Published in Slogan (September 2010)
Rahat Kazmi shares interesting anecdotes from his life as an actor, director and teacher, in conversation with Ayesha Hoda.
There’s a certain excitement that comes from a one-on-one conversation with any actor, especially one who stands out in his field. There is also a strange sense of familiarity; a feeling that you have known this person through the various compelling characters that he has portrayed on screen. You feel nostalgic when you meet him even if it is for the first time.
One of the best and most popular actors of Pakistani television, Rahat Kazmi at first seems not entirely different from his enigmatic screen persona. He, however, instantly makes you feel at ease and begins the conversation effortlessly, even while saying, “I don’t have much to say”.
The way he answers my questions reminds me how many times he must have given interviews. Yet he seems to enjoy the experience or it may just be that he likes to speak, being a gifted speaker and debater since his school days.
Rahat was considered a maverick in his family. His father had a successful income tax law practice and was a prominent Shia leader. But Rahat had different interests – Marxism, poetry, drama, music, etc. And he was an all-rounder.
When he entered college in 1961, he was pushed on to the stage by one Mr Nasrullah Malik, whom he describes as “a delightful eccentric” and the one who taught him “how not to believe in things”. With Mr Malik’s support, Rahat graduated from college not only with a distinction in academics but also as the best actor and debater.
On his father’s insistence, he pursued a law degree at the Punjab University law college and, as usual, did well. He fondly mentions his friends there, including Aitzaz Ahsan and late Asif Sajjad Jan.
Later, he went to Government College, Lahore and continued educating himself in various disciplines, including Political Science, English Literature and International Relations. He laughingly admits that he never wanted to leave college.
Rahat also appeared for the Civil Service exams. He went to the Information Services Academy and served in the Ministry of Information for more than three years. Then he resigned.
“In those days nobody thought of resigning from Civil Service,” he recalls. “I was one of the few. The job gave no scope for creativity or any sense of achievement. The only good thing about the experience was that as a bureaucrat I got a chance to spend one and a half months in East Pakistan. I travelled across the country and fell in love with it. Unfortunately, only a year later it became Bangladesh.”
It was a difficult decision leaving the job as Rahat had to return all the money invested in his training. However, they eventually agreed and allowed him to leave.
Simultaneously with his tenure as a bureaucrat, Rahat also had the chance to act in his first major drama serial, “Qurbatain Aur Faaslay”. Some of his college friends were working in television and remembered him from college plays. So they approached him for a role in the play which had been adapted from a novel by Ivan Turgenev called “Fathers and Sons”. Rahat thinks that for an actor the first play or drama is always the dearest to his heart as it is the first time he is doing it. In his first serial, Rahat tried to copy Che Guevara, the famous Argentinean revolutionary.
Those were the days when there were not many recording facilities. The drama had to be recorded in big chunks and went on air the same week. Two episodes had already been aired and the team had still not found the lead girl. Rahat then saw Saira one day, who used to read the English news. He inquired whether she would be suitable for the part. Eventually, Aslam Azhar (Chairman, Pakistan Television), who knew Saira Kazmi’s father, persuaded him to let her take the role.
That is how Rahat met Saira: “The beginning of our romance was with an argument,” he relates. “We were going to the TV station. Somebody had commented that the camera work was very conventional and she agreed. I said it suited the material; it was neither conventional nor unconventional. So we started arguing and it has continued till date. For the last thirty years, we have had fights on many technical issues.”
The drama serial was a blockbuster and quite typically, people and newspapers started saying they should get married. At first the couple was cynical and ignored it as idle gossip. But eventually they did get married.
“It was a Shia-Sunni marriage, so there was a lot of hue and cry over it. But we had really nice friends like Badar Khalil who helped us get together.”
Rahat’s second serial “Parchaiyan” was recorded in Karachi and was such a huge success that when the actor visited India in 1979, he found film institutes there using it as class material to teach students how to direct and produce plays.
Despite these successes, Rahat realised that there was no money in the business and decided to go for the big screen. In three years, he did 11 films but with the collapse of the film industry, he and other actors like Nadeem Baig and Shabnam decided to move from Lahore to Karachi.
So life had to start again. Saira was employed in television. She moved towards direction and won many awards for her work. Rahat also did a lot of work for television but with the low incomes offered in those days, he pursued a teaching career as well. Rahat’s academic qualifications and exemplary linguistic skills enabled him to teach A level and university students, in subjects ranging from literature to politics to international relations. He also worked as the Regional Director for Beaconhouse School System for seven years. Currently, he teaches English Literature at l ‘ecole in Karachi.
When the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was established in 2005, Rahat joined it as head of the Theatre Arts department. He also heads the NAPA Repertory Theatre Company, founded about three years back. This company has been producing six theatre plays each year and is currently working on its fifteenth production – Khel Jaari Hai – a comedy play directed by Rahat.
Speaking on the recent increase in such theatrical productions, Rahat says, “We have certainly rejuvenated theatre in Pakistan. The Arts Council is now booked for two years with performances by various theatre groups. But we have an advantage over others as we are funded by the government and can experiment more plus we have a bunch of well-trained actors – NAPA graduates.
“One institution cannot do everything but NAPA is the only institute in Pakistan which treats music and theatrical arts as knowledge domains; as disciplines to be taught and learnt. Previously there was no such place. The National College of Arts has just introduced a degree programme in theatre.”
When asked if people here will actually consider going for an entire degree in theatre arts, given the low income potential in Pakistan, Rahat is of the view that such passionate people are always there and they will go for it. Those who only want to make money will do morning or cooking shows. He says theatre has a limited audience the world over as it requires a very high level of education for people to appreciate various art forms. That is why here one sees the same faces everywhere, whether it is an art exhibition, a theatre play or a film screening.
Rahat, being a voracious reader, is also disappointed by the fading reading culture the world over. He is sad that students and even teachers rely on notes written twenty years ago, reveals distaste for tuition centres and says it is unfortunate that good education has become so expensive in Pakistan. “Education and arts should always be subsidised,” he says.
Moving on to a discussion on TV actors, Rahat says that they have become millionaires with big cars and big houses, which is a good thing. “Why can’t artists make more money,” he asks.
I ask him why he is no longer a part of the television industry to which he responds, “I am too old to work now. And I think it has all become too commercial, which is really not my cup of tea. It is all about selling shows and how much percentage who will get. Even news is often sponsored.”
When I ask him if he thinks Pakistani serials are inspired by Indian soaps, he defends the industry, “Everyone borrows from everyone else. See, there are only a few formats in the world: (i) cooking shows (ii) general shows (iii) talk shows (iv) soaps and (v) news. What else can you do on television?
“Of course dramas in the 70s were better as they were funded by the state. You will do better work and experiment more when there is no commercial restraint, like BBC is still the best channel. Now on private channels, there are so many commercial breaks with anchors rudely interrupting guests to go for a break. But channels need to decide on their tone: serious or not serious? One second we hear the heart-wrenching news of flood victims and the next second a silly jingle tries to sell biscuits to us. If things are commercialised to such an extent, then you lose credibility and the ability to create quality content.”
Rahat also feels that adapting novels for television serials is very challenging but should be done more often to maintain standards: “Novelists take years to complete their books so their ideas have matured while a usual TV script may only take three months or even less. If you look back, you will see that some of the best work on Pakistani television has been an adaptation of great novels.”
Hope the bigwigs of Pakistani television industry are listening. One can only wonder if the younger crop of TV artists will follow in Rahat’s footsteps and become household names like him.