Aurora Magazine

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The portrait of a lady

Published in Jan-Feb 2007

Sahira Kazmi, director and producer, in profile.

Dominique Francon, the beautiful heroine of Ayn Rand’s phenomenal novel, The Fountainhead, was a woman who sets out to destroy the love of her life, Howard Roarke, because she feels that a great man like him cannot survive in a depraved society. Unemotional yet passionate, cynical yet idealistic, she is one of the most memorable and complex characters ever created.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding portrayals of the enigmatic Dominque have been brought to the screen by none other than Sahira Kazmi, in the 1970s PTV play, Teesra Kinara. It is a performance that still creates flutters amongst audiences when the play is repeated on television, as Kazmi seemingly effortlessly brings to life the complexities and fears plaguing Rand’s intriguing heroine.

Although Kazmi began her career as a television newsreader after she had moved to Islamabad from Karachi with her family, “out of sheer boredom and the insistence of a family friend”, she swiftly steered towards acting.

Her first play was entitled Kurbatein aur Faslay (KAF) based on Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons followed by Parchaiyan (based on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady), which was followed by Teesra Kinara.

All three roles set her apart from her counterparts. For one thing, they weren’t the typical ones of the giggly girl next door. Not for her the bubbly and coy roles that female actors opted for at the time (and even today, but that’s another story).

Instead, Kazmi epitomised the modern independent Pakistani woman, one who had a mind of her own and was willing to take risks – all the while being extremely well-dressed and glamorous. Her sophistication, combined with her sensuous husky voice, distinguished her from her contemporaries and added an extra dimension to her persona. Perhaps certain facets of the roles she played on television were extensions of her own personality: honesty, passion, rebellion, as well as a sense of humour.

Kazmi epitomised the modern independent Pakistani woman, one who had a mind of her own and was willing to take risks – all the while being extremely well-dressed and glamorous.

But despite “having been a hit” from her first play, Kazmi quickly realised that her real passion lay in direction. She had already assistant-directed a number of programmes after KAF, including Professor – a “wonderful series on relationships between students and professors” – but her debut as an independent director was a series entitled Hawwa ke Naam (HKN) on “women’s rights and their imaging in Pakistan”.

HKN proved to be a precursor of the many ground-breaking plays she would go on to direct that revolved around pertinent social issues, particularly the emancipation of women and human relationships gone awry.

Kazmi credits this constant exploration of human nature and social issues to her earlier experiences at PTV.

“I came from a somewhat privileged background, and working for television exposed me to a lot of things as well as different types of people that I wouldn’t have ordinarily met. It showed me the way people, particularly women, were, and are, mistreated in Pakistan.”

This exposure, perhaps, ignited a spark within her to explore the plight of the common man, and the issues that plague their daily lives.

Kazmi, however, is not one to sermonise.

“I am a treatment director and what has been most rewarding for me is that my work has touched the masses; my treatment is just ‘intellectual’ enough so they can follow the play. I believe that you have to project issues through the characters, the storyline, rather than outright preaching.”

Clearly, Kazmi is somewhat of a rebel. With the exception of a few, the plays that she has directed have all revolved around controversial social issues: whether it was Tapish – which delved into the plight of a college-going woman who is raped because of her political activism, or Hawwa ki Beti which revolved around the life of an orphaned young girl. Zaibunisa dealt with domestic violence, while Aahat and Nijaat dealt with family planning, as well Kisey Kahoon, a play that was recently entered at a New York-based drama festival.

Kazmi is somewhat of a rebel. With the exception of a few, the plays that she has directed have all revolved around controversial social issues.

Even in her romantic plays, Kazmi touches upon the hardships and victimisation of the masses subliminally… for instance, in Dhoop Kinaray, a romantic play, she shows the aftermath of victims of a bomb blast. Similarly, Rosie, an adaptation of Tootsie bought in the issues of women’s rights.

Another quality that distinguished the plays Kazmi directed in the eighties was their distinctive soundtrack. A passionate music buff, Kazmi introduced the concept of a theme song in a drama. So much so, that she actually went so far as to have Tina Sani render Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal ‘Gar mujhe is ka yakeen ho…’ in Khaleej, during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, a time when Faiz was officially banned from radio and television.

“After the song was aired, a senior member of PTV called me. I just said, ‘Oops, it’s already been aired’. You have to bunk the system with subtlety,” she explains nonchalantly.

Surprisingly, Kazmi feels that “whatever his faults, Zia was a fan of television; both Dhoop Kinarey and Khaleej were termed racy during his regime, but were aired uncensored. Zia’s regime was actually extremely progressive in terms of television, since this was the time when dramas such as Mohsin Ali’s Ankhahi and Shahzad Khalil’s Teesra Kinara and Tanhaiyan were also aired.”

During Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership, the media laws prevented directors from portraying politicians on television. Once again, Kazmi paid no heed to such restrictions and went full speed ahead with another groundbreaking serial – Tapish. Not only did it deal with the issue of rape, it showed the furore and angst of frustrated college students, as well as the fascinating personal and professional life of a politician.

Kazmi further explored her passion for music by dabbling in music videos; in fact, she was one of the first directors to bring in the storytelling concept to music videos. She also succeed in popularising Sindhi Sufi music by bringing folk musician Allan Fakeer and pop star Mohammad Ali Sheikhi together for a mainstream version of Allan’s folk tune ‘Humma Humma’.

“When this version of ‘Humma Humma’ was about to be released, people thought I was nuts, but it was a huge success; truck drivers and the elite alike loved it, and it was massive hit. But the biggest compliment I received was from Allan, who said, ‘thank you for making me popular; after this song people actually pay me for my work now.”

Due to the popularity of ‘Humma Humma’, Kazmi, Alan and Sheiki were invited to a musical conference in Singapore, where she received an honourable mention.

But Kazmi’s journey from acting into directing was not as easy as it appears. For one thing, she had to repeatedly prove to her peers (the males ones in particular) that she was more than just a pretty face, that she was actually working as hard as they were to be where she was. While she is clearly proud of her success, Kazmi is humble enough to acknowledge the contribution of her mentors at PTV.

“People then were very non-judgemental. If they saw potential and enthusiasm in someone, they went the extra mile to train them, and encourage them.”

A state of affairs that she feels has changed drastically.

“Today, the emphasis is on sporting an American accent, donning a tight T-shirt and jeans and making money. There’s no emphasis on imbibing knowledge or training; there’s not enough commitment or respect left for work. If your ultimate aim is to copy an Indian soap then you will not make anything worthwhile.”

Kazmi is clearly disenchanted with the work that is being produced today. So much so that she left PTV more than a year ago.

“I need a competent team and equipment in order to produce something worthwhile. Channel owners need to invest in training their people and respect creativity.”

But despite the bitterness apparent in her voice, Kazmi is clearly not one to give up. Her passion and dedication to her work prevails, and she plans to make a film next. And all she’s willing to say about it is that it will be on something that promotes the soft image of Pakistan.

“I want to focus on art and culture in our country – our educated people; that doesn’t just mean fashion shows or pop music – but theatre, music and other important relevant aspects of Pakistan… the fact that we’re such emotional people.”

But knowing Kazmi’s penchant for making thought-provoking work, there’s no doubt that she will probably raise a few eyebrows in the process.