“Greater and greater things”: Rashid Sami

The Friday Times: October 24-30, 2008

“Greater and greater things”

Rashid Sami has spent his life creating new worlds in film, television, theatre and journalism, says Sanam Maher






’10-12-1995:The MQM filed a five-page FIR in the case of murder of Altaf Hussain’s brother and nephew, Nasir Hussain and Arif Hussain. The complaint has been signed by Altaf Hussain. This is part of the FIR…’ I am standing in Rashid Sami’s office at Kohinoor Studios, scrutinizing Altaf Hussain’s signature. The FIR is framed and is one of several pictures on the wall. Above me, Benazir Bhutto, an ajrak shawl draped over one arm, is captured mid-speech, addressing a crowd of hundreds. Two intricately carved wooden doors leading to the vast studio grounds are thrown open to the afternoon heat. Rashid, the writer, director and producer, is late.

I turn my eye to another photograph. A Chinese man, diagnosed with AIDS, is perched atop a dizzyingly tall electricity pylon. A second panel in the photograph shows him jumping to his death – a shirtless figure soaring through the air, a would-be trapeze artist who has lost his footing. As I look closer at the caption, Rashid bustles into his office, apologizing, calling for tea and settling into a plush red arm-chair with a bowl of Nimco. The wall of photographs? Its part of a sea of ephemera in this office. Rashid explains, ‘This room says a lot about me. The walls reveal a mood, what I take home with me at night. This is what is in my head.’

A collector of old newspapers, Rashid tells me he has just got his hands on a newspaper from September 11, 1948 – the day Quaid-e-Azam died. The account of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s death will take its place beside a newspaper recounting Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s appearance at the Supreme Court in December 1978 – the court allowed Mr. Bhutto to plead his case personally for four days. This was to be his last appearance – the paper details what he wore, who accompanied him and what he said. Rashid explains that these photographs and newspapers tell the story of Pakistan – he says, ‘When you compile them, when you look at what has happened and what is happening today, it is immensely sad. How do these great leaders go? What happened on the Quaid’s last day? On Zulfiqar Bhutto’s, Fatima Jinnah’s or Liaquat Ali Khan’s last day? These are sad stories and they tell us a great deal about our nation.’

The nation and its stories – this is a theme that is close to Rashid’s heart. One of his biggest projects to date has been the adaptation of Shaukat Siddiqui’s classic Khuda ki Basti, the story of a family living in the slums of Lahore and Karachi. Rashid tells me he first encountered the story when he was 7 years old. He fell in love with it, and furtively read in the novel at the age of 9, hidden in his garage or bathroom, as his family did not think the material was appropriate for his age. Rashid won the tussle for the rights to the novel and adapted it for the screen in 2005. ‘Everything seemed to conspire for me to do something with the story,’ he tells me. ‘I was eager to bring the novel to the screen once more, because the issues were still relevant. The issues the novel deals with have not changed. In fact, people have become more down-trodden. Their sufferings have not been alleviated.’

The project lead to the creation of Kohinoor Studios. Rashid recalls a brutal bump back to reality when he met veteran playwright Shoaib Hashmi soon after acquiring the rights to Siddiqui’s novel. Hashmi informed him that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had been the custodian of the project in its previous translations to screen. ‘I panicked,’ he tells me, the weight of responsibility becoming all too clear. As he was scouting locations for the production, he realized quickly that the story could not be shot on location and decided to open a purpose-built studio for the project. The two acres of land were transformed, containing a bazaar, the winding lanes of the slums and the houses the characters inhabited.

It was not smooth sailing yet, however. With twenty episodes of the serialization under his belt, Rashid scrambled to find a buyer for the work. ‘Khuda ki Basti was rejected by several television channels, as it did not boast any big commercial names. I cast theater actors from Karachi to Multan in the project – pure, hard-core actors who had devoted their lives to theater,’ he tells me. ‘Luckily, a sponsor spotted it and fell in love with the project. At this point, I was shaking, nervous because I had invested 50 million rupees in the project and it had not been picked up yet.’

The success of the project within Pakistan is well-known – Geo Television snapped up the production, which boasts the highest ever viewership ratings to date. Rashid recalls receiving calls from Pakistani expatriates working at the Voice of America, BBC and the State Department in Washington, who ardently followed the drama every week.

