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Spotlight: Haseena Moin

With her incomparable command of Urdu, she harvests the subtlety, flexibility and expressiveness of this colourful language to the full, dazzling her listeners. Haseena Moin is lucky, for what is there more satisfying than to have your creative efforts come to life on-screen and receive universal admiration.

While we were all still wondering in the mid-60s if that modern miracle, television, would ever come to Pakistan, suddenly, there it was. And in those now-forgotten days, a young woman called Haseena Moin and PTV both played a big role in each other’s success and rapid growth.

PTV thrived on the sophisticated and very funny serials, mostly of around 13 episodes, that Haseena Moin scripted, and she, too, had found the right medium for her talent. In the absence of a vibrant theatre tradition in the country, TV presented the budding playwright with the perfect opening she needed.

The black and white mini screen that signed off after a mere three hours in the evening, would instantly hum with life and vitality when a Haseena Moin play started. Of course, great credit also goes to the dedicated producers, directors and actors. But remember, it’s the script above all on which a play’s success rests.

After decades of enjoying her plays, we all know who this lady is -–– at least I like to think I do. But it does appear strange that with success following even greater success on the TV screen, Moin didn’t branch out into other literary forms, for instance, the novel. Or even a few volumes of short stories which are such a popular genre among Urdu fiction writers. Then there is poetry, which every self-respecting lover of Urdu can recite non-stop at the drop of a hat.

Curiously, writing plays is perhaps a more highly complex specialty than the other literary genres, since it combines strong visual content with gripping dialogues tailored to specific characters. With her incomparable command of Urdu, she harvests the subtlety, flexibility and expressiveness of this colourful language to the full, dazzling her listeners. She’s lucky, for what is more satisfying than to have your creative efforts come to life on-screen and receive universal admiration.

Could it be that this highly talented writer hasn’t quite found her own identity? And the day she does that, her creativity will break all bounds. Don’t forget that as a Pakistani woman she is held back by the endless restraints in which our culture trusses up women. Men, of course, are given all the freedom they want and are encouraged to run wild. They experience the world in all its variety, magnificence and wicked, dissolute splendour. But as for young women, families insist on keeping them under wraps. The miracle is that Moin has managed to break through all the cultural fetters and send her imagination soaring.

How did she and PTV take off like rockets in those difficult early years? She says they formed a group of creative people who spared no effort to achieve perfection. Working together smoothly, they produced stimulating programmes that were enjoyed by TV’s rapidly increasing audience nationwide. The team included such luminaries as Shireen Khan, Mohsin Ali, Zaheer Khan, Rana Sheikh and Shoaib Mansoor.

Haseena Moin mentions the PTV Academy that was set up earlier. It could have turned out high quality and skilled performers and producers had it been allowed to survive. When faced with raw recruits, Rana Sheikh would start to scream, she recalls with a smile. Shoaib Mansoor making waves these days with his brilliant new feature film, Khuda Ke Liyay, would bury his head in his hands and Khawaja Najmul Hasan would shudder in disgust when dealing with newcomers who couldn’t do anything right. Today she misses that exciting team work and camaraderie with a congenial group of highly creative people.

What made Haseena Moin become such a hit so rapidly, given that the medium of TV and her own experience as a playwright were in an experimental stage? “I don’t understand how it all happened. Let’s just say it happened,” she murmurs.

Actually, at a TV programme aired by a channel on her, several colleagues offered their views about her work. A famous director announced, “Nobody writes comedy like you do.”

Qazi Wajid’s declaration, “She created living men,” was evidence that her plays were not inhabited by dummies and robots but real people. Another TV personality described Qabacha, the renowned comic character in one of her plays, as being perhaps the funniest creature to inhabit Urdu fiction.

But her highest achievement to my mind is that she has liberated young women from the self-effacing, quiet, shy, nek parveen image fostered by the then desi culture. Haseena Moin’s heroines are outspoken rebels who chart their own paths and can hold their own against adversarial young men who challenge their independent attitudes. And all this happened without flouting societal norms or knocking down prevailing middle-class shibboleths.

Her heroines might be rebellious but they’re not wild or indecent. They’re also very funny and that is what endears them to the audience. One of her TV directors has the last word on her plays. “Her romances have no equal.”

Moin certainly has her finger on the pulse of young women and knows what makes them tick, since her initial job was as a teacher, and then principal, of a large girls’ school. She was so deeply involved in the school that she continued working there despite her career as a playwright scaling new heights. Perhaps that’s where much of her inspiration came from.

If you’re expecting Haseena Moin to be as daring as her heroines, you’re in for a surprise. Despite being a ringleader in school and up to all kinds of mischief during her student days, she appears today, at least outwardly, to be a bit timid and overly sensitive.

With her dupatta firmly in place, she says strange places and crowds make her nervous. She often travels abroad in connection with the shooting of her plays but prefers to take a friend along. “I don’t like travelling alone, not even to London where I have many friends.”

Brought up in a loving, tightly-knit family, her strict mother focused on character-building. She describes her father as, “sweet and kind-hearted with no obvious faults. I try to follow his style and not hurt anyone.” Asked why she isn’t fearless now the way she was in her youth, she refers to her very protective upbringing. Also adding, “One is daring when young but with the mind and imagination developing as we grow, one can see pitfalls and dangers.”

To prove her point she describes how once when she was visiting a friend, it began to rain heavily. Night fell but the rain wouldn’t stop. So despite her friend’s entreaties to stay where she was, fearless Moin caught the bus home and arrived drenched. Her parents were horrified, and lectured her on why she hadn’t stayed back at her friend’s house.

A psychologist offers her own version for the striking contrast between diffident Haseena and her cast of daring young women. She explains that people’s inner and outer selves are not always in synch. The renowned playwright’s shy persona may come from her genes and upbringing and the gutsy, audacious heroines of her plays may be based on her visionary self.

An MA in general history from Karachi University, she had a great time there with her mixed group of friends. So why didn’t she grab one of the young fellows, when she had the chance. “Never gave a thought to the matter. Never met anyone I cared for,” she casually answers, like someone who’s been asked this question a hundred times. Surrounded by family members of all ages, and a large group of friends, Haseena is kept fully involved.

For her soft and gentle nature, Haseena Moin has occasionally pay a price. For instance, she missed out the awards doled out last August, to Karachi artists, among others. They were handed out by the president, to galaxy of performers while Moin sat quietly in the audience.

Despite having served PTV for 35 shining years and still writing scripts on national days for PTV along with serials she was totally ignored. Her countless fans and admirers should rise up in protest.

She is busy currently in writing a long serial for Satish Anand and many of you may have seen her Eid play: Mobile Eid. Like many discerning viewers, she decries our TV channels’ current obsession with Indian plays and programmes. These are being shamelessly copied wholesale by most producers of Lahore and Karachi, who should know better. The overdressed and bejewelled ladies of Indian TV are taking over our channels’ own earlier natural and true-to-life fare.

The Indian TV’s fixation on abnormal and vicious family infighting, the pointless projection of lurid affairs, the totally unnatural rivalries, jealousy, hatred and enmity among wealthy families and big business houses are rapidly replacing the realism and creativity for which our plays were known.

Where does the subtle wit and humour that are the hallmark of her plays come from? How is it that she hasn’t made me laugh even once during this interview, I crib? Haseena’s face instantly becomes a solemn mask. “No jokes during Ramazan, the month of prayers,” she intones, and I crack up.

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