TV’s beloved titan

March 12, 2023

Qavi Khan had been exposed to radio and theatre before he started working for TV and cinema

TV’s beloved titan


n a way, Muhammed Qavi Khan was the pioneer of television acting in Pakistan. He had the distinction of appearing in the first play telecast in 1964. As the tele-play genre flourished, Qavi Khan took great strides and became the most sought after actor/ performer in PTV’s early days.

Television brought in a type of realism that was rarely sought as an aesthetic experience by the audiences here. The film, the most viewed of the performing arts, was larger than life and did not really have a pretension to being realistic. It larger-than-life canvas and treatment took it to the borderland of fantasy. The effect was further heightened by the infusion of music, particularly the song. This musical genre established its own credentials and became a staple of the South Asian cinematic experience which had a huge following and scope for tremendous stylised growth.

The radio, too, had specialised in the play. Radio plays were heard by an eager audience across the subcontinent. It was comparatively a realistic answer to the over-the-board films and it was, thus, not a surprise that when television was established the talent from the radio switched over and filled the viewing time with their brand of plays.

But television was a different medium. It required a different set of rules for directing, writing and acting. The early writers and actors were from the radio as were the bosses that were running television. But gradually, television weighed in to make its mark and the particularity of the medium started to manifest itself. The urban theatre was then limited to Lahore, Karachi and perhaps Rawalpindi. The same set of theatre hands switched from the college stage to the arts councils and the radio. Some of the most outstanding writers were associated with the radio and the small stage. The same then started to learn the ropes for tele-play writing in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The good thing that happened in the transition was that the quality was not lost, only the necessities of the medium started to manifest themselves and be taken seriously. The transition was also facilitated by the fact that both radio and TV were state-owned and did not have to be dictated by the market. The TV play was not beholden to the box office or conditioned by it. The independence thus available ensured that it stayed a middle-class viewing staple.

Qavi Khan had been exposed to radio and theatre in his youth. In those days, Peshawar had theatre in the colleges. It also had a radio station. Even in the early live performances, he was able to register himself as an actor. Soon, he was appearing in most of the productions televised then.

Qavi Khan did not say goodbye to television. He came back to it for solace, recuperation and even sustenance. Fortunately, he had a long career and could experiment with roles that spanned the entire lifespan.

The stage, too, was becoming more popular and the small audiences bred on adaptations yearned for more home-based productions. So Urdu was particularly replaced by Punjabi as the medium and the plays were centred on indigenous themes. The high-quality experience may have been compromised in theatre but that was more than made up for by the instant connection with the audience.

It is generally believed that a performing artiste’s career progression will eventually take him to the films. Cinema being the most popular art form as well as the most financially rewarding, Qavi’s debut on the bigger screen was, thus, not a big surprise. His progress there was steady if not spectacular. In the course of his career, successes were followed by failures in the sense that the style of acting that he was known for and carried his signature tune did not become the preferred option on the bigger screen. Also, our cinema was not large enough to cater to creative indulgences on the side as desired by many. It was driven solely by the fear of losing out and becoming financially insolvent. There was no backup safety net as well which could allay the fear of hitting the street and donning the rags again.

As a film star, Qavi was not as successful. He was able to get roles in a large number of films but the run was unequal. He may have lost more than he gained and the reason could be that the larger-than-life roles often squeezed out the subtle gesture, the nuance and the aside. The cinema went head on mauling everything in its loud roller-coaster ride. The kind of realism in acting which Qavi had successfully initiated was, thus, lost on the big screen. It was more a matter of greater definitiveness than the niceties that ambivalence breeds.

But Qavi Khan did not say goodbye to television and came back to it for solace and recuperation; even sustenance. Fortunately, he had a long career where he could experiment with roles that spanned the entire lifespan. From a young man, to middle age and then old age gave him enough opportunities to express himself and realise his plentiful talent.

Being a public figure, Qavi Khan may have had ambitions of playing a bigger role in society and ultimate what can be thought of is political. He did stand for elections in ’90s. Fortunately, he was not a whopping success in politics. This had two advantages: he escaped being slandered and was forced to concentrate on his thespian activity.

He had a heart of gold and devoted considerable time and energy to humanitarian causes, appearing in campaigns for the sick and the needy.

He was amply rewarded in terms of accolades, though he once remarked that the awards brought greater responsibility but no cash to dispense with his duties as a father and a husband.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

TV’s beloved titan