Movie review: There’s no limit to how much a film can move you

It’s a very sensitive topic handled just as sensitively. And all credit for that goes to [ad] filmmaker Asim Raza.

Behadd (Limitless), a romcom telefilm by Hum TV, was premiered at Karachi’s brand new monument Cinepax (at Ocean Mall, Clifton) on Saturday. There was barely anyone in the audience who wasn’t moved by the nicely written script and the brilliant performances.

The plot is incredibly easy to predict, but the beauty of the film is that you still want to watch it. Masooma (Nadia Jamil) is a doting single mother who practically lives for her 15-year-old daughter Maha (Sajjal Ali). Through her job, she is reunited with Jamal (Fawad Khan) the younger brother of her bachpan ki dost and they are both overjoyed. As they catch up over a cup of coffee, Masooma tells Jamal about her husband’s death and Jamal tells her about his failed marriage with an American girl. Masooma takes it upon herself to find a girl for Jamal but eventually he ends up proposing to her. Masooma speaks to Maha, who on the face of it says yes but is deeply distressed by her mother’s decision and, in her insecurity, destroys Masooma and Jamal’s relationship. However, the ending is a happy one – predictably, again – but it is so sweet and so well-executed that even the most cynical audience member cannot help but cheer.

Nadia Jamil is, as expected, excellent in her role. She looks lovely and is perfectly natural as a mother. Her role in Behadd is quite similar to the character she played in Meray Paas Paas (a play by Hum TV circa 2005) but it is a testament to her versatility how differently she has done this role compared to that one. Fawad Khan is about as good and has truly, truly grown as an actor, which we saw in Humsafar and the recently concluded Zindagi Gulzar Hai. It is such a wonderful experience, seeing him on the big screen even if it is not a feature film. I seriously hope that he has some feature films coming up in the pipeline – and hopefully one where he plays the quintessential romantic that he does so well.

While Nadia Jamil is the star of the film, kudos to Sajjal who has done a very nice job as the somewhat spoilt yet perceptive young girl who has grown up having her mother as her one-and-only. Nadia Afgan is also great as Shafaq, Masooma’s best friend from work, and adds a lot of colour with her natural flamboyant style.

What was a surprise for me though is the progressive message of the plot. Behadd is written by Umera Ahmed, of the Shehr-e-Zaat and Zindagi Gulzar Hai fame. I am not a fan of her writing, because I feel that it is full of regressive ideas and sweeping statements, like the girl who wears jeans is the evil one and the one who wraps a dupatta round her head is the good one. In this telefilm, however, she has taken a position in favour of a woman, a mother, marrying again and that too a man younger than her.

All in all, I have little bad to say about the film other than the fact that the plot is utterly predictable. It is heartening to see managers of Hum TV, the television channel that singlehandedly steered us out of the reign of awful Indian [and Pakistani] soaps, taking such an initiative. Moomal Productions’ choice of plots is always interesting, and I think it is great that people with artistic sensibilities like that are now looking towards entering cinema. I am hopeful that the revival of Pakistani cinema is nigh if media professionals like these continue to produce film after feature film.

Verdict: Watch out for it on TV and don’t miss! It’s a really sweet film, which is also very well made. An evening well-spent! 



Confessions of a newly-converted Insafian

In our society, it is easy to have an opinion. If you say it with enough confidence, barely anyone ever calls you out on a claim that is completely made up, whether or not it makes sense. Many of our journalists and analysts have thriving careers because of our national inability to think critically and argue logically.

In such a situation, making certain confessions can land you in deep trouble. One such confession is: “I am an Insafian”.

Once you make that pronouncement, the way people look at you will change. I felt as if I had grown a moustache in the 30 seconds it took me to say it and my audience to process it. Whether or not this person knows you well enough, they will react with a snotty purse of the upper lip. They will then give you a look like you’re a sorry creature who has decided to move in with the animals in the jungle because, let’s face it, you actually should be with the animals since you’re now a follower of “Taliban Khan”.

Your ability to critically analyze a situation, any situation, will be severely critically analyzed. Every time you try to break up a discussion where Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf is being bashed, even if it is only to add to the bashing, your opinion will have less weight than it did when you were still in the closet about your “Insafian-ness”. You will be told “Don’t be so detached from reality” by people who have barely ever stepped out of their house to observe the reality that they are discussing with such authority.

