At the top of her game – in conversation with Faiza Iftikhar
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When a writer describes her lead character with an unprintable name for a family newspaper as well as men as oxygen masks, you know that Faiza Iftikhar isn’t one to stick to the script. Though we suspect that is mostly because she has trouble with total recall. She claims that she is especially prone to forgetting the names of dramas that launched her career.
One would think that as a famed novelist and drama writer she would have the names on her illustrious roster roll off the tip of her tongue but in a lively, no-holds barred conversation, Faiza Iftikhar proved that while she takes her work seriously, to our delight we found – herself, not so much.
“Writing was in our genes, in our upbringing,” she reminisces. Coming from a literary family where her Dadi was a Kashmiri novelist and her Dada attended to both his dental practice as well as mushiaras, summers in this bustling household of seven sisters and many cousins meant writing and publishing stories for the family’s amusement.
Her sisters – Nadia Akhtar and Sadia Akhtar are also well-known drama writers and Faiza Iftikhar traces her fondness for this medium back to her childhood. She laments that while her sisters grew up to be all kinds of assorted professionals, “Ek main hi full time writer hoon aur kuch na ban saki (Only I wasn’t able to be anything more than a full-time writer).” Though she admits that the ability to lounge in ones pajamas and have a career was quite enticing.
Still, her foray into drama writing was a few years away. She began writing in earnest as a novelist and her stories and novels were published in Khwaatein and Shuwa digest before catching the eye of actress and director Samina Ahmed who roped her in to write a sit-com.
She recalls, “The original writer had taken ill and Samina needed my help even though I had never written a script before. One day she was outside my house rushing me into a car to meet with the owner of Hum TV, Sultana Siddiqui. When I asked why, she asked if I was going to write her sit-com forever.” This meeting led to Faiza Iftikhar writing the popular and first of its kind Ramazan soap with long-time collaborator Haissam Hussain, Chodvi ka Chand.
From then on, she has penned drama after excellent drama effortlessly weaving in the harsh realities of life along with the comedy, romance and yes, drama. She is the creative force behind successful dramas such as Zindagi Dhoop Tum Ghanna Saya, Roag, Ek Nayee Cinderella, Akbari-Asghari, Aunn Zara, and more recently Dillagi and Mein Sitara.
So what is her writing process? “I write my own stories using my own ideas. People who have worked with me know that there is no use asking me about my story, I can’t write one-liners” she says. While she is writing the third episode, she has no clue what will happen in the fifth episode. In fact, she says while writing Dillagi, the only thing the team wanted to know was would it have a happy or a sad ending?
“Mera mood accha hua toh happy ending kar dongi. Agar depressed hui toh mar dongi doon ko (If I am feeling happy, then it will be a happy ending, or if I am depressed, I will kill them both)” she laughs.
If Iftikhar isn’t one for writing according to one-liners, her work is also difficult to classify into the usual singular categories of drama, romance, or soaps. She agrees saying she grew up on a generation of PTV dramas which were wholesome entertainment in a complete package that had something for everyone.
The delineation of genres is a more recent phenomenon, “Yeh soap hai, isme sirf auratien ek dusre ke baal kheechengi, ye sit-com hai, isme hum sirf chawale marenge aur ye 8 baje wala drama hai hum sirf isme romance chadeinge. (On the soap the women will only be cat-fighting, on the sit-com there will be only be slapstick, and in the 8 o’clock slot we will only have sweeping romances.)”
If you think its mere genres that gets her goat, she gets even more fired up about the same old demands of channels and kinds of stories and women they want to portray. “Channels ko aise heroine chahiye jisse sab ke duppatte, tissue, sab geele ho jayan. Ek concept hamare hain galib ho jukka hai… ya toh aurat acchi hoti hai ya bahut buri, ya toh intelligent hoti hai ya bilkul duffer hoti hai, ya bahut hi bholi bhali hoti hai ya logon ke kaan kutarti hai. Aisa nahin hota (Channels just want heroines who make people shed tears. There is a trend nowadays to portray women in binaries – either very good or very bad, very intelligent or totally stupid, completely innocent or totally devious)” she complains.
Iftikhar is equally annoyed with the representation of these perfect characters on screen and questions where they exist. Thankfully, not in her imagination otherwise how would we have been treated to such wonderful array of characters from the man-child Aunn, his wise cracking Dadi, to the steely Bilquees Kaur and masterfully manipulative Asghar and Akbari, the guilt-ridden Ayaaz from Raog, the resilient Diyaa from Diyaa Jale.
