- Punam Mohandas
- 23 February 2020
"Writing does not come from a pen, it comes from God."
SWA Exclusive interview with star screenwriter from Pakistan, Khalil-ur Rehman
Khalil-ur Rehman is being hailed as one of the most prolific and talented writers of the Indian sub-continent. He is the star of Pakistan’s cinematic scene, where the box office jingles to the unprecedented sound of a writer’s name and theatres go house full on the writer’s credit rather than actor’s star power. In a daring, never-before-seen move, the last episode of his latest show was actually screened in movie theatres!
Khalil is also the original Angry Young Man of Pakistan! I had heard and read much about his quick temper and it’s about the first thing the man himself warned me about - the fact that he’s notoriously short-tempered and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Notwithstanding that, it was a delight interviewing him as he’s erudite and acerbic in turn but above all, brutally candid, all in an endearing mix of English, Punjabi and Urdu/Hindi. It also helps that I am an awestruck fan of the immense gift of writing the man has!
Khalil’s latest serial, ‘Mere Paas Tum Ho’ (MPTH) on ARY has held people on both sides of the border captive in their own drawing rooms for five whole months! Never before has a teleserial garnered such rapt interest. Did you ever imagine that MPTH would have this kind of unprecedented (for a TV show) impact on audiences?
“We were all so committed – me, Nadeem (the director) and Humayun (male lead and producer of the show.) We knew it would be a big hit but this kind of success we had not thought of. I still believe success is yet to come for me – even as a writer. I used to believe that MPTH was a big script of mine but - you can never calculate success. It has broken all records of first day films in India and Pakistan!” he exclaims.
This is quite true as the tickets for the last show of Mere Pass Tum Ho, priced at Pakistani Rs 800, were sold out within hours. I ask Khalil if he was behind this marketing gimmick. “It was not me, it was the channel, ARY,” he says.
Almost all your work has very strong women-centric characters. Where do you draw your inspirations from to shape these very believable characters? (This rather trite question literally had smoke steaming from his ears!)
“Let me tell you something very important,” he huffs. “It’s not always true that there is an inspiration! I am a gifted person and I don’t need to seek inspiration. God made me go through so many experiences that I used to observe things, sometimes I was even cheeky about it. I’d see the problems and find out the solution. From the time I held the pen first time in my hands, it’s been like this. One who is gifted should not be challenged! Call me Rabb’s munshi!” As I try to calm him down, he mutters: “The question is not ordinary, it’s actually important, but to me it is ordinary. Try and understand what a gift is. Writing does not come from a pen, it comes from Him. Assume I was born with a pen in my hand!”
(Khalil’s very close friends bear this out; they marvel that, as a writer, he is unparalleled. The words and emotions just seem to flow out of him.)
Rather daringly, I venture into a minefield I know is going to set him off again by asking him that the Pakistani media has often accused him of being a misogynist. ‘It’s true that some of your main female characters like Mehwish (MPTH) or Mahroon (‘Zara Yaad Kar’) are seen as selfish and conniving, while Rashida khaala (‘Sadqe Tumhare’) almost reveled in being vengeful. Why this cynicism in your scripts, which are all (paradoxically) love stories?’ I ask.
“If I am being accused of being a misogynist, it’s a crime! It’s not the Pakistani media but some feminists who say this! I am absolutely not a misogynist; I am a feminist! They talk about equality, I say women have better rutba than men!” he says contemptuously. “What I really fight against is be-hayayi. Let me tell you about Rashida khaala. She is a true character, 100% happened as it was written; she was my khaala! Nothing was added for the sake of the screenplay. Mehwish is reflective of women in society who have committed a sin – but I am not talking about women, I am talking about the sin! It’s completely against the usual subcontinent style where in this case, the man was not hitting her or anything and still she left. Committing a sin is the right of every person – let him be before Allah the Almighty for the punishment. That was the preaching behind this play. Instead the onus shifted on to that one dialogue: do takke ki aurat,” he fumes. “To be abused is very normal in the subcontinent and even that was said to the person buying her, not to the woman; the artistic element has not been taken into account at all! Whosoever cheats in a bond is a culprit – man or woman.”
The serial explored a very bold theme for Pakistani culture, wherein a woman leaves her husband and child for another man. Later, her character is shown to have shades of grey and one is not entirely sure whether she is remorseful.
“Khuda ke vaaste itni aankhein bandh karke na baitho!” he expostulates. “I will never say it was a bold script! These are mainly my observations from society around me.You are a person who is ready to understand so I can tell you,” he continues. "I have shown the three phases of woman: First, I wrote about Mahroon, a girl who is in nikaah but has not yet gone to her husband’s house (‘Zaraa Yad Kar’.) Then we come to Maya in ‘Toh Dil Ka Kya Hua’ – she cheated but she told her husband she wanted a divorce and she opted to go with the boyfriend. Then, Mehwish in MPTH. So three phases: married, but not gone to her husband’s house yet; husband and wife, no child; and then husband wife with a child. Girls have different problems through their different ages and stages. Why do you forget Hania or Ayesha or Monty’s wife? Why put your focus on one single girl who has sinned?!”
