Interview: Amjad Islam Amjad
The winner of 12 PTV Awards, 16 Graduate Awards, the Sitara-Imtiaz and the prestigious Pride of Performance, Amjad Islam Amjad is a towering figure in the fields of Urdu literature, poetry, television, film and theatre. He is the author of 40 books in a prolific career that spans almost five decades, and continues to write both prose and poetry.
There are two reasons why I am considered primarily a writer of nazms. One, my first book of poetry, Barzakh, consisted only of nazms. Two, nazm is my favourite form of poetry. I like the structure and freedom of the genre; it allows me to introduce an idea, develop it properly, examine it at length, and then take it to a crescendo. There are few, if any, restrictions of structure, subject and length in nazm, which suits my style. I have probably written as many ghazals and geets as nazms, but I have received the most recognition for my nazms.
At the time of Partition, both India and Pakistan shared a common tradition of Urdu poetry. How has the Urdu poetry of the two countries become different over the years?
The first change that occurred was one of script. The two languages are very similar when spoken but are written differently. Urdu is written in Perso-Arabic alphabet, from the right to the left, whereas Hindi is written officially in the Devanagari script, from left to right. Urdu poetry in India is now often written in the Devanagari script.
A number of senior Urdu poets of India, wrote a lot for Hindi films. These included Hasrat Jaipuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Shakeel Badayuni. They had to cater to a wide audience that included aficionados of the language, as well as people who did not have an understanding of Urdu poetry. Their poetry, therefore, became simpler in form and language, and the themes of love and romance came to dominate their poems.
Over the years, and especially after the sixties, the language, structure and form of poetry in India became increasingly simpler. In Pakistan, on the other hand, elaborate language and complex poetic structures continued to be used by poets. The izafat — an enclitic short vowel used for the syntactical construction of two nouns — for example, is very popular with Urdu poets in Pakistan but is rarely used by Indian poets because the device does not exist in Hindi. Urdu poetry written in Pakistan is heavily influenced by Persian; this is not the case with Indian poetry.
The culture of poetry in the two countries has become very different as well. The mushaira is popular all over India, but it has fallen out of favour in Pakistan after Partition.
Would you say we have better poets and listeners in Pakistan?
Without a doubt, Pakistan has had, and continues to have, better Urdu poets.
It is difficult to say which country has better listeners. Indians listen with a lot of love, seriousness and attention. Mushairas are popular in that country and poets have a lot of opportunities to recite their poems in India. The proportion of really good listeners — those who truly understand and appreciate Urdu poetry — is small in the mushairas of both countries, and possibly a little smaller in India.
During the twentieth century, the contributions made to Urdu literature and poetry by the people whose mother tongue is not Urdu seem to be far greater than those made by the ahl-e-zubaan. Why is it so?
This is a consequence of the popularity, pervasiveness and spread of Urdu all over the region.
When the British came to India, they quickly realised that they needed to communicate with the Indians in a local language. It was not possible for them to learn the 300 plus languages and dialects spoken in India at the time. After a number of surveys, they decided that they would use Urdu, along with English, to communicate with Indians. They set up an Urdu Centre at the Fort William College, Calcutta, to teach the language to the British. The goal was to enable the British to understand Indian society and govern it effectively by making them conversant with a popular local language. The British also started teaching Urdu to Indians all over the country. They founded the Delhi and Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental colleges subsequently and set up departments in both to promote Urdu. Muhammad Husain Azad, Nazir Ahmad Dehalvi, Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulvi Abdul Haq and a number of other literary figures made tremendous contributions towards the popularisation of Urdu in the region. As a result of the efforts of the British and native speakers of the language, Urdu spread outside of the centres of Delhi, Lucknow, Rampur and other cities where it was spoken and started becoming known all over the country.
In the eighteenth century, virtually all literary work done in Urdu was done by the ahl-e-zubaan. However, in the nineteenth century, non-native speakers of the language had started writing in Urdu. And in the twentieth century, most of the major Urdu poets and writers were people whose mother tongue was not Urdu.
Virtually all Pakistani and a lot of Indian vocalists have sung your poetry. Do you believe that their songs have helped popularise your poems?
