Qavi Khan — the last of the legends

They say never meet your heroes in person — I met Qavi Khan and can report that he was as much a gentleman off screen as he was on screen.
08 Mar, 2023

Writing about an actor who enthralled generations with his work is quite a daunting task. Usually, actors you admired in your childhood turn out to be anything but nice when you meet them in person. Muhammad Qavi Khan was a true gentleman. He not only inspired many with his on-screen performances, but was equally charming off-screen.

Born on November 13, 1942 in the Peshawar of undivided India, Muhammad Qavi Khan had been around for ages. He began his career as a child artist from Radio Pakistan Peshawar in 1952, but destiny brought him to Lahore, where he got a chance to work as the lead in PTV’s first-ever play Nazrana (1964). For the next couple of years, Khan shuttled between his job at a multi-national bank, and TV/films. He later quit his job for a full-time acting career. He was a regular in theatre as well and had been performing since 1961. I was fortunate enough to watch him play Nawab Sahab in a play at Karachi’s Arts Council in 2008.

From being PTV’s first lead to the lead actor’s grandfather in films — his last film was Tich Button in 2022 — Khan had the habit of getting into the skin of all the characters he portrayed. His short but powerful performance as the helpless father of Faisal Rehman in Nahin Abhi Nahin (1980) was quite touching.

In 1972/73, he played the role of Waheed Murad’s father in Mulaqat while just a year earlier, he played his character’s colleague in Naag Mani. In 1978, he returned to play his father’s role in Parakh, where he was first seen in the role of a police officer. The age difference between Waheed Murad and Qavi Khan was just four years yet it never felt so on screen. Khan credited Murad’s charisma for such remarkable performances — “Waheed ko acting karta dekh ke main apni lines bhool jata tha [I would forget my lines after watching Waheed act],” was the reply from someone who had played all the male-oriented roles available in a motion picture.

He even ventured into film production but by 1980 had more flops than hits to his credit. His production Dhamki was eventually released as Paasban. It was General Zia ul Haq’s reign as president and Pakistan was involved in fighting America’s war with the USSR in Afghanistan. Even the title text of Paasban, appearing in bright red, was not spared, as red was linked with the left.

Fed up with films, Khan returned to TV to resume his second innings. Exposure to the world benefited him and the 80s brought more successes than his first few years. Knowing his days as a lead were over, Khan experimented with different roles. He was one of the four brothers in PTV’s long play Mirza and Sons (1983), where his character Rahat wanted to emulate actor Qavi Khan. The dialogues, expressions and body language of the wanna be actor are still a treat to watch. Andhera Ujala was born after the success of TV play Rago me Andhera (1983) urged producers to turn it into a serial.

With Rahat Kazmi’s refusal to continue, producers turned to Qavi Khan, whose performances as DSP Tahir Ali, immortalised the character. It influenced many like me so much that whenever we had to address any colleague named Jaffar, the words that came out would be, “Jaffar Hussain, yeh sab kya ho raha hai?

When Nadeem-Shabnam starrer Pehchan (1975) was aired on TV in 1987, I was shocked to see Khan in an altogether different avatar — that of a smuggler. Upon learning of the family he abandoned as a kid, Khan not only fights his boss — the typical bishum bishum — but also sets out to meet his mother. Still recovering from the aftershocks of the ‘criminal’ activities of Khan’s character Rashid, I broke down at the eventual meet-up. Mehdi Hassan’s tera pyar mere jeevan ke sang rahega still resonates in my ears.

Even as someone who grew up during Sultan Rahi’s rule as a top box office draw, it was Khan who recommended that I start watching Punjabi films. He explained that there was not much difference in understanding the language and after some time, it would seem like an Urdu film. With his suggestion, I discovered Sultan Rahi-less Punjabi cinema with Khan’s Manjhi Kithe Dhawan (1974) becoming my personal favourite. During my next meeting with him, I asked about the inspiration behind the climax of his film and his reply was more of a performance.

Like an experienced theatre actor, he leaned to one side, transported himself to the year 1964 and uttered: “Aurat ho tu tumharay jaisi, dost ho tu tumharay jaisa aur bewaqoof ho tu meray jaisa [A woman should be like you, a friend should be like you, and a fool like me],” the climax of his very first film Rivaaj, directed by Diljeet Mirza and written by the maverick Riaz Shahid.