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.