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Kamal Ahmed Rizvi

He lashes out at those who have made theatre expensive and only for the elite, but agrees that the state’s support to supplement and sustain such activities is a must. “I am living off the money I got from selling my house in Lahore. There is no hope of receiving any subsidy from the government”, he says ruefully, citing the Pride of Performance award as a Tauq-e-Nidamat that he regrets accepting.

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In the mid 1960s Pakistan’s irate young men began appearing with increasing frequency on radio and stage, and Kamal Ahmed Rizvi was the perfect writer-actor to embody the aggressive, underprivileged character that everyone loved to hate. His appeal –– a wicked liveliness and roguish looks –– enabled him to personify the angry young-man-turned-swindler with fabulous accomplishment.

With Rizvi himself posing as a conman called Allan, and Rafi Khawar as his naive front man, Nannha, the series written by Rizvi earned him a success so colourful in the days of black and white television that it is almost unparalleled in Pakistan’s entertainment history. First telecast in 1965, the 100-episode series has been repeated several times. Few people would know the duo’s real names. They are merely Allan and Nannha of the immortal comedy series Alif Noon, packed with hefty social punches. The landmark series has been a forerunner in winning television audiences across the country.

I go to meet the writer-actor-director at his apartment in Karachi, where he has been living with his wife for several years. Dressed in a blood-red shirt with charcoal-black hair, Rizvi hardly looks like a man in his seventies. I expect him to live up to his Allan image, pulling out a trick from his sleeve any minute…

Surrounded by paintings of Pakistani artists Ali Imam, Mansur Aye, Mansur Rahi and others, with a pencil sketch of himself and the famous Noon –– Nannha –– by Iqbal Mehdi, he leads a life that is somewhat reclusive. I wonder aloud how he spends his time now, after having had scores of admirers and fans, fame and money during the years of his comedy series. “Unfortunately, we seem to disregard those who were once a favourite but are now no more in the limelight,” he replies.

He says he keeps busy writing plays and just depositing them in the drawer of his writing desk, hoping that someday someone will stage them. “I belong to the world of theatre,” he announces as clarification. His career in theatre began in 1958, and his famous play Bala ki Badzaat was staged sometime in the early 1960s.

More recently, it was performed in Lahore, in January 2005, on the occasion of the 12-day Ibsen National Drama Festival. Rizvi, perhaps, has the distinction of performing on every stage in Karachi, including those which have been long razed to the ground, such as the Katrak Hall. He also has the distinction of having acted in all the plays that he has written. He has also acted in Khwabaun kay Musafir, written by Intizar Husain, and Aadhi Baat by Bano Qudsia, and has acted in the television version of these plays as well.

I ask him if he remembers the total number of stage and television plays that he has written/acted and/or directed. “I must have done more than 20 stage plays (performed several times over in different cities), however, I cannot remember the number and all the names of my television plays, but Khoya Huwa Aadmi with Khalida Riyasat was one of them,” he says, and adds, “It was a well-received long play. So were the comedies Chor Machae Shor, Aap ka Mukhlis, etc.”

According to Rizvi, his penchant for social justice was kindled at a very young age. His father was in the police department in Gaya, Bihar (close to Bodhgaya of Gautama Buddha’s Bodhi Tree fame –– one of the most sacred pilgrimages for Buddhists), and later became a landowner. The son denounced the way the poor were treated or forced to live, “although my father did not treat them badly, I saw the plight of the poor all around me.”

In 1951, at the age of 21, he decided to migrate to Pakistan. He narrates how, on Bunder Road, in those initial days in Karachi, he came upon a red flag with a hammer and sickle sign, announcing the Communist Party of Pakistan’s office. Intrigued and excited, he went inside to inquire if he could join the party. He met the party secretary who asked him what he did. Upon learning that the young man had literary leanings, he advised him to go over to the Pakistan Writers’ Association (PWA). “Some of our members, like Sajjad Zaheer, are underground right now. Moreover, you are too young to join the party. The PWA is a better place for you,” the secretary recommended.

