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DAWN The Review, June 19999

Profile: Lateef Kapadia

There were better days. Karachi used to be a different city. Stage plays were in vogue and people from a cross-section of the society used to throng the auditoriums. That was the early 1950's. And that is when Lateef Kapadia started. 

He was born on 27 March, 1935, in Nasik (Maharshtra State, India). His fate was sealed, in a manner of speaking, when he fell in love with the films made in the tradition of New Theatre (Calcutta), such as the Sehgal starring Devdas, Zindagi and Vidyapati. However, his family migrated to Pakistan soon after the partition. Hence it was in those early 1950's that Lateef got a chance to nurture his tastes for histrionics in the city that Karachi once was. 

He had problems, though. He couldn’t read the Urdu script even though he was quite proficient in English, apart from being able to speak some other languages including Marathi. These strengths and weaknesses were reminiscent of his Bombay days and although he never changed them, he found out the solution in getting his lines transcribed into Gujrati before committing them to heart (a practice he still carries on). And he familiarized himself with some of the best plays of all times through English translations. These handicaps notwithstanding, there were numerous venues for stage productions, including the Katrak Hall in Saddar and the Theosophical Society Hall on Bunder Road. Lateef joined a group of amateur artists known as the Bombay Amateur Artists' Association in Karachi.

Things changed with the arrival of Ali Ahmed. Arguably the biggest name of our stage history, he was a veteran from Bombay, a colleague of such figures as Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Balraj Sahini and Safdar Mir. Upon his migration to Pakistan he first went to Lahore and then came to Karachi. "1957," Lateef can always be trusted for dates.

Lateef remembers two long queues on the main Bunder Road. One moving to buy tickets for a film in Taj Mahal cinema, the other for Zaat-e-Sharif, Ali Ahmed's adaptation from Moliere, staged in the Theosophical Society Hall. "It was the moment of truth," Lateef recalls. As an amateur he was coming face to face with his limitations. When the play was taken off stage he made up his mind to learn acting properly and become a professional. He didn’t have to look very far. Ali Ahmed was an institution in his own right. (Later, he also opened the National Academy of Theatre Arts Karachi, or NATAK). Lateef soon became the mainstay of Ali Ahmed's productions. 

Ali Ahmed was one of the most towering figures of the Pakistani stage. In Karachi he represented the antithesis of Khwaja Mueenuddin. While Khwaja Mueenuddin's plays were steeped in the traditions of a conservative world vies, and charged with a nostalgia for the past, Ali Ahmed was a die hard revolutionary and always at odds with the forces of status quo in the society. "His satire used to cut deep," Lateef Kapadia adds. "However, his greatest weakness was that he usually picked up his cast form amongst the amateurs unlike Khwaja Mueenuddin who used to have a permanent set of professional actors." Maybe there always was something of a teacher in the great theatre don. He reveled in passing on the craft of the stage to the younger aspirants. But that was as far as he would go. When it came to the principles of stage production, Ali Ahmed was also uncompromising and strict like a typical eastern teacher. Lateef remembers how one day he took his friend Safiullah for a role in an upcoming play. In the very first rehearsal, Safi tried to add a few interesting words to his dialogue and was brutally snubbed by Ali Ahmed. Safi could not control his misplaced creativity and was removed from the team at the end of the day. He joined the film industry to become known as Lejri, our wittiest comedian.

Lateef remembers an interesting anecdote from 1966. Ali Ahmed's play, Qissa Jagtay Sotay Ka was staged in Lahore under auspices of the National Bank Arts Club. This was an anti-imperialist play, and given the leftist inclinations of the playwright, it had explicit satire on the American influence over the developing countries. The government called an explanation from Mr. Mumtaz Hasan, the Managing Director of National Bank of Pakistan, who in turn called Ali Ahmed. "Oh, you can tell them that this play is against every government that is a stooge of the imperialist powers." The playwright suggested. "Are you?" Of course, the higher ups in the government were quick to reply that they weren't, and the whole matter was thankfully buried.

Lateef had also taken up a job with the National Bank since 1952, living with a contrast between the fixed pace of his banking career and his hectic theatrical pursuits. The big day came in 1969, and quite unexpectedly.

PTV decided to produce its very first long play, and chose Ali Ahmed's Sheeshay Kay Aadmi. This turned out to be big success, and Lateef came to the notice of the television producers. There was no looking back. Except for the fact that the glamour of camera could never substitute the thrill of stage. Stage remained the closest to his heart. Even when he was appearing on the television five days a week.

However, the heyday of the Karachi stage is long over now. Even Lateef does not try to deny that. Nostalgically, he can look back on a day when he was checking seats before the performance of Zaat-e-Sahreef, and found Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the ex-prime minister of the country, occupying a back seat! Such days are probably not going to return. And that doesn’t mean that he should stop doing his bit either. 

"I still want to take up the challenge of the box office. Personally I don’t like to depend on the banners and sponsorships. When I staged Bijli, Piyar Aur Abba Jaan, it was one of the most expensive stage productions at over four hundred thousand rupees. Even though we did go for some banners to be on the safe side, we managed to sell huge on the box office." The play he is mentioning was written by Shoaib Hashmi and staged in 1994. That was five years ago. 

"Yes, I haven't given up," says Lateef. And then he goes on to reveal his intentions of staging another production in the near future. "Acting isn't sufficient. I see characters around me everywhere. Nobody writes about them, nobody writes their language. If you take a walk on Bunder Road and look at those vendors sitting by the road, they have stories. They speak language that is not flowery and doesn’t attempt at hiding the reality. I have often asked my playwrights why do they put literary phrases in the mouths of ordinary characters. They have no answers. Sometimes I object to such lines and request that they be changed. And sometimes my directors think I am saying that because I may have language problems. I have no language problems, and I would be happy to speak lines written in Persian as long as they suit the character."

There are dreams and dreams. Lateef is committed to take his bit of dreaming to reality even if doesn’t change the whole society around him. "There is no interest in going to the theatre in our society at any strata: lower class, middle class or upper class!" And yet, for those who have seen its heyday, theatre is a passion that simply wouldn’t go.

Of course, his mainstay is the television roles. He is one of the busiest artists. He doesn’t seem to be overcritical of the private production companies that have sprung up over the recent years. "Personally I have benefited from them in a monetary sense," he says with a naughty smile. Yes, the standards of production have gone worse. But the main factor in that respect is not "who is making the play" but rather "who is buying it." As long as the channels are looking only at the money they earn from the sponsors and not at the quality of what is being broadcast, the standards will keep coming down.

Lateef Kapadia is often remembered for those roles which he played with a Gujrati accent, right from the memorable Seth in Sheeshay Key Aadmi to the several comedy blurbs he did in Fifty Fifty and afterwards. However, he doesn’t like this situation. "In the last four years I have played several roles on the television and only one of them was a Memon role, how could you have missed all the rest?" His voice doesn’t help you to believe that he is amused.

Maybe this is just another case where a particular image of an artist grows larger than the artist himself. At the age of 65, he can boast of a huge career in acting with a whole variety of roles. And he still wants to go on. But possibly in a different dimension. "Now I want to produce something." He says at the end of a long conversation. "As long as you are acting a role, you are doing what the others have written for you. Stereo typing does happen, although I have been given roles that do not require me to speak in Gujrati accent all the time, I have still been cast in negative roles mostly. I want new challenges, roles that would require me to appear sensitive and to respond to the depths of the human character. The problem is that most directors these days don’t want it easy. They cast me in roles I have done before so that they don’t have to think, they don’t have to direct. They want the actor to make it easy for them by being his own director."

Lateef has nurtured his tastes in several fields of arts. He has a good aesthetics for appreciating painting and sculpture. His interest in music, film or non-film, has never declined. He can remember Kanun Bala, Sehgal and Pankhej Mullick as if those voices never faded, and still praise Udit Narayan and Kumar Sanho. "Actuallyi prefer Udit, there is more bass in his voice." He can give you an analysis of A.R. Rehman's music, "Listen to him on headphones so that you could pay attention to the magic he performs in the interval pieces with his unbelievable mastery over the instruments of an orchestra." And then you may expect him to round up the conversation with a simple, heartfelt, one-liner for Mehdi Hasan, "But Mehdi Hasan is Mehdi Hasan, after all!" Lateef's close friends often comment that if he had taken up singing he would have made just as big a name as he has made in acting.

So what next? "There is so much in our society that has gone un-chronicled," his voice rises with excitement. "Why doesn’t anyone rises up to question the cliches? When you speak of those 'westernized women,' why do you stop at their appearance? Why don’t you also say that they don’t lie, their minds are not rendered useless with insecurities, and that they are taking the major load of the civil society on their shoulders by running all these NGOs, and running them well. I am giving you just an example." And he has several examples. All ready to merge into a theatrical collage that he might put up one day. Hopefully in the near future.

As long as the channels are looking only at the money they earn from the sponsors and not at the quality of what is being broadcast, the standards will keep coming down.

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