Veteran artiste Talat Hussain continues to work both in Pakistan and abroad, mostly enacting roles of a Pakistani living abroad or one of South Asian descent. From UK’s Channel 4’s brilliant series Traffik and Saawan Kumar’s Souten Ki Beti (both 1989) to his recent Amanda Award-winning performance in Khalid Hussain’s Import-Eksport, Talat has been an active player on the acting front.
He won the Amanda for his performance as Allahditta in Import-Eksport — a feat equalled by no actor from this part of the world. The award is equivalent to an Oscar in Norway and since 1985 is being given annually at the Norwegian International Film Festival. Presently, he says: “I was the first-ever recipient in the best supporting actor category because before last year, they didn’t have that category. I am proud of the fact that as a Pakistani, the award came to our country.”
Talat, the second theatrically trained actor in Pakistan after Zia Moheyddin, bagged a gold medal from London Academy of Arts in the 1970s. When asked why is it that only he and Zia Moheyddin (Lawrence of Arabia) have managed to find work in Europe from Pakistan whereas many Indian actors including Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Gulshan Grover and most recently Naseeruddin Shah have managed to bag work in English films, including Hollywood, he says, “English films don’t need actors from the subcontinent all the time. Our actors, I am sorry to say, can’t even work in India properly, let alone in Europe, because they aren’t organised.
“They don’t have the kind of personality — disciplined and committed — required to fit the style of European cinema which requires professionalism. We are also behind India because an Indian gets enormous coverage for completing a small task whereas a Pakistani doesn’t, even for doing something unique. We don’t want our people to go out and succeed internationally, resulting in India grasping better opportunities. In fact, the minor role I did in Jamil Dehalvi’s Jinnah was first offered to Om Puri and when he couldn’t do it, it came to me.”
Busy in every field imaginable since the mid ’60s (except writing), Talat has been actively involved from acting on TV, theatre, radio and films to doing voice overs, TV commercials and announcements, eventually directing TV plays. He went abroad to study acting in 1972 and debuted in Chiragh Jalta Raha (1962) alongside Mohammad Ali and Zeba; whereas Insaan Aur Aadmi (1970) — the film where he played Mohammad Ali and Zeba’s son — brought him to the fore. “Although I didn’t perform much between 1972 and 1977 because of my commitments in London, I managed to get the right roles at the right time. I personally rate my role of a village doctor in Pervez Malik’s Gumnaam (1983) as memorable since it not only gave me a margin to perform but also earned me a National Film Award.”
His filmography includes Bandagi, Bandish, Kamyabi, Miss Bangkok, Hum Se Hai Zamana, Hal Chal, Ghareebon Ka Baadshah, Raja Sahib, etc, making him famous and a force to reckon with in Lollywood.
Talat is not happy with the state of drama these days. “The kind of plays we worked in on PTV are nowhere to be seen because we didn’t keep up with the changes that were taking place in our society during the mid ’80s. People’s concerns were changing, the values within the society were shifting and since the plays didn’t tackle those issues, we were caught unaware on the backfoot. Art means nothing without content and our generation was more content-oriented than their predecessors, who create sellable packages for profits rather than going for content. When art becomes a sellable commodity, it is of no use at all. Our work provided viewers with something to think about while the current offerings are unable to do so because of lack of quality and thought-provoking content.”
The veteran actor is also unhappy with the commitment level of youngsters these days. “It would be best if we don’t expect much from the newcomers because commitment levels have declined in all fields, be it acting or unrelated fields. In our field, glamour has unnecessarily become the dominating factor, which is wrong considering that no matter how much work a person gets today, he or she would only survive because of what he or she delivers and not because of looks and glamorous locations.
“In our times, we used to take pains in acting because at the back of our minds, we knew that this was what we were made for and we knew what we had to deliver. (We were) unlike the current generation, whose prime concern is to make a quick buck and nothing else.”
There are a few plays that were genuinely shot abroad because the problems they tackled were of Pakistanis abroad. Otherwise, the plays that are shot abroad for no reason are doing nothing for our drama. They are just glamorised gimmicks to attract sponsorship and are degrading art.”
