DAWN The Review, May 6-12, 1999
PROFILE: KAMAL AHMED RIZVI
Man Vs. Showman
It is hard to forget Allan, the most loveable conman of our television. The tall, lean character with a quizzical smile on his face, a new trick up his sleeve and, alas, an innocent stooge for his companion to upset all his schemes every week. Alif Noon went on air from the Lahore television centre in 1965, created by the inimitable Kamal Ahmed Rizvi who also played the clever guy against Nanha, the stooge (played by Rafi Khawar). What was strange was that in spite of all his cunning and scheming, no one could really find the heart to hate Allan.
Kamal Ahmed Rizvi had been a writer in many genres, an anthologist, a stage director and a performer on stage and radio for many years but now he realised that the television series made him more famous than all that other work. Faiz Ahmed Faiz spotted him one day at the Arts Council, Karachi, and said to him, "Kamal, you have become quite a celebrity now." Since he had been known to the great poet for about ten years then, he was more embarrassed than flattered when Faiz Sahib insisted that he should visit one of his friends whose children would be amused to see the television character. "I dare not consider myself a celebrity in your presence, Faiz Sahib!" he protested humbly but nevertheless he was taken along to the friend's house where they were served fine quality alcohol after the children had been sent away. It turned out that it was the house of a chemist who was permitted to sell liquor in those good old days, and Kamal was left wondering if a free treat was what Faiz Sahib was actually looking for while using the fame of Allan as an alibi. Even if it were so, Faiz Sahib would be too shy a person to let anyone know when he was looking for free drinks.
I did not ask Mr. Rizvi how he felt about the whole anecdote, but I am sure he would have been disappointed for the lack of ingenuity in Faiz Sahib's trick. He himself was used to living on a higher pitch of adventure, and if Faiz Sahib had just taken the trouble of asking him he could have tipped him off with a hundred good tricks to get free sips for the rest of his life. After all, the Allan of Alif Noon was just a fictitious character, but not an unreal idea. Its creator had lived parts of it all his life. Just like Allan, Mr. Rizvi had been a man of the street earning his bread on a daily basis and always through his wisdom. And although he was a well-read intellectual since his teens he had often stepped across the divide between an artist and a con man. If only Allan was a bit less criminal and could be shown reading and writing books, (and tricking his publishers into printing them) standing up for the rights of the downtrodden and spending long evenings in the company of great literary figures like Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the television trickster could have been the real life picture of Kamal Ahmed Rizvi.
It all began with a progressive awareness of social injustice and the corrupt economy that nurtures those evils. "Two authors who impressed me greatly were Dostoevsky and Henrik Ibsen, or perhaps I should also mention Chekov as well," says Mr. Rizvi. "I would spend whole days sitting in a library, reading the works of these and other authors. I had little else to do those days, anyway." He was so much inspired by the leftist philosophy that when he couldn't recall his actual date of birth (his parents had just told him he was born in 1930), he adopted 1st May as his birthday.
While still in his teens he discovered the writings of notorious Manto and immediately fell in love with them. It was a dream come true when, after migration from native Bihar to Lahore in 1951, he came face to face with the living legend. A friend told me that if I could purchase a bottle of liquor I could actually sit in the company of Saadat Hasan Manto. I managed that, and finally met the great storywriter in the friend's house. Manto used to go there for drinking secretly, since his family had put a ban on his intake due to medical reasons… Manto insisted that I should join him and would not relent until I had taken a sip from a glass of water with two drops of alcohol in it. 'Why?' I asked him, 'What have you got out of making me feel guilty.' And he replied that he just wanted to make sure I wasn't an informer placed by his family." Manto soon became his mentor.
Those were the last days of Manto, when the short-lived genius was drinking himself to death. "He was frustrated," Mr. Rizvi comments as he tries to analyze his complex psychology. "He had left everything in Bombay and come to Pakistan because he had great hopes about the new country. He had thought the independence would bring about positive changes."
Before Alif Noon, Kamal Ahmed Rizvi was most well known for his dramatization of Badshahat Ka Khatima, a famous Manto short story. He still remembers the day when he first learnt about that book through the author himself."…Manto received these ten complimentary copies of his book, and I asked him to give me one. But he was in need of money for alcohol so he sent all his copies to a bookseller…whom I had to ask to lend me one." Mr. Rizvi had become involved with the Lahore stage by then, and when they next met he asked Manto's permission to dramatize the story. Manto refused in his characteristically bland manner. "Why would I write a story if I had thought it could make a play? Do you think I don't know playwriting?" Of course the author was just as famous for his plays as he was for his stories, but the Allan element in Mr. Rizvi would not give up so easily. "If you give me permission, I can dramatize it now," he said. "Otherwise I will do that after you die." His mentor was too much of an egoist to be amused by that gibe and retorted right away: "Firstly, I am still alive. Secondly, you are not born yet!"
