What set Haseena Moin apart? – Dr Naazir Mahmood

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Haseena Moin has been a watershed for Pakistani TV plays. When she died on March 25, 2021, at the age of nearly 80, she left millions of fans sad and nostalgic about an era that resonated with dynamism of Pakistani women. Women such as Asma Jahangir, Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto, and forums like the Women’s Action Forum were challenging the might of the dictator.

Haseena Moin was ready to give us female characters who inspired our young girls and gave them confidence. Neither before nor after Haseena Moinhas there been a playwright quite like her. When PTV started in the mid-1960s Shaukat Siddiqui’s ‘Khuda Ki Basti’ was televised with huge success. But there was no strong female figure in it. Then there were plays by Fatima Surayya based on popular Urdu novels that mostly revolved around women dependent on and driven by their circumstances. ‘Afshan’ was one such play that drew audiences but failed to spark any courageous streak in girls.

Then enters Haseena Moin who sets herself apart by writing dramas fairly distinct from other run-of-the productions. Her female characters were seldom docile, and in the face of a male adversary could challenge him. If he ever tried to browbeat her, she could valiantly give a strongly worded response. If anyone attempted to circulate rumours about her, Haseena Moin’s Zoya – played by Marina Khan – in Dhoop Kinare was prompt to give a rebuttal. Haseena Moin’s girls made mistakes, but were also ready to correct them.

At a time when most TV dramas were marred by domestic and family turmoil, Haseena led an unannounced campaign to liberate women from their shackles. She gave her girls a shot in the arm so that they could stand up tall. Her plays portrayed women who could celebrate the euphoria of big and small wins in their lives. They were keen on spotting new trends without being carried away – such as Sana from ‘Ankahi’. HM made it a point not to discuss the consumption habits of women, as many plays have been doing for long.

A distinguishing feature of her female characters was that they progressed in life with their own efforts. Zara, played by Shahnaz Shaikh, in ‘Tanhaiyan’ was one such example. She did not leapfrog over another character; she advanced step by step without losing her patience or temperament. HM’s plays stood out from the past and looked to the future with hope and humour which was an integral part of her plays. Interestingly, humour she brought mostly through male characters. Be it Jamshed Ansari with ‘Chakku hai mere pass’ in ‘Uncle Urfi’, or Behroze Subzwari as Qabacha in ‘Dhoop Kinare’, these men provided much-needed comic relief to female leads, not the other way round

Her girls came of age with efforts and effervescence in their lives. Some of them follow a business model which is not a typical masculine model of cutthroat competition or based on patriarchal ethos. Businesswomen in HM’s plays are humane and humble, unlike many businessmen who become victims of their own hubris when they are successful. Another characteristic is that her girls demolished boundaries between different types of services that are still common in countries such as Pakistan. Most of these services – like baking and cooking or designing and entertainment – were passe for Haseena, so she made her women cross those boundaries to emerge in other fields too.

One could never underestimate Haseena’s girls in their families; they became a main source of certainty to their siblings rather than causing frictions in the family, as most dramas on Zee TV or Star Plus have been showing. And that trend has rubbed off on Pakistani TV dramas too. The dialogues she wrote were in simple language and in chaste Urdu that some critics did not like and termed them artificial; but this criticism did not hold ground as viewers loved and associated with them.

Her style of writing impressed Raj Kapoor so much that he wanted her to write for his film project called ‘Henna’. Raj Kapoor died before his dream could materialize; his son Randhir Kapoor took up the challenge and invited Haseena Moin to India where she was very well received. She did write the dialogues for ‘Henna’ which was based on a story by Khawja Ahmed Abbas – one of the finest progressive writers in India. But then she requested the Kapoor family not to give her credit for her work, so her name does not appear in the credits of the film. She had fond memories of her travels in India which she mentioned in some of her interviews.

In her prime, she had an immense appetite for writing, and her prolific productions did not adversely affect the quality of what she put to paper. Though her plays lacked political overtones – as we witnessed in plays by Noorul Huda Shah – HM’s plots did reflect some deep underlying problems of society. For example, ‘Parchhaiyan’ – the Urdu adaptation of Henry James’ novel ‘Portrait of a Lady’ – beautifully delineated Pakistan’s own peculiar conditions without scarifying the true spirit of the original. The female lead Najia, played by actor and director Sahira Kazmi, needed to face up to the changing facts in her life and she does.

The problem with most TV plays now is that female characters atrophy and degenerate with the passage of time in their lives. They break down and cry and shout and weep, but none of Haseena’s characters did that. For example, Roshan played by Marina Khan in ‘Parosi’ is a headstrong girl who refuses to waste herself in the sickening tradition of matchmaking where a prospective bride has to appear with a tray of snacks in front her would be in-laws. She is adamant and refuses to demean herself in this age-old ritual.

Haseena Moin was one of the most prolific playwrights in Pakistan and has made her mark as an outstanding woman we can be proud of. That was the time when the increasing religiosity and sectarianism promoted by Gen Ziaul Haq was gradually creeping in our society. Women writers such as Fahmida Riaz, Haseena Moin, Kishwar Naheed, Noorul Huda Shah and Zaheda Hina had their distinct styles of writing. Some were overtly political, others covertly so; a couple of them had a poetic streak, others a scholarly one. All of them toiled their way to the top of literary excellence.

That was the time when bigotry and hypocrisy had not overtaken the popular culture and literature. Spiritual camouflage was yet to suffuse our social fabric, and then there were writers who were peddling precisely such pretensions. The bestseller novels and most watched dramas of today are not what Haseena Moin would have written. She would have exposed such mantras of mausoleums. Now the state itself is a propagator of pseudo-history such as Ertugrul. Give the nation an overdose of hyper nationalism, and enjoy your slot. There is hardly anyone who can replace Haseena Moin with her sharp wit and incisive pen.

Now godly pretensions are the name of the game even in TV dramas. Gone are the days when Haseena Moin’s Dr Zoya graced the screen with her bubbly and boisterous presence. We will miss you Haseena Moin; Thank you for lifting some bits of our lives with your penetrating pen.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk