A Tribute to Moin Akhtar (1950-2011)

For many of us in India he was Amitabh Bachhan and Dilip Kumar combined in one, although he did no action. His action consisted of something else altogether. He could play any character in the world, sometimes animals too. His impersonations of Dilip Kumar were sometimes better than the thespian’s own act. He could speak well, emote well, mimic brilliantly, parody, caricature, satirize and imitate almost anything and anybody. He could do all of this without appearing crude in the slightest way. His understated demeanour, his timing and his ability to retain a straight face through the most ridiculous of situations was more than a gift, through it he brought class to whatever he did. He has often been described as a comedian but if he was a comedian then he redefined the art of comedy and created a genre which could be performed only by himself. He was a one man entertainment industry and unlike film starts from this side of the border he needed nothing other than himself. He was his own writer, performer, director, presenter. Here was a fusion of an artist and his material that is rarely seen in the performance arenas in the subcontinent.

Like many of my Indo-Muslim peers in North India I first discovered Moin Akhtar in the late seventies, on the back of the cassette revolution. The late seventies and eighties was still a period when our relatives from Pakistan visited us frequently, and occasionally we visited them too. Family contacts were still maintained, Pakistan was a living entity in our lives. Moin Akhtar cassettes were part of the parcels that travelled to and fro the two countries which included tapes of Ghazal singers like Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali and Qawwals like Sabri brothers, Raseeli Supari, the Pathan suit (which the muhajirs, following Zia, always referred to as the Awami suit) and the flat cloth for salwar kamiz. Pan Parag, copies of Shama, amavat made up the poorer counterparts from India. Pakistani relatives always seemed richer, their cities grander, their lifestyles more cosmopolitan and at least some of that had to do with the state of their television industry.

Just as it had Toyotas and Hondas and Yamahas and multinationals before us, Pakistan also had private, corporate sponsored television long before we had. One reason why Television developed a strong identity early on was because in Pakistan it did not have to compete with cinema. Perhaps the reverse was equally true as well. Moin Akhtar’s audio cassettes arrived at the back of his television success, as a variety show entertainer or as a stand-up comic or as a compere or simply as Moin Akhtar. There were jokes and acts in it which I still repeat. One was about a neo-Muslim who enthusiastically goes to offer Namaz and his sheep keep dying until Friday arrives and he is about to step off for the Juma prayers when a small lamb starts bleating and the man screams and says shut up, you are not good enough even for one rekat. There were a few about Bengalis and one about a Pakistani who has been living in Bradford, England for over twenty five years and still cannot string two sentences together but is hugely proud of his English and one about an irritating foreigner who is scornful about Pakistanis but meets his comeuppance from the tongawalla who is taking him around. These were jokes, gags, acts which sometimes extended to one-man one-act plays. Even in this first cassette that I had heard, now that I look back, I see a quality of writing that is missing from much popular entertainment now. The dialogues, the one-liners, the descriptions and the witticisms, even where the jokes themselves were not outstanding, were always of a certain quality.

The cassettes were followed by the video revolution of the eighties and the huge tape recorders gave way to rented VCRs. Along with the Pakistani soaps, Tanhaiyyan, Parchhaiyyan, Ankahi, Dhoop Kinare there also arrived Bakra Qiston Pe, where Moin Akhtar and Umar Sharif came up with a double act. This was followed by Budhha Ghar pe Hai and it was obvious that Moin Akhtar’s exit had left the show much poorer and had rendered Umar Sharif much cruder. The class that Moin Akhtar brought to his performances was missing from the latter although it was immensely popular. Akhtar arrived at the final stage of his career once he teamed up with Anwar Maqsood, a television presenter and later one of his chief collaborators. The series of programmes they came up with, Fifty Fifty, Studio Dhai, Studio Paune Teen and finally Loose Talk created a genre of social commentary and entertainment that is without parallel in the television and performance industries of the sub-continent.

Moin Akhtar would impersonate a character, inspired sometimes by real events, sometimes by his own genius. He could play the groom when sumptuary laws were in force, a visiting Bangladeshi cricket captain, a beggar, a school-teacher, a Sindhi landlord, a film actor. I recently saw some of the episodes of Loose Talk again and I was amazed not just with Akhtar’s ability to create or follow accents and mimic ethnicities but more critically by his body language. All he does in these episodes is sit in the chair. But his body posture, his arms, his shoulders, his hands, his back, his neck, they all twitch and move and shake and jerk differently with different characters. He raises his eye brows as a Bengali cricketer in a different manner compared to how he does it as a beggar. I have to say I have rarely seen that kind of command over the body, simultaneous to command over accent and delivery, in any actor in the sub-continental screen. I remember, this was barely a few months ago, expressing a deep sense of regret that one of our finest actors never got a chance to exhibit our acting skills to Indians. However, Moin AKhtar was no ordinary actor. As it is our cinema allows only very few serious actors to emerge and even after that most of the time the material they deal with, at least in Hindi cinema, is so pedestrian that any ham can perform that role. No, Moin Akhtar was such a capable actor that thank god he was saved from our screen.

Moin Akhtar was a part of an entire phalanx of talent that made up the golden era of Pakistani television. Anwar Maqsood, Umar Sharif, Bushra Ansari, Rahat Kazmi, Qazi Wajid, there were a whole host of actors and performers who thrived on the basis of some really fine quality writing. To a certain extent this was a natural product of a stream of Urdu literature that could churn out middle-brow stuff with tremendous elan. The mid 20th century Urdu writers on both sides of the border, including Ismat, Jeelani Bano, Ashfaq Ahmed, Qudsia Bano, could produce realistic stories that were both emotionally moving and could have popular appeal. Beyond this lay the world of real popular literature, the world of Shama, Noor, Ibn-e-Safi, Wajida Tabassum and the still surviving Afsana Digest. A lot of that world of popular literature has disappeared from Hindustan, that is North India, from both Hindi and Urdu. However, it lives on in Pakistan where a fair number of literary writers have written for television but there is also a very wide range of original television writers and Hasina Moin is just one name that we are familiar with. Over the years they have produced outstanding dramas, entertainment shows and fine dialogues. It was no accident that Pakistan was the site of the appearance of the first drag host in sub-continental television. There is a history of lampooning the famous and the powerful with an impunity that is rare here in India and I found it both hilarious and impressive to see Akhtar take on the personas of Chaudhri Shujaat Husain, Pervez Musharraf and Imran Khan. He was an inspiring and inspired artist. Thank god we can still see him talk loose on YouTube.

Moin Akhtar 1950-2011. Pakistani Artist Non-Pariel.

17 thoughts on “A Tribute to Moin Akhtar (1950-2011)”

  1. Thanks Mehmood for this. Some of the funniest jokes that we used to share as teenagers in the 1980s were heard from Moin Akhtar cassettes. I have always wondered how Moin’s jokes and oratory style represented and provided a typical UP/north Indian Muslim ethoes for a migrant community that was looking for some kind of cultural familiarity in Karachi.

    1. You are absolutely right Yousuf, he defnitely, and perhaps consciously, spoke like a true blue Urduwala from UP, as did some others like Rahat Kazmi. However, he was popular all across Pakistan, I think and his programs were not produced only by Karachi TV.

  2. Beautiful piece Farooqui sahab…only those who have watched Moin Akhtar perform would truly understand his greatness and absolute mastery over everything he did! What a gifted individual he was and I so wish he didn’t have to go so early! God bless him! There will be no one like him for a long long time to come. Thank you once again for this wonderful tribute!

    1. Many thanks Zaka saheb. I wrote the pice in a hurry but I felt a tribute, even a pale one, was absolutely due on our part because he gave us so much joy and mirth.

  3. Interesting. I note that his impersonation of the bangladeshi cricketer involved wearing blackface. Clearly the attitudes of 1971 have survived the break-up of pakistan.

  4. Moin Akhtar’s talent was par excellence. RIP, we all miss him. Can’t believe he’s no more. He was/is my most fav Pakistani actor. Knew him personally, he was a fantastic human being too.

    Rest is bad article. The first multinationals and first etc etc were FIRST launched in India and not in Pakistan. Cosmopolitan Pakistan? I visited Pakistan first time in 1973 and many times after and the big cities are still like villages. BIG Thnx to Bollywood movies and Indian channels Pakistan has changed and still trying hard.
    I’ve Googled the writer of this article before writing my comment.

  5. This is a very perceptive analysis of Moin Akhtar’s work. I am yet to see something as good in the English language Pakistan media.

  6. Beautifully written tribute, Mahmood bhai. But the video attached while being furiously funny is also deeply problematic. While I agree that true subversive potential of comedy or comic renditions lie in its ability to outrage, to push the envelope of what is acceptable in discourse, to overturn time-honored pieties and stereotypes from within and without, the act of blackfacing to represent a Bangladeshi, as Bigboss above has mentioned, is a definite hark back to the claims of ethnoracial superiority of Punjabis that underwrote much of West Pakistan’s exploitative violence in the East.

    1. I was initially reluctant to watch this video as I suspected there would be a tendency to extract laughs at the expence of the Bengladeshis. But I was pleasantly surprised. A Pakistani audience that is unlikely to otherwise get to know much about Bangladesh is informed by a self-assured and well informed Bangladeshi in very comprehensible Urdu, that Bangladesh is relatively peaceful, is making progress in health and education, and is able to cope with floods. The contrast with Pakistan is obvious. Something that many middle class Pakistanis who look down on Bangladeshis, really need to know.

      1. And of course, to convey the self-assurance and well-informed character of the Bangladeshi, it was necessary to black-up – there being no Bangladeshis of other hues and blackness being of the Bangladeshi essence. No trace of Rao Farman Ali here, then.

  7. Thank you Tariq.

    Clearly Confused and Big Boss, you are right. The face has been blackened in order to other as well as ridicule Bangladeshis. There is no escaping that fact. The content however is a little more sophisticated, even as it defends Bangladesh, it tends to mock a fairly widely prevalent tendency of the non-west to glorify their achievments.

    There were hundreds of other videos that I could have chosen which would have given no offense to any South Asian ethnicity, although God knows there are too many of them and too quick to take offense at the slightest.

    I received an angry mail today in an unsolicited email list I am part of, Bazm-e Qalam. I have spammed it two hundred times but it sticks like a limpet. One fellow was deeply angry at an article published in a souvenir magazine taken out by a prominent Mushaera organiser in Dubai. Someone called V. D . Mahajan (a person by that name used to write guidebooks for BA History coursed in the 1980s and was once memorably described by my History teacher as the Venereal Disease of Indian History)had written an article on Kabir. Kabir, as we know, mocks everything and everyone. This writer had taken umbrage at the fact that Tauhid and Namaz and Roza and Azan and Masjid had been made fun of. So his email subject read, “The Prophet maligned, Prophethood questioned, blasphemy.!”

    Anyway, I veer from the point. Moin Akhtar was a wonderful artist. Sometimes the greatest of us can fall short. RIP.

  8. I think the deliberate blackening of Moin Akhtar’s face in the video is to provoke the Pakistani audience and make it reflect upon the Pakistani attitude towards the East Pakistanis who became Bangladeshis. I think far from Moin Akhtar being racist here, he is openly calling out to the racism of the viewer. The content of what the Bangladeshi says bears this out.

    But of course we’re all holier-than-thou, especially us Indians who think we’re not racist

  9. sir moin akhtar is great we love him he remain in our hreat for ever
    from hayath bangloare india

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