Her work always showcases nuanced characters. She effortlessly blends bleeding hearts and visible warts. This infuses her characters with a realism that makes them believable and her writing remarkable. With her trademark humour and humility Iftikhar brushes aside any praise saying, “It is easy to write about realistic characters. They are all around you.”
Yet we beg to differ, the never ending on screen parade of mazloom auratein and shatir saas’s bear witness to most drama writers inability to paint their characters in anything other than black and white.
The demand of the channels to keep requesting the same kinds of stories too gets on her nerves. Channels often tell her jo jal raha hai usko likh kar dein (just give us that which is tried and tested). In 2013 Iftikhar boycotted the industry and didn’t write anything for over a year. “When I was new in the industry I had the freedom to experiment so why should I as a established writer be bound down now?” she asks.
It was during that hiatus that director Nadeem Baig asked her to write a script. Trying to fob him off with multiple excuses, Iftikhar made some stinging demands and kept them coming, “Meri heroine thaapad nahin kayegi. Aur who thappad maregi. Aur hero ko thappad maregi. Mazloom nahin hogi, zalim hogi, khabees hogi (My heroine will not be slapped. In fact she will do the slapping. She will slap the hero. She’s wont be a naïve girl, she will be cruel and mean.)” An undaunted Baig sahib agreed and Iftikhar wrote Dillagi.
Anmol, the heroine of Dillagi is close to Iftikhar’s heart – strong, independent, hard-working and self-made and yet, because this is a Faiza Iftikhar character, some of her qualities might not win her audience’s empathy the way a more traditional heroine might have.
Good, bad and single
Most of Iftikhar’s female characters share that quality – they strong and independent women but never perfect. She bristles at the way in which value judgments continue to be made about women based on their domestic prowess. Citing Nazir Ahmed Dehlvi’s Miral-ul-Uroos (which Iftikhar adapted as Akbari-Askgari) she complains that his character Akbari was shown in a bad light only because she was lazy, and didn’t cook or sew as well as her sister.
Mothers and wives aren’t the only women in the world. “Many women are single or without children, so are they all bad women?” she asks. We still tend to define women by their relationships and roles rather than as unique individuals with needs, wants and their own idiosyncrasies.
“Kya sab Akbarieyain mar jaye aur sirf Asghari heroine bann jaye? Har ghar mein ek Akbari hoti hai. (Should all women like Akbari just die off and only those like Asghari be heroines? Every home has an Akbari)” she states. It doesn’t mean that they can’t excel in other things if they can’t cook!
A script close to has heart which was written many moons ago, was about three independent single women with rich lives who are forever keeping men at bay so that they can remain happy. Why do we need men like oxygen masks she asks. While we were excited at the prospect of single women being portrayed as individuals in their own right, Iftikhar reflects, “Yeh aaj tak kabhi na ban saka…(To date it hasn’t been made.)” She adds that the channel may never have the gumption to shoot the script.
What then has been the best adaptation of her work to date? Roag, she answers without any hesitation. Roag was adapted from her novel of the same name and was a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of child sexual abuse. Iftikhar wanted to create awareness about the issue. While she has been asked many times to write on this topic again, she responds that she would do it only if the channel can guarantee that there will be no sensationalism of the issue as we often see onscreen now.
She is also all praise for Faysal Qureshi’s superb acting as a study in suffocating guilt. In the penultimate episode, there was 22-minute scene which was spectacular and remembered even today –not because of the dialogue she says but because of the wonderful performance of the two actors. These days she says directors request you cut the scenes to shorter than three lines because current crop of actors can’t remember their lines!
With Dillagi and Mein Sitara, based on the heyday of the Pakistani film industry, currently on air, she has moved on future projects which include a drama with Big Bang Production starring Faysal Qureshi and Iraj Fatima. Another favourite drama of hers titled Shayaad is slated to be on Geo.
So when will we see her name on the silver screen? While Iftikhar hopes to write a film she feels she needs to learn and master the techniques of writing a film screenplay with its all the technicalities. “Both Dillagi and Shayaad are written as practice film scripts.” she reveals.
For now, it seems Faiza Iftikhar has a good hold on all the names of her dramas. We hope to catch more her multidimensional characters, nuanced portrayals of humanity and a seasoned brand of great storytelling on the small screen and beyond.
An edited version first appeared here.