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.