Noor ul Huda Shah -in conversation
Noor Ul Huda Shah is not only a famous author but a familiar and well respected name in the Pakistani Drama industry. A writer of much renown, she is known for her serials Jungle, Marvi, Bebak , Meri Adhuri Moahabat ,Ajayb Ghar , Adhoora Milan ,and Ishq Gumshuda to name just a few. Her stories are known for their depth and nuanced understanding of the human condition. More recently she was appointed CEO of Aplus television and she is the brains behind its sudden surge as another big player in the Television market. After setting up a strategy for both commercial and critical success at Aplus Noorul Huda Shah has joined HumSitarey as a senior Vice president. Once known as Hum 2, HumSitarey is a companion channel of Hum Tv and in need of a face lift just like Aplus. Shah has a talent for choosing stories that audiences want to watch, combined with a good head for business. We were lucky enough to have a conversation with her about the ins and outs of today’s Drama industry.
Why did you move from APlus to Hum Sitarey?
“Bas mujhey utta kay leygey “ , she says with a self-deprecating smile “Aplus was perceived as a regional Punjabi channel which was its main difficulty in attracting Karachi viewers .I worked there for one and half years as CEO to give them a change of perspective . Now Hum Tv also had a second Channel called Hum Sitarey or Hum 2 at times. Sultana Siddiqui is an old friend and I moved at her insistence to improve things.”
Most channels have a very specific look in terms of lighting, content and even artists. Aplus’s range of dramas changed under your aegis: with diverse serials like Aun Zara Pehchan and Adhoora Milan. Was this a deliberate strategy?
When I arrived at Aplus they had already aired the first episode of AunZara. I watched five or six episodes in one go because I wanted to decide what day and slot we should place it .I held my head in my hands and said this is a channel driver and you guys have put it on without any promotion or fanfare? So I told them to stop and let me market it for 15 days. Then let’s restart it.
What is a channel driver?
It’s a term the industry uses to denote a serial which can get a Tv channel a larger viewing audience and recognition value. So in the two or so week’s delay we did the marketing, setting up hoardings and making presentations to advertisers. Using a fresh cast, the writer Faiza Iftikhar and the director Haissem Hussain had made something very new. Similarly I helped to design Adhoora Milan and the recent Aplus hit Kaneez as popular serials with a specific audience to shore up Aplus’s regular audience.
Pehchan was another serial that aired during your stint, was that a ratings grabber too?
Pehchan may not have been the typical ratings grabber, in fact the channel owner asked me why I had chosen to air it at all as it never got great ratings . I put it on the schedule for variety, to attract the more educated English speaking viewer. Bee Gul is good writer and Khalid Saheb did a great job as director.
Recently there has been a trend in dramas to use very serious subject matter such as rape or say the subject of ‘halala’( under Islamic laws ,after a divorce a woman must marry another man and obtain a divorce from her second husband to remarry her first husband and present them in a very superficial and sensational manner. These subjects have been dealt with before in much more respectful and nuanced ways, so why have standards fallen?
The treatment of any subject depends on both the writer and the director. The way a writer conceives a story, how the director presents it .
These stories present women as machines; as soon as the Nikkah papers are signed they lose all self-will and acquiesce quietly to what is required. For example: In the recent drama Dua,a woman is forced to marry her husband’s friend and in one night manages to conceive a child and complicate the entire situation
Actually women are not the machines; rather dramas are being, made like machines .and it’s out of control. A channel maybe running twenty dramas at a time and it is impossible for one person to know the entire content of a serial. A channel usually knows the story concept and who it stars etc but the rest is really dependent on the writer and the director.
So there are strong issues of quality control?
We do have producers, coordinators and content heads who keep us connected but a lot has to do with of the sensitivity and exposure to certain topics, of the writer and the director.
Another recent example is the Drama Khuda Deykh raha hai which addressed some very important failings in society such as faal and istikhara . The young heroine is abused not only by her husband who divorces her on a regular basis but by her mother and brother who refuse to believe her. When the truth does come out the heroine immediately forgives her mother .That is hardly normal..
There are seasoned writers who handle every topic with nuance, and then there are those younger writers who simply write. They are young girls who just have not experienced life. Then there are the young men who write, first of all they have a male perspective then a similar the lack of life experience. So in their eyes these things are just plot points that have to be shown. it is becoming next to impossible to control these things
How do other countries handle this?
They have different systems. I think this happens only in Pakistan. The script stays with the writer only. A lot of channels and production houses have tried to make this a team effort, lifting the load from the writer. So one person writes dialogues, one person writes the screenplay. In places like America three or four people work together as a team. This allows for meetings and long discussions on each situation and many things can be cleared up.