So how does a young man who graduated from N.E.D with a Bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering to his name reach this stage? ‘My family wanted me to gain a degree and go on to do my Masters and a Ph.D. I refused. I wanted to pursue theater and did any filmmaking courses I could find in Pakistan and the Middle East,’ Rashid says. He ventured on-stage, with Rahat Kazimi’s Theater Wallay company, acting in an adaptation of ‘There’s a Girl in my Soup’ entitled ‘Kuch sach acha, kuch jhoot bura’ and Saira Kazimi’s ‘Nijaat’. ‘That’s where I found my passion,’ Rashid says. ‘That’s where I always thought I’d end up.’ He worked with Sheema Kirmani and Khalid Ahmad in ‘Jinay Lahore ne Wekhia’ before venturing into television and working with Ghazanfar Ali. ‘My family took note of my interest and passion for the creative arts. They told me work at our family newspaper, to channel my creativity there.’ The newspaper? Sada-e-Baltistan, the first ever newspaper published from the Northern Areas, Gilgit Baltistan. ‘My uncle was the paper’s first editor and I was the second. My family wanted me to run the newspaper and eventually get into politics – but my interest lay in street theater and I wanted to perform,’ Rashid remembers.

His political background was not easy to thrust off – Rashid’s mother is Malika Baltistani, a champion of the rights of the people of Baltistan. However, Rashid explains, ‘I had a very political approach to my scripts. When I was able to write my own scripts, I wrote Lyari King Live which was a political satire staged at Karachi’s Café Blue.’ Lyari King Live set the stage for Ali Saleem, the man behind Begum Nawazish Ali, to make his debut as Benazir Bhutto. ‘It was in such work that I channeled my political urge,’ Rashid says.

In the early 1970s, Rashid’s mother started the Gilgit Baltistan Ladakh United Front. At the age of 42, Rashid has taken on his mother’s work and he explains, ‘We do not have voting rights in Baltistan, we are not represented in the Constitution and we cannot take our issues to the Supreme Court.’ Spanning an area of approximately 72,496 square kilometers, the present-day Northern Areas – or what is traditionally known as the Gilgit-Baltistan region – is an area that has historically been of pivotal importance. This is the ancient ‘axis of Asia’, where South, Central and East Asia converge. Gilgit-Baltistan was traditionally India and China’s gateway to Central Asia and beyond, into the heart of Europe, along the Silk Route.  In 1947, Gilgit was restored to the then Dogra King, Hari Singh, who deputed Brigadier Ghansara Singh as Governor. Shortly after, a local rebellion erupted on October 31, 1947. The Brigadier was arrested and imprisoned, while the rebels marched on to Baltistan. On November 2, 1947, they announced a Provisional Independent Government for these areas and invited the Pakistan Government to ‘help administer’ the region. Sardar Mohammad Alam was appointed Political Agent and he dissolved the Provisional Independent Government before taking over the administration of the area. ‘This was against the will of the people,’ Rashid explains. ‘Yes, the people were and are for Pakistan. But this was a black period in our history.’

In 1949, Pakistan separated the administration of the Gilgit-Baltistan from occupied Kashmir and introduced the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation in the area. The area was placed in the hands of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs of the Pakistan Government.

‘Senator Mushahid Hussain told me of an incident when an entourage of PML-Q members was moving from Gilgit to Hunza. The cavalcade of nearly fifty cards bore the Pakistan and PML-Q flags. An eight year old boy saw the line of cars and spat out “Pakistan Murdabad”,’ Rashid recounts. ‘This sort of animosity is dangerous and it has deep roots. That child obviously learned those sentiments from someone. He feels something is wrong,’ says Rashid. The situation in this disputed territory is now reaching a head, according to Rashid. ‘The last sixty-one years have taken their toll on the people. They are questioning the writ of Pakistan in the area,’ Rashid tells me. He explains that a fundamental demand for constitutional rights is the corner-stone of the struggle in the area – as he puts it, ‘declare us a province, give us basic rights or make us independent’.

