When I stepped into Rahat Kazmi sahib’s office, thick spirals of smoke were billowing towards the ceiling and the tiny, dark room was entirely submerged in a sheen of grey.
For a fleeting moment, I felt like the spectator in a theatre who waits with bated breath for the stage fog to settle and the widely celebrated protagonist of the play to be unveiled. The fumes parted to reveal the man who remains the stuff of legend in Pakistani households; a man who by all outward appearances, seemed so very human and humble that it was a little unnerving.
Nothing about his appearance or manner suggested that this unpretentious individual once unleashed magic onscreen that held multiple generations of Pakistanis, women in particular, captive. However, the full spectrum of his intellectual wealth comes forward tour de force when he starts to speak about something he harbours a deep love for – the arts.
A true artist leaves an indelible imprint on people’s imaginations, and creates a sacrosanct presence for himself in his field which cannot be recognised or rewarded with the trinkets bestowed on artists in filmfare awards. Rahat Kazmi has, time and again, shown in his work a deeply empathic understanding of the human psyche by successfully reproducing on screen the full range of internal complexities that drive human behaviour.
Furthermore, he has continually experimented with various art forms and has taken it upon himself to conquer a new frontier in his career every few years, be it as a critic, a talk show host, an actor, a speaker or a teacher.
Kazmi sahib’s relationship with theatre is as old as his entire career in the entertainment industry. Although he went on to add a string of achievements as a television and film actor as well as an educationist to his portfolio, he has time and again returned to his first love – the theatre.
In addition to delivering countless unforgettable performances in theatres across Pakistan himself, he also formed the acting group, Theatrewalay, in the 1980s which, in its heyday, lured Karachites by the hundreds. He has also been closely with the National Academy of Performing Arts for several years now.
In television, he wooed our hearts as the medical science student, Ghazanfar, in ‘Qurbatein aur Faasley’ [dramatisation of Russian novelist Ivan Turgeneve’s Fathers and Sons] who is besotted with Aliya and meets a tragic end and dies of typhus. Nayyara Noor’s song, kabhi hum khoobsoorat thay, which was so poignant in its timeless beauty that it still brings tears to our eyes, was picturised on Rahat Kazmi’s Teesra Kinara [dramatisation of Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand’s novel Fountainhead].
Kazmi sahib’s performance in Teesra Kinara as well as Parchaiyan [dramatisation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady] forever immortalised him in the annals of Pakistani artists. And who can forget his superlative performance as Dr. Ahmer Ansari in ‘Dhoop Kinaray’, a play that set the standard for romance and romantic dramas so high, that contemporary casanovas and directors are still scrambling to recreate that magic.
In films, his first work, ‘Aaj aur Kal’, ran for 125 weeks straight at the Bambino cinema. He went on to display the same undefeatable verve in ‘Insaniyat’ and ‘Mehmaan’. Now, it is only befitting that he has taken it upon himself to impart his love for learning to younger generations of Pakistanis as the director of L’ecole for Advanced Studies.
My last thought, as I scrambled to hold together the gems of knowledge that had been imparted to me in this short, half an hour interview, was that of gratefulness for directing my imagination onto new avenues of thinking. In this interview, I have attempted to pen only a portion of the intellectual treasure trove that is Rahat Kazmi.
What makes a drama last a lifetime in people’s memories? What critical ingredients determine its success? That is, success not in terms of the box-office but whether it becomes a work of art or not?
Great dramas are born when you introduce great themes, great characters, great plots and great dialogue. All these elements come together to make a good drama. But fundamentally it is the story of a conflict – a conflict between you and the elements within and around you.
Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati, who was a great sociologist and thinker, said that every man is a captive of four prisons, and of that, one is the prison of his own nature. Everyone is a prisoner of their own genetic code. The second prison is that of culture and society. You are confined by the beliefs and values of the society you are born in.
The third prison is that of history. History affects you. Before 9/11 you were something else and after 9/11 you are something else. And finally, the fourth prison is that of your own ego. It’s very difficult to rise above your ego. A successful drama is an individual’s struggle to break free of these prisons. Does he succeed or doesn’t he? That is the drama. If he succeeds and is somehow able to manoeuvre his way out of these prisons, it becomes a comedy. If he fails and is left hitting his head against the walls of these prisons, it becomes a tragedy.
Aristotle, the first man who ever wrote anything on drama, wrote that a drama is the story of how a man fails to understand the will of the powers that be. This failure leads to wonderful tragedies like Oedipus. A tragedy is born when you either don’t understand or will fully ignore what the powers are trying to tell you.
Consider the greatest story ever told, that of Adam and Eve. Now you know that you are forbidden to eat any fruit from the forbidden tree. But no – man has the tendency to not listen to instructions, wilfully ignore them or play the rebel. This is the tragedy.
What role can drama play in the conscience building of a people? Do you think drama has the power to leave a significant impact on people’s imaginations? How do you see our society’s relationship with the arts?
The artist never bothers with who will receive his work, and how it will be received, that is, in what manner and fashion. He simply focuses on creating art. Now the thing is, if a society is creating art then it’s also cultivating in its people a certain sensitivity towards the arts. Some of the greatest societies of the world are the ones that have engaged in the creation of art.
Civilisation is dying but art lives on. So I would say, any single piece of art doesn’t have a direct impact on morality, but the arts overall have a very important role in the structure and evolution of society. Societies that do not care about their art are fated to asphyxiate and die.
When you look at our society in particular, we are incredibly deficient in sensitising our children towards the arts. Our school curricula put no emphasis on teaching children to love and appreciate the arts. I remember, I was in London once for a concert. The great cellist, Yo Yo Ma, was playing. Very expensive ticket, you virtually had to sell your shirt to buy it.
