From an era long gone

21 Dec 2018


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

NO more do showbiz people die in Pakistan. Legends do. The media has taken a huge liking to the term ‘legend’ and, apart from the legends on whose passage to the other world it reports on, one favourite fixture on television these days are features on yesteryear’s legends, whose memory must be celebrated on the day marking their birth or death anniversary. Given the all-embracing nature of this domestic urge for bestowing legendary fame, it was a bit odd that Ali Ejaz, a more genuine claimant, didn’t quite make the rank in the first instance.

One, two three, four ... the sites that one visited had chosen to declare him as an ‘eminent actor’, ‘renowned actor’, ‘comedian’, a ‘famous showbiz name’ ... until, finally, those managing the fifth site visited decided that he was good enough to be labelled as a legend. Whether this was the right title to define the man or not, one thing has to be said in his respect: the guy had presence.

There were moments when it seemed that he was about to be swept off his feet by attention, or, later on, by a lack of it. From what we saw of him, he withstood the power of the stereotype and kept himself grounded. He deserved a much warmer send-off than was afforded to him. There were perhaps too many other important news items in Lahore on the day eclipsing his departure. News such as a minister, known for his sensitivity towards open expressions in culture, was proudly unfolding plans for a return of Basant in February.

Ali Ejaz belonged to that kind of Lahore, a resident of the Qila Gujar Singh locality known to have gifted the film world with such talent as Munawar Zarif. According to Ali, he was “a class fellow and bench fellow” of Munawar, who passed away in 1976, while still in his 30s. Ali himself had to wait for his big break for a few more years. It came in Arif Waqar’s Dubai Chalo, a PTV play that blazed a trail for Pakistani cinema.

Ali Ejaz came from and was rooted deep in the other side of the divide, the start of the 1980s invariably being the line that separated the two distinct eras.

Thinking about it all these years later, it was a remarkable selection. Ali was already a veteran television actor having excelled more in comic roles. But if his ability to carry a complex character lightly without trivialising was a plus in this case, he had to play the role of someone at least a few years younger than him. In the event, Safdar Ali alias Baoo came out well in his overtly nuanced character for effect.

Haider Chaudhry was watching. The successful Punjabi film director replaced a few earthy faces from the unusually long cast of the original teleplay, included a few songs and dances, threw in Mumtaz and Naghma here and there for good measure, and made a commercial film out of it. This was the beginning of a new era in Ali Ejaz’s life. In time, he rose in partnership with Nanna, who, unlike Ali’s own style, was quite a brilliant exponent of the natural school of acting. They became the ‘unbeatable’ pair of stars who guaranteed box-office hits and had the closest Pakistani variant of the idolised cinematic diva around them.

It is not right to say that Ali Ejaz and Nanna were the inventors here. There were many others who had successfully done the two-comic-hero-together job. Not too long before them, Munawar Zarif had paired with Rangeela to come up with light fantasies that went quite well with an audience not too keen on more ‘earnest’ or grim or more violent cinema. A standard explanation might be that maybe it was easier for their fans to relate to these ‘ordinary-looking’ souls performing feats they were too shy to attempt.

Perhaps, in the prevailing overall circumstances, the other versions of the cine-goers in 1980s Pakistan didn’t have enough in them to provide much-needed relief to the people in general. Whatever the reasons, if the female lead opposite a hero is a yardstick to gauge his stature at a time, Ali Ejaz and Nanna were top of the list in their time — Ali beating Nanna by a distance on that count.

A layman’s impression of Ali Ejaz would be that of a stylised actor, most famously reflected in the Baoo of Dubai Chalo as well as in his role in another television play, Khwaja and Son. Eager on using refrains and additional expressions — copied from those living around him — to bring home his point, there were moments when Ali hinted that he could go Munawar’s way with his body language. But he would check himself in time, just as, later in life, he would restrain himself from speaking too negatively about what had gone out of life and what remained.

He would rather do it with a light jugat, a pheeki or faded or weak joke, even when it stood no chance of competing with the steroid-dipped one-liners of today. This was possibly one reason that endeared him to his old-fashioned fans. This was proof that he actually came from and was rooted deep in the other side of the divide, the start of the 1980s invariably being the line that separated the two distinct eras.

Those who have spent these decades in Lahore would vouch for the huge relief Ali Ejaz brought to them from certain dramatic trends that were perfected here.

There was the bold stage play. It culminated in the male actors standing up in revolt against their female opposites — the bare-all heroines who had managed to steal the show from the male leads who could only talk loose. Then there were in the city the television play and actors who were more than loyal to their role as the carriers of a social message in the absolute manner in which they had been trained in the 1980s, under the reformative regime of you-know-who.

Quite often, as was the fate of other contemporary actors, Ali Ejaz had to bring the same ‘message to the masses’. He did it with less strain on himself and his audience, even if with an exaggerated amount of mannerism.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2018