Although my naana was an army officer (and I live in the Lahore Cantonment), my parents’ association with the army was not a pleasant one. My father was imprisoned (as a political activist) by three successive Martial Law regimes and my mother too was arrested for protesting against the Zia regime. (This aversion to army however gradually changed for better thanks to the decisive army action against the terrorists). So when I was offered a role in PTV Lahore drama serial, I was both surprised and excited.
(i) Days and Nights with the Rangers:
The serial, titled Sehra Teri Pyas (The Thirst of the Desert) was about Pakistan Rangers role in fighting terrorism and smuggling. It was directed by PTV’s Sajjad Ahmad. I was cast as a Rangers Major. The female lead was Sanam Baloch (now a TV show host) and veteran actor Tauqeer Nasir was the unpatriotic wadera (feudal). Interestingly, my previous serial was titled Jinhain raastay mein khabar hoi (Those who were informed on the way) in which I had played a misguided Taliban recruit and had developed insight into the mind of a terrorist. Sehra Teri Pyas was my first introduction to the para-military lifestyle.
Wearing the Rangers’ uniform was an exciting experience. The moment I wore it, I felt like a different person. Even the Rangers officials, who did not know that I was an actor, started saluting me. I was amused and moved by the respect they were showing for a senior. Our training took place at the Rangers Headquarters in Lahore. The skills I was taught included how to fire while rolling or to snatch a gun from the enemy and cut his throat in one single move. I felt the power of the gun but soon realised that an actor’s power was no less fearsome. A real Rangers brigadier had agreed to perform a scene with me. He entered the set with his arrogant style, issued some instructions and ordered a cup of tea. But when the camera started rolling and the director shouted ‘action!’, the Brigadier sahib started sweating profusely. ‘Action!’, the director shouted again but the Brigadier could not utter a word. He just froze. We then shot the scene line by line, encouraging him after each line.
Most exciting was the scene in which I was supposed to lead a team to attack the enemy agents on a train from Rangers helicopter. We were to jump on the moving train from our Heli. I was the only civilian on the Heli and ready to ‘take the plunge’. However, we were told by the pilot that the wind current was too strong for us to correctly land on the train and enable the camera team on the other Heli to shoot properly. Help was then provided by the commandos who happily acted as our doubles and jumped on the train very comfortably. My team and I then took over to complete the stunt.
I realised that on the front, a soldier experiences no fear, no hatred, only war. The uniform had such magical strength — that I could not stop the action even when a bullet exploded right in front of my face and I lost my hearing for a few seconds
We were so close to the Tharparkar border that we could see Indian Border Security Force personnel looking at us through binoculars and wondering what was going on. Luckily, the only one shooting was our cameraman. During our weeklong stay in the desert, water was rationed: one bucket per person per week for all kind of usage. No wonder I learned to value water. Driving in the desert was also an amazing experience. You had to keep track of the route by looking at the already existing tracks and drive with deflated tyres. I learnt to move the jeep making waves like a snake. I made good friends with my Rangers co-actors: The Deputy Superintendent (DSR) who talked too much, another who talked too little. The talkative one was a fat and loose cannon and claimed he was the first soldier who fired at the Taliban hanging from a Heli, although the Heli would have crashed with his weight. The little talking DSR and little time for conversation as he was most of the time busy oiling his big moustache with desk ghee. A third one played flute in free time and listening to his flute at night in the desert was a spiritually uplifting experience. We conducted raids at brick kilns to free slave labour and captured terrorists during the day and had fun at night. I am sure the Indians could hear the music in the clear desert night.
This was paramilitary sojourn. Soon I got invited to live, work and act with the army. This was an ISPR-supported drama series Ehd-e-Wafa, based on true stories of army heroes fighting the terrorists. I was now entering the fabled world of the ‘dholsepahis’, tracing the footsteps of my grandfather, uncles and cousins who have been real army men and I had heard the stories of the heroic deeds of the death defying flamboyant officers. For my initiation into the Army world, I had to spend a few days in the army barracks where I slept on the hard wooden beds, eat the simple meals at the army mess where simple and basic meals were served with impeccable flair. I found out that this was perhaps the only part of Pakistan where bribery and references did not matter, where embracing martyrdom was indeed a desired goal for everyone. I was impressed by the army values of honour, loyalty, valour, camaraderie and a disciplined and austere lifestyle.
In Ehd-e-Wafa, I played the character of LT Zeeshan Shaheed, who had sacrificed his life in the operation against Taliban. Once again, wearing the military uniform proved to be magical. I felt I had not only become an army man but the spirit of the larger than life character I was portraying seeped in my body. The ISPR coordinators briefed me about the life of the hero and the courage of the bereaved families. At the same time, I learned how to fire a much more sophisticated (and much heavier) guns. My trainers were amazing: competent and tough. I was a bit unnerved by the harshness and abruptness of the trainers but was told that during an army action, there is no time or need for niceties. So I started becoming Lt Zeeshan, not only rolling and firing like him from the hills but also infused with the spirit of martyrdom. I wondered if he was watching from the heavens and smiling at me. But I was reminded that shades are not dead, they are alive. I looked around and found there were many who could be him.
(iii) Dhol Sipahiya
This was a short musical tribute to three army jawans. There were three true stories intertwined, that of a Brigadier, a Major and a Lieutenant. I played Lt Aslam. He was a devoted husband, a good son and a brave soldier, playful and affectionate. The story touched on matters like the loneliness and fears of the wives when their husbands go for the operation and the feelings of their children who cherish the photographs of their fathers and await their return on leave. They have support groups to help but when the tragic news folded in the green and white flag arrives, they have to face the challenge with courage and dignity. I realised that on the front, a soldier experiences no fear, no hatred, only war. The uniform had such magical strength, that I could not stop the action even when a bullet exploded right in front of my face and I lost my hearing for a few seconds (though it seemed like an eternity). There were hundreds of real soldiers firing real bullets, real bombs were blasting around us. But I was a soldier, and continued firing. The camera was shooting me as well, and I could not let them down. I had to go on fighting. I forgot that I was an actor, not a soldier.
The entire battalion was astonished when I enacted being shot by a bullet and actually jumped mid-air and landed hard on the ground ridden with jagged rocks. The director said it one of the best action shots of the project. Some amazing shots of that scene were cut during editing (required to make the scene fast and forceful), but the memory of the action and the appreciation of the real soldiers has stayed with me ever since.
The video was massively screened on TV channels, the internet, press and bill boards. It was important to project the heroic image of the men in uniform who are sacrificing their lives to make our country safe and peaceful and counter the shameful propaganda against our forces. I was glad that I had played a modest part in this campaign. It is very rare when an actor feels so satisfied and proud for a role he has played.
The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness on socio-political issues through theatre
Published in Daily Times, January 28th 2018.