Farooq Qaiser with his alter ego Uncle Sargam | Guddu Film Archive
Farooq Qaiser with his alter ego Uncle Sargam | Guddu Film Archive

Pakistan Television has produced countless gems over a period of time but not all of them were timeless. Characters such as Uncle Jedi, Qabacha and Hasnat Bhai inspired a generation but ultimately faded away with the passage of time. But one character never faded from memory — Uncle Sargam, created by the legendary Farooq Qaiser, became a household name the moment the character debuted in 1976.

Those were the days when music director Sohail Rana used to do a weekly music show Saaray Dost Hamaray from Pakistan Television’s (PTV’s) Karachi centre. The kids who participated in the show addressed Sohail Rana as ‘uncle’, and used to sway sideways while singing. When Kaliyaan debuted in 1976, Uncle Sargam made sure the puppets performed in the same manner as the kids in the music show, and sang, ‘Aao mil ke gayein, aayen baayen shaayen, sur ka tiah paancha kar ke waapas ghar ko jayein’ [Come let us sing sing together absolute nonsense, and go home after making a mess of musical notes].

At the time, even Qaiser was unaware of the success destined for Kaliyaan, which began as a mocking of an ‘Uncle’ of ‘Sargam’ [music].

Farooq Qaiser was born in Sialkot on November 1, 1945. His father, an engineer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps but, in the early ’70s, Qaiser graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA) in textile design. Unable to find a proper job due to the ’71 war, he was recruited by his teacher Salima Hashmi for her TV show Akkarr Bakkarr. Qaiser had no inclination or urge to make puppets, nor did he have any experience in puppetry, yet he agreed and entered the field where no one had gone before (at least in Pakistan).

Farooq Qaiser aka Uncle Sargam knew what viewers wanted and he had his finger on the nation’s pulse. Few people have had as sustained and wide an impact on popular culture as he did

Before he became Uncle Sargam, Qaiser was literally the man behind or underneath Bee-Batakh, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street’s famous Big Bird. He managed to acquire a Master’s degree in Graphic Arts from Romania and, after returning in 1976, destiny led him to Kaliyaan. Impressed by his teacher Mr Molnar, Qaiser modelled Uncle Sargam after him.

What initially started off as a show for kids, Kaliyaan grew with its viewers and, by the time the eight-year-old viewer was all grown up, (s)he still found Kaliyaan equally entertaining and relevant. Like the legendary writer and director Kamal Ahmed Rizvi, famous for the TV show Alif Noon, Qaiser also approached social evils such as dishonesty and corruption in society in a witty and humorous manner.

In the voice of Uncle Sargam, he was a commentator, a teacher, as well as an ordinary helpless citizen with a sharp tongue. Uncle Sargam would answer hard-hitting questions of the pupils in his classroom in a humorous way, containing satirical commentary on issues with a didactic bent that set out to expose social injustices.

In the days when puppetry seemed outdated in comparison to cheap, 2-D computer animation, Qaiser took a bold step by introducing puppets on Pakistani TV. By the end of its first spell of four years, Kaliyaan boasted well-written scripts and well-conceived songs and, by its second spell, Kaliyaan had become a family programme, where Qaiser used to pick on relevant issues in an unusually entertaining style.

He produced a skit where government-provided water was sold in the name of shikanjbeen [lemonade], while the segment ‘Watta Satta’ (two corrupt dealers played by Babar Niazi and Qaiser himself) also became immensly popular with the masses. Telephone operators were his prime target and so were government officials. In later seasons, the best of the lot were the skits when a gora sahib [white foreigner] (Hashim Butt) used to be tricked by his guide (Nasir Iqbal) in order to get dollars. ‘Tum humko aisa cheez dikhaao, hum tum ko dollar dainga, dollar! [You show me something extraordinary and I’ll give you dollars!]’ was the famous line of the gora saheb, who would be often found babbling ‘What a country!’ towards the end of the skit.

What initially started off as a show for kids, Kaliyaan grew with its viewers and, by the time the eight-year-old viewer was all grown up, (s)he still found Kaliyaan equally entertaining and relevant.

