Literally yours, Islamabad

Originally appeared in Instep Today, The News International.

The Islamabad Literature Festival, now in its second year, is arguably the most underrated and least publicized of the three annual literature festivals in the country. And that’s perhaps fitting, given the city is pretty much nought on culture (don’t hate me for saying this, the Isloo-ites agree). Nevertheless, Instep brings to you the best of ILF 2014.


“Indian actresses are vanity vans.”

Shobhaa De, armed with her sharp one-liners and immense grace, came to Islamabad for the first time. In her session on magazine culture, the moderator Asif Noorani frivolously commented that a person who’s attended all three literature festivals of Pakistan in a year deserves to be granted a Pakistani citizenship. Shobhaa, clad in what she absolutely loves – Pakistani cotton – expressed her desire of seeing a literature festival on the cards in Multan and Peshawar too.

When I asked her thoughts about Islamabad, she emphatically replied, “I love it. It’s so clean and calming. And has a European feel to it. I plan on visiting the (Margalla) hills today!” And it wasn’t just Islamabad, of which Shobhaa was so profuse in praise.

In the session titled ‘The De Factor’, Shobhaa remembered how Veena Malik was courteous when she met her. “Indian actresses cannot even construct a sentence properly,” she added. She also defended Rakhi Sawant’s right to run for the upcoming elections, citing her lack of criminal record and the fact that she’s earned all her money herself, as opposed to many incumbents in the government. “But of course, she’ll lose all her deposit!” she laughed after a while.

“Malala’s father asked for 5000 dollars.”

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s session, being in the early hours of the day was sparingly attended, yet it was well-received. Feryal’s imitations of a fictional minister in-charge of Punjab and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari cracked up the audience.










But the session was a roller coaster ride: Gauhar had to wipe her tears dry as she read a sensitive page from one of her novels. The audience was also fascinated by her humanitarian work experiences, especially those of her visits to Hunza. With the working title of Darwaza, Gauhar’s film on the same issues goes on the floor this September.

Her feminism also took to the stage, and she denounced the culture of “the son-stroke” as the moderator Ritu Menon calls it. Hitting the controversy jackpot, she criticized NGOs for hijacking real movements before she went on to narrate how Malala’s father asked her for money when she wished to have access to his daughter.

After the session, people crowded on either side of her to get an autograph. “Are you on Facebook or Twitter?” asked one. “I’m not on social media. I have a life!” she spat out. The jibe could be seen as directed to many of us out there, but most were too awe-struck by Gauhar’s persona to take affront!


“Coming soon to a vandalized, burnt cinema near you”.

Fauzia Minallah had had her short satirical film screened on the general elections of Pakistan. She elaborated how it was the kohled eyes of you-know-who that prompted her to make cartoon illustration her calling.

Speaking of films, the premiere of Umar Riaz’s The Last Remarks was a staggering success, as was the session with the team of Zinda Bhaag who spoke at length about its making.

But perhaps the best part of this cinematic fervour was the extended trailer of Sarmad Khoosat’s upcoming ‘Manto-opus’ called Main Manto. Sharp cinematography and stellar performances really had many counting on the flick to add substantially to the clichéd ‘revival of cinema’ in Pakistan. Apparently, the film had struck quite some chords. Feryal Gauhar stood up at the end of the trailer and said, “Manto tou zinda hai, per main marr gayi thi kya? Mujhe kyun nahen liya iss mein?!” Sahira Kazmi went to Khoosat to congratulate him, and insisted that she be shown the film as soon as possible. Main Manto comes out in July this year, hopefully not to a burnt or vandalised cinema.

“We should have The Kazmi Show on TV”.

These were the words of a friend, who was deeply impressed by the good sense of the Kazmi couple in their sessions. In the session ‘Drama and the Small Screen’, Sahira Kazmi and Asghar Nadeem Syed kept no secret of their extreme aversion to the current state of Pakistani television. Sultana Siddiqui was on the panel too, and there was only so much she could say to defend her own network. Sarmad Khoosat (awesomely carrying his orange sandals, let it be said) opined that it was the marketing antics responsible for this fiasco. He named many of his serials that he personally thought were better than the madly popular Humsafar but the people didn’t even know about these. “It’s all about ratings now,” quipped Nadeem sahab.

Rahat Kazmi, in the session titled ‘Center Stage’, had too many interesting and intelligent things to say, but too little time to say them. Throughout the talk on TV, unabated bashing was rendered out to TV channels, marketing departments and the 300 households that determined the ratings. Sahira Kazmi was asked if she plans to come back to television. Given the deplorable conditions, Kazmi didn’t see it happening. So maybe, The Kazmi Show really is the way forward.


“Right now, Pakistan feels like second home”.

Kristiane Backer, ex-MTV VJ and a youth icon, came to ILF to promote her book called From MTV to Mecca, encompassing the journey of her transformation. With a ‘dream job’ and a ‘high life’, it was after she met Imran Khan in 1992 that she started on a tedious but rewarding spiritual journey. She converted to Islam some years later, and now speaks with incredulous clarity about various issues at hand – the (mis)interpretation of religion, for example. The audience at once connected to the eloquent Backer, who reminisced about Imran Khan with reverence and awe – making the PTI aunties proud (and there were quite a few of them). Backer then indulged in a romantic sketch about her feelings for Pakistan; how she loved the warmth, hospitality and concern of the people. “I also love how Pakistanis are last minute magicians”, she said. “Before I came here, nothing was planned. But now everything is set and done with. I don’t know how you do this!”

“There are thirty theatre groups in Lyari”.

Sheema Kermani stressed upon the need to promote theatre and other performing arts in the country. “Teach your children music and dance,” she said. Giving insight on the theatre scene of Karachi, she told a surprised audience about the sheer number of underground groups that were springing up in the city – even if these were not getting national exposure. Contesting her was Ajoka Theatre’s Madiha Gauhar, who presented a completely different picture of theatre in Punjab.

Adding to it, Rahat Kazmi flippantly complained how NAPA, even after all these years, still isn’t a degree-awarding institute. The humour was carried forward in Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s session, whose eloquence was matched only by the moderator Asif Farrukhi’s spontaneity. “Bil akhir apni biwi se mohabbat ho hi gayi hai mujhe!” he avowed to a roaring hall.

When satirist Ali Aftab Syed of ‘Aloo Anday’  fame was asked about the reaction of the military to his latest song, he smiled: “(I got) a lot of ‘friendly advice.’” Sherry Rehman presented her (twenty) two cents efficaciously on art, culture and politics in the session with the same name. Taleem-e-Balghaan presented by NAPA on the closing note of the festival was an absolute, sheer delight.


Thank you Islamabad (and Karachi)!

The second ILF was a success on so many levels. All forms of arts were aptly represented and the sessions were quite varied. However, since it’s held by the same team that’s behind KLF, it was more like Karachi lending Islamabad its voice rather than the latter producing its own. But it will eventually; let’s only hope that the voice Islamabad finds for itself is as diverse, interesting (and comical) as the voice of the country of which it’s the capital. Well done ILF, see you next year!



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