Playwright Anwar Maqsood solemnly observes, “Kisi fankaar ke mashhoor honay ke leeyay uss ka marna zaroori hai. Shayad Pakistan mein fankaaron ko marr hee jaana chaheeay”. (An artist needs to die in order to be remembered. Perhaps all the artists in Pakistan should just die.)
There is truth to his words. Tariq Aziz passed away recently, one of the country’s most renowned celebrities, the man who initiated Pakistan Television’s first-ever on-air transmission and hosted the game show Neelam Ghar for over three decades.
Four days prior to Tariq Aziz’s demise, Pakistani film actress Sabiha Khanum, popularly known as the ‘first lady of cinema’, passed away.
Media was rife with poignant memories of both artistes. Celebrities and major social media portals recounted Aziz's most famous quotes – the way he would start off every show with the words, "Dekhti aankhon, suntay kaanon" or the familiar "Pakistan Zindabad!" that he would bellow at the end of Neelam Ghar.
Glimpses from some of Sabiha Khanum’s most loved songs and films were aired out on TV. The achievements of both stars were celebrated – but in death.
While they had been still alive, there had hardly been any recent mentions of either of the two; no mention of their ailing healths and certainly no recounting of their best-loved performances. Did many of us even know whether they were alive or not?
Had Pakistan’s younger generation even been aware of a man called Tariq Aziz who had once distributed water coolers to an enthusiastic audience?
And do they know the names of some of Pakistani entertainment’s most dynamic icons: Qazi Wajid, Shakeel, Qavi, Talat Hussain, Kamal Ahmed Rizvi, Jamshed Ansari, Nanha, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Alamgir, Salim Javaid, Omar Sharif and Haseena Moin among them. It’s a long list of very prestigious names which makes it all the more surprising that current media has opted to sideline them rather than honor them.
Many have passed away but some of Pakistani entertainment’s pioneering stars are still alive. Why can they not be honoured and applauded while they are still alive? Why are they no longer the guests of honor at mainstream shows? Why are they excluded from the guest lists of major awards ceremonies? Why can’t major channels air an occasional show – perhaps, once a month if not once a week – dedicated to honoring the legends that have shaped Pakistani entertainment?
Tariq Aziz’s death triggered hundreds of posts where celebrities, media personalities and the general audience reminisced about his inimitable hosting skills. This love would have made him so much happier had he been alive, battling old age and all the infirmities that come along with it.
“And there are so many others that we should be honoring. Some are still amongst us. There could be tribute shows, postage stamps released in the names of our stars, corporate sponsors who could enlist them as ambassadors or TV studios that could be named after our pioneers. Unfortunately, it is a mental sickness amongst us that we forget those that are still alive.”
“Channels and the government need to respect senior artists, whether they are alive or have passed away. They never consider that people could be kept alive, while they are alive. Their past work could be aired - PTV has such an extensive archive that could be shown again. Why are only those people promoted who are busy promoting themselves? Why are veterans sidelined?”
“The fact is that artists never have been revered in Pakistan,” observes yesteryear hero Shakeel. “Even during my day, I remember that my contemporaries from India would accompany their government on international delegations. We were never given such importance by our government."
Indian Actresses Nargis and Vyjayanthimala were seen at state events, getting photographed with important officials. Later, Nargis became a member of parliament. And then, I remember how Dilip Kumar was always revered, invited to major ceremonies. In our country, we’re rarely ever invited.”
“The fact is that I chose to act. I could have selected any other profession but this is what I wanted to do. And for as long as I worked, I was blessed with the love and appreciation of my audience. That is all I need. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be seen on many of the channels that are aired today. I don’t agree with their content, the themes of their dramas, the circus that ensues every night in the name of political talk shows. I don’t want their attention.”
“Sometimes, I look at the way awards are given out nowadays, without any merit, and I feel ashamed that I had once been the recipient of similar trophies. We don’t need accolades that are so fake.”
“And yes, it is our flaw as a nation that we only truly appreciate someone once he or she has died. Then, we sit and talk about them, actors come on air and share their experiences with the deceased. We don’t even know whether they are telling the truth or not since the personality being discussed has passed away!”
“Beyond a pay cheque, an artist appreciates the love and respect of his or her nation. At the Karachi Arts Council, for instance, an effort is sometimes made to celebrate with veterans who are still alive. While poet Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi was still alive, he was invited to the council on his birthday, where we cut his cake with him and just sat and talked to him. It was a small gesture – and he had to make an effort to get there since he was already very old and found it difficult to commute – but it made him very happy.”
But efforts like these are rare. There was a time when PTV would regularly celebrate artists’ birthdays on TV. Now, PTV’s presence is veritably nonexistent and on private channels, the focus has shifted entirely towards political crossfire and a range of dramas that revolve around domestic – often borderline incestuous – storylines.
Channels don’t have the time or the patience to reminisce about the past or create engaging shows dedicated to yesteryear achievements – not when they can simply just rustle up a saas-bahu sobfest drama instead.
In the long run, this disregard erodes away at the country’s cultural history. “Does our youth even know who Jamshed Ansari was? Who Salim Nasir was? Can they take pride in all that Pakistani entertainment has achieved in the past?” points out Haseena.
No, they can’t – because they don’t know much about Pakistani entertainment’s past. They may gain a fleeting know how of an actor who passes away, based on a quickly put together obituary aired out on the news.
But they certainly won’t be aware of how that artist once laid the building blocks of local entertainment or contributed to the country’s cultural traditions.
There will be others, belonging to an older generation, who will recognise the contributions made by the deceased artist. They will write long odes and tributes on social media. They may be genuinely sad. But if this regard, respect and love had been directed towards the deceased while he or she was still alive, it could have made a big difference.
These are exemplary people, after all. People who once shaped the Pakistani mindset through entertainment. Who made us laugh, cry and served up a wealth of memorable moments. Why remember them just in death? Why not honor our own while they are still around?