You will be relegated to the bottom of the food chain. Everyone who has an opinion will make it a point to drag you into the conversation, whether it is about politics, cricket, fashion, food, insects, computers, movies, music, pretty much anything where the concept of “Naya Pakistan” and “Taliban Khan” can be jammed in. You will then be made to feel like you should expect to be the target because you dared to support a party that is not the “progressive”, “liberal” and “secular” PPP, ANP or MQM.

No one will stop to consider that maybe you’re not in it because of hero worship. That although you love Imran Khan the man, you’re not crazy about his politics or his stance on religious minorities or his position on the Taliban. That you have allowed yourself to get swept by the proverbial Tsunami because you believe that there is a need for a third voice in parliament, even if that voice isn’t 100% representative of you. That you feel that this party will respond to criticism of its work, and that that response will not be a bullet.

I am an Insafian. I became one the night before the election, when I sat in my hotel room in Lahore wondering why I had argued and argued with my family to accompany me to Lahore where our votes are registered – I realized it was because Imran Khan had touched a chord in my heart. He had made me realize that if I missed my constitutional right and duty to vote one more time, I will not be able to live with it. I never believed in his promises of clean sweeping the elections, but I believe in his promise that any PTI MNA or MPA who falls short on the standard of PTI will be chucked out of the party so that the higher goal of better governance can be achieved. I took a leap of faith, putting my trust in a man who has both disappointed me and made me proud an equal number of times.

I am an Insafian, but that does not mean I have lost my ability to reason. It doesn’t mean that overnight I have turned into a Twitter troll or have decided to condemn the Taliban a little less. All it means is that I have found a reason to sit up and pay attention, an avenue to bring at least some fresh blood into politics and a national party to support and own because its leadership cares about what urban voters think and want.

I am an Insafian, and now a PTI voter, and I will watch my party closely to applaud the good, censure the bad and, hopefully, embrace a new kind of politics that is based on good governance.

What the PTI protest means for Karachi

“All I need to do is order, and the Saathis will cut up those gathered at Teen Talwar with talwars.” – Altaf Hussain, chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Last night, there was barely anyone who was unaware of these golden words uttered by Altaf Hussain whose political party was, until the elections of May 11, 2013, being conspicuously touted as “progressive” and “liberal”. Some shooters then followed up with Altaf Hussain’s threat, and injuries were reported at the Teen Talwar protest. It is a no-brainer who the shooters were.

MQM’s violent past and present is barely a secret. But for Altaf bhai, the man who claims to own Karachi through MQM, it is a new low to be threatening unarmed Karachiites from “the other side of the bridge” with direct violence.

What has brought about this desperation? Why is the MQM, allegedly the most popular party in Karachi, feeling threatened by a bunch of “burgers” who have gathered to make an anti-rigging statement in a constituency where the MQM itself has accepted unfair elections?

Here is why. Since NA-250 was formed as a constituency in the 2002 elections, it has been a weak point for the MQM, which wants nothing more than complete control over Karachi by hook or by crook.

In 2002, Nasreen Jalil – who later became the deputy mayor of Karachi – lost the seat by 2,048 votes to Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal’s Abdul Sattar Afghani. This was a wake-up call for the MQM – here is a constituency that we must try to capture next time, how dare someone take it from under our noses!

However, not much was made of it because MQM, being the opportunists that they are, happily enjoyed their position as the rulers of the city as the Musharraf administration had put in place local bodies and MQM’s Mustafa Kamal became the mayor of Karachi (and did some great work for the city).

In 2008, however, they knew that they must win this seat in order to perfect their hegemony over Karachi. Khushbakht Shujaat, who the MQM is hoping to have declared winner this time around as well, won by a margin of 10,000 votes and secured 53,295 votes against PPP’s Mirza Ikhtiyar Baig.

Come 2013, and the MQM realizes that the burgeoning population in Defence and Clifton is obviously aware of MQM’s thuggish ways and political incapability and is inclined towards the PTI. So inclined that the PTI has just as strong a shot at winning NA-250 as MQM. If you saw footage of the PTI dharna yesterday against MQM’s poll rigging in NA-250, you would see that there is no way that MQM’s Khushbakht Shujaat could have won the seat without some serious competition from Dr. Arif Alvi. The rest, we all know. Closed polling stations, torn polling slips and MQM workers harassing the people who had come out to vote and were clearly not going to vote for the MQM.

