Originally published in April 2011.
Where does Kamal Ahmed Rizvi end and Allan begin? Or where does the real person end and the persona begin? You would never know in the case of Rizvi since the two are so inextricably interwoven that even an attempt to distinguish one from the other would be an exercise in futility from the outset.
All actors wear some sort of a persona. The character actor changes it from role to role: an extreme example would be Hoffman in some of his roles, less visible is Gene Hackman or Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn of yore. The personality actor, on the other hand, displays his person to a large extent no matter what the character. But some actors, or should I say just “people”, blend the actor and the person in themselves to create a single character and make something beyond themselves as well as the character they had set out to play. They then play this character throughout their lives, off and onscreen. Rizvi achieved that something or some person during the course of his career in the character of Allan.
Actor, writer, director and engaging conversationalist, Rizvi has been the arch-satirist of our mini screen for a long while now. And even though he does not appear on television any longer, his name and character are indelibly imprinted in the public mind.
Alif Noon was probably the first popular and critical comedy success of television in Pakistan. Done first during the days when even plays were telecast live, it was revived a couple of times later; once recorded in black-and-white and later again in colour. Each time Rizvi brought some of the earlier episodes back and then added a few new ones as well.
Though he became famous after he did Allan, the character he became synonymous with, it was not as if he did not have a life till then. Rizvi was battle-hardened on the boards and in the wings of the nascent Lahore stage circuit by the time he joined heads with Agha Nasir, the eternal PTV number two man, to try and develop a series over a fat and a thin man. Just a hint from Agha was enough for Rizvi to develop the rest. Over auditions, he discovered erstwhile Rafi Khawar, who fitted the part of Nanna to a tee and brilliantly played the “dumb” foil to Allan’s machinations.
But what bore fruit in Alif Noon had developed in the person of Kamal/Allan through the journey of many previous years.
Rizvi crossed into Pakistan braving the fires of Partition. His family stayed behind and he was the only one of his siblings who opted for that niche the Muslims of the subcontinent had carved for themselves. Young, lonely and desolate, he settled into a vagrant existence in Lahore. But like most people who had traversed the ‘divide’, Rizvi was anything but disheartened. He sharpened his quill as a writer through small articles in literary magazines and newspapers. He did some translations of famous Russian novels into Urdu. This not only helped him to hone his writing skills but also provide a much-needed financial cushion. But the money was too little and far between and the Allan in Rizvi started to extract from the tight-fisted and gracious alike, support that would keep him afloat. The wit and knavery with which he went about this business is hilariously recounted by him in several anecdotes that he has amused listeners with over the past many decades. Most men conceal stories about their down and out years but Rizvi chose to entertain others with them. Not for a moment did he think that this would somehow diminish his stature amongst his more affluent and well-connected friends. On the contrary, almost everyone feared and adored the man who could wash his dirty linen in public. Deep down Rizvi knew that the only measure by which he would finally be estimated would not be by his bank balance but his talent and he knew that few could match that amongst his peers.
Nobody suffered his penury more than the artist Shakir Ali, who was also one of the most well-known principals of the National College of Arts in Lahore. Rizvi bunkered in his house for months and years at end. Somewhere along the road Ali had attempted to lead a married life with a Czechoslovakian woman. He did not succeed much at that but neither did he at keeping Rizvi off his door. A lonely man of nominal means, he tolerated Rizvi’s “Allanism”, his digging deep into Ali’s meager pocket of hospitality. Rizvi was grateful to his benefactor for doing so but that did not stop him from taking digs at Ali’s stinginess. He satirised him by imitating his lazy manner of speech with events that had really happened between the two men or were a figment of Allan’s imagination. Lahore enjoyed these anecdotes. Alongside all of this Rizvi was also trying to find his forte.
