I’ve always believed in doing things that make me happy,” Khaled Anam tells Icon. “I have faith that if it makes me happy, then the earnings from it will follow.”
His words transform me to a time when, long before he epitomised the TV drama patriarch, Khaled would sling a guitar across his shoulder and croon to an enraptured crowd of children gathered around him, or sing a haunting rendition of his song Peera Ho for an audience who would sing it along with him.
On screen, he’s enacted the young enterprising hero, the brooding lead, the rebel and, in later years, the strict father, the kind father, the confused father, and the my-son-is-a-toxic-brat-but-I-won’t-do-anything-about-it father. In thespian circles, he has won accolades for taking over the spotlight and playing multiple characters, sometimes in a single play!
Singer, composer, actor, visionary for children’s content — there are many hats that Khaled Anam continues to wear over a career that spans more than four decades.
Singer, composer, actor, visionary for children’s content — there are many hats that Khaled Anam has worn over a career that spans more than four decades. What keeps his passion burning? And why is he so restless?
And he’s evidently one of the lucky few who is happy with all that he does for a living.
I feel inclined to counter-question him: what if he is playing a typical father in a drama, enacting a character that he has played multiple times before, repeating the same lines over and over again in multiple scenes so that the drama gets elongated? Is he still happy then?
“Yes,” he professes. “I wouldn’t be able to play the role if it didn’t excite me. I will improvise in the different scenes, just to keep myself interested. I am the sort of person who doesn’t even take the same route to work every day, just to keep things exciting.”
This discussion over the pursuit of happiness actually takes place halfway through my interview with the veteran performer. Our conversation starts off with me recalling his countless contributions to Pakistani entertainment.
Peera Ho, the folk song that he famously sang and which was featured in the horror suspense PTV series Mystery Theatre, tops the list. So does his prestigious career in creating entertainment for children, ranging from sing-along sessions from long ago, which would air on Pakistan Television (PTV), to collaborating with the late Shoaib Hashmi for the creation of 106 episodes of Khul Ja Sim Sim, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, to children’s theatre and live reading sessions.
His contributions towards children’s entertainment were recognised by the Government of Pakistan back in 2018, when the Pride of Performance accolade was awarded to him. He has also won many other awards and acknowledgements for his work for children, and has dabbled with new projects consistently.
Entertaining, for children
“Creating content for children is a passion for me,” he says. “It’s something that I have done from the onset of my career. I have always felt that media should be able to play the role of a pre-school for young children.
“Instead of handing them a mobile phone with Baby Shark blaring out from it, we could get them to hear songs about ABC, Alif Bay Pay and basic values. I have written and sung songs about not biting your nails, not being stubborn, controlling anger, not throwing garbage, brushing teeth regularly… there is so much that young children can absorb through entertainment!”
Is it lucrative? “It’s the least lucrative!” he smiles. “But I have always loved it. During summer and winter vacations, hotel owners reach out to us, asking us to perform in their various chains.
“This one time, I gave up working on a major Hum TV Network play because I had made a prior commitment of performing at a children’s orphanage. I have worked with the Oxford University Press [OUP] on a project called Dosti Kitabon Se, where we would have weekly live sessions of song, music and reading for children at different OUP bookshops. We had to stop the sessions due to security risks but they were a huge success.
“And then, OUP has published a book of my songs called Bachon Ke Geet and, before that, EMI had released a CD of my songs and stories called Zarb-ul-Masal where I would be explaining different Urdu phrases.
“Goethe Institut also released a CD containing a selection of songs that I had written for Grips-Theatre productions for children. And there are about 350 songs for children that I have written that I am yet to release on the Children Education and Entertainment Portal [Ceep] that I Iaunched online during the pandemic.”
“The first-ever privately produced programme in the history of PTV was the 15-minute-long Dum Dum Dee Dee show back in the ’80s, helmed by Ghazanfar Ali and myself. And the longest live programme for children was known as Indus Chhotu and aired on the Indus TV channel for nearly five years — I would host it for three hours daily, five days a week.”
He continues: “I feel that my efforts have been well-spent when young men and women come to me and tell me that they grew up watching my children’s programmes. There are others who started off their careers with my children’s programmes, such as Mohib Mirza, Aamina Sheikh and Nadeem Jafri.