Yes, absolutely, and the singers deserve due credit for it.
My favourite songs keep changing with time.
If I had to pick one, Iqbal Bano’s rendition of ‘Dil Ke Darya Ko Kisi Roz Utara Jana Hai’ would be my all-time favourite. She did not sing it very often, but it is a masterpiece of ghazal singing.
I also love ‘Kahan Aa Ke Ruknay Thay Rastay’ by Ghulam Ali, ‘Chand Ke Saath Kayi Dard Purane Niklay’ by Jagjit Singh, ‘Kisi Ki Aankh Jo Purnam Nahin Hai’ by Abida Parveen, ‘Guzar Gaya Jo Zamana Usay Bhula Hi Do’ by Hamid Ali Khan, and ‘Main Tara Tara Jagoon Tere Naam’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
You did not mention ‘Main Tere Sung Kaise Chaloon Sajna’ by Noor Jehan.
I love it. It is one of the best renditions of my poetry and my good fortune that Madam sang it.
She did change a word in the first line of the song, though, when she used the word sajna instead of saajana. How come no one corrected her?
Madam was known to have a temper. People were afraid to tell her anything that could offend her. She was very charming and could justify just about anything. So pointing out errors to her was either risky or futile.
When I tried to raise the issue with her, she asked me if I had disliked the song, with the innocence of an innocent young girl. The only thing that I could muster in response was an affirmation that the song was great and the change did not matter.
What did you think of Noor Jehan?
I think she was a truly great human being, the kind the world will not see again. She was kind, generous and warm. When she was comfortable, she made the most wonderful conversation and she had a great sense of humour. People sometimes talk of her use of foul language, her temper and her spitefulness. All that talk may, or may not, be true but it does not take away from her greatness.
She did not always have an easy life. She once told me that she used to sing and dance, scantily clad, in the dead of the winter, four hours a day, outside the tent of a circus to attract customers, just to be able to earn a little money. She faced a lot of challenges in her life and earned fame, fortune and respect the hard way, and after a lot of suffering. I believe that a little residual bitterness is justified after the kind of childhood and youth she had.
You once arranged a meeting with her for Parveen Shakir.
Yes, I did. When I called Madam to request the meeting over dinner, she told me that she had promised to attend the engagement ceremony of a friend of her daughter Tina that very night, but would try to join us for dinner. I had invited a large number of people — poets, writers and artists — to the dinner held at Lahore’s Shanghai Restaurant. I was sure everyone would come but had my doubts about Madam. She had a reputation for showing up late, keeping others waiting, and not caring if people were inconvenienced. I was wrong. She showed up before all the other guests and stayed the longest. She made the most delightful conversation through dinner, led a very lively discussion about poetry, literature and films, and recited her own poetry for the guests.
Madam did not have any education at all but she had remarkable intelligence and a gift for picking up things very quickly. Her poetry was good. There was little that she could not learn if she set her mind to it. She did not speak English very often but when she did, it was always correct English. She had learned it all on her own. What a remarkable lady she was!
Mushairas are not held very often in Pakistan. Books of poetry often have to be published by the poets themselves and do not have a huge market. And singers do not pay royalties to poets when they sing their songs. How do poets make a living in Pakistan?
It is very difficult to make a good living if one writes poetry, however good, and does nothing else. The only two Pakistani poets who have been able to earn a good living by writing poetry are Munir Niazi and John Elia. Others have either lived in dire poverty or churned out substandard fare to make money. Things are improving but very slowly. We are working on putting a system in place that will ensure the payment of royalties and the enforcement of copyright laws. I receive royalties from my publishers but many writers do not. Things need to change.
One of your earliest plays was the comedy Ya Naseeb Clinic — arguably the funniest one ever produced by PTV. How come you never wrote a comedy after that?
Pakistanis, in general, do not have a sense of humour and do not take criticism well. A number of people got upset with me after seeing the play because they thought — incorrectly — that I was making fun of them.
Weren’t you inspired by any real-life characters while developing Ya Naseeb Clinic?
