With a long list of prominent television show titles and movies under his belt, Mikaal Zulfiqar is one of the most popular, sought-after and highly paid actors in Pakistan. But he isn't making big bucks off his large body of work and neither are any actors, thanks to the no-royalties system in the country's entertainment industry.
This is because despite the entertainment industry now beginning to flourish in terms of churning out content and being recognised for its storylines, actors remain on the losing end of the spectrum.
Case in point: actor Nayla Jaffri who struggled to bear the finances for her cancer treatment, despite the fact that the series she appeared in, such as Desi Girls and Thori Si Khushiyan, were popular when they were first aired, with her career flourishing back in the day.
What are royalties and why are actors protesting for them?
Across the world, when a television show ends and its episodes begin replaying, they are redistributed, often purchased by streaming services and shown again. Actors then get paid for those replays, and those payments are known as royalties.
This is why even when their best years are over, high-profile celebrities are able to not only enjoy the fruit of their work, but also cash in on their hard work for years to come. One can view these royalties as retirement plans for actors whose energies might diminish with time, but whose talent and spirits remain timeless on screen.
Mikaal Zulfiqar gave Images an insight into how the system (or lack thereof) works in our country.
"Unfortunately in Pakistan, it’s a one-time deal and the production company on behalf of the channel takes the rights and does whatever they can with them," he explained, adding that the rights include airing reruns on local channels, uploading the shows on YouTube, selling it to globally acclaimed broadcasting companies such as NBC or even trading them for dubbing in various languages such as Turkish or Arabic for a larger audience who enjoy the wonders of Pakistani television in their native vernacular.
Have things always been like this in Pakistan?
Not really. The Ruswai actor mentioned how the concept of royalties eroded overtime, as a consequence of an already unstable industry.
"In the 90s, royalties were an option but at the time actors were being paid less. They decided to get a higher amount one-off and forgave that benefit in exchange. To date, it's the same formula," he sighed, revealing that everything is done from the channel's end, with even producers not getting paid much. "Because we are not a regulated industry, there are so many issues," he said.
He believes other actors have similar concerns. "I'm sure Mahira [Khan] and Samina [Peerzada] feel the same, but they too are powerless," he said, adding that he would like to give the movement some traction.
All that money lost
"There is no guarantee that your work will work, or your movie will get a certain amount of business. But there's always a backup. I believe whatever plays I've done, about 40 to 50 of them, in some way or the other have played at least one to two times. Maybe even more," Zulfiqar said, and he's right.
Even today, when the dramas are replayed on screen, one cannot help but pause to watch his powerful acting. Naturally, it hurts more to know what you're losing out on.
"They play it 15 to 20 times on their own platform. [Indian channel] Zee Zindagi has also played it four to five times in the past few years. It's being played on airplanes, on YouTube and forums etc.... Bohot bari na insaafi hai [this is a great injustice," he said.
"If these serials were a failure, I wouldn't have had an issue, but like I said, there are too many actors involved in this. Too many successful shows that are being re-run. Take Humsafar for example," he said, adding that he was sure all actors agree that what is happening is unfair.
During the conversation, there is a realisation that despite many mainstream artists wishing to break free from unjust working conditions, there just isn't much that can be done when the channel is in control.
Does Pakistan have no regulatory body that can help?
Surprisingly, it does. Zulfiqar explained that there are currently two regulators working for the protection of people involved in the industry.
First, the Actor's Collective Trust (ACT), which is the only federally registered representative body of actors. Fun fact: it took around a decade for the idea to turn into an actual body. "Royalties are a major part of the agenda other than timely payments or working hours and working conditions," the actor said.
The second is the United Producers Association. Zulfiqaar said it's a committee that stands against channels in case of any injustice perpetrated against producers. "But even that is not as effective as it should be," he added.
If there are committees, why aren't they offering assistance?
The general secretary of ACT is actor Omair Rana, who helps break the process down for Images. When asked why the committees are not as effective as they should be and what hinders their performance, he said it's a new concept to the country.
"We are representative of a body which functions in a sector of an economy that the state has yet to recognise as an official industry," he laughed sardonically. "So can you imagine what weak grounds of legal existence as an entity we have?
"In spite of this, the UPA has done whatever they can on various areas," he added, citing representation of artists deserving of the welfare fund and moving the state on regulating foreign content as part of their work. "The mere fact that we got this body registered and kicked off in the first place was a huge feat to begin with," he said, adding that standardising contracts is next on their list.
When it comes to royalties and residuals, the Churails actor defined it as one of the 'highest peaks of difficulty' in television right now. He said this was because there is a lot of resistance to this idea.
"One, there is ignorance and many people — even the stakeholders who benefit from it — don't know what it is. Two, if you get over the ignorance, there are the major beneficiaries who are not passing on [the benefit]. Those who will be casting and repeat telecasting, and who will take a huge chunk of the revenue of the entire industry work. Third is of course to arrange everything."
Rana said it's difficult trying to collect 25 to 40 producers, whose numbers are dwindling because broadcasters have in house productions, along with hundreds of thousands of actors.
"And collecting numbers isn't an easy job. Only when you have a smaller number and greater money and wealth concentrated, the oligopoly can kick in and people can safeguard their interests better and stronger."
Is this a selfish approach? No and no.
During the course of our conversation, Zulfiqaar explained how he wouldn't be the sole beneficiary if there were to be a change in the system.
"The major chunk of finance as well as the back-breaking work comes from the producers. So what I'm highlighting is that it's not just us actors, but producers, directors and writers — the main people involved in production in film and television — who are losing out and should be paid. Obviously I will profit from it, but so will everyone else," he said.
A similar sentiment was echoed by Rana, who said change required a moment of persistence and constant negotiation. "The fact that broadcasters benefit from royalties, producers benefit from royalties, and all stakeholders benefit from royalties; it's only a matter of realisation before the tables are hopefully turned," he said.
He revealed that they're in the process of trying to spread awareness, getting legislators and stakeholders on board and be able to persuade everyone that getting royalties works in everyone's favour.
Jaffri's situation has brought the issue into the limelight and celebrities such as Ayesha Omar, Yasir Hussain, Samina Peerzada, Rubina Ashraf, Bushra Ansari, Atiqa Odho and Mansha Pasha have spoken up. It might serve as the catalyst Zulfiqaar’s movement needs and a call to arms for actors who have been forced to beg for their money.