Kaliyaan (aired as Putli Tamasha in the ’80s), was pure entertainment. Its comedy mushairay were as interesting as the interviews done by one of the characters Faarighul Baal (a character sans a head of hair). Timeless characters such as Haiga, Lala Pishori, Kharrpainch, Lashkaraa, Sharmeeli, Chavanni Saith, Bonga Bagheer, Noni Paa, Rola and Hudd Haram became household names, but none could achieve the stardom of Maasi Museebtay.

White Star
White Star

“In our lives, we all have someone who always creates a mess, [and] he [Qaiser] picked that character and turned it into Maasi Museebatay,” says actor and music director Arshad Mahmood, who remained friends with Qaiser for 50 years. “Farooq created characters which were larger than even his own life.”

On the healthy competition with the famous comedy show from PTV Karachi centre, Fifty-Fifty, Mahmood says, “Kaliyaan had become famous by the time Fifty-Fifty aired, and the target practice was started by Farooq. It was fun to reply to them [the skits] in Fifty-Fifty, and the winner turned out to be the viewers.”

Mahmood had been part of Akkarr Bakkarr, and later also Fifty-Fifty.

Farooq Qaiser also made a name as a poet and lyricist though he never received as much credit for that as he should have. He most famously wrote the song Komal Komal, which had music by Arshad Mahmood and was initially sung by Nayyara Noor. The song was later performed by the late Nazia Hassan and became even more popular. For Kaliyaan, Qaiser also wrote the lyrics of songs sung by the puppets and the tally of such songs crosses a whopping 3,000.

The main quality of Qaiser was that his humour and wit always had wisdom. The pun in his shows was not just entertaining but also educating. It was not just the contemporary issues he touched upon, but also age-old questions in a new style — the rich and poor divide, for example.

Anjum Habibi, who used to voice several characters for Qaiser, recalls, ‘As Bonga Bagheer, I once uttered [Qaiser’s lines], ‘Mere pyare Allah Mian, dil mera hairaan hai, mere ghar mein faaqa hai, uss ke ghar mein naan hai [My dear God, I am in wonder why, I am starving in my home and he has bread in his]’. It was so typical of Farooq saheb, who knew how to highlight social issues in an interesting way. Mere Pyare Allah Mian [My Dear God] is also the title of one of Qaiser’s books, which contains poems written in the simplest form, directed towards Allah Mian.

In February 1989, Farooq Qaiser also had a hand in changing the music scene in Pakistan. Uncle Sargam and Rola co-hosted the Music ‘89 show with Nazia and Zohaib Hassan. Produced by Shoaib Mansoor, who was also behind the hit show Fifty Fifty, Music ‘89 will always be remembered for the performances of Vital Signs, and the debut on TV of Ali Azmat who was then part of the band Jupiters.

Kaliyaan and Putli Tamasha entertained all and sundry till 1990 and, when the private channel NTM arrived on the scene, Uncle Sargam was there too in Daak Time (1994).

Qaiser had an eye for budding talent and Kaliyaan introduced Bushra Ansari to showbiz, where she became the voice of puppet Sharmeeli. Javed and Babar Niazi (voice of Maasi Museebtay for over three decades), sons of the legendary folk singer Tufail Niazi, also attained stardom when they jumped on to the Sargam bandwagon, as did veteran actors Nasir Iqbal and Anjum Habibi in the late ’80s. TV host and actress Nadia Khan was also first seen reading letters with Uncle Sargam in Daak Time in her younger days.

With Dawn News, Qaiser and his team produced Siyaasi Kaliyaan, a political satire show, in 2010. The title song of the show — ‘Jo dil dil Pakistan tha, woh bill bill Pakistan hai [What was Dil Dil Pakistan is now Bill Bill Pakistan]’, could only have been written by Farooq Qaiser.

After four decades, every person of that generation will still be able to recall a line or two from the iconic show that was Kaliyaan. Be it Maasi Museebtay cursing those referring to her as maasi [mother’s sister but also maid] with ‘Maasi teri maa, maasi teri khala [Your mother’s a maasi, your mother’s sister is a maasi]’ or Chavanni Seth showing off with his ‘Paisa barra hai [Money is king]’.... Qaiser knew what viewers wanted and he had his finger on the nation’s pulse. Few people have had as sustained and wide an impact on popular culture as he did.

He may have left us physically on May 14 for his heavenly abode, but in the voices of Uncle Sargam and his countless other characters, Farooq Qaiser will live on forever among us.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 23rd, 2021

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