PTI supporters have not taken to this kindly. Not only have they gathered enough evidence of rigging to submit to the ECP’s election tribunals, they have also decided to voice their protest openly into the street. And that is what has troubled the MQM as much as the fact that they clearly do not have a grip on this city unless they try to force people to accept it. Before this, the residents of Karachi have taken every insult to their intelligence from the MQM sitting down. Nobody stood up to them – nobody told them that the city isn’t theirs, it is the residents’. And now that a group of “burgers” has come out to stand up to them, their “progressive” and “liberal” leader has felt shockwaves right up to London.

It is important to note here that Karachi’s support to the PTI has been evident in constituencies other than NA-250 as well. There are other constituencies in Karachi where PTI candidates managed to garner votes and come in second to MQM candidates, which is evidence that the people of Karachi would vote out the MQM, given the chance. Interestingly, the MQM has realized that there is a new kid on the block and, like the brats that they have always been, they want all the attention back.

Furthermore, despite the rigging and intimidation of voters, results show that MQM has still lost. The PML-N does not need the MQM’s support to form a government in the center and the PPP does not need MQM to form a government in Sindh. And what have our MQM brothers done whenever they see their relevance dwindling? Play politics. Create unrest in the city that they wish they owned.

It is not as if PTI’s exposé of the rigging on a couple of seats will somehow topple the mandate that MQM have gotten in Karachi. That is not what the PTI is, or at least should be, aiming for. But this protest is about a bigger principle – the MQM does not own Karachi, and there is a section of residents, mobilized primarily by PTI, who have decided to tell the MQM that to their face. And the “giants” are now feeling insecure.

More power to the protesters who are asking for their constitutional right to vote.

More power to the people.


Long live, Pakistan.

Note: The stats come from the websites of the Election Commission of Pakistan and Geo TV.

The Qawwal also rises

The newest voice from the oldest tradition tests the waters. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

The newest voice from the oldest tradition tests the waters. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Qawwali has been around longer than rock but these two genres share so much verve. You could feel the head-banging come on to the guy with the extended bootlegged version of Jimi Hendrix’s hair in the front row. That was when everyone knew Hamza Akram had hit the sweet spot.

The 21-year-old delivered a blood-thumping performance with his ‘party’ at the Pakistan American Cultural Centre in Karachi on April 30 to test the waters with their ‘Sufystical’ blend of Qawwali and rock. The new-fangled name for their interpretation of fusion is too clever to stick but its sound is dead on.

Anyone who was in that auditorium that night knew this young man had quickened their pulse in the way that only one other had done before. But if you mentioned that name to Hamza Akram he would likely blush. The weight of his musical lineage is four generations heavy and he is only too aware of it.

But in the body-still preparatory pause before he opens his mouth, you can tell Hamza is finally getting his groove on. He is the face of the next generation of shudh traditional Qawwali and is being trained by none other than his uncles Fareed Ayaz and Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami.

Cradle to chord

All your stereotypes about the homes of qawwals are correct. From the day they are born, their children eat, sleep, breathe music. Any other profession is unthinkable.

But even in a household whose bread and butter is about the other world, Darwinian evolution rings as true as it does in ‘normal’ ones. It is the ‘fittest’ child who is chosen to lead the pack.

“Whenever he was teaching his students, my grandfather Munshi Raziuddin would single me out and make me sit there if only to observe,” says Hamza. “Sometimes I would go to sleep listening to them perfect that one note for hours.”

Today his party consists of eight young scions of the Qavvaal Bachon ka Gharana of Delhi, including Hamza’s own brothers and the sons of his uncles, the famed qawwals Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad.

“I was selected to lead the group by Fareed Ayaz,” he says. Just Fareed Ayaz, no chachatayaor other deferential references, because the great qawwal is now his teacher and there is no space to invoke a family connection. It’s all about the hours of hard work required to masterthe art that has been handed down 750 years, and is considered almost sacred.

Practice, practice

Hamza wasn’t always a clear choice though. “Everyone would make fun of me whenever I tried to sing,” he says. “My brothers and uncles were capable of creating such a powerful sound. I, on the other hand, had a terrible voice.”