These are rallying cries that have resonated through Rashid’s childhood. ‘As a child, I grew up seeing the Bhuttos visiting our house. Balti labourers would visit our home and sit on the same sofas, treated with the same respect,’ he says. He feels he learned a lot from the steady stream of plumbers, ordinary mazdoors who brought their problems to his mother. ‘These people are fighting a war within themselves,’ Rashid says. ‘They struggle with being the inheritors of a rich, beautiful land and arriving in Pakistan, forced to look for odd jobs’. He recalls that no Balti visitor would arrive empty-handed – ‘they would bring as few as three eggs sometimes, or almonds,’ he says. ‘This taught me about their pride, their integrity.’

Rashid glides easily between using the terms ‘us’ and ‘them’ when discussing the plight of the Baltis and their struggle against the state of Pakistan. However, in reality, sloughing such skins proves to be difficult. ‘I was born in Karachi,’ Rashid says. ‘I share the same sentiments as everyone else if Pakistan is playing in a cricket match,’ he laughs. On a serious note, he says, ‘I would want to identify myself as a Pakistani. But when you sit amongst the people in Baltistan and hear their stories, when they ask you questions that you have no answers to, you have to wonder.’ Straddling two worlds becomes all the more difficult as Rashid and his family were given three hours to leave Pakistan as Zia ul-Haq seized power, ousting Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. ‘We thought the solution to the Balti’s problems lay with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. We supported the PPP and our newspaper promoted Bhutto sahib,’ Rashid says. He was 12 years old when Zia’s government took over the family properties and bank accounts.

‘The area has developed however. There is greater infrastructure there now, but it has come through the NGOs,’ he says. ‘The people’s spirit is ebbing. They need political will and autonomy. There is so much still lacking and while prices of land have sky-rocketed in the area, the government has granted up to fifty licenses to private companies to extract minerals, gold and precious stones from the area. These end up on the open market in Hong Kong,’ Rashid tells me. He possesses photographs of families, pitching tents on the banks of the Indus in May, in order to prospect for gold in the river. ‘This amazingly rich area has to be nurtured,’ he explains.

While Malika Baltistani is respected by the clergy who hold sway in the area, Rashid remembers chafing against some of the mullah’s more stringent beliefs. ‘I used to have long hair, tied in a pony-tail, and the mullahs would criticize me’ Rashid tells me. He recalls that music and the creative arts became a ‘taboo’ subject as the mullahs took over. However, his mother introduced Rashid to poetry, holding ghazal programmes at her home. ‘I listened to Ahmed Faraz a lot, and I would re-create the narrative of the ghazal in my mind,’ he says. ‘My mother encouraged my love for music and poetry and my first serial, Aik Gaana Aik Afsana was based on music and lyrics,’ Rashid explains. The script and storyline of each episode of Aik Gana were based on the lyrics of popular songs. Airing in 1999, the series took off, with 450 episodes to its credit.

‘I always wanted to be a writer,’ Rashid says. ‘Print media has a magic to it.’ As a prolific commentator and critic of what he termed ‘sarkari’ media, Rashid’s Tube Time column invited its fair share of detractors. Ultimately, he says, his editor ‘started editing (his) columns to the point where they would not make sense.’ When his family received threatening phone calls, Rashid bowed out of print journalism. ‘That crossed a line, I was angry, but I channeled my anger into other projects,’ he says.

With a career spanning theater, film and journalism, I ask Rashid what some of the highlights have been. ‘I’ve struggled,’ he says. ‘I did something I was not expected to do. I had to fight the odds all the time, whether it was my brother making fun of me as I did my theater exercises or my relatives who were confused about what I wanted to do.’ He explains, ‘I consider highs and lows the same – you have to learn to deal with them and make your mark as a positive entity.’ Rashid is currently in talks with India’s Adlabs cinema group. Aik Gana Aik Afsana is also due to make a come-back. He tells me that within a year, there are efforts to create the foundations of a political party in Baltistan, to unite Balti and Gilgiti students. ‘Now is the time that it could turn violent, or encourage dialogue,’ Rashid says.

Rilke wrote, ‘The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.’ The veteran film editor and director Walter Murch said we must realize ‘the purpose of our journey is to go farther each time…we know there’s more potential that we haven’t realized. But because we’re trying, we develop more and more talent.’ As I walk out of Kohinoor Studios, past the Juliet-balconies and Begum Nawazish Ali’s abandoned set, I wonder where Rashid’s potential will lead him next.