Stirring up the ‘drama’

Heart-stopping thrillers to social commentaries, Shah Yasir is pushing the boundaries of Pakistani dramas.

Fouzia Nasir Ahmad May 19, 2024


Shake up Pakistani drama? Meet Shah Yasir, a screenwriter who is breaking the mold. He brought us the expat dramedy 7 Days in Coney Island, then threw a newlywed couple into a heart-pounding kidnapping nightmare with the miniseries Jurm (2023). He champions social issues too, tackling women's legal rights in Ab Meri Bari (2023). Wehem (2020) kept us on the edge with a post-surgery murder witness, and his co-writing credit on 7th Sky's crime-thriller telefilm Contractors proves his genre versatility. From expat struggles to the fight for women's rights, Yasir weaves social commentary with captivating genres. Forget the saas-bahu clichés, this writer is proving Pakistani dramas can be thrilling, thought-provoking, and anything but ordinary

But how does the man behind these diverse stories see himself? “It is always hard for me to describe myself because just like characters in a story, how we are perceived by the world is sometimes vastly different from how we see ourselves,” says Yasir.

As far back as he can remember, Yasir was always a storyteller. “One of those kids, who would pretend that I was narrating a story I had recently read but the entire time, I was just making stuff up as I went along,” he says. “Honestly, I was writing stories way before I ever put a pen to paper. Imagining them and visualising them in my head. Usually in the afternoons when the entire house would nap, I would escape into make-believe worlds as a way to kill boredom.”

It wasn't until Yasir was in the 4th grade, attending public school in New Orleans for a year, when his school in instituted a mandatory journalling class.

“It was a free hour for teachers to complete administrative paperwork while every student was handed a notebook,” he recalls. “We could write, we could sketch, we could scribble gibberish mumbo jumbo if we desired, but we were assured that our teachers would never read nor grade anything we wrote. The only condition was that we had to remain seated on our desks and we could not talk to each other for that entire hour.”

For the first few weeks, Yasir wrote random complaints about all the teachers to confirm that they weren't secretly reading the journal entries. But eventually, he began to write ghost stories. “I should mention that I was a huge fan of R.L Stine and Christopher Pike in the 90s,” he shares. “I continued to journal all the way up until I graduated college, everything from personal thoughts to random fiction. I did study writing as a minor in college, and wrote a fiction book titled Shrine which revolved around a night in the life of three friends; a female prostitute, a maalishya [masseur] and a khwaja sara [transgender].”

That story was later adapted into a telefilm by Umera Ahmed who has remained a close friend ever since and one of the reasons Yasir discovered screenwriting.

After college, writing took mostly a backseat and although Yasir published some short stories in various anthologies, all his time and energy went into establishing a new career in public health.

Presently, based in New York, he works as a doctor of public health (DrPH) in substance abuse prevention in Washington DC, but considers Karachi his “forever home”. Yasir is also a professorial lecturer in the school of public health at the George Washington University. On days that he is not pursuing his passion for public health, he likes to explore another passion … writing. Since the past decade, he has grown to love screenwriting.

Almost after a decade of working in public health, Umera approached Yasir to co-write a TV play with her. “Since I was waiting on my data to arrive for my doctoral dissertation, I had a lot of free time on my hands,” he recounts. “That was when I discovered a new craft and co-wrote my first TV serial for Express Entertainment called Saanp Seerrhi which kicked off my journey into screenwriting that I continue to discover and explore.”

Yasir believes that writing for Pakistani audiences, whether for TV or the web, can be a real balancing act. “As creative folks in the media, we constantly wrestle with this debate,” he says. “And honestly, I have come to the conclusion that this entire quagmire is hard to solve or explain by any one person or group. The first step is to accept that we cannot and should not blame any one entity in this case. We definitely can’t blame the audience for wanting what they prefer, when we have not really exposed them to other genres. Tastes develop slowly. People are quick to blame production houses but they have to produce work which will sell. At the same time, we can’t blame channels for wanting to buy what is watched by the audience. It is a business after all. The writers, directors or actors can’t be blamed because at the end of the day, if they keep turning down opportunities, those opportunities will begin to dwindle. Bills have to be paid. The cycle is hard to break, but I am optimistic that eventually, and with every baby step, we do break the cycle. There have been many instances in the past few decades where the TV industry has found itself in a rut but then it has also risen above and broken that cycle. So maybe, that change is right around the corner.”

