One fine day over 20 years ago, Umera Ahmed was cleaning her room. She had written a story to improve her Urdu handwriting – she had ambitions of earning a Master’s degree in the language. It was pulp fiction and would not get published, she thought.
Ahmed nearly threw the story into the trash, but then decided to mail it to a publisher anyway. “I thought it’s okay if it got lost in the post, but if I threw it out, I’d be sad,” the 43-year-old Pakistani author and screenwriter told Scroll.in. That story was titled Zindagi Gulzar Hai. It did, in fact, get published, became a best-selling novel, and was adapted in 2012 into the wildly popular show that has equally charmed Indian viewers across the border.
Ahmed is back with another adaptation of her work. Ek Jhoothi Love Story will be streamed on Zee5 on October 30. Mehreen Jabbar’s show follows the quest of characters played by Bilal Abbas Khan and Madiha Imam to find their life partners. The mix includes a sassy mother (played by Beo Zafar from the movie Cake) and other well-intentioned relatives.
“I wrote Ek Jhoothi Love Story in 2019 but I’d been living with the characters for almost three years prior to that,” Ahmed said. Like all her work, Ek Jhoothi Love Story began when Ahmed wrote down the title. She usually lets an idea germinate and develop before fleshing out the concept. Sometimes, she won’t write a single word for weeks on end.
“Writing comes very naturally to me and the only thing I try very hard to do is not write too many things or get into too many projects in a year,” Ahmed said. “Then you start getting drained.” Evidently, the process has worked – she has written over 30 books and has more than 20 screenwriting credits, including Digest Writer, Kankar and Maat.
Ahmed’s shows are characterised by strongly etched characters, a firm emphasis on reality and the absence of glamour and contrived melodrama. She tends to observe people around her and make notes that can be used later. “I come from the George Elliot school of thought so I always have to have a didactic purpose to my stories,” she said. “But with the passage of time I have also developed grey areas.”
Her writing gives an equal place to self-reliant women who struggle against their circumstances – such as Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai, who rises above patriarchal restraints. But Ahmed is quick to clarify that she doesn’t want to be labelled as a feminist. “I present a very humanistic approach to stories,” she said. “If you endure a heroic struggle, you should win. That’s it.”
The lure of her stories lies in the time she spends on crafting every aspect of her characters’ personalities – a feat that has endeared her to Indian viewers.
“Our issues are the same so our parents react the same way too,” Ahmed observed. “When I put words down, it feels like everyone has at some point encountered this dialogue or this particular person before.”
Ek Jhoothi Love Story follows the success and controversy of the Pakistani show Churails, which is also being streamed on Zee5. The series was briefly taken off the streaming platform in Pakistan after outrage over a scene in which a female character talks about sexual favours in exchange for a promotion.
Pakistan also recently banned apps such as TikTok, Tinder and Grindr. “Pakistan and even India, we are both extremely emotional, karte pehle hain aur sochte baadme,” Ahmed said – we act first and think later. “A lot of things get banned in India and Pakistan and then get unbanned really quickly too.” Earlier this week, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority unblocked TikTok after the platform promised to moderate content.