I was, but I did not pick on any one person in particular. The idea for the play came about after producer-director Kunwar Aftab Ahmed spent a few days in a clinic and shared a few funny experiences that I decided to bring to television. Other than one character that was based on Musarrat Nazir, all others were products of my imagination. Musarrat was a very famous actor at the time and had decided to leave the film industry and move to Canada with her husband, a doctor of Pakistani origin. Her decision had caused a lot of commotion in the industry which I found hilarious, so I decided to use her story in my play.
One of your most successful television serials was Waris. The titular character, played by Agha Sikandar, was very small compared to the role of Chaudhry Hashmat played by Mehboob Alam. Had you conceived Chaudhry Hashmat’s character as the central lead of Waris when you wrote the play?
No, I had not. The character of Chaudhry Hashmat took a life of its own in the series. It was Mehboob Alam’s acting and possibly my writing, or just happenstance, that the character took a life of its own. It became so real for me that the actions and the dialogue seemed to come directly from Chaudhry Hashmat.
How did you cast for the role of Chaudhry Hashmat?
Mehboob Alam was a struggling actor when we were casting for Waris. He had done bit roles in a few films and plays. He used to hang around the Lahore Television station (LTV) to make sure that he was seen by directors and producers regularly. I was having a discussion about Waris with Yawar Hayat in his office at LTV station one day, when Mehboob Alam stuck his face in the room ostensibly to say hello. Afterwards, I told Yawar that Mehboob Alam’s eyes — bulging, bloodshot and piercing — reminded me of the Indian actor, K. N. Singh, and were of the kind that I wanted Chaudhry Hashmat to have. Yawar suggested that we cast Mehboob in the role. At the time he was in his early thirties and the role was that of a man in his seventies, but Yawar was certain that he would be good in the role. He managed to convince me that Mehboob Alam was the right choice to play Chaudhry Hashmat.
Mehboob used to suffer from chorea (a neurological disorder), and needed medication to control his involuntary movements. His upper body used to experience tremors and he had trouble holding things steadily. His signature jerking of the head and shoulder and his peculiar way of holding the walking stick were actually symptoms of the disease but became an integral part of the character.
What, in your view, made Waris one of the most successful Pakistani television serials of all times?
It was the team spirit, the collective hard work, dedication and commitment of the entire team that created magic in Waris.
Were you satisfied with the performances of the actors in the serial?
Waris had a lot of relatively inexperienced actors but virtually everyone acted well. Mehboob Alam was phenomenal as Chaudhry Hashmat. Abid Ali, Firdaus Jamal, Shujaat Hashmi and Aurangzaib Leghari turned in stellar performances. Tahira Naqvi did very well as Seemi. Agha Sikander was great as Farrukh. Munawwar Saeed played the role of Chaudhury Yaqub exactly like I had envisioned it. Uzma Gilani’s performance in the play was flawless. There were two scenes in which she brought tears to my eyes and outdid everyone else in the cast.
There was little money in television when you wrote Waris. Now that show business has come of age in Pakistan and writers are able to make good money, why have you stopped writing for television?
Show business may have come of age in Pakistan but television has become a business in the country. It is no longer a platform for responsible, artistic expression. The obsession with ratings, returns and fame has killed the soul of the industry.
As a senior writer, I have a piece of advice for the current crop of writers: if you have to make a choice between lining your pockets and making a home in people’s hearts by doing the right thing, always opt for the latter.
Are the two mutually exclusive?
Not necessarily, but they seem to have become so in the world of television in Pakistan. People appear to be worried only about fame and fortune; everything else is secondary and there seems to be no focus on producing quality work.
I used to write for television to convey messages that would touch the hearts of viewers. It is not possible to do that with producers who care only about budgets and the number of scenes that are shot each day; directors who do not believe in rehearsals and worry only about ratings; actors who do not prepare for their roles and learn their lines on the sets; writers who recycle old ideas and are afraid to take risks; and people who do not know how to work in teams.
I am a very fortunate person. God has given me enough money to lead a comfortable life. I am not going to trade the love and respect that I get from people all over the world by compromising on quality and on my principles just to make more than I need to lead a happy life.