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Photo: Khawar Riaz
Photo: Khawar Riaz

“The increased ticket prices are hurting cinema the most as the common cine-goer can’t afford it,” says Nadeem.

For someone who has been working in the entertainment industry for the last five decades, Mirza Nazeer Baig aka Nadeem still considers himself a student of the art. From Chakori in 1967 to his upcoming releases Azaadi and Wajood, he has worked in over 200 films and entertained millions round the world, and still continues to do so in films and on his second love, television.

We decided to meet at a local eatery where the cast of Imran Malik’s Azaadi was promoting the film. Until his post-iftar arrival, the film’s lead Moammar Rana and Sonya Hussyn had held the floor. But after Nadeem saheb’s arrival, it became all about him. The photographers wanted to capture the legend from every angle whereas the fans wanted to take selfies with him. Even the presence of renowned TV actor Aurangzeb (the Jawadji of Khawaja & Son) didn’t deter those present from swarming to perhaps the most famous living legend in the country.

“The craze of film promotions is a good thing for the revival of films in Pakistan,” Nadeem says as we settle down for a chat about his 50 years in cinema as well as his upcoming projects. “What good is show business if there is no show in the business? I urge people to go and watch our films in cinemas just the way they appreciate these film promotions as it will encourage new filmmakers and help the industry get back to the position it once commanded.”

Arguably the biggest living star of Pakistani cinema is also its most humble and still fighting fit at 76. This Eid he will be making an appearance in not one but two films. He opens up to Icon about how he sees the changes in the country’s show business scene

The ‘position it once commanded’ is a clear reference to the days when a much younger Nadeem used to act as the male lead in films directed by renowned filmmakers, namely Pervez Malik who often cast him opposite Shabnam. The Nadeem-Pervez collaboration brought forth classics such as the poetic Saughat, the lost-and-found sagas Pehchaan and Talaash, the preachy Sachai, the style-changing Pakeezah, the double-role comedy Hum Dono, the family entertainer Rishta, the Kramer vs Kramer-inspired Qurbani, the action-thriller Gumnaam, the musical hit Meherbani, the patriotic Kamyaabi and, their last collaboration, Shehzada. It was in the last film that Pervez Malik introduced his elder son Imran as the second lead. Imran is now calling the shots as a director in Azaadi some 25 years later.

“I would never have believed then that the kid we all used to play with will be directing me one day,” Nadeem says with a smile that has captured our imagination for decades now. For his part, Imran Malik chips in to tell me about a photograph in his possession in which Nadeem and Waheed Murad are holding him, with Pervez Malik looking on and feeling proud. “Yes, that kid is now directing his second film [Tere Bin Jiya Na Jaye was Imran’s directorial debut] and I am a part of both. Pervez’s other son, Irfan, is producing the film and it’s good to be back in the camp where I delivered the biggest hits of my entire career.”

For Nadeem, working with Pervez Malik was something he looked forward to back in the day. Each and every film they collaborated on (except for Shehzada) did well at the box office and some were even copied abroad, frame by frame. “Whatever we are today [as stars] is because of those directors. We would have been nothing had they not invested in us.” Nadeem’s graciousness is equally legendary. “There is a vast difference between the films of that era and those being made today. We are more technologically advanced but that seems to be the only advantage. In those days, there was no technical backup. They had to get the work done using old, rusty lights, the cameras were outdated and the equipment was worn out. He [Pervez Malik] was the only director who believed in the power of screenplay instead of the sets and that’s why the films we made then are still considered masterpieces compared to the work being produced these days.”

In his upcoming film, Nadeem plays the father to Moammar Rana’s character Azaad who leaves behind his family and his lady love (played by Sonya Hussyn) for the love of his country. “The film has a patriotic feel to it and gives us a chance to understand what’s happening in Indian-Occupied Kashmir,” explains the veteran actor. “I play the character role of a person who has been suppressed for a very long time but now gets a chance to be a part of the struggle through his son. The work of these youngsters may not be at par with that of Pervez Malik or Hasan Tariq or Nazrul Islam, but with proper guidance they will reach the top, that I am certain of.”

The craze of film promotions is a good thing for the revival of films in Pakistan,” Nadeem says as we settle down for a chat about his 50 years in cinema as well as his upcoming projects. “What good is show business if there is no show in the business? I urge people to go and watch our films in cinemas just the way they appreciate these film promotions as it will encourage new filmmakers and help the industry get back to the position it once commanded.”

And then there are the songs filmed on the legendary actor. Be it Ahmed Rushdi’s countless hits, Mehdi Hasan’s melancholy tracks, Ikhlaq Ahmed’s soulful songs or A. Nayyar’s fast-paced numbers, Nadeem holds the distinction of being the hero for whom the best-known playback singers of the era sang for. Recollecting those times bring tears to the eyes of the man on whom innumerable hits have been filmed.

“We were lucky to have the kind of playback singers others can only dream of,” he offers. “Music composers such as Nisar Bazmi, Sohail Rana, Robin Ghosh and M. Ashraf composed melodies that are still popular today. The voices of Madam Noor Jehan, Mala and Runa Laila, to name a few, made the heroines appear even more enchanting …” Nadeem pauses for a moment, as if realising he might be about to venture into an oldie-reminiscing territory. He says it anyway.  “... But now that’s all part of history. I find myself unable to understand the nature of the songs produced in films these days. To my ears, the singers seem to be fighting instead of understanding the situation and delivering their vocals accordingly. Even the lyrics are alien for someone like me and I can only attribute these numbers to changing trends. For me, the yesteryear era seems like a distant dream now.” Nadeem betrays no rancour, it’s just not in him. But his words carry weight. Recall that he himself sang in over 50 songs in films, including a few picturised on other actors. Not many millenials may know but before he became a film sensation after delivering half-a-dozen, back-to-back hits in the ’60s, Nadeem actually began his career as a singer on TV where he sang some Urdu and Bangla songs.

