By Maliha Rehman
“In Pakistan, the TV industry produces content that is aired globally but the cast and crew working on the content doesn’t get treated according to internationally acknowledged laws,” observes veteran actress Bushra Ansari. “It is a basic law all over the world that every time a production is aired as a rerun, the cast and crew that were part of it get paid an amount as a royalty. Here, we get paid once and then, the content may air repetitively without us gaining from it.”
Bushra is talking in the light of the recent video airing on social media, made by actress Naila Jaffri. In the video, Naila states that she has been in the throes of ovarian cancer for six years and that it would be a help if channels extended a royalty payment to her in lieu of her dramas which are being rerun on TV. Smiling from her hospital bed, she says that it is an artist’s right to get paid this amount.
Bushra Ansari adds, “Naila may be ill but what she has said in the video applies to every artist, regardless of whether he or she is facing a personal crisis or not. If Robert de Niro gets paid a royalty for his reruns, does that mean that he is a poor man or that he is ill? This is just a basic right that we deserve.”
“Naila is a very close friend. She is a fine, upstanding woman who would never ask anyone for help. Her friends and family are there for her but the video she made was in an effort to bring about change in the long term for the future generation, for the entire artist community. I know that we are expecting too much in a country where even rapists go off walking free but we have to try. I have seen yesteryear major artists suffering to the point that they have ended up out on the roads, begging. There are so many exceptional men and women, who have made major contributions to the film and TV industries who are now long forgotten, living alone in their homes, struggling.”
Bushra Ansari’s impressive repertoire of work gets aired on TV repetitively!
Bushra goes on to recall music composer Zulfiqar Ali, the brains behind some of Madam Nur Jahan’s biggest hits and also the creator of the soundtrack of the movie Choorian, which included the memorable hit – now revamped by Coke Studio – ‘Neray Aah Zaalima’. “He’s now without any work, trying to make ends meet. But does anyone care?”
Unfortunately, Zulfiqar Ali and Naila Jafri are in a long list of artists who scramble to survive when overcome by disease or old age. Organizations like the Artists Welfare Fund formed by the government may manage to assist a small fraction of needy artists. Many more could gain assistance if they were paid what was their basic right: a remuneration for every time their work was aired on TV.
“There was a time when PTV would extend a minimal amount to us in lieu of reruns but it stopped doing so some time ago,” recalls Bushra, “It was a small amount but for someone in a financial crisis, every little bit helps.”
Actress Atiqa Odho, who has been very vocal in the past regarding the payment of royalties and copyrights, similarly points out, “The state-owned channel, PTV, doesn’t pay royalties on reruns. How can we expect the private channels, owned by businessmen, to operate ethically?”
From Humsafar to her debut in ’93’s Sitara aur Mehrunissa, we have seen Atiqa Odho’s drama reruns countless times on TV
“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves that an actress had to resort to a video, filmed from her hospital bed, to point out what was rightfully hers,” continues Atiqa. “Pakistan’s TV and film industry has always had to fend for itself with no support whatsoever from the government or from the audience that once loved us but forgets us easily. Do we even know where Mehdi Hassan is buried? Have we ever constructed mausoleums or museums dedicated to our artists, taking pride in their many achievements? No Covid policies have been created to benefit us even though all over the world, such measures have been taken to benefit artists, in recognition of the fact that they provide entertainment and mental relief at a time when a pandemic is wreaking havoc.”
“An artist as renowned as Alamgir struggles today to pay his medical bills with just his friends standing by him for support. Someone as iconic as Roohi Bano passed away after a life of misery. The more savvy amongst us make sure that we invest in health insurance and life insurance policies to make our futures more secure. That’s how vulnerable we feel. Even if the state doesn’t want to extend funds towards us, it can at least ensure that we get paid for our past work which continues to mint money in the form of reruns that are viewed not just in Pakistan but all over the world!”
Atiqa’s words remind me of an interview that musician Bilal Saeed gave to me some time ago published on the cover of Icon, Dawn on June 14th, 2020. He had observed, “… When Amanullah sahib passed away in dire straits recently, it really made me think about where I was headed. A lot of older artists complain to the government that they have entertained audiences all their lives but now they are struggling with poverty. But I have made up my mind that I’m not doing anyone any favours by singing and entertaining people. I’m doing it because I love it. and I have to plan my life so that my career remains viable…”
It was an indication of how many of today’s stars realize how insecure their particular career paths are and try to prepare for their futures. Many senior artists also did the same. “A lot of us planned out our lives from the very onset,” says actress Rubina Ashraf. “We knew that we had to watch out for ourselves and our families. We live relatively simple lives and saved enough to build our own homes because we knew that we may not be able to afford to pay rent someday. Today, I tell my children that my savings are for my hospital bills because I know that ultimately, I may have to pay quite a few of them!”