It didn’t help that Fareed Ayaz would make it a point to chastise Hamza every time he made even the slightest mistake during a performance. “Sometimes I would be really embarrassed because I felt the audience could see him scolding me,” he adds.

But his father Ghulam Akram, who is also part of the Fareed Ayaz & Abu Mohammad group, would pacify him. He would tell the dejected young man to consider himself lucky that Fareed Ayaz was paying such special attention to him.

But it would take much more to convince Hamza that he was going to be able to make the grade. His confidence level was at an all-time low in 2005, following what he calls his worst performance ever. The All Pakistan Music Conference in Karachi had organised a competition for about 350 child musicians. Given his lineage, Hamza was asked to come for an audition.

Hamza went running in a panic to his uncle Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami who taught himJaagi main teray kaaran saari saari ratian in a Raag called Kalavati. Jaan, as Saami’s pupils refer to him, broke it down for him note by note.

Unfortunately, the 13-year-old did little to squawk out the number. “I was selected only because there were others who were worse than me!” Hamza says candidly. After the audition, one of the musicians beckoned to him. He asked him if he was really Munshi Raziuddin’s grandson. When Hamza said he was, the musician replied: ‘Woh to kabhi aisa na gaatay’ (He would never sing like that). “I wanted to die and I cried inconsolably when I got home,” says Hamza. “My father kept asking me what on earth had happened. And I told him I was a complete failure.”

It was only two years later, by 2007, when Hamza hit 15 that he began to receive formal training in both qawwali, under Fareed Ayaz, and eastern classical music, under Saami. In a small ceremony Hamza became the ganda bandh pupil of the two ustads who tied a red thread around his wrist which he continues to proudly wear today.

Hamza loves AR Rehman and was greatly disappointed that he couldn’t go with Fareed Ayaz to Stanford University where the qawwal was collaborating with the Indian artist. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Saami would make him work on sustaining one note for three, sometimes even four, hours. Practice involved making a sound like gargling and holding it for even longer.

While Fareed Ayaz, in a typical otherworldly fashion, would dismiss all talk of dietary restrictions, Saami told Hamza to stop eating rice and drinking cold water and soft drinks. “One day, I went over for practice after having cheated the night before,” recalls Hamza. Saami spotted it immediately and Hamza had to confess he had been unable to resist his mother’s biryani for dinner. But instead of chastising the young singer, Saami told him to know when to break the rules. For what if he went to a performance where they were serving nothing but rice? He could never become too choosy.

The qawwal boot camp involved two hours with Saami every day and then performing and training for four hours during performances every night with Fareed Ayaz. “Since Qawwali is such an energetic form of music, it would wear my throat muscles out. When I would wake up in the morning and try to speak, my voice would be unrecognizable,” Hamza says. Saami advised him that in order to counter this he should start each day before breakfast by practicing his root note — the one most natural to his voice — with the harmonium for half an hour.

Saami then increased his training to five hours a day that was supplemented by four in performances in the evening with the rest of the party. Eventually his vocal chords strengthened enough to do the heavy-duty lifting needed every night. “It is true that when he came to me, he had no knowledge,” Ustad Naseeruddin Saami told The Express Tribune. “But in our world, we judge a potential student not on his current ability but on his potential.” In Hamza, he spotted that and courage to pursue his passion. “I have high hopes from him. I see him as becoming a force in both classical music and Qawwali.”

The past and future

In 2011, Hamza performed himself for the first time in a qawwali to commemorate the death anniversary of Munshi Raziuddin. Everyone in the audience knew that a star was born, but what made Hamza’s day was Fareed Ayaz’s succinct but all-encompassing acknowledgment of his grit, determination and talent. “Thank God for this performance. Tumhein ghairat aagayi,” Hamza quotes Ayaz as telling him that night.

For Fareed Ayaz, the rules are simple: the more you learn, the more you get. “I chose Hamza because he is capable of achieving it,” he told The Express Tribune. “I know that he has both the passion and the ability to take our legacy forward. He has my full blessing.”

