have been displaced by floods and war in recent years, with no one to tell of their extraordinary lives.
By Nosheen Ali the program director of Social Development and Policy at Habib University.
The heroes amidst us
A biopic is a tough choice for a film because it is constantly seeking a balance between authenticity and relatable narrative. Audiences often arrive to such movies with a preconceived notion about the subject. The film then has to accommodate that, while also presenting a narrative that the audience can enjoy.
In Pakistan, the nascent situation of the film industry means that we are still finding our cinematic voice — it is not fully evolved just yet. So far, a simple black-and-white hero (Shaan in Waar) has provided one template of what can work. So I think that an unheralded and relevant hero to commit to film would be the late Sifwat Ghayur. A legendary police officer from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, his story has already inspired television shows in his province, and would be a great one to bring to the silver screen. Another slain supercop, Chaudhary Aslam Khan, also presents a compelling option, but you’d need Scorsese to do him justice.
Personally, I would love to see a biopic based on Wasim Akram, as he remains the closest thing to a divine entity that I have seen. Yet, such a film would need to explore Wasim Bhai’s decidedly made-of-clay feet, i.e. the allegations of match-fixing against him. But, that is something neither Pakistan nor Akram have made their peace with, so I’d rather not watch an airbrushed version. Mohammad Amir’s story offers a similar arc and his impending return even offers redemption, but I feel it is too early to tell that story.
One name that was suggested to me, and which immediately made perfect sense, was that of Parveen Shahkir. Set in Karachi, her story brings together high art and tragedy in equal measures. A defiantly creative woman who was fiercely intelligent and independent, Shakir’s tale deserves a cinematic telling.
By Ahmer Naqvi, a freelance journalist writing on cricket, cinema and music; he currently works for the music website Patari.
The queen of hearts
My choice for a biopic would be Madam Noor Jehan. I believe her story is eminently compelling, from her days as a child film star in Bombay to her heyday as heroine in a newly-formed Pakistan film industry and then, finally, as a phenomenally successful playback artist.
Her professional life was littered with achievements. She was on the verge of superstardom at the time she decided to move to Pakistan. Amongst one of the only members of the film industry to move from the established film hub of Bombay to Lahore while at their peak. She became the backbone of the early success of the Pakistan film industry starring in a series of highly successful Urdu and Punjabi films. Such was Noor Jehan’s charisma that even Indian film historians have wondered that if she had remained in Bombay whether the Indian film industry would have developed along the lines of Hollywood — that is, with actors skilled in both acting and singing populating the industry.
In Pakistan, she went on to become the first female film director in the industry. She ‘retired’ from acting in 1961 at the age of 35, which only paved the way for an even more successful phase of her career — that of a playback singer. Trained in the classical tradition of music, Noor Jehan started singing at the age of five and went on to record over 10,000 songs in her lifetime. Her career spanned seven decades, during which she was also given the honorific title of Malika–e–Tarannum (Queen of Melody).
I believe a biopic of Noor Jehan would be ideal not only because of her remarkable professional life but also because of a compelling private life which was often more colourful than her on-screen persona. In all senses of the word she was always larger than life. Noor Jehan’s influence on popular culture in the region has been unparalleled; from her films and music, to the devotion of her fans, which often bordered on obsessive devotion. It makes for a perfect on-screen translation.
By Ali Khan, he heads a department at the Lahore University of Management Sciences; he is currently undertaking research on the Pakistani Film Industry.
Share your pick for who the next biopic should be based on, in the comments section below.
This was originally published in Herald's September 2015 issue. To read more from Herald in print subscribe.