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Spotlight: Samina Ahmed

About television, and where the industry has gone wrong, Samina Ahmed is very candid. “I would say PTV's contribution was immense. It set the tone and established standard in drama. It is the benchmark. If I say I have learnt anything, it is because of PTV. Later though, it let itself go. It became too much of a mouthpiece for the government. Propaganda took over and entertainment took a backseat.”

Samina Ahmed is anxious. The award winning actress and producer is more concerned with the present crisis facing the country than matters of the artistic world, and is keen to talk politics.

"What do you think is going to happen next?" she frowns earnestly, after ushering me into her living room and exchanging pleasantries. I mutter something about uncertainty and the need for hope, but today, Ahmed isn't hopeful.

Since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Samina Ahmed had been “very depressed” at the loss of “a true friend of Pakistan.” She wonders whether the federation can hold itself together, and says we are witnessing one of the darkest chapters in the nation's history.

For Ahmed, activism, together with acting, has always been a part of her life. A member of the Women's Action Forum (WAF) since its inception, she says her involvement with the group has dwindled in the recent years owing to work commitments, though she still supports their efforts.

Now in her mid-fifties, she first began acting at the age of 18, while still a student at the College of Home Economics in Lahore. From the early days, when she describes herself as a naïve teenager, she has gone on to become one of Pakistan's most recognisable television personalities, the first woman to set up her own production house, and one of the select few who have been able to maintain their acting careers beyond fresh-faced youth.

She worked for 20 years as the Programme Director at Alhamra Arts Council, and her roll-call of hit shows includes Family Front, Hoobahoo, Naat mein dum, Hanstey wastey, Eik do teen and Jatt and Bond, which she produced and her son, Zain Ahmed, directed.

Her comedies, which at times have touched upon sensitive social issues, have proven to be a hit among audiences over the decades. She explains: “One does laugh about some issues. I think it's always good to bring the issues in front of the people and looking at the absurdity of that situation, so you get a perspective,” though she says she is not one for shoving it down their throat, she adds, “I don't do social satire.”

Samina Ahmed is soft-spoken, and often pauses to consider what is being asked of her before delivering a reasoned response. Despite her years in a profession sometimes characterised as being superficial, she has not acquired any lofty pretensions.

As the subject turns to her television work, we talk about her favourite scriptwriters Dr Younis Butt and Farooq Ahsan, the quality of dramas today as compared to the heyday of PTV (it's gone downhill, owing to a serious lack of investment in acting by PTV at the time of privatisation), and world trends in television. What does she think of the plethora of reality shows around the world, could it catch on here?

”The biggest reality show is going on in Pakistan and I find it very hard to compete with that… my little 20-minute comedy doesn’t hold much of a chance against it,” she shoots back.

Punjabi unity is another of her idée fixe, as she feels the talent pool here in Lahore and its environs is going to waste. ”I feel very strongly that the Pakistan film industry should try to explore the possibilities of co-production with India, to exploit the untapped potential on this side of the Wagah,” she says.

”There is a huge market for Punjabi films because there is a strong Punjabi Diaspora around the world and both India and Pakistan can benefit from that,” Ahmed adds.

As for Pakistan's ailing film industry, Samina Ahmed says, “If we're producing 10-14 films a year, Punjabi, Urdu, Pashto together, it means that there is no industry really.” She praises 2007's Lollywood mega hit film Khuda Key Liye, which she says is “good because it debates religion, which has never been done before.” She also adds at the same time that filmmaker Shoaib Mansoor’s $3.5 million production bill was footed by a government agency.

Now in the twilight of her own acting career, Ahmed places her faith in the youth and believes that their talent is waiting to be explored. She speaks glowingly of the actors unearthed in her recent talent show, Kala Kaal, who came from Ajoka, youth groups, and universities like NCA and says she will be asking the concerned channel to continue the show.

I ask her whether she has any aspirations of making her own film. She grins. “I'd love to. I'd love to produce a nice comedy film... perhaps with Zain.”

This leads to the very obvious question: what does it feel like working with her son? Does Ammi ever pull rank with beta? “If he's the director then he has the final say. If I'm the director then I have the final say. You have to have this kind of discipline. I can suggest, and I give advice at times. If he doesn't agree, he'll tell me to do what he wants done.”

Back to television, and where the industry has gone wrong, Samina Ahmed is very candid. “I would say PTV's contribution was immense. It set the tone and established standard in drama. It is the benchmark. If I say I have learned anything, it is because of PTV… later though, it let itself go. It became too much of a mouthpiece for the government. Propaganda took over and entertainment took a backseat.”

Her main contentions with PTV are that it didn’t pay actors to become fulltime professionals, nor did it train actors in academies. “They lacked vision”, she says, which led to the present state-of-affairs, in which Samina bemoans the industry's penchant for quantity over quality.

What's more, she explains, television channels tend to keep the intellectual property rights for an entire show, meaning production houses cannot earn from royalties, which again leads to quality tailing off when it comes to the later episodes of certain shows.

Still, though, it would be foolish to write off PTV altogether. “I'd say it's a 70/30 divide now, nationwide, of those who watch PTV and those who watch other channels,” she says, summarising the urban-rural divide.

In a revealing anecdote, Samina Ahmed says, “We went to Murree last year and were shooting a play there. And in my show I had done 50 episodes for a private channel and I had two actors who were doing a PTV show, Inspector Khojee. All the children coming back from school and the elders gathered around those two boys –– they knew all the details about that show … we were simply standing on one side with nobody paying us any attention."

Now in the twilight of her own acting career, Ahmed places her faith in the youth and believes that their talent is waiting to be explored. She speaks glowingly of the actors unearthed in her recent talent show, Kala Kaal, who came from Ajoka, youth groups, and universities like NCA and says she will be asking the concerned channel to continue the show.

The problems, she says, still arise from the conservative nature of the society. “There are honour issues with a lot of parents. I have talked to very talented girls … who put on skits on various dramatic events in their colleges. I've told them to come to me. The girls want to act –– it's the parents who don't want them to. So there is still a stigma associated with it in society.”

The tension between art and environment seems to be a recurring theme here. As an artist working in an artistically oppressive, politically unstable environment, is it a help or hindrance? After all, artists have historically produced some of the best work in the most adverse conditions.

Samina Ahmed, however, belongs to another school of thought. “For any industry to flourish there has to be law and order and stability,” she says. “Entertainment is also part of that. If we want it to flourish we need peace. If we have that, yes the potential is there. If we don't have that then we have nothing.”

The full-time television maestro and part-time activist, Samina Ahmed is a veteran from the early days of Pakistani television who continues to innovate and remain at the forefront of the industry even in 2008. That mantle will have to be passed on to the youth she speaks so highly of, sooner or later, but till that time the audience continues to savour her genius.



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