“Back in the ’90s, we were once travelling from Islamabad to Peshawar and we stopped at the Attock bridge where a few Pathan children came running up to me and said, ‘Uncle, uncle, humein alif bay pay yaad ho gayi [we now know the Urdu alphabet by heart]’. I have so many such memories and they are all very special to me.”
A sad case of memory loss
Does it hurt, then, when his work for children, specially in the Urdu language, does not get acknowledged by others in the industry, particularly some of his juniors?
“I am not hurt but I do worry that perhaps this is a case of memory loss,” he says sarcastically. “Perhaps the people who have forgotten haven’t been living in Pakistan for a while or aren’t well-acquainted with Urdu, or maybe just don’t like me. You can’t force everyone to like you. The people I made the content for, all remember it well, so it doesn’t matter if certain people don’t.”
He adds, “It’s like a relay race, where the flag is passed on from one person to the other. Right now, it is in the hands of [new people currently creating Urdu content for children], and I wish them all the best as they take it forward. It is important to note, though, that you can never go ahead without acknowledging the contributions of your elders.
“I have always given credit, from acknowledging how the record of 200 nursery rhymes bought for me by my father was my first inspiration, to all that I learnt from the likes of Naheed Niazi, Muslehuddin, Sohail Rana, Khalil Ahmed, Shoaib Hashmi and his students Arshad Mahmud and Farooq Qaiser.
“Farooq Bhai loved me a lot and was always encouraging. And I spent a lot of time with Shoaib Hashmi sahib, working on the songs for Khul Ja Sim Sim. He would write the script and then hand it to me, saying, ‘Over to you, Khaled’.
“He was magnanimous with his praise and even claimed in an interview that he just created a rough version of the show, leaving ‘the rest of the work with Khaled’. Of course, I told him what was I even worth, with him overseeing the show but that’s just the sort of man he was. There is no harm in praising someone’s work, appreciating, giving respect. A lot of young people today either don’t understand or realise this.”
Does he think that his content for children may gain more traction with present-day audiences if it is presented with the aid of updated, high-end graphics? “No,” he replies promptly. “It’s the content that matters. If you take a silk pillowcase but fill it with coarse wool, will anyone want to use it?”
Peera Ho’s journey
We move on to discussing his other major hit; the eerie, unforgettable Peera Ho. Does he ever feel that the song’s colossal popularity ended up drawing attention away from his other achievements?
“Perhaps, but I don’t mind,” he smiles. He then treads contentious ground. “There have been times when people have tried to steal the song from me. Once, a record company purchased an entire selection of 14 songs, just because Peera Ho was one of them. The record company owner was a friend of mine and I called him up and I told him that I could not allow him to use my song.
The story got printed in the newspaper and, even though the editor was also my friend, he didn’t side with me.” He shrugs. “And then, more recently, another show tried to utilise the song without giving me any credit, or taking permission. Faisal [Kapadia, ex-Strings frontman, ex-Coke Studio co-producer] is a very good man and he sorted out the confusion.
“All this doesn’t matter. I am still here and Peera Ho is still my song. When I sang it and recorded it, I had no idea that it would be such a sensation. In a few days, it played out on TV and became a hit!”
Did he feel the pressure to release another major hit following Peera Ho’s colossal popularity?
“I am a bit strange that way,” he confesses. “I don’t get too distressed if I lose out on something and I don’t get too elated by a major success. These are all bonuses from God, perhaps good luck brought in for me by my wife. What is much more important is having peace of mind, being content and I have that.”
Drama set stories
Khalid adds, “Perhaps success never went to my head because I experienced massive popularity from a very young age. I was only 17 or 18 when I started singing professionally and the love and adulation that I experienced was unimaginable. Even then, I took it in my stride. I thought that this is just how things are.
“To date, I like to live life simply. I’ll go in a rickshaw, take a bus. I don’t bother with hair and make-up on set. All I need is a tissue to wipe my face and a comb to keep my hair in place.” He draws the said items from his pocket and uses them in order to demonstrate.
And he’ll wait for hours on set if needed, waiting for the rest of the cast to arrive? “Yes, I will, as long as I have a comfortable place to sit in.”