Strangely, you’re also a lyricist and lyricists are almost poetical by default. Which brings me back to asking how is it you’re so cynical? It’s a question that made him almost happy.
“Before being a writer I am a poet,” he agrees. “How can you think of living your life only with happiness? It’s a package; you love – either you betray or you are betrayed. I used to look deep into social issues because I came from a poor set-up. Maybe Allah made me educated through these clashes and conflicts. I am planning to write a book - this is an exclusive for you, I have never announced this before! - and I will define the five types of women in the society of our subcontinent. They are good women but they are destroying society.”
Pakistani media and audiences have another axe to grind with Khalil – that he kills off his main protagonist during the climax scenes. ‘Why do you tend to end your storytelling with this now-predictable twist?’ I ask.
“I have yet to decide whether death is a happy ending or to live without somebody is a happy ending. That’s perhaps the issue with me…” he muses contemplatively.
There is a lot of intensity and passion you bring to your dialogues, which was keenly felt particularly in MTPH. What kind of reservoirs do you draw on within yourself to achieve this? Does this kind of writing sometimes leave you emotionally exhausted?
“No, not at all,” says Khalil emphatically. “I put myself into that situation and feel it and then I just write it. If I feel a particular word will disturb an actor’s flow, only then do I change it. Most of the time I write with an actor in mind. To be a true writer you have to feel the emotions of others as if it is happening to you. Otherwise you cannot narrate it well. And of course, I draw upon my own experiences, like in ‘Sadqe Tumhare’ or ‘Pyaare Afzal’.”
‘Sadqe Tumhare’ is widely known to be your own story. Wasn’t it difficult sharing your love and your pain as a cinematic journey for millions to watch?
“It’s less of a love story and more of a sin committed by my family members,” Khalil says soberly. “So many family members were offended by it but I didn’t care. Gunaah baanj nahin hota, bacche deta rehta hai. It affects generations. Main apna ek misra sunnata hoon: ‘tum bas mujhko dukh na dena kyon mein dukh seh leta hoon.’ ”
What is the difference between the Khalil of the present and the Khelu of the past?
“No difference at all,” he says immediately. “Khelu is absolutely still the same guy. If you ask my langotiya friends, they will tell you there is no change. I used to be an angry child – I used to see my elders lying in front of me, cheating on others and still asking for respect. I cannot handle dishonesty. I used to be called badtameez bacha. On this account if someone calls me badtameez I take pride in it! Mistakes don’t offend me. Dishonesty affects me the most.”
What was the experience of being a director like?
“Wonderful; I loved it,” he says. “I was able to portray the things I have written. I didn’t rush into it, I took my time. I am going to direct another movie in 2-3 months but first, I have to finish writing these scripts for other people.”
Pakistani shows are popular in India and are talked about for their mature, classy storytelling. In your opinion, what is the most significant difference between scriptwriting in India and Pakistan?
“As a writer I won’t comment on other writers because that will be biased. But this is not my bias - India does not know how to make serials,” Khalil says candidly. “Doordarshan’s chief executive was here; we were on a forum together and we discussing the decline of serials. She just put her head down, smiled and said, ‘we sell dreams.’ Where? In red light areas?? We (meaning Pakistan) know how to make serials! If you see Indian films, every film has a kiss! When do you start kissing? When you have no words. Phir dalaali karo! The stories are here, the writing is here (Pakistan); the professionalism and actors are in India. But India is going the wrong way. It is borrowing the culture from Europeans,” he says rather sadly. “Bombay is like Karachi yaar, we are one people. Our culture is ours. India means us and Pakistan means you – chaahe koi bhi ladai ho! It is very unfortunate and we are ruining the socioeconomic lives of our people; we are not benefitting from the talents of each other. Mohabbat ke paas har taale ko kholne ki kunji hoti hai; ego ke paas nahin hoti. Ego brings destruction. When I see Indian media talking in very ugly language, I become sad.”
Do you think highly of any Indian screenwriter or film maker? Pat comes the reply:
“Rajkumar Hirani. When I see him, I’ll touch his feet! He talks thesis; no kisses, no ugly things, he confines himself to the script! Main sab bade writers ka bahut ithraam karta hoon,” says Khalil almost reverently. “Rabindranath Tagore, Khushwant Singh, Balwant Singh – the only adaptation in my life was Balwant’s ‘Jagga’! You know from the first page that this is a great writer.”
You are already a cult name in Pakistan, whereas screenwriters in India have now beginning to get a greater recognition (after Salim-Javed in the 70’s.) Are Pakistani cinegoers more inclined to be more favourable towards writers?
“Yes, Pakistani audiences are kinder, there is no attempt to destroy a writer’s image. In India, commercialism hovers over all aspects – people are watching the kiss or very stupid bed scenes! India introduced a style again borrowed from Hollywood; people are named to be writers and asked to write a script! This concept when introduced in Pakistan, flopped. We are living through other issues - our writers are controlled by a very, very heavy censor policy. We write with our hands tied behind our backs. India has a 100 times more open policy. We have so many restrictions which destroys a script, even though I try my best despite these regulations.”
One last question as I wind up this interview. Would you ever write for an Indian movie/serial? Pat comes his irrepressible reply: “Under the current political scenario, I do not think so.”