Yasir feels that amidst the criticism, the efforts being made by production houses and channels such as 7th Sky, Geo, Green and Express Entertainment must be acknowledged for taking risks and producing not only mini-series but different genres like murder-mysteries and thrillers. “These are huge risks on their part that may not yield major financial rewards in the long run, but when we slowly present a different palette to the audience, preferences begin to diversify as well,” he explains.

Writing for the web has been the creative outlet which was the lifeline creatives needed, Yasir points out. “I am able to really experiment and push certain boundaries with the scripts I have penned for web platforms,” he elaborates. “Many out-of-the-box and edgier scripts have found a home with web platforms like Kabaar Khaana, Meem Kahani and SeePrime after being rejected by the TV industry for limitations out of their control. Now of course, the budgets for these web platforms are shoe-string, but it is heartening to see so many artists/writers, directors, actors come together to create something for the sake of art. It goes to show how desperately everyone wants to do something different and meaningful. I can only imagine what great masterpieces can come out of these web platforms if they begin to yield a profit.”

Yasir loves the works of Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith. “Among local screenwriters there are just so many that I continue to learn from such as Haseena Moin, Azra Baber, Naheed Sultana Akhtar from the 90s and Faseeh Bari Khan, Mohammad Ahmed, Bee Gul, Amna Mufti, Umera Ahmed, Mustafa Afridi, Hashim Nadeem, Mohsin Ali, Asim Abassi and Saim Sadiq from the more recent cohort. I feel like I learn something about the writing craft from each and every one of them.”

Recently, Yasir had the opportunity of shadowing Mohammad Ahmed on a script for a mini-series called Contractors which aired on Geo. “It was one of the most fruitful experiences where I got to learn so much more about the screenwriting craft. He really took the time to explain everything when we worked together.”

Yasir has worked with Mehreen Jabbar more than any other director. “I believe seven of my fifteen scripts have been with her and I have been very lucky to have worked with such a big name at a very early stage of my career,” he says. “I was a huge fan of her work since the 90s, way before I ever thought I would explore screenwriting. And the interesting thing is that she turned out to be exactly how I had imagined her. Extremely professional, very ethical, works with you on every project from inception all the way till the final edit. She even takes the time to ask you questions about your characters like what music they probably listen to, what their passion in life would be. I have been lucky to have built that bond with her. The first time I ever met her in person, after being a fan for years, was at a pitch meeting in New York with a potential client. Talk about pressure!”

He has also worked with some veterans in the drama industry such as Misbah Khalid, Erum Binte Shahid, Mohsin Talat and Mazhar Moin. “Luckily my experience with all of them has been stellar,” he says. “Each director has a different style but they all value the writer’s vision a great deal. Mazhar and I would discuss the arc of a story for days before I would even begin to write and it helped improve not just the story but each and every character as well.”

Yasir has the same advice for fresh, aspiring writers that he constantly gives himself.

“Don’t give up,” he says. “Because I don’t even think we can. We are always coming up with ideas for stories, even if we decide to give up.

Don the thickest skin you can find, check your ego at the door, numb yourself to discouragement, become blind to the point of delusion and knock on every door. Because every door you knock on, is a door you knocked on. It may not open right away, maybe you don't even get an answer. But at least now they know, you are on the other side. And you’ll be surprised how many of those decision makers will keep you in mind. Never stop pitching your stories. The worst that can happen is that you get rejected, there are unanswered blue ticks or at the very worst, you may be mocked by people you looked up to. But in the long run, none of that really sticks.

Love your work, but never get too attached to it. Because 99% of writing is rewriting. And with screenwriting especially, I always let go of every word the minute I write it because the end product will never just be my vision but a collective effort.

Write from the heart and don't think about the rest. I strongly believe that the most ironic thing to say to a writer is “log kya sochain ge,” because after all, isn't thinking an inevitable result of reading.

Lastly, and this applies mostly to other aspiring screenwriters like me, you will always have a better chance of getting a call back when you write a producible script as opposed to an overly ambitious, high-budget one.”

How does he deal with rejection of his scripts? “Rejection is always hard but it’s our greatest motivator,” says Yasir. “Something we will always deal with, not once but numerous times, throughout our journey. There is beauty in rejection because although it hurts at the time, it serves as a reminder that it is one of the few things that we have in common with every single person in this world. No one can say that they have never faced rejection.

I may take some time to sulk. Get a little angry. But then, we all get back up and march forward. Because there is no other option. We can't stop creating even if we tried. The ideas never go away. The best thing for me to do is to just remind myself that this moment of rejection may be a story of encouragement and motivation I may tell at a different stage in life. But to get there, I would have to give it another shot tomorrow.”


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