But it was the experience of a lifetime. I was sitting there and when I turned, I saw that about 10 beautiful children were sitting behind me. Throughout the concert, I would have fidgeted but none of those children did. I was stunned, to say the least. I asked their guardian, “Who are they”. She replied that they were all students of a music conservatory.
So you start inculcating an appreciation of the arts that young and only then your society develops a sense for it. We have no space for art. Just imagine, only one college, National College of Arts (NCA), teaches the history of painting in Pakistan. If NCA didn’t teach it, there would be no one teaching it in the country.
Let’s take another example. A survey was done in Karachi of 200 children painting a house. Each one of them painted it with two windows, a door in the middle, a slanting roof and a chimney on the side. Which house in Karachi has a chimney?
We are a burning hot country. Houses drawn with air conditioners would make sense, but chimneys? The problem is that the aesthetic model of the house in our minds is the English Tudor house, and we have borrowed all our ideas and curricula from them. So the teachers teach you to paint exactly that way.
What we need to do is create spaces to teach and cultivate our own arts. For instance, roughly 95 percent of Pakistanis don’t know what Gandhara is. But wasn’t it a great civilisation and wasn’t it a part of your history? We don’t respect our past or our art. What we do respect is consumerism; Hyperstar, Coca Cola etc.
Whatever art you see here is what happens against all odds. In a city of more than 20 million people we have only two auditoriums of which only one is well equipped! So above all, the problem is that there is no space for art and nobody is bothered about creating spaces.
Do you think that art happens once societies cross a certain level of affluence? Or do humanity’s need for subsistence and creative expression work in tandem?
The idea that you need to be affluent to produce art goes against all recorded history. It is not necessary for a society to be flourishing economically to do art. Money jingling in pockets doesn’t make art. Societies can be very affluent and yet very poor in art.
For instance, when Rabindranath Tagore built Santiniketin in Calcutta, was the city very developed? No! It was crawling with shanty towns and the British were ruling. But he did it. And you know the lofty place Santiniketin has in the world of art in India. A number of art institutions were built across India later to replicate this space.
I remember once I went to South India. Every school there offers dance and music. And I’m talking about bamboo hut schools! It doesn’t take much to make music, only a flute. Yes people should not be poor. But that does not exclude the possibility of art.
When I visited East Pakistan, we would step out in the evenings and hear the sound of singing and music all around us. Parents would invite us in as guests saying that our children sing very well or dance very well, come let us show you. They took pride in it, while we shy away from it.
Another time, I visited Scotland and somebody took me to a school. I asked the headmistress, “What is good about your school?” She called a very young boy and put the same question to him. The boy took me to a carpeted room where he called four of his friends; a flutist, a girl who was playing the tambourine, another who was playing a violin, and another with an instrument.
He stood in front of them and said, “One, two, three!” On the count of three, they played a tune for about 10 seconds. He left the podium, came to me and said, “This is my composition.” It’s as simple as that. We have an immensely rich music heritage. We have done two good things; we wrote good ghazal and we made good music. Almost every great musician you name in India is Muslim. When did it all go wrong?
Yes I agree that poverty is a great deterrent. But you cannot abdicate your responsibility by saying that. What about street theatre? No money, sound or lighting is invested, but the work can still be magical. Yes if you want to study painting at Indus Valley you need money. But also remember, that Sadequain went to no school. All you need is charcoal and a piece of paper and if you have it in you, you will create it.
Yes I agree that poverty is a great deterrent. But you cannot abdicate your responsibility by saying that.
How do you think our dramas have evolved over the past 40-odd years since you began your career? And how do you think state support or interference influences the evolution of art?
Regarding your first question, at that time, television was a state-owned enterprise. It was a public broadcasting medium. There was a lot of freedom in the sense that you were not constrained by the economics of it all. So you didn’t need a Dalda to be supporting you to get a drama out to the audiences.
Therefore, a lot of good work was done at that time. Now if you take the work of Henry James or Ayn Rand and make a drama out of it, of course it will be much better than a drama based on a reader’s digest. We didn’t care whether a drama sold or not. We were paid a pittance but we were all infused with the desire to do some good work. Not great work, that’s another story. But some reasonable, acceptable work.
Once state patronage was gone, dramas were ruined by commercial interests. This is true the world over. The state has to take responsibility. It cannot abdicate its role. In London, even today, all theatre is supported by the government. In Canada, there is a film corporation which supports cinema. They evaluate the script and if it has merit, they will fund it.
By now, there are more than 50 academies across India who teach theatre and music. They have film schools which are equivalent to the best schools in the world. In 70 years we have built one institution in Pakistan where there are 80 students studying. You think they will bring about a revolution? It takes hundreds of institutions like this to leave your footprint in the world of art.
The best work that you found in the Soviet Union when it was a socialist country was by the people who wrote as dissidents not as conformists
However, states can also negatively influence the evolution of art if they try to impose singular narratives. The problem is that we as a state never decided who we are and who we want to be. If we had decided at Independence, whether we want to be a theocratic or a non-theocratic state, things would have been much simpler. We didn’t and now we are paying the price for this. Art is born in freedom, against all forms of tyranny. There can be many kinds of freedom; political, social, individual, philosophical, psychological. No art is born in mental slavery and conformity.
The best work that you found in the Soviet Union when it was a socialist country was by the people who wrote as dissidents not as conformists. Solzhenitsyn was not a conformist. Boris Pasternak was not a conformist. Habib Jalib is the example from our historical legends.
We are standing still and the world of art is passing us by while we are beautifully and wonderfully unconscious of it all.