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Photo by Hussain Zaidi. Courtesy Sarmad Khoosat's Facebook account.

Upholding His Mirror to Society

Mehr Husain profiles Sarmad Khoosat.
Updated 08 Aug, 2023 03:26pm

I know this face. I saw it as Prisoner Z in No Time To Sleep.

But this is also Manto’s face in the eponymous movie.

Yet the voice I hear now is a soft one, the words thoughtfully selected. There is no frenzy or angst. The speech is gentle and calm. A mask for the brilliance that exudes from a single, solitary, sharp mind.

Hello, Sarmad Khoosat.

Perhaps it is the result of navigating Pakistan’s choppy art industry – spanning theatre, art, film, television, and curated work – but today, Khoosat is a curious mix of savvy business acumen and the personification of a modern artist, yet refusing to be limited to either one.

Almost animated yet reserved, he is a keen listener, in the sense that his answers are tailored to the question, not giving away anything more. Not that one can blame him.

From exploring the psychology of people in the teleseries Tamasha Ghar in 2003 to colliding with politics in the film Zindagi Tamasha in 2019, his has been an artist’s odyssey, surrounded by appreciation and condemnation, which explains why he beautifully and carefully words his answers. Speaking to him, it is clear he has curated a persona where the resemblance to his father, Irfan Khoosat, reveals his identity; the surname is shouldered as a legacy.

Bright-eyed, his entire physical being carries an energy which indicates how much of himself he is willing to pour into a project. He sees the world as his canvas with an almost childlike curiosity. No project is enough for him. He wants to know more about the world and the human mind, he wants to realise himself and he is just so eager to communicate what he learns with the world.

Malala Yousafzai is the executive producer for Joyland, a critically acclaimed film for which he was one of the producers. After decades of work, and national and international success, many would sit back happily, content to live as fat cats, smug in their knowledge that they have ‘Made It Big’. Yet, he recently curated Manduva, highlighting the history of Lollywood and Pakistani cinema at the Lahore Biennale Foundation.

Why does he do what he does? What is it about Khoosat that people love, and why do they view his work with simultaneous wonder and criticism? Is the magic shortlived as only a performance?

“I have an explorer’s curiosity. I do it because I am curious about telling stories.”

As a case study Khoosat is an anomaly. His background is in psychology; he earned his Masters’ degree and a gold medal from Government College University, Lahore, and once entertained the thought of being a “pseudo-academic.”

However, irrespective of whether it is the family gene pool – “Abba” (Irfan Khoosat) was in television, most famously as Hawaldar Karamdad, and “Amma” worked for Radio Pakistan – or the desire to know more about human nature, when the explorer and the storyteller in him merge, Khoosat’s audiences are always excited about what he has to offer, no matter what it is.

Producer, director, actor anything to do with Khoosat? Yes, please.

The takers of his various projects are keen on venturing into the unknown because that is somewhat expected of him – the idea that Khoosat will do something ‘different’. The critical acclaim, the shock factor of his work and his artistic sense is packaged neatly as ‘an artist’s experience’, which can be viewed as a means of pushing creativity in a country starved of it. And, as he has discovered, there is always an audience for it, be it Kamli, Joyland, the Justice Pakistan Project, No Time To Sleep (a ground-breaking 24- hour live performance charting the final day of a death row prisoner on or a Lollywood curation. .

For him, his journey is one of evolution and the only standard to uphold is the artistry of his work. As time elapses, past and present work must retain that ‘touch’, the ‘Sarmad Khoosat’ element which he refers to as “nafasat.”

And this is where his soul emerges. Freeing himself from the confines of the formality of English and speaking fluently in Urdu and later in Punjabi, Khoosat emerges with so much passion, it is dazzling! His love for local drama, theatre and television spills over like a river, enriching parched lands, such as Lollywood that desperately need a revival as it crumbles like a dried leaf.

And so all the pieces fall into place. From his first directorial debut in Piya Naam Ka Diya (2007) to Pani Jaisa Pyar in 2011. From Shehr-e-Zaat which held a wide female audience captive to No Time To Sleep in 2018, where he pricked the souls of a deadened nation – Pakistan’s chameleon is sticking to what works for him as an individual.

Is he bothered about the critics who claim he does not give as much as he should or is not open to sharing his work with others? Or when his foray into commercial work – televised drama serials – causes eyebrows to be raised and questions to be asked:

“Sarmad is doing television?” “Why is he doing this? How can Sarmad come down to *this?”* “Oh… he’s come down to commercial work?”

“Criticism is a mindset,” he responds. Being called a ‘sell out’ is shrugged off as a label, not a badge of identity.

And it is true. Expecting Khoosat to share himself and his art would almost be like breaking the Koh-i-Noor into smaller pieces to make several diamond sets. The lustre, magic and magnificence would be gone.

It is what he doesn’t say that surprises one when questioned about his foray into commercial work; where it is alleged he “compromises.” He refuses to apologise for it, instead showing a refreshing attitude towards it. To make a Manto, Shehr-eZaat or Humsafar, commercial work is needed to earn artistic liberty.

He is aware of the losses incurred by the creative industries in Pakistan. “Television is lucrative and I have picked up TV work, which was not my genre. But I have picked up work that is not too far from my principles and ideology, but that was to pay people because people need to survive and produce more work.”

Not that his commercial work dilutes his ideology completely. He maintains that delicate balance between doing commercial work and retaining authenticity, a sharp move as a way of offering financially viable entertainment whilst ensuring that quality is not compromised.

“Character flaws, errors, mistakes that is where stories lie. ‘Wokey’ correctness is limiting,” he says. This is also in reference to the controversy around Shehr-e-Zaat, where it was felt that the female lead’s character arc was regressive. But again, he realises that if he gives in to public pressure that is the cause of artistic decline and the death of engagement, which he sees as necessary for the survival of art. “The same formulas when it comes to stories can be repeated but characters can change. Character vulnerability and flaws must be present.”

Khoosat has created a strategy which leaves the audiences of his commercial work wanting more – more because of what he does to make them ‘feel’. In the same way, he does in his non-commercial work, he has mastered the art of catering to both sets of audiences under the same category – a Khoosat consumer.

He knows the game, he understands the people and the different audiences and he knows what works. He knows his star power, whether it is his surname or the new characters he plays or directs; it is all magical to him as it shapes and transforms into new audiences.

When asked if he sees his work as a sailor who has set out to explore the vast unknown, he laughs. And then deadpans, “I don’t know how to swim.”

That moment there leaves me unsure of what to say next. But I sure as heck want to know more. And unknowingly, one becomes a Sarmad Khoosat consumer.

Mehr Husain is an author and publisher based in Lahore.

Cover photo by Hussain Zaidi. Courtesy Sarmad Khoosat’s Facebook account.