‘I don’t like my looks, neither am I a big fan of my acting. I don’t like my voice and I have seldom watched my own plays or films. But I try to improve myself with every passing day and believe that my life-long association with showbiz has been God’s gift to me,’ says Talat Hussain
So what does he think of the Indian invasion of TV soaps in Pakistan? “We are a bunch of totally lost people,” a saddened Talat states. “Because of lack of self-confidence, we believe that every Indian artiste — be it male or female — is better than us which is absolutely wrong. I am not saying that Indian actors are not good, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have good actors. By using their TV artistes who are nothing compared to our actors, our producers are hoping against hope that their serials would be purchased in India or would get sponsors from across the border.
“Similarly, we pay them enormous amounts for working in our serials while our artistes don’t get that much money. Ours are considered mediocre when they go to India but we hail their mediocre artistes as if they were screen giants. Their artistes work for eight hours while our artistes are on duty 24/7 which is absolutely wrong. The producers who are doing this should be ashamed of themselves and should refrain from doing so, otherwise the repercussions would be very dangerous.
“I went to India in 1989 to perform in Souten Ki Beti and was immediately offered eight films which I didn’t accept because of the tension between the two nations — they change without any warning. There are really good people in India who want to use Pakistani talent but sadly, they are quite small in number as there is a silent opposition against using Pakistani artistes in India. The sooner we organise ourselves, the sooner we shall establish associations with artistes, technicians and writers, the better it would be; otherwise these channel people will eat us alive,” he says.
When asked what he means by “change in values”, Talat openly states: “Since the dawn of spaghetti westerns — A Fistful of Dollars and The Wild Bunch — violence had become an integral part of cinema the world over. In Third World countries such as Pakistan, these films were released easily because they were cheap commodities and even if one didn’t know the language, the action was impressive and entertaining enough.
“They influenced our writers and directors, resulting in films like Maula Jat and TV serials like Waris which made people aware and cautious of the feudalism that existed in the rural areas. Sultan Rahi became an icon of resistance against the evils of the feudal system and injustice. Since most of the population in Pakistan lives in rural areas, these films gave producers the profit they wanted and thus ended the era of romantic films in Pakistan. Violence invaded our minds so badly that it back-lashed in the form of the Taliban, and now the west is demoting violence because it has created problems for them.”
So how is he finding direction? “I don’t know how good or bad a director I am but I am thankful to my seniors for making me learn so much. In fact, when I asked S. Suleman to watch a play that I had directed over a cup of tea, he was impressed. That is something more of a compliment coming from a man who has been directing films even before I started acting.”
Talat was equally impressed by Owais Khan, the director of Sarmaya and Karachi Law. “Among the new lot, he has the most potential because he handles each frame well. I won’t comment on Javaid Fazil and S. Suleman because they are giants and praising them would be like showing a candle to the sun. I was also impressed by Shehzad Nawaz’s Botal Gali which, despite being very long, had powerful content that somehow we lack in other plays.”
On being asked why he once said that Al Pacino copies him, a surprised Talat strongly contradicted the statement. “I have never said such a thing in my life. Why would an American actor of the caliber of Al Pacino copy me, an actor who works in a medium alien to the Americans? I am against such small-talk and if someone has published such a statement with my name, he should either have proof or should publish a denial.” The great actor has never won a PTV award, a fact that he doesn’t want to discuss. “I am least concerned when it comes to awards as I have never worked to achieve them.”
What does the pause stand for in Talat Hussain’s histrionics? “I used to take pauses earlier in my career, most famously in Insaan Aur Aadmi, the TV series. I played a social worker and in every episode, when I used to visit a troubled family, I was met with sorry faces and hopeful eyes who demanded me to rid them of their troubles. In such a scenario, when I was referred to by unknown people, I was meant to take a pause so as to show that I was thinking before giving an answer.
The pause stuck to me mainly because of Moin Akhtar, undoubtedly the biggest impersonator in the subcontinent at the moment. Moin, whenever he impersonates me, takes pauses as if I always do it and the same has now become a part of my identity as an actor.”
On a concluding note, Talat says, “I don’t like my looks and neither am I a big fan of my acting. I don’t like my voice and surprisingly, I don’t have my own photographs or recordings as I have seldom watched my own plays and films. But I try to improve myself with every passing day and believe that my life-long association with showbiz has been God’s gift to me,”