Aman for all seasons

Mar 13 2020

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

IN footage some three decades old, Albela, many years senior to his partner in crime, his counterpart or his better stage-half, jokingly wishes Amanullah would live for so long that there will be ‘no one’ to cry at his passing. Now, while none of them liked to lose in the battle of wits against their theatrical rivals, this particular prediction by Albela did not quite come true. Despite our love affair with tragic endings, we might just have failed to contrive one around the passing away of Amanulllah Khan.

Amanullah was said to have been 70 when he breathed his last. This was a mature enough age given that his contemporary comedians and even those who hailed him as their inspiration on the Lahore stage have always been on the go. He shone through with his pioneering work for stage, his early work seeing him through the darkest of phases that he had to face as a professional actor — an actor who came to symbolise so much that was synonymous with an average Punjabi out to laugh their worst greatest challenges off.

The outer circle woven around these famous stage performers has been that of misery and sometimes even morbidity. Offstage, these actors are often transformed into dark silhouettes with stories and acts to hide. Dimness, often introduced into the story by the personal travails of the people who make this popular theatre, has slowly turned into as much a characteristic of the stage here. Families, fun, drama, ups and downs, bad health, complaints, remorse: all these have a habit of creating the contrast between the performer and his actual self that has been forever sold by the sundry merchants of formula irony.

Amanullah was a big name. He sold, and then resold. Thus, it was inevitable that an attempt was once again made to scandalise the artist at the time of his death. There was this (seemingly false) news about someone trying to stop the burial, allegedly raising some atrocious objections related to Amanullah’s hereditary profession. But no matter how hard some of us wished for an unhappy ending to satisfy our own lust for the tearful climax that we are addicted to, the legend proved too big to be defeated.

The outer circle woven around these famous stage performers has been that of misery and sometimes even morbidity.

One would like to believe that it is over, the urge to cast a tragic cloud over the departure of Amanullah, one of the greatest theatre personalities in our parts and in our times, has been resisted. His exit has by no means been an unnoticed one. There is always room for more accolades and heavier homage, but in its entirety, this has not been too bad a farewell for the innovator.

Amanullah’s friends say he liked his plays well rehearsed. His last act did not come without at least two mock runs during which the news of his death spread wide, only to be denied later. But like a twin separated only by accidents of birth and death, it was Albela again who had the good luck of having seen his glowing obituary appearing in the paper long before. One usual morning in Lahore, he knocked at the door of a reporter in his immediate neighbourhood. The paper the journalist worked for had apparently been guilty of rushing things a little too far, too soon. The day’s edition in hand, the veteran stage actor was not bothered by the fact that his act had been brought to such an abrupt end outside the script. His problem was with the size of his mugshot that went with the advance obituary.

That was then. The media has since expanded to have much more than that half-column space for the worthy entertainers. Amanullah died not once but at least three times — meaning the news of his demise was run on social media and some parts of the mainstream channels thrice during his long battle against illnesses. By the third and the last time, everyone kind of knew how to react to it. The tributes flowed and one hoped that the quality of anecdotes that the departing great’s co-artists recalled in his memory would improve once they were able to overcome their grief.

Surely, there are so many stories to be told beyond the obvious ones that have become part of the Amanullah files over the years. We all are familiar with his effective techniques, his inimitable power to observe and his knack for exploiting the sentiment of his popular stage audience by resorting to a clever formula which landed him his symbols: the poor man with his poor man’s fruit, the guava, the all too familiar monkey with a man’s manners, or vice versa. This was the basic theme while the antics changed with time; from his younger days when he was all too ready to do jumping jacks or wrestlers’ squats to show his determination to take on his stage rival in a tit-for-tat that could sometimes stretch for many minutes.

In his day, Amanullah was not that averse to double entendre. Without this masala, the stage shows would not sell, even if you had the best jugatbaaz locking horns. And, quite honestly, some of the lines that offended the prudes were actually so brilliant and witty. With success and recognition as an actor and mimic who owed heavily to his muses such as Mehdi Hasan, Inayat Husain Bhatti and Ghulam Ali, he probably realised that durability and wider acceptance — and what is that decent word? Respectability! — demanded setting limits on what liberties he could take while dealing with spicier fare on stage. In the event these limitations were perhaps most responsible for the phase where others were preferred over Amanullah purely because they were able to provide a dirtier picture to the audience. This was the time when the trendsetter perfected this dazed look on his face. He wore it abundantly through remarks and shows, the simpleton stunned by the proceedings around him.

Things changed and Amanullah rediscovered his penchant for talking, encouraged by the television host whose ego the master was always careful to gently massage. But he was only returning a favour. It was indeed the mushrooming channels that reinvented these stage performers in an exclusive Pakistani package. They rescued Amanullah, a classical practitioner of the Lahore stage repartee pitted against newer, bolder challengers.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2020