Years ago when I started out as an actor, Anwar Maqsood was already a household name in the media industry. Never before had a writer been simultaneously as notorious or as revered as Anwar Bhai. Today, younger generations don’t know of the impact he has had on Pakistan’s creative arts and on changing creative paradigms. The words, reclusive, laconic and reticent come to mind when attempting to describe the man – an enigma if there was one. I have had the pleasure of knowing him for more than three decades and I still can’t say that I really know him.
Passing through the corridors of Pakistan Television (PTV) three decades ago, then the only television network in Pakistan, I heard someone calling my name. It was the famed Moin Akhtar, known for his comedy. He asked me to do a skit with him and I was quite overwhelmed. Nonetheless, I tried to politely decline, saying that I had already committed to act in a serial with PTV drama producer Sahira Kazmi and wouldn’t be able to manage both.
“That will take time. This is a two-minute skit, written by Anwar Maqsood. Please just come and do it,” he insisted. And with that, he dragged me to the studio. That skit, which was done in one take, was my first ever appearance on television.
Many years later, after I had been a part of Haseena Moin’s Dhoop Kinaray, I took a sabbatical for a year, disgruntled with the stereotypical characters being played on screens. It was during those days, I ran into Anwar Bhai at a musical festival.
“Where are you lost these days,” he asked.
“I am into business now, Anwar Bhai,” I explained. “Acting is not my cup of tea.”
“Yaar (friend) you have to do my serial,” he said.
In awe of the great man, I couldn’t say no. That’s how I signed up for the television serial Sitara aur Mehrunnisa. Although it comprised only a dozen or so episodes, it went on to become a colossal hit and launched the careers of stars like Atiqa Odho and Sania Saeed.
In the breaks between takes, our cricket sessions in the Eastern Studios with Anwar Bhai were very memorable. He was a very good leg spinner and extremely competitive. Often we would quarrel about dismissals and he would walk out. I loved every moment of it.
It is sad that we never worked together again. He went on to create history with Moin Akhtar and together they produced some of the most magical moments ever aired on television.
I knew being tasked to interview Anwar Bhai was going to be difficult, since I knew he hates interviews and usually never permits them. But since I pride myself on being one of his spoiled brats, I knew he would never refuse me. So when I called him, he in his very inaudible voice, replied: “Come over.”
The dates got mixed up and he started hedging. Somehow I managed to convince him to meet. He is an early riser. I am a night owl. For him, I decided to stay awake all night and go without sleep the next day. Knowing he is very particular when it comes to punctuality, I turned up at the stipulated time with eyes bulging and without a clue regarding what the questions would be.
He lives with his family in a big compound. His house is at the end. The house is almost as isolated as Anwar Bhai. Squeaky clean, adorned with paintings and books, all by artists other than himself.
Anwar Bhai is an outstanding painter himself, yet his own masterpieces are not on display. Given that he is self-effacing, there is no surprise there. As we settle on our seats I realise that he is not his normal self.
“I have been not well. Back pain and heavy medications take their toll. So don’t prolong my agony. I will give you half an hour at the most,” he says. “Oh Lord,” I say to myself. This will be short and terse as always. He can be extremely brusque and evasive when it comes to interviews. Say one wrong thing and he will end it abruptly and walk out casually without warning. I am used to that. So without any delay, I start questioning him about his childhood.
“My father passed away when I was only 14 years old. It was very sudden. I was his most spoiled child. He loved me and I loved him.” I see a tear roll down his cheek as he speaks.
“It was the 27th of Ramadan and he was going to take me Eid shopping when he suddenly collapsed. It was an uphill struggle for our family after migration and perhaps it had taken its toll on him. He was only 42 when he died. We had lived a life of luxury in Hyderabad Deccan, from where we come, but in Pakistan my family struggled. We could have occupied any locked or deserted house, but instead the family decided to buy a place in Martin Quarters. It was my family’s innate humility that when we finally did buy a small house, it was without a roof. Before that, we had lived in a tent. We don’t realise what struggles and hardships our ancestors went through. Now my spinal problems remind me of how our nation suffers, completely forgetting what nightmares, hardships we all went through.” Anwar Bhai and his family are stoics, philosophical to the core.
“We migrated in 1948, on the eve of Quaid-e-Azam’s chehlum. My maternal grandfather who was a student of Daagh Dehlvi took the decision. I retain vividly the memories of Hyderabad, Deccan and the literary atmosphere of our home there. We were very liberal. Pakistan was not made for, or by, right-wingers but by moderate liberal minds. A fact that we have all but forgotten.”
As Anwar Bhai reminisces about days gone by, I can’t help but feel sad about what our country is fast becoming, despite having thinkers like him. His one-liners and the subliminal messages he has constantly bombarded us with, are laden with progressive thought, of shunning despots, of laughing at tyranny, of scoffing at religiosity. The powers that be were always afraid of the diminutive man now in his late seventies. He was a man that people identified with and related to. It is he who led the resistance to despotic rule, so now that democracy is ruling the roost, I ask if he is happy? I ask if we are now not held hostage to mass hysteria and right-wing mob mentality?
“If I had the money I would have left Pakistan long ago. It is now the complete opposite of what our forefathers fought for. Nothing is sacred anymore, the truth especially.” There is a shared silence as we both mourn the death of reason, truth and justice.
“Pakistan was not built for the right. But it is now becoming totally rightist,” he says. His seeming indifference hides deep resentment and we change the subject.
“Cricket was my passion. Waheed Murad and I used to play together. We were friends, till of course he became a super star. He changed once stardom hit him in many ways I would not like to discuss now but Martin Quarters was a place where such personalities thrived. Just like our home in Hyderabad Deccan, our place in Martin Quarters was a haunt of intellectuals and poets,” he says.
