Black-and-white memories from another time
I grew up to adolescence in an era when radio was king. At the age of eight, I heard from my mother that soon a new type of radio would be marketed, on which you could not only hear the news but also see the face of the newsreader. She told me that in Europe and America people were already enjoying that miraculous invention.
I can now calculate that the year I got this exciting though unbelievable piece of information was 1954.
Ten years on, the miracle had already reached Pakistan.
I watched television for the first time when I was in grade 11. We were in a five-star hotel to attend a wedding ceremony. The food had been served but people were more interested in a rectangular box lying in the lobby. There was a big crowd around it. Kanwal Naseer had just finished her news bulletin and now Tariq Aziz was announcing the next item.
My curiosity about the whole process was natural, so the very next evening I set out to see the Lahore Television Station.
To my disappointment, it consisted of only a makeshift cabin, attached to an Outside Broadcasting (OB) van, with a thick cable. I entered the cabin and saw some familiar faces from the world of radio and stage: Qavi Khan, Masood Akhtar, Khursheed Shahid and Attiya Sharf.
In one corner of that godforsaken cabin, an interview with a medical practitioner was on air, and in the other corner a drawing room set was being erected for a play which was to go on air live, just after the doctor’s interview.
But there was a problem -- the boy who was doing the servant’s role had not turned up.
Meanwhile, the assistant producer of the play came to me and told me, with a frown, to leave the set as no visitors were allowed during a live performance. I felt quite embarrassed but had to leave the set. When I was coming out of that cabin, the same assistant came running after me and said I could see the play but I’d have to perform the servant’s role. It was a silent role. I did a dry rehearsal with the tea trolley, but during the camera rehearsal I noticed that I was in a long shot and my face was not registered at all. Qavi Khan noticed the disappointment on my face and when after 10 minutes the actual play was on air, he added a line ad lib: "Aye boy, listen". I looked at him in surprise, "Ok, nothing, you can go". And, while I was looking at him, the front camera took my close shot…
One hundred and fifty tv sets in households and business centres of Lahore had shown my close-up for several seconds. I was a star!
I kept getting minor roles for about a year, and like a 12th player in cricket, waited for a mishap, an accident, a last-minute refusal from a main actor. And it soon happened. The hero of that play was from Lyallpur and came daily to Lahore in his chauffeur driven Buick. A tall handsome young man in his early 20s, had all the qualities of a traditional hero, but spoke Urdu with a heavy accent of East Punjab. I was doing a minor role of a prison guard and was deputed to correct his accent and pronunciation. He would sit with me for hours and read all his dialogues aloud. In five days, he perfected his articulation, and gave an excellent performance in the final rehearsal.
Next day, the play was to go on air, but the hero never turned up. His father, a big zameendar of the region, had come to know the secret of his son’s frequent disappearances from their estate, and had taken appropriate steps to keep the son on the right path.
A real life drama had started at the estate, but back in Lahore, the producer of a PTV play was facing the challenge of his life, as he had to send the play on air in the next eight hours.
While coaching the hero I had learnt almost all his dialogues. The producer took a great risk and offered me the role. The day of the 12th player had arrived, a junior artist, doing the role of a prison guard, was given the main lead!
Live tv was a different world. People working in pre-recorded plays can never experience the excitement and thrill associated with live performance. It was as if a naked sword was hovering above your head all the time.
The play I just mentioned was about a man who has killed his wife in a misunderstanding, and now, on the last night of his life in the death cell, he is thinking about the past events and repenting. At the crack of dawn his flashback ends and the prison guards arrive to take him to the hangman.
My performance was excellent. I had not missed a single word from the written text. My gestures were controlled and body language perfect. Walking towards the gallows, with a bowed head and reluctant steps, I could foresee a brilliant acting career ahead, leading soon to the big screen, challenging Waheed Murad and Muhammad Ali.
The play ended successfully. When I was out of the frame, the producer kept the camera on the vacant prison corridor, and the closing titles started rolling on it. My joy of success was immeasurable. I waited at the end of the corridor for the closing titles to finish, and after about a minute, which felt like an hour at that time, I came out of that hiding and walked back to the main set to receive congratulations from the producer and his team.
But there was nobody there… and when I looked at the monitor, I saw the most horrifying scene of my life. The play had not ended yet. The closing titles were still rolling, but the dead man was walking in the corridor.
The last glimpse I saw was that of the producer behind the thick glass window of control room. The poor guy was tearing at his hair and his assistant was staring at me with clenched fists and grinding teeth. I had totally spoiled the play.
My acting career had come to a sudden end. In fact, I could not enter the premises of television for years to come, and finally, after about a decade, when I did come back, it was as a producer-director. But that is another story.