As a senior actor, does the waiting not irritate him? “It can be trying,” he admits, “but I have set aside that day for that drama, so I’ll be there. Later, the production team may approach me for more dates because certain actors did not come on set for particular scenes and I may already be committed elsewhere. I try to help out but, sometimes, I am unable to. The production ultimately suffers.”
He is currently shooting for three dramas simultaneously, one of them being Gentleman directed by Haissam Hussain and featuring Humayun Saeed and Yumna Zaidi as the main leads. How has the experience been so far?
“It’s a challenging drama to work on, which makes it exciting as well as scary,” he says. “The script has a heavy-duty back-story and you actually need to feel all that your character has experienced in order to do justice to it.
“Khalil sahib has written a script that is very layered and very close to reality. It requires a lot of hard work and the entire cast and crew is completely invested in the project. I play Yumna Zaidi’s father and many of my scenes are with her. She’s a thorough professional. Adnan Siddiqui is working so hard. All these actors in the drama playing negative roles — that’s a big deal for them! [considering that they have usually played positive roles in their careers].
“And Haissam Hussain is marvellous. He’s the sort of director who will sit with you and talk about your character’s thought process. All those little details will hopefully show on screen.”
In general, though, as an actor who primarily plays supporting roles, does he feel that drama storylines and even awards ceremonies should focus more on the ensemble cast rather than only on the lead actors?
“Yes, awards act as encouragement and that’s always good,” he agrees, adding, “but in dramas, the ensemble cast can only add more meat to their roles if they have discussions with the director and the producer. And often, the director is too harried to have this dialogue. He is fretting that the lead actors have ordered food on set that is too expensive, and how to fit it into the budget.
“Other unimaginable things happen. Once, we all waited on an outdoor set for hours, waiting for the lead actress to arrive. The location was set up for a wedding and all of us — including myself, Behroze Sabzwari and Saba Faisal — were waiting. Time was running out but she was not picking up her phone. Finally, when the team got through to her, she said that she had been feeling very tired, and so had flown off to Dubai!”
I am aghast on the production team’s behalf: what did they do then? He smiles wryly. “We had to ‘cheat’ our way through the shoot, imagining that she was there without showing her on camera.”
He continues with the anecdotes: “Another time, the lead actress came on set and remembered that she had left her wig in Dubai. She took a flight back to Dubai, retrieved the wig and it was only then that shooting resumed.”
Do these young actors — who we shall not name — eventually lose out on work because of their unprofessionalism? “No, they keep getting work,” he says, “and I don’t want to discuss why and how. I do know, from my experiences in working on a channel, that sometimes advertisers insist that if an actor who is appearing in their commercials gets cast, they will only sponsor the drama then.
“I am sure there are other reasons too, but I don’t want to delve into them. The bottom line is that you may be able to get work for a few years, but you will only be able to make your career last if you’re professional.”
He continues: “Perhaps I am just an old-timer but I don’t understand how today’s actors are overly concerned regarding their looks. An actor would tell me that he or she has gotten a role and, when I’ll ask them how they are preparing for it, they’ll start talking about going to the gym and dieting! What about the performance, itself? How about shifting focus from getting blow-drys, make-up and taking selfies on set, and thinking about the role?”
What is his take on his own son, Komail Anam’s fledgling acting career? “He is off to a good start and I give him advice when he asks me. I never give unsolicited advice though. I do guide him on technicalities, like how to make sure that his character’s continuity is retained and on movements in front of the camera.”
He adds, “I have never made any phone calls trying to rope in work for him, nor has he ever asked me to. If I ever see the need, I will do so, though. I do the same for any young actor who requests me to put in a good word for him — why wouldn’t I do so for my own son? Having said that, he will have to pave his way, just like I did. We don’t have any acting academies in Pakistan and so he will learn on the job.”
Both his sons — Komail and Ammar — have opted to pursue careers in entertainment. Was he comfortable with this considering that he is well-acquainted with the highs and lows of the industry?
“They both wanted to and I don’t believe in restricting my sons. They need to work hard, pray hard, be honest and dedicated, and I believe what is meant for them will come to them. They just need to do things that make them happy and the work will come.”
Happiness and the pursuit of it — it’s the cornerstone of Khaled’s career, built into his DNA, pushing him to be excited by every new turn that he takes.
“The best is yet to come,” he tells me. It’s entirely believable.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 29th, 2023