Anwar Bhai is an encyclopedia of poetry and Urdu literature. It is sad that he doesn’t teach any classes. He should. He can recite poetry on any subject and has an amazing memory.
“I am fortunate to have had masters such as Daagh Dehlvi as teachers. I am indebted to the intellectual environment I was raised in, truly blessed.” But it is clear his elder sister, the renowned playwright Fatima Surraya Bajia, was his true mentor.
“She started working at a very young age as we were hard up after the death of my father. She sacrificed everything for us. She was my inspiration. She wrote her first book when she was twelve, a prodigy and an equally beautiful human. I owe her a lot.”
Bajia died in early 2016 after a long struggle with cancer. She was an iconic writer and penned some of the most successful drama serials for television, depicting women and their issues as never before. Anwar Bhai was like a child to her. I remember once hearing Bajia order him to go with her. He politely told her to leave and that he would follow shortly. Her voice became stern and she said “sunna nahi, chalo!” (Didn’t you hear, let’s go.) Anwar Bhai quietly left with her. He was almost 60 then. That is the kind of influence she had on him and that is the kind of reverence he had for her.
“From Bajia I learned many things, but perhaps the most important was that family comes first. Family was everything to her. She put family before her own self. She never married and was the pillar of strength for the family. And what a tremendous legacy and family she has left behind. She was active till her dying day – the iron lady of Pakistan surely.”
Just how did this amazing painter, man of letters and wit, segue into writing for television, I ask him.
“Zia Mohyeddin asked me to write for his show and that’s how I started writing. We had arguments, but the show was stellar and was great fun while it lasted. Offers for shows then started pouring in and I wrote and hosted shows for 30 or more years. I don’t remember how many but they must be more than six hundred or so altogether,” he says.
“Of course I had my run-ins with the censors constantly. Stringent as they were, I learned to write between the lines. So while they thought they succeeded in curtailing my drift, they didn’t. When private channels sprang up, I thought they would be very open. But it has not been so. Though they are all commercially inclined, they have maintained the status quo. We are a society that says it believes in freedom and freedom of expression, yet there is no freedom of expression. Now we are scared to say anything. Things have spiraled into madness now. Mob mentality rules and you know mobs are never right.”
I totally agree with Anwar Bhai. It’s tragic that the best intellectuals never write for television. It remains squarely and firmly in the hands of writers with limited imagination, many of them women writing for digests and periodicals. But that’s why TV is aptly called the idiot box. Back to Anwar Bhai who is now talking about his family.
“I am blessed with the most loving, most understanding children in the world. Bilal is the most honest soul I know. He prays five times a day and never misses a single prayer. I am very proud of him. I spend my time with my grandchildren now and I feel truly blessed.”
Anwar Bhai has always been a family man and God has granted him a house where he lives with them in a shared compound. Writing could not have earned him this luxury; it was painting that made it possible.
“I started painting very young, initially working with charcoal. It started as a hobby and became a great source of earning. My paintings now sell in a day. I have a select group who will buy anything I paint. Therefore I never had to opt for exhibitions. This exhibition that Noorjahan Bilgrami forced me into, do you know they all got sold in a day!”
I’m fully aware they all sold fast. Immo (Imrana Maqsood, his wife) had sent me the pictures on WhatsApp. I wanted to buy one that was relatively affordable but it was sold much before the exhibition. My wife and I went to buy another but all had been sold by then. Good for him, bad for me.
Anwar Bhai now begins to reminisce about his life partner, who is also his cousin. “She is responsible for everything, but I have helped. Early on in our marriage, I convinced Immo that I was equally responsible for the children. I cooked and cleaned. She would walk the kids to school in the morning, I would walk them back. I am a very responsible father,” he says with a wink.
The truth lies somewhere in between, but if you ask me, Anwar Bhai is blessed to have Immo as a life partner. What a lady! Proud, elegant and always smiling, she has managed everything and still does. She has even written a book on Anwar Bhai recently. If you haven’t read Uljhay Suljhay Anwar Maqsood, you should go get your copy today.
“She made me write it,” he insists. “I was not going to write, but she encouraged me and I like that about her. It turned out well.” Anwar Bhai is very modest, so his praising anyone is both a rarity and a surprise.
“I am writing a film on Mir Taqi Mir, set in present times. I began it a year ago and it still needs to be finished. My back problem has thwarted me from completing it, but soon enough.”
For those who know him, it is a familiar line. He is what we call a reluctant writer now; only writes to satisfy himself. The mark of a true genius. I asked how he came to write for stage and why he didn’t this time, because I had to fill in for him.
“Dawar (Mehmood of KopyKat Productions) sat for months asking me and I kept refusing. This boy cannot be denied once he wants something from you. In the end, I am glad I did. Together we made theatre history in Pakistan.”
KopyKats and Anwar Bhai definitely achieved unprecedented success, enthralling audiences and giving young actors a platform from where they could flourish. Some of them took the opportunity and are now superstars. It is ironic that so many groups have tried theatrical productions, but with the exception of Nida Butt and KopyKat, none have succeeded. This is a big feather in Anwar Bhai’s cap.
I then changed tack entirely. “Do you think India will attack us under Modi?”
“Not in a hundred years,” he replied. “India is a poor nation with a huge Muslim population. They can’t afford a war. It’s just a bluff.”
“Any regrets?” I continued.
“None but perhaps that I don’t thank Allah enough for all that he has blessed me with.”
This is the living legend Anwar Maqsood, a genius, a raconteur, a painter and a man blessed with wit and humour, tempered with humility.