Veteran thespian Talat Hussain recalls Pakistani media’s days of yore
Known for his signature baritone voice and stellar screen presence, Mr. Talat Hussain has graced the media industry for more than five decades, winning hearts and minds with his power-packed performances. He forayed into radio in the early 1960s when Pakistan’s media was still at an incipient stage – and went on to establish his presence in theatre, film and television. He was honoured with the Pride of Performance Award in 1982 for his undisputed contribution to arts and entertainment in the country, and also garnered international acclaim for his work in drama.
In this interview with Narratives, Mr. Talat Hussain reflects upon his early days in Pakistan’s media and explains how artistic expression has evolved over the years. He reminisces about the simpler times when Pakistani radio and television were run by individuals grounded in cultural pride and knowledge of Pakistan’s rich historic civilisation.
What are some of your most precious memories from your early years in the media industry?
I began my journey in the 1960s with radio. The people who were running Radio Pakistan at that time were a highly efficient and an incredibly hardworking lot. They were very proud of their rich culture and civilisation and intended to reflect these in their work. Intellectuals such as Saleem Ahmed, renowned poets Aziz Hamid Madni and Qamar Jamil, who had established their presence in their fields, were spearheading Radio Pakistan. We would say with pride that radio is the medium which employed the likes of Noon Meem Rashid at one point in time.
I recall an incident that had a significant impact on my career. My father passed away in those days, in the 60s, before my plays became super hit on television. The family’s responsibility fell on my shoulders, and seeking a stable income, I applied to Lintas – an advertising agency that was handling all popular dramas at that time. They asked me to write a test ad copy, which I did and they loved it. I thought my job was confirmed. At that time the monthly salary at Lintas was Rs 350, which was a big amount considering that gold was Rs 50 per tola. However, the CEO of the agency, Rauf sahib, called me and told me that he foresaw a different future for me. He advised me to keep on working for radio and television and not allow my financial difficulties to side-track my career. His advice turned out to be very prophetic for me. I stuck with television and achieved success after success; awards, international recognition, entry in films, everything followed.
How did you make the transition to television?
The people who built and sustained Radio Pakistan also took on the mantle of launching Pakistan Television. All these people knew me already and were aware of my potential. I did my first drama in the 1960s, and with it, I became a star overnight. My selection for the role was a fluke. The original male lead for that drama, the intellectual Zaka Durrani sahib, fell ill. The producer told me to read the scripts very carefully and attend the rehearsals as there was a possibility that I might have to take up the lead role – and that’s exactly what happened. There used to be as many as four rehearsals at that time. This was much before the concept of recording was introduced, so the shows were aired live. The heroine in that drama was Talat Siddiqui, who I used to refer to as baji, and romancing her was a mind-blowingly difficult task for me. All in all, it was a very awkward introduction to the world of television. However, the drama received nationwide applause when it was telecast. Another of my earliest television hits was Eid ka Jora in 1968. After that I didn’t look back. Aslam Azhar sahib was in-charge of PTV in Karachi at that time. He was the one who looped me in towards dramas.
Did the government control the kind of content that was being produced?
Today, it is widely claimed that there was a very strong censor board in operation in those early years to ensure that programming didn’t overstep bounds. This is completely false. Yes, the government did hold its own viewpoint. But we were completely free when it came to news and entertainment content. The bureaucracy trusted us immensely. They believed that we were mature enough to judge what content is beneficial for the country and what isn’t. If we made mistakes, we were pulled by the ears by the seniors in our industry. We didn’t need any other institution to monitor us.
At what point did you enter the film industry?
I did my first film in Pakistan before I left for London to pursue my graduate studies in theatre in 1972. I became a gold medallist and stayed on to work in London for a few years before returning to Pakistan. In my first film, I was the younger brother of Zeba Mohammad Ali. My work was appreciated immensely and my next film, Insaan and Admi, became a hit. During the 70s, I kept working in both television and radio. My work resonated a lot with audiences then and even today, people remember Hawaiyen, Kashkol, and several other series which became very popular.
How do you compare the way programming was done then and now?
A lot of effort was invested in the minutest details of programming to ensure that nothing inappropriate was aired which might affect the cultural sensibilities of the youth. The senior staffers would invest great time and effort in training the youngsters entering the profession to perfect their Urdu dialect and pronunciation, and to pass on the baton of well-thought-out programming. Secondly, the Urdu language commanded a lot of respect at that time. We drew immense pride from it and there was this realisation that we don’t need any other language in our day to day business, other than Urdu. Yes, we had satire-based programmes even then, but satire was written and acted out in a way to instruct society towards betterment, not to spread divisive attitudes and discordant ways of thinking.
It was also a very different time altogether from today in terms of what a society considers right and wrong. In those days, there was a lot of supervision of the youth to ensure that they don’t waver from established family values and traditions. It was considered a bad habit to lounge about at chai khanas. This conscientiousness was reflected in our radio and television programmes as well, which were designed for not mere entertainment but to disperse good morals and values in society. There was a sense of responsibility regarding the cultural dissemination that was happening via radio.
It was also a very different time altogether from today in terms of what a society considers right and wrong
What are some of the key reasons for the decline in the quality of our arts and drama?
I believe that the art of any nation, reflects the strengths and weakness of its civilisation. Drama depicts the character of our nation. Now our civilisation is dying. What is left to depict in art other than a poverty of thought? Political divisiveness and corruption filters down to society and impacts your art. If you look at the decline in our dramas within the broader historical context of an intellectual, economic, educational and political decline, it makes perfect sense why we are unable to rise above saas-bahu intrigues. Furthermore, the commercialisation of radio and television also had a negative impact on the content being produced and aired. There used to be limited channels in the early years of television and a few good writers who used to write dramas for these channels. Now we have an abundance of channels but we aren’t producing writers and dramatists of the right calibre who can produce quality content for these channels.
What is the way forward for better artistic expression?
As a nation, we need to rethink our priorities. We need to strengthen our national institutions and place the right importance on our local culture, values and our national language, if we are to build strong platforms for artistic expression.