Changing Television – Remembering Shehnaz Sheikh

The entertainment service of Pakistan has exponentially grown to become the bigger slice of the pie that illustrates the media industry. Our dramas have come a long way since the golden era of PTV in the late 1960s to the 1980s, the career graph of each and every actor varying its way across the axis and taking peaks or plummeting down; yet there are certain things that haven’t changed at all, and probably won’t even in the future either.

The video that has recently resurfaced and posted below features Shehnaz Sheikh’s appearance in the talk show ‘Yes Sir No Sir’  hosted by the late Moin Akhtar. This was one of her few last appearances on television before leaving the industry for good, along with moving to Lahore when she did.

Shehnaz Sheikh was a brilliant actress of her time and was widely acclaimed for her two most popular dramas Tanhaiyan (1985) and Ankahi (1982); both successful shows and loved till date. And although the setting was based on the times of the 80s, the actress flaunted the idea of a compassionate, independent woman who wished to support her family by working in an era when the practice was considered estranged. She was widely praised by critics and caught the eye of Raj Kapoor who offered her the role of heroin in the Indian movie Henna (1991), but which, to the general surprise of audiences and professionals, she blatantly refused.

 

The reason behind her turning down the role, as stated in the video, was the fact that the actress simply disliked and was exceedingly tired of the slander and character defamation that came with the profession of acting. Shehnaz believed that a film actress would be even more as a subject of interest when it comes to besmirching. Even as she ended her note of presence on the show, she made a statement towards PTV regarding this:

“I think that PTV should offer protection for its employees, especially women performers, against anything that has been said or written regarding them, which is scandalous and might affect their personal life or tarnish their reputation…..there are many girls who are willing and wish to work in the entertainment industry, but are held back by their parents permission due to these circumstances….if this is not done, then sooner or later, no girl belonging to any respectable family would be seen working on-screen.”

 

It is true, that working in the media, and especially being a famous celebrity amongst the viewers, comes with its disadvantages. The platform of being a celebrated actress is not an easy one to take and has never been. Especially now, that with the progress in technology and expansion of social accounts on applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc., privacy is all but dead and ‘fake news’ is probably more believed as real than the truthful facts.

 

Shehnaz always claimed that the absence of new challenges that came with performing and lack of diverse characters being portrayed in serials made up the huge chunk of her influential decision to leave acting. And this is true. In the video, Shehnaz claimed that:

“….in our industry, unless someone plays the role of depressed and wallowing being, who cries repeatedly, she will never be considered a good actress..comedians are considered as something of a court jester..”

 

This is pretty much more or less similar to another quote of an outstanding artist of our time:

“..just like the rest of the world, we are a formula- driven industry…you know, Humsafar changed everything; people in masses, from all classes were watching television like never before. Now at this time, I feel, that the TV industry, should have said, okay. We’ve got the eyeballs. Let’s change things. And you know what we did? Unfortunately, we replicated the formula.” – Mahira Khan, Faiz International Festival 2016.

Familiarity. Repetition.  It’s what highly saturates pretty much every plot line of the dramas televised on our screens and what more or less sums up the aforementioned quote. The dominating husband lashing out every bit of anger and absurd act of abuse onto his poor pitiful wife (who has to pull off the pretty face especially while weeping) until she finally decides to leave him; only to marry another man who is, fortunately, much more handsome, rich and successful, as well as willing to accept the child that’s not even his own. Let’s stretch this out into words and tears and screams onto a canvass of scripts for 24 episodes and the ratings are in the bag.

This is exactly what Shehnaz Sheikh was pointing the finger at. Doing the same roles over and over again tends to make it tiresome for actors and audiences alike. Previously dramas included a number of characters, each of whom played an important role and were indispensable and unforgettable in their own ways. Whether it was the solemn hero, or the stubborn heroine, the comedic sidekick or the aggravated old aaya; in spite of having one significant attribute were able to pull off every emotion most convincingly and magnificently. Most dramas today only tend to cast people who might be conceived as being good looking but fail to act and live up to the expectations of the viewers.

Even after 30 years of Tanhaiyan, television now tries to discredit working women as being less honorable and seems to conceptualize the idea of them working outside their homes as alienation. The use of inappropriate jokes and phrases has become a common norm within comedy plays, which makes them an explicit watch for children. Earlier on, shows like Ainak Wala Jin and Alif Laila were adored by kids who not only differentiated between the good and bad morals of life but were affiliated with their own national language and culture.

 

The potential within our country is exuberant and abundance in nature. The only thing required is to make use of it and rather than following the safe path of making predictable shows, it’s time we deviate from the commonality so as to take risks. There have been certain reformations where now dramas are being made to tackle societal issues such as the rights of transgenders or honor killings or rape. Some plays have casted women as being strong-willed and ambitious in their career. Let’s try to encourage them. The odds are in our favor, for our industry is nearly at its peak and has a brilliant crowd of performers that are internationally acknowledged for their work. If we play our cards right, then consequentially, we will be able to reap benefits that are both economically and socially desirable, or lose another gem of the industry as we did some 37 years ago.