Television is a fickle medium often short on substance. Ever since the confluence of private productions, satellite channels, cheap cable options - and now local satellite channels - started converging, setting off a 'media boom,' it seems that the entertainment options of the Pakistanis have increased manifold. But a quick run through of the programming reveals little variety.
With a few meritorious exceptions, the same old drivel drives the industry. Bad acting, weak plots and themes sans substance help funnel away the flock towards greener, tempting pastures (read Indian channels). But there are minds at work trying to challenge the notions of the primetime pundits, introducing bold new themes. One of these minds is stalwart comedienne and lady par excellence Bushra Ansari, whose play Raj Hansnee is at present doing the rounds on Indus Vision.
Taking a break from the two kinds of productions that rule primetime nowadays - for example, the soap opera with usually four leading ladies, shot simultaneously in London, Paris and Uganda, and the annoying gaggle of cloned sitcom's - Bushra, who wrote and directed the serial, told a different tale. Based on a true story, it is the experience of one woman, born a Hindu, who fell in love and married a Muslim Pakistani man in the United States. Because of her convictions and feelings for this man, she left the faith of her forefathers and converted to Islam.
But tragedy was around the corner for she soon found out that her Mr. Right wasn't all he was cracked up to be. As the play develops, we find out that he's actually a real scumbag, and has been hiding his past from this poor woman. Caught in the fracas is their newborn daughter, whom he abducts and disappears with to parts unknown. That, and the woman's struggle to reunite with her daughter, forms the gist of the play.
Bushra Ansari explained why she chose such a theme.
"This issue is not really that unusual. Its just not been done on TV. The girl on whom the story is based lives in Los Angeles. She was actually married into my in-laws family. She did indeed fly down to Pakistan to seek out her daughter. She even came to me, and I really felt that I should have helped her. But I didn't want to get caught up in any legal problems. I'm in the limelight, so the next thing, would have been a headline screaming 'Bushra Ansari tries to kidnap child,'" Bushra relates.
Only she can tell such a heart-wrenching story with such sidesplitting wit, and still be earnest.
"You know people here are experts in creating bad out of good," she adds. "Since I couldn't help her like that, I wanted to produce this play to tell her story. Obviously I've added some dramatic elements, but the core issue remains. There are a lot of themes one wants to explore. But because of censorship and resistance from various groups, one's efforts are often frustrated," Bushra adds.
Considering the cultural minefield that is Pakistan when the subject of faith is brought up, the question was how Bushra had dealt with the intricacies of incorporating the issue of religion within the framework of art.
"We have this concept that because we are born Muslims, we will go straight to paradise and we know it all and that we have authority on Islam. A true convert thoroughly studies the faith. We just skim through, not bothering to understand what is being read. There is a scene in the play where Raj (the woman's husband) talks about maxing out his credit cards and committing some serious fraud. When his wife who has just converted, warns him and points to the immorality of such an act he instantly attacks her faith, implying that she is not a genuine Muslim by saying that she has only been separated from the idols for four days. This is what we want to educate people about."
Due to the controversial nature of the serial, Bushra didn't take it to PTV, as according to her, she already knew what the answer was going to be. But she did know where the story would fit right in. "Indus gave us that privilege and I appreciate Ghazanfar Ali. He takes initiatives. They have developed a parallel industry."
Initial viewer response to the play is also encouraging. Mrs. Fateh, a housewife expressed her views. "This is a good play to watch with the kids. It has a great moral lesson to it. I really like it as it has a very different approach. Bushra Ansari has done a great job tackling such a theme. It shows the intolerance we can be capable of. From our own experience, we know that people who convert to Islam of their own free will are often better Muslims than those born into the faith. They have studied and made a conscious decision, thus we can learn from such people. The only complaint I had was the timings. It clashes with the Maghrib prayers."
Abd Al-Batin, a journalist, has similar views. "Most of today's soap operas and serials really don't attract me. But I watched a little bit of this, and found it engrossing. I was hesitant in the beginning, because I thought that it couldn't do justice to such a delicate theme. But I stand corrected. It is definitely good programming. What really struck me was the scene when Nafisa (the central character) is studying the Holy Quran, and her husband scolds her as he thinks she is being disrespectful by placing it by her bedside. That just shows the rampant ignorance that rules our society. We treat faith and its articles in an entirely ornamental fashion. There should be more plays of substance similar to this."
With the production receiving both critical and popular acclaim, surely ideas must be sprouting inside Bushra's head for a career volt-face from acting into writing. But this funny lady is all seriousness about when and what she will write.
"I don't get inspired unless there is a social issue to be addressed. I want to make a statement in every play. Today it's a free-for-all. You can produce, I can produce, heck, even if my cook produced a play, it would run. I have no interest in writing fake and shallow pieces."