He died soon afterwards, in January 1955, predictably from a swelling of the liver. And a few years later Faiz Ahmed Faiz asked Mr. Rizvi to participate in a ceremony held in the honour of Manto. "I took out the short story and dramatized it. The female lead was played by Zakia Sarwar [now an educationist of international repute]." Perhaps Manto was right when he had remarked a few years back that Kamal Ahmed Rizvi hadn't been born then. He was truly born, to the world of theatre, on the evening when he staged that play. From then on he found himself getting printed in literary magazines and given time on Lahore Radio station. But not for long, since he was soon branded as a progressive, or a Red, and both the Radio Station and official magazines like Mah-e-Nau banned him as a precaution. (Ayub Khan's government had clamped down on such progressive writers liked Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hasan and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi,)
Just like his cunning character, Rivi also knew how to survive. He turned his attention to the stage while at the same time writing junior fiction for Shaikh Ghulam Ali & Sons (Lahore) at the humble rate of ten rupees per small book. It was in those days when he compiled Urdu Dramay, a massive anthology of modern Urdu plays in two volumes. "When Meerza Adeeb saw it, he said no one would risk printing it because drama scripts were not sellable items in our book market," Mr. Rizvi recollects amusingly. Actually, Meerza Adeeb shouldn't have underestimated Mr. Rizvi's dexterity in dealing with publishers. Only some time back he had tricked Meerza Adeeb himself by handing him down a sealed envelop with blank sheets of paper, saying it was a new short story, and taken away the royalty.
He had to be more ingenuous for getting his anthology printed. He volunteered to prepare and update the publisher's catalogue for Sheikh Niaz Ahmed, and did it so well that the latter immediately took out two hundred rupees to offer him. "That was quite an amount as compared to the ten rupees I used to get for my junior fiction, but I had other schemes," Mr. Rizvi recalls amusingly. "I took the cheque and tore it into pieces. Then I added, 'There are things one doesn't do for money.' That was a pure Allan touch." It worked. The publisher was obliged to ask him proverbially if there was anything that could be done for Mr. Rizvi, and could not refuse when the latter took out his anthology of Urdu plays from his bag it could not be refused. "I received a thousand rupees for the two volumes."
Mr. Rizvi was invited by Aslam Azhar to join television after the latter watched one of his stage plays. Among his earliest presentations on the television was a series of interviews with common people such as a popular pan wallah of Lahore, some coffeehouse waiter, and so on. And then he met Rafi Khawar.
"This young man came to me and said he wanted to be an actor but everyone has treated him with ridicule. 'Now if you also let me down I will be fed up of life itself,' he said to me. I sent him away but as I lied down for sleep that night the idea of a play came to my mind. This young man had an innocent face and if I could build up two characters, one of them a clever con man and the other an innocent stooge he would fit into it." The rest is history.
I didn't ask him about the social convictions behind the series, simply because I thought I didn't need to. It seems so obvious. Allan is a watered down critique of capitalist economy. He appears to be a con man only because his schemes are small scale. The same mentality is behind all capitalist enterprise, no matter how big and pretentious. In retrospect Allan could be seen as a satirist's idea of an angry young man in a free economy trying to make it even with a society that has deprived him of the provisions for life. That is why we are never able to really hate him, and some of us even couldn't help feeling sad when Allan's devious designs were toppled by his unwitting companion at the end of each episode.
I wonder if Mr. Rizvi is capable of making us hate a character at all. When he presented the series Mr. Shaytan in the mid-eighties his protagonist resembled the Greek Prometheus who was the saviour of the human race rather than Satan, the direct source of all evil. I somehow feel Mr. Rizvi is too soft at heart to paint any villain. Also, his own experience has taught him to accept each adversity in life with a pinch of salt. After all, his mentor Manto couldn't ever perceive evil truly, nor could he paint a villain -- the constant bragging that he was pointing out social evils seems like a cover to hide his true optimism which makes him look beyond good and evil. That kind of optimism also leaves one rather too vulnerable as one begins to expect a lot of good in the world. Manto adopted an artificially harsh tone to hide his true softness, and Mr. Rizvi has also adopted a somewhat curt mannerism, up to an extant.
But still, the inherent sensitivity cost Manto his life. So, what about Mr. Rizvi? Well… he also went through some kind of trauma towards the end of the third decade of his life, about the same point in age when Manto lost his balance. But Mr. Rizvi was a better survivor. Or did the Allan element in him help him go on? "No, I will not tell you what that thing was," he says abruptly as he goes silent for a while, his face betraying a struggle inside. He has come a long way. Now he is sixty-six, and much settled in life.
When I entered his house I saw him dressed up in white, sitting by a clean dining table reciting form the Holy Quran. He paid me some attention after finishing what seemed to be a daily quota of his spiritual bliss, but started with the somewhat odd question, "How many profiles have you done before?" Apparently he was trying to guess whether I would be able to do justice to him or not. I began to narrate a portion of my resume, looking at the face which had changed a little since I saw him on the television, and wondering how much of his former younger self was still with him. I got a clue soon, when he hurled obscenities at the Pride Of Performance, which was awarded to him a few years back. "Pride of Performance is a joke. It doesn't get you respect, it doesn't get you anything. The television increases your fee by a mere Rs.250/- and I somehow feel more insulted than honoured. I have often thought of sending it back to them with an angry note." I asked him if he wished me to keep these comments off the record. "Why?" He stared right back at me. "I have been saying things all my life, why would I be scared now?"
It was then that I came to know that the young boy who was often seen roaming around with Manto in a tonga some forty-five years ago hasn't grown old.
He started with the somewhat odd question, "How many profiles have you done before?" Apparently he was trying to guess whether I would be able to do justice to him or not.