Seema Ghazal - Finding tranquility in a fictional world of her own

Dressed in her trademark sari and statement rings, renowned writer Seema Ghazal of Chandni Raatein and Mehndi fame, welcomed me into her abode on a sunny afternoon. As we took our comfortable seats surrounded by multitude of awards presented to her, what ensued over a cup of coffee was a deep conversation about her journey as a writer, the ups and downs she faced and the present and future of television content. Excerpts:

How important do you consider environment at home and a person’s upbringing in promoting interest in reading and writing?

These things can obviously make a great difference because if there is a trend of reading and writing at home, and family members also speak a language well, then that will improve a person’s vocabulary and diction. But art is not dependent on these factors alone. The interest and love for anything creative has to come from within. If you have a creative environment at home, that’s lucky for you, otherwise a true artiste creates that environment for himself/herself regardless.

How was your upbringing?

My father was an Urdu scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan and a poet. He was also a hum asar of Jigar Muradabadi. Amjad Islam Amjad, Anwar Shaoor, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Insha ji were all friends with my father and used to visit us all the time. We would have mushairay frequently at home, as well. Even though we were kids but it still generated interest in us. A couple of us siblings grew up to be poets and writers. My father had gotten us hooked to reading books. I remember we would try to complete our chores fast so that we could get back to reading our books, and our mother would get angry because we would do them wrong in our haste.

What encouraged you to start writing?

My father encouraged us all a lot. He would leave for work in the morning and return in the evening. We were nine siblings, so it was hard to keep track of how everyone’s doing all the time. We had a strict rule of having dinner together. That was the time when we would interact the most and he would ask each one of us about our day and interests. He would give us tasks for the next day that he’d check upon his return. To some, he’d give a line and ask to continue it using rhyming words, as in poetry. To some, he’d give a topic to write on, while to some, he’d ask to draw scenery.

Even in school, my teachers would appreciate my essay writing a lot. I would always think it is nothing special because I was growing up in a rich environment, so the vocabulary and sentences seemed regular to me. When I wrote my first couplet I was no younger than 12 or 13. Then I developed interest in writing for a radio programme for children, Ao Bachon Kahaani Suno.

When was the first time you realised that writing is not just a hobby but something that you are good at and want to do for the rest of your life?

The first time I published my work. After writing for the radio programme, I continued to write and publish short stories in Akhbar-e-Jehan, Seep, Funoon, Adab-e-Lateef. These were very popular Urdu magazines back then and would be read by literary figures of the time. There was one particular feedback that made me realise how good I was. It said that my abstract piece reminded him of Maupassant, remembered as the master of short story form. Literary figures who I would only hear about through my father even sent letters of appreciation for me. But if you ask me, my real journey as a writer began in 1986 when I started working for Dosheeza digest as the editor and continued for almost 13 years. At the same time, I also managed the Urdu editions of SHE magazine for a year and a half. During that time, I wrote and published seven novels and thousands of stories.

What brought you towards writing for television?

In 1998, a television artiste wrote a play by combining two of my previously published stories. It was very well-received. I had missed that show, but my sketch artist who had made sketches to go with those stories at the time of printing contacted me and told me about what had happened. I had a long argument over copyright with the director of the play. I realised I had published thousands of stories, so they could easily be stolen. That’s when I made it known that I will write for television myself.

How different do you think writing for yourself and writing for someone else is?

Both are very different! Initially, I didn’t compromise much. There was only one channel and it didn’t interfere with what was being written. The writer just had to oblige to the censor policies. Even the directors were well informed and good at their job and they would respect the content, so I got a lot of freedom to write. I gave back to back hits like Mehndi, Chandni Raatein, Aashti, Ijazat etc. things went downhill after the number of channels increased and they started importing content from India. Now they have departments where your stories go for approval. There are content heads who criticise your work. They are all young people who I have never heard of. What do they have to their credit? They will change the ending or add plot twists for no apparent reason which is why I have to fight for every piece I write now.

What do you think has contributed to the downfall of quality content on television?

The content heads and people who don’t know how to speak Urdu properly are writing serials. I am shocked to see characters getting physically and verbally abusive on screen. There is a way to show problems. As a writer, you have to find the perfect balance of making viewers think about the issue and showing things with decency, so that a family can sit together and watch the serial. Now that there are so many channels and senior writers are charging good amount for their work, producers resort to hiring younger people who write stories with the help of directors. They pay no attention to character and plot development. I am also against the idea of someone else writing dialogues for my story; how can someone else write for something that has been born in my mind? Everywhere around the world, writers are respected and given a comfort zone to work in. Here, their payments are also delayed on top of everything else. How will a person who is worried about his bills come up with something good?

Which of your work and achievements are you most proud of?

It has been almost 20 years since I started writing for television. No other writer has written as many as 400 plays and dramas as I have in this period. I am a very fast writer thanks to my days as the editor when I used to edit around 300 stories per issue. PTV had a policy that they wouldn’t run more than one drama from the same writer in a quarter, but there was a time when every director they approached had made a drama written by me. I would get them the most number of advertisements, thus becoming the writer who gave the channel its biggest revenue. The first year that LUX Style Awards started, my drama Chandni Raatein received an award. The second year two of my serials, Ana and Hum Se Juda Na Hona, received an award each. I particularly like Mehndi, where I showed people living in lavish houses have issues as well, and Ashti that focused on problems faced by the minority Bengali community in Pakistan.

Which subjects do you personally enjoy writing upon?

Love, marriage, divorce, extra marital affairs – these aren’t issues in my opinion. I don’t want to waste my time writing all of this. I am interested in human psychology. I want to highlight real issues and what makes people act in a good or bad way. People look at a well-dressed smiling person and think he is fine and has no problems. This is why deep issues are getting ignored and only superficial subjects are being shown on television.

What do you think can be done to improve the quality of content and bridge the gap between senior writers and young talent?

I don’t think anyone wants to do anything about it, otherwise someone would have taken steps to improve things around here. Youngsters think so highly of themselves. They’ll write one drama, and even if it goes slightly well, they start thinking they are the best in their field. They have to approach the seniors in their field and seek guidance, and not vice versa.