The Lahore Alhamra was located in a lovely old house surrounded by abundant greens. Most artists congregated there with writers and actors. Khalid Ahmed taught painting under the green canopy of large trees that dotted the main garden adjacent to the building, as did Moeen Najmi, a famous painter from the 1950s and the brother of veteran actor and vintage villain Aslam Pervez. There was Zainul Abedin, the Bengali painter who later migrated to Bangladesh. Faiz Ahmed Faiz sat drawing heavily on a cigarette in his secretary’s office. At times his wife Alys would trundle in on her bicycle while their daughters would also come there infrequently. Somewhere there a liaison developed between Shoaib Hashmi and Salima, Faiz’s older daughter. The rest of the story is known to most of us. There was Naeem Tahir, Yasmeen Tahir, Khursheed Shahid and several other men and women who were aspiring artistes or friends of the arts — young people on their way to various goals in life, not least an opening in the civil services of the country. Amongst the crowd was also Rizvi, a fixture in the Alhamra compound, stirring a storm in a cup of tea as he set himself up as an impresario with a company.
It was Little Theatre. But what big dreams must have cooked inside that deceptive Little Theatre title. The plays that Rizvi wrote or adapted were mostly comedies and satire. The writers he drew on were Molière and Nikolai Gogol. When Alexander Ostrovsky’s Diary Of A Scoundrel was adapted, Rizvi played the scoundrel himself. Readily discernible here were the beginnings of an Allan which would emerge years later. So would it be in the character of Molières’ Miser.
Perceptively Rizvi revealed the rogue in himself to show the devil in ourselves. It was an ingenuous subterfuge. While laughing at him we were suddenly jolted by the realisation that he was, in fact, making us laugh at our own follies, which he presented on stage. Our laughter had unwittingly boomeranged.
Laughter and then derisive laughter was followed by dismay bordering on gloom. That has been the pattern that Rizvi has treaded in his creative life. The gloom is occasional since audiences generally don’t appreciate it. But often it surfaces in plays such as the mini television serial Hansanay Walay Log. Probably adapted from Niel Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, it looks a lot grimmer here than in the original. Darkness pervades also in some of the adaptations that Rizvi chose to do. His adaptation of a classic melodrama, Gaslight, comes to mind. As does his play Khoya Huwa Aadmi. At such times he makes us wonder whether he wishes us to laugh or cry with him.
For a person who has spent most of his life out in the cold, the darkness should come naturally and laughter would understandably be the best hearth to keep the heart warm. It creates the pathetic image of the clown, painted to seem amusing but with tears that blemish his make-up and give up the ghost of his pain.
Probably Rizvi did not have to go far to seek the odds. They pursued him of their own accord. Starting life forlorn he tried many times to animate it. Marriage was one way of doing so. It is also the done thing. But probably Rizvi’s own stern temperament as well as the disposition of his various spouses never quite matched and this game, at most, succeeded only briefly. But what better game plan could there be than to animate one’s life with drama. And this Rizvi has done all his life.
Between the loves and duels of his life he diligently worked to acquire a cultivated life. He built himself one of the nicest homes in Lahore. Since he had numerous friends amongst Pakistan’s painters he ended up with one of the richest private collections in the country. He made frequent visits to England where he saw the best that theatre had to offer and had a chat with the ultimate thespian, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was probably resting between scenes while he performed the last of his memorable roles as Shakespeare’s Lear for television. He talked to him not as Kamal Ahmed Rizvi would to Sir Laurence Olivier but as Allan would to Larry. And when Allan told him that he was a fan of the older man, Larry responded by saying that that was the best thing another actor could be.
Like most men who have worked hard at achieving a goal in life, Rizvi is uncompromising, at times exacting to a fault, almost belligerent. Probably this hard task-master attitude is at the bottom of his professional success but also what eats him and those who are closest to him in his personal life.
After numerous battles and many stratagems he seems to have found his peace with his present wife Azra. He goes out for his evening constitutional. Warm meals provided by his indulgent and caring wife are enjoyed. He offers his prayers, rolls the rosary in his hand but then all of a sudden, at a soirée or some event the Allan inside him takes over and he lashes out at whosoever dares to think he can do drama other than himself.
Salman Shahid is an acclaimed actor who has worked in theatre and television since the early 1970s. He has a number of films to his credit including Khamosh Pani (2004), Kabul Express (2006) and Ishqiya (2010).