Like other families organise barbeque dinners, Hamza’s family holds the Khandani Jalsa three to four times every year. Every man performs a pure classical solo, starting from the youngest all the way to the eldest. On the 29th of Ramazan, the family organises the jalsa to pay tribute to Ustad Tanras Khan, the fountainhead of the family, on his death anniversary. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Since then, Hamza has matured   (exponentially). But he has learnt well at the feet of his masters and is devoid of hubris. For example, he admits that he continues to find it difficult to perform Man Kunto Maula. “It has a specific flavour of Raag Bhopali and that has to be delivered the way it needs to be done,” he explains. “And I am sure you will agree that no Qawwali is complete until Man Kunto Maula is performed well!”

While he knows he will be a qawwal all his life, Hamza isn’t one to stick to tradition so religiously that he forgets to stay in tune with changing times. Two years ago, he enrolled to study Western Theory with keyboardist Leonard Massey at the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi to learn the Western equivalent of Eastern musical notes.

“Hamza spent little time with me, but it is amazing how much he was able to learn because of his will to absorb as much knowledge as he can,” Massey says. “He coped quickly, and even learnt how to read and write Western musical notes. I feel that Qawwali is in his blood, and it is his strength.”

Hamza feels this training gives him an advantage when performing internationally with foreign musicians. “My ancestors did not know what World Music was,” he humbly explains. “All they ever did was Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. Now is the time to move beyond that.”

As Hamza’s PACC performance of his blend of fusion ‘Sufystical’ proved, he has the found the beginnings of a formula which was popularized by the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “But it was never considered a genre,” says Hamza. “I want to establish it as one.”

If anything, it will be a spiritual and worldly journey in which this young qawwal will have to learn to walk the middle ground that straddles experiment and tradition. In order to remain grounded, though, he carries with him a couplet Fareed Ayaz gave him:

Apni mitti pe hi chalne ka saleeqa seekho

Sang-e-mar mar par chalo ge to phisal jao gay

From Amir Khusrau to Hamza Akram

Once upon a time, three notes led to embarrassment in the darbar of Allauddin Khilji (1296–1316), the second ruler of the Turko-Afghan Khilji dynasty in India.

A performer from Karnataka by the name of Gopal Naik had come to the court with 900 pupils and sang a 28-line song in Sanskrit for Khilji. He then asked the ruler if there was a Muslim cultural equivalent.

Khilji was embarrassed. The Muslims had only three notes at that time. A meeting was called, and someone suggested that help be sought from Abul Hassan Jameeluddin Amir Khusrau, a special mureed of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia who was a musical genius. The king approached Aulia, seeking Khusrau’s help in the matter.

Aulia ordered Khusrau to create a response to Naik’s incredible music. Khusrau, unable to say no to his pir, asked for six months. He then selected 12 men who were known to have beautiful voices and called this team the ‘Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana’. It was led by Saamat bin Ibrahim, a physically impaired man who is said to have begun to hear and speak after a miracle performed by Aulia.

After listening to the response that the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana presented, Gopal Naik was so impressed that he declared he wanted to become a Muslim. He was converted by Saamat, who became the founder of the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana.

Saamat’s family continued to work in music, but it was only in the 1800s that the next big name of the lineage, Ustaad Tanras Khan, emerged. He was asked to teach music to Bahadur Shah Zafar and was gifted the Chandni Mahal on Tanras Street, that continues to stand in Old Delhi today. With Tanras Khan, the family’s name was changed to Qawwal Bachon ka Dilli Gharana. Tanras Khan was Hamza Akram’s great, great, great grandfather (see family tree).

The agony and the ecstasy

The Way of the Sufi

The late Idries Shah’s 1970 follow-up to his book The Sufis has been hailed by the New York Times and is considered an excellent introduction to the subject. It contains the biographies of the Sufis and has extensive notes at the back.  New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970

Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali

Regula Burckhardt Qureshi walks you through all aspects of qawwali, from the textual message to the proper procedure and setting. It contains the helpful transliteration of verse and their English translations and is full of photographs. Considered a classic. Unfortunately out of print, according to OUP.

London: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Khayal Darpan – A Mirror of Imagination

Delhi-based filmmaker Yousuf Saeed explores the impact of India’s Partition on the classical music traditions of Pakistan in his musical documentary film, Khayal Darpan. He travels across the country to interview musicians and scholars, attend music concerts and to observe the teaching of this beautiful art.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 12th, 2013.

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