Rizvi became acquainted with most of the eminent writers and scholars connected to PWA in Karachi, and later with others in Lahore. “I was extremely happy to be with them. In Karachi, there was Minhas Barna, Mumtaz Hasan, Mujtaba Husain and Ibrahim Jalees…” I tell him that I remember how Jalees’s popular column Waghaira Waghaira was my father’s staple for many years, and he used to read it to me.

“Do you know that there were CID (intelligence agency) personnel shadowing each of these writers? I encountered one of them one day and he confirmed this himself. He warned me that a young lad like me could get into a lot of trouble if I continued to associate with people at the PWA. ‘Why don’t you do something else?’ the man inquired. During my ‘interrogation’ I had told him that I had a stepbrother in Lahore. He asked me to leave Karachi immediately, and find a job in Lahore instead of wasting my time with the writers. I told him that I had no money to undertake the travel,” Rizvi pauses to serve me a samosa and some tea that his wife has discreetly left for us.

“Would you believe that the man actually pulled out money from his pocket for my train fare as well as some extra rupees and thrust these in my palm!” I am listening to the story of his life with rapt attention.

“So did you leave for Lahore then?” I ask.

Rizvi went over to Lahore for sure, but neither did he adopt another vocation nor could he stay with his brother for too long, due to his rebellious ways. He moved over to his stepsister’s place. “During those days Faiz Ahmed Faiz was behind bars in the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, and my brother-in-law, on learning that this was the man I admired and rubbed shoulders with, threw me out,” he discloses.

Rizvi reminisces how life became more and more difficult. However, he continued to write and associate with other writers of the Progressive Writers’ Movement; spending time with luminaries such as Manto, Rafi Peer, Nasir Kazmi, Habib Jalib, among others. He read their works as well as those of Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen and says, “I was a great admirer of those writers.”

I ask him about his favourite playwrights and he says there are several: “Sartre, Brecht, Shakespeare… in fact the English have so many great writers besides Shakespeare, that it is difficult to recount all. I am inspired and influenced by several.”

Rizvi then relates the problems and hurdles faced by him as he engaged in theatre and tried to make it an affordable activity for people to come and watch. He lashes out at those who have made theatre expensive and only for the elite, but agrees that the state’s support to supplement and sustain such activities is a must.

“I am living off the money I got from selling my house in Lahore. There is no hope of receiving any subsidy from the government”, he says ruefully, citing the Pride of Performance award as a Tauq-e-Nidamat (noose of mortification) that he regrets accepting.

“Tell me something about your personal life,” I ask rather cautiously, not too sure if I would receive an answer. However, Rizvi surprises me with his candid disclosure. He has a sad look in his eyes when he states that he has been unlucky as far as relationships go. His first marriage, to a lady from Lahore, was rather brief. His only offspring is a son –– a lawyer –– who lives in the US, brought up by his first wife. “I met my second wife in London when I was there for a stint with the BBC Urdu Service. She was an Indian citizen from Delhi. After we had been together for sometime, she came to Karachi, accompanied by her parents, and we got married here… but once again things didn’t work out and that marriage did not last too long either.” He hastens to add that his marriage to Ishrat Jahan -–– his current spouse -–– has lasted for no less than 24 years!

I ask him about his most famous partner, Rafi Khawar -–– Nannha –– who worked in hundreds of films besides the cherished Alif Noon series. Did Rizvi share an off-screen camaraderie with him? He replies in the negative. “Nannha was a fine man, sweet and innocent. However, we came from completely different backgrounds. We were a fantastic pair in Alif Noon, but that was that… off the sets there was no intellectual bond between us.”

Rizvi then reminisces how, at times, Nannha would adlib during rehearsals and get reprimanded by him for doing so: Rizvi was a no-nonsense stickler for perfection, even for what might seem like nonsensical buffoonery in a comedy play. “But I let him make those ridiculous sounds in Alif Noon as Nannha maintained that the young audience –– children ––- loved his antics accompanied by these sounds.”

It is impossible not to feel distressed that the coveted vision of writers of defiance such as Kamal Ahmed Rizvi, to live in a country free of capitalism, corruption and feudalism, keeps evading them.

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