A collaborative structure sounds good but is there a danger of stifling creative vision with so many people giving their input?
We put a great load on our writers. What happens is we ask a single writer to write a drama. Then the writer is under a lot of pressure. First of all the producer says I have a deadline, I have taken dates from the artists so finish it up quickly .However writers are not paid as quickly as they write but most writers have households dependent on that money. “ oon paison sey oon ka Kitchen chalta hai” They do not write just for pleasure . There are some for whom their next day will begin on the basis of that cheque. It is a huge pressure. So many writers will take on two even three serials because they simply need the money.
There are some Big names writers such as Faiza Iftikhar, Amna Mufti and a few others who can handle all of these things. A mature writer will resist vulgar scenes and protect their creativity. A mature writer will also give a new perspective to a concept we have asked them to write about. For example, when I discussed Farwa ki ABC with Amna (Mufti) she told me about a girl she knew whose lack of English skills created a lot of problems in her life. The story she told me was different from the original but sounded so much better. As a mature writer she was able to come up with a novel story based on these discussions.
A lot of storylines are difficult to believe, and at times the characters reactions are very hard to credit. Why is that?
A Drama can either be close to reality or just below reality. But let me tell you something about this TRP game. The households where most of the TRP meters are placed are very not very educated and so many of our drama makers have to keep this in account.. I can also tell you stories that are straight from reality that you will not believe. A friend of mine, one of the originals in our fashion industry told me of one of her workers. Her four daughters were being abused by their own father and he would not let them marry. My friend arranged and paid for the marriages despite considerable opposition. Similarly a friend from India told me that her servant killed her baby daughter because she did not want the girl to undergo the abuse she had suffered as a child..
What kind of changes are you thinking of making at Hum Sitarey
When I joined Aplus I could move as an individual and had fresh slate. However at Hum Sitarey there are is a culture already in place and a structure that I will have to work with in.. If I am to make changes it will be within that structure, these things require strategy and time and it will be a process rather than sudden. I want to make Hum Sitarey a channel which every viewer will watch. Those that like to discuss things in English on blogs and forums and those that watch dramas as they cook. I want people from every kind of household A,B,Cand D to watch.
How do you see the future of the drama Industry?
I see that the industry is flourishing and I am very proud of the progress made.I think if we can manage to maintain some quality control there is a wonderful future ahead. The mere fact that Indian channels have started to use our material speaks volumes.
Don’t you feel that the Media and dramas in particular, because they are the most accessible media, have a responsibility? The constant image of women as victims is being internalized and that has consequences.
I remember my first drama Jungle. Years after I wrote that drama a woman approached me and told me that she had named her daughter after me. When I asked why, she told me that her brother had watched the serial and had been deeply moved. None of the women in their family were ever allowed to marry to keep their land from being divided but her brother helped her to escape and start a new life after he saw the cruelty of the situation. So yes I understand .But there are many things happening in society which we don’t like to believe are true. The drama Khuda Deykh raha hai may seem impossible to us sitting here but I know off girls from well-educated wealthy households whose parents tell them “go back to your husband he did not mean to divorce you” . In one case the girl has been living with the Man who has divorced her many times over the years. We cannot simply excuse such things, citing lack of economic independence .These are true social problems.
Tell us about your favourite drama, your favourite authors?
Well, I have always been a fan of Bano Qudsia and Ashfaq Ahmed. Hmm I could not choose one writer or serial above another and hurt anyone’s feelings. However out of my own serials I do think I like Ajaeyb Ghar .
What is Ajaeyb Ghar about?
It is about a young man raised basically without any spiritual background who returns to Pakistan only to fall in love with an actual call girl . The call girl is annoyed with his presence and tolerates him to a certain point. As I said the young man has no spiritual background but he used to go singing in Churches with his friends so he visits one and asks the priest there for guidance. The priest tells him to learn how to pray Fajar and connect with Allah. The young man moves away from the prostitute and then she starts missing him. When she goes to meet him he does not have time for her, when once she did not have time for him and she dies of a broken heart on the way back. There is a lot more to the story but it reminds people to recognize and appreciate things like love when they can.
Finally, as writer, do you think it’s a good thing that Urdu is being promoted as the official language of Government these days?
I am not so sure because it may be to the detriment of other regional languages people hold dear such as Sindhi etc .Other languages are equally important, they are just as much a part of our cultural heritage and this whole thing might not be practical to impose.