“But Naila was diagnosed with cancer unexpectedly, at a young age,” continues Rubina. “Maybe she just didn’t get enough time to save. Misfortune can strike anyone, at any time. I remember how Naila had immediately simplified her life once she found out that she was ill. She moved to a small village in Mansehra and only came to Karachi when she needed medical attention. She is a dear friend to many of us and we have always stood by her but the video that she made was not just for herself; it was for the many artists that don’t get what is rightfully theirs. I have observed how, a lot of times, supporting actors in minor roles don’t get paid their nominal fee for years. That’s just how corrupt the system is. In this scenario, the decision to pay royalties for reruns will take time to get implemented but perhaps, Naila will prove to be the impetus who makes it happen.”
Rubina Ashraf has always believed in planning ahead but she points out that crisis can also strike suddenly, at a young age, as in Naila Jafri’s case
A livid Samina Peerzada adds, “We have to start demanding royalties for the sake of our future generations, without worrying that this may lead to us not getting any work. To date, Pakistani artists get paid a single time for local projects that then proceed to be watched internationally as well, reaping profits repetitively for the producer. The question of asking for royalties shouldn’t even have arisen. Why do we get reduced to becoming beggars, asking for our own money in our own home, our own country?”
“We need to start asking for our rights, even if it means that we may lose out on work!” asserts Samina Peerzada
When contacted, Naila Jaffri talked about the change that she wanted to make. “I don’t know why I made that video, I certainly didn’t want to make a tamasha,” she muses. It wasn’t a tamasha at all, I told her and this prompted her to continue, “I suppose that there are times when I have felt exhausted by this disease that I am fighting and it was at one of these points that I made the video. It’s alright, people and their families struggling against a disease like cancer do feel the financial crunch. I know this. I doubt that I will get paid royalties for my dramas that are rerun and I understand that.”
Naila Jaffri has been showered with prayers and love ever since the video of her, speaking from her hospital bed, went viral
“Tomorrow, I may be gone but maybe, the future generations will be able to benefit from this video that I made. Maybe, the decision to pay royalties will eventually be made and it will strengthen the TV and film industries and make artists feel more secure.”
Famed playwright Anwar Maqsood despondently pointed out a solution: “Artists need to create a fund where they can donate a certain percentage of their earnings to people in the fraternity who may be in need. The industry needs to stop being selfish where every man and woman is scrambling to make individual profits. It needs to get more united.”
He reminisces about a play he wrote long ago for another actress who had been suffering from cancer, the late Khalida Riyasat. “Khalida had called me and told me that she had never worked with me and she wanted me to write a play for her. I then wrote my drama ‘Half Plate’ and I think that it was Khalida’s acting in it was her most memorable, most outstanding. She passed away 10 days after the drama aired on TV.”
“Now, Naila has called me and asked me write a play for her. I told her that I will try. May Allah grant her health and a long life.”
Anwar Maqsood doesn’t even suggest turning to the state or channels for help
It is significant that Anwar Maqsood did not mention gaining aid from the government or channels and rather, stressed on need for the artist fraternity to stand together. Artists in Pakistan may repetitively appeal to major channels and the state for help but their efforts tend to be to no avail. Naila Jaffri’s video gained mileage to the point that the Sindh government has now stepped in to pay her medical bills. However, there are many more like her: artists who gave the best of their years to their professions but were suddenly assailed by crisis.
In other career paths, there are company insurance policies that may aid employees in times of disease or financial crisis. Pakistan’s artist fraternity – in essence, daily wage earners – do not have a safety net protecting them. Career insecurity is rampant, with every artist in a rush to earn his or her own profits. There is rarely any solidarity. Naila Jafri’s video, however, has triggered a discussion on artists’ rights. From senior veterans to today’s younger lot, including actor Yasir Hussain, Mansha Pasha and Ushna Shah, social media has been rife with comments.
Perhaps, this could start off a change. It’s what Naila Jaffri hopes, at least.