In the 1986 film Qatil Ki Talaash with Babra Sharif | Guddu Film Archive
In the 1986 film Qatil Ki Talaash with Babra Sharif | Guddu Film Archive

Nadeem goes on to pay rich tributes to his seniors such as Alauddin, Agha Talish and Mohammad Ali who encouraged new entrants like him to do even better. “When you have writers such as Riaz Shahid and Saifuddin Saif scripting films, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz and Josh Malihabadi penning the lyrics and seniors such as Ali bhai and Talish saheb guiding you, then you are bound to learn a lot. They never made us feel new to the trade and I am hopeful that the seniors of today will learn to treat youngsters the same way. We are responsible for breaching their trust by making bad films, thus resulting in the decline of our film industry. But I am also hopeful for a brighter future with so much talent around.”

After Nadeem’s start as a singer on TV, the aspiring advertising executive turned to films and became one of the top three leading men of the era — the other two being Waheed Murad and Mohammad Ali.

“Television always held a strong fascination for me, especially since our TV plays were more popular abroad than our films during the ’80s. In those days I didn’t have time, otherwise I would have surely loved to work on the small screen.” His innings as a TV actor only began with Bisaat in 2000. “Like every field, there are ups and down in television as well, but that’s because we chose to copy others rather than keep up with our signature style. Whenever I visited abroad in those days, people would ask me if I had brought video cassettes of our TV plays, which I would have had I known they would ask for them.”

When the soft-spoken Nadeem does get truly fired up, it’s about social access to cinema, lamenting the fact that going to cinema has become a rich man’s entertainment instead of the middle class and lower-middle class. “Back in my day, people had just two options — Radio Ceylon or Radio Pakistan — besides films, and that’s one of the reasons why they chose to visit cinemas with friends and family. These days ticket prices are beyond the reach of the average man considering single-screen cinemas are nowhere to be seen. These were the people who used to make a film a hit or a flop. The ticket prices are now beyond the reach of taxi and rickshaw drivers, push-cart pullers and the blue-collar labour class etc. It is time to address this issue, otherwise cinema will become nothing more than a luxury for those who already have access to cable, DVD and satellite channels while the real cine-goer stays away due to steep ticket prices.” Clearly Nadeem has thought about this a lot. “Twenty percent seats must be kept reserved for the blue-collar class because they are also part of our film culture and, unlike the upper class, they are the ones who come to us and tells us if the film is good or bad.”

Nadeem, now a very fit 76, is still active enough to play an army officer in Shaan Shahid’s Zarrar. He also makes a guest appearance in Jawed Sheikh’s Eidul Fitr release Wajood where he gets to work with another yesteryear actor Shahid after a gap of nearly two decades. The absence of character-oriented films and subjects makes the film veteran sad, but he doesn’t let it show. “Veteran actors will continue to play character roles — that of the heroine’s father or hero’s mother etc. — until and unless we change our approach to films. Look at actors abroad, films are made for them while we are still stuck in the hero-heroine mode. The subjects need to undergo a drastic change to usher in a change for actors who have given their life to films. Otherwise, we will be stuck in a monotonous loop and people will eventually switch to the many other options that they have besides films.”

On the subject of a possible Nadeem-Shabnam reunion for the remake of the classic Aaina helmed by Syed Noor, Nadeem doesn’t believe that any such collaboration between him and Shabnam, who have worked in over 50 films together, will happen anytime soon. “After the failure of his comeback vehicle Chaen Aaye Na, Syed Noor has taken a step back and I guess he needs time-off before venturing into another film. I did tell him at the launch event of Aaina 2 that it will be a challenge to remake a classic, so let’s see how it goes.”

Bollywood may currently be off-limits to Pakistani actors but Nadeem holds the honour of working in an Indo-Canadian film way back in the early ’80s when no one else had ventured into Bollywood. “Doordesh was indeed a learning experience as I got to share the screen with actors of repute,” he recalls. “The film was mostly shot in North America and Canada but, after that, there were a number of offers to work in Bollywood. The films I was supposed to sign revolved round the touchy subject of Hindu-Muslim etc. and I had to politely decline because I would have been unable to justify my actions back home, where my base was.”

Talking of Bollywood brings us to another touchy topic — item songs. The veteran actor lambasts directors — both in India and Pakistan — for using women as ‘items’ in below-average, seemingly unnecessary songs. “Item songs are not India’s culture. It is Bollywood’s way to attract the audience to theatres. Directors who don’t have the ability to come up with a good script or a film are the ones who opt for this kind of entertainment, which is shameful and unacceptable. If a director — be it in India or Pakistan — is not confident of his work, no item song or even ‘atomic’ song would help his film become a hit. We should stay away from such tricks and work on the other aspects of filmmaking that will help us in the long run.”

Suddenly people start approaching Nadeem for selfies, photographs and generally to talk to him, again. When I ask him how he feels about being a famous Pakistani celebrity, the veteran just smiles. “I am happy and content that Allah has been kind to me. I don’t consider myself a big actor because I am still in the learning phase. No matter how old you get, you may become more confident, but not a master. You always remain a student and try your best to deliver a dialogue to the best of your abilities. You might be nervous in the beginning but, with experience, you gain confidence.” The biggest film star of Pakistan is also among its most humble. “As long as you treat the next scene as your very first, you will keep learning the tricks of the trade. And I love being able to do just that!”

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 3rd, 2018

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