Nusrat Javeed Pays Rich Tribute to Punjab’s Own Charlie Chaplin, The Late Amanullah Khan
NB: This article, written by Nusrat Javeed, appeared in Urdu on Nawa-i-Waqt on Monday, 9 March 2020. It has been translated into English for NayaDaur by Babar Mirza
Many of you would have received that video on your phones from several people. The beginning of this video was very dramatic. On the ground spattered with dry leaves because of the strong winds before the rain, a shoe appears. The person wearing that shoe is walking briskly towards something as if overcome with anger. Then, one hears: “Chohan Sahib is here”. Apparently, the digging of a grave in a deserted field stood interrupted. A proactive minister of Punjab, Mr. Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan, was requested for help. He left everything he was doing to reach the spot. He admonished those who were obstructing the digging of the grave. The person who was admonished disappeared from the scene after leaving the matter “in the care of Allah.”
The people sharing this video claimed that the administration of a housing society in Lahore was not willing to let “a Miraasi” be buried in “their graveyard”. Chohan sahib’s timely intervention dissuaded the administration.
I don’t know about you but I immediately believed the story being told through this video. It did not appear strange or unlikely to me in a society steeped in self-righteousness. I was also compelled to praise Chohan sahib in my heart of hearts.
However, a clarification came forth via social media by Sunday night. It was claimed that the dispute was not about the “stature and position” of the deceased. The housing society insisted that there was in fact a violation of the regulations concerning “area and order” specified by them for the graveyard under their control. Chohan sahib was asked to help and he immediately reached the place. He reminded the administration of the housing society that their own status had become controversial after the emergence of several court cases and NAB inquiries against them, and that they ought to be ashamed of creating hurdles in the burial of a legendary artist. I found this version to be credible too.
However, the truth is that Amanullah Khan is no longer in this world. I never knew him personally. I moved to Islamabad in 1975. However, before coming here, I used to spend several hours every day at the Lahore Arts Council. I wanted to write dramas but was unable to master this skill. I used to sit with Khalid Abbas Dar and Jameel Bismil trying to discover the nuances of this craft. There was a small hall there for stage dramas. The hall could not seat more than 150 people and still, there was a seldom a show getting the honour of ‘house full’. Senior artists told me further that stage dramas started in Alhamra under the patronage of Imtiaz Ali Taj and Faiz Ahmad Faiz and, at the time, audiences had to be begged to show up. The dramas that were staged were all very “serious”. Often dramas written in foreign languages were adapted for the local audience. Later on, Pakistan Television was launched in Lahore and it pulled all the stage talent towards itself. Nobody was left to look after the stage. Under the patronage of Dr Anwar Sajjad, many artists like Khalid Abbas Dar, Jameel Bismil, Naheed Khanum and Afzaal Ahmad tried to keep it alive. To encourage these artists and serve the art, successful film actors like Muhammad Qavi, Rafi Khawar aka Nanha and Ali Ijaz also partook in some of Alhamra’s stage dramas for a nominal fee. However, only PTV was capable of providing the definitive platform to drama writers and performers.
Nevertheless, this atmosphere had completely changed when I visited the Lahore Arts Council towards the end of 1977. A box office had been set up outside its main gate to sell tickets for stage dramas. One afternoon, I saw “House Full” outside the ticket window. Pleasantly surprised, I asked around for the reason and was told there was a new artist in town; his name was Amanullah Khan and he came from a very poor household in a village in Gujranwala; he sold toffees etc in the market adjacent to Data Darbar for some time until M Shareef of Lahore Cantt wrote a drama that was produced and directed by Iqbal Afandi; the drama was titled Sixer and had been crashing the ticket window for many days now.
I was now compelled to watch the show. I was offered a special sofa to sit on as a VIP guest. There was not much in the play by way of a story or plot. I was about to leave because of boredom when a short and slim actor, absolutely devoid of any beauty or attraction in his physical appearance or demeanour, appeared on the stage. This is called ‘entry’ in stage lingo. As soon he entered, he started belting out different ragas. The hall went mad with claps. Without following any script, he put down the sarcastic comments of other actors by improvising sarcastic comments of his own, while sending the audience into fits of laughter. In his form, Lahore had certainly discovered a purely native Charlie Chaplin.
I introduced myself to him after the show. He accepted my praise for him with extreme humility. However, he could not restrain himself from saying, “Thank God, some mummy-daddy has also praised my work.” I was forced to tell him that I was definitely not ‘mummy-daddy’; that I was born and raised on the streets of Lahore; that the characters I had seen in real life during my childhood and adolescence had been brought to the stage by him through his keen sense of observation; that he had an infinite supply of such characters; and that he would overshadow the world of stage drama while bringing these characters to stage through his acting. He humbly thanked me again but desisted from making another comment.
Our learned critics have tried to prove that ‘jugat theatre’ is vulgar. The pious accused it of promoting obscenity. But the question arises as to why there were no ‘house full’ boards outside stage dramas before the rise of Amanullah Khan. The ‘spectacle’, after all, has to be created. If the audience, despite having TVs and VCRs in their homes, come to Lahore’s Alhamra Hall and spend out of their own pocket to enjoy Amanullah Khan’s jugats, then we must respect the power and appeal of the jugat. Also, there should have been research on discovering the secret behind this power and appeal of the jugat and why its real potential was revealed only through Amanullah Khan. The ‘intellectuals’ looking for catharsis through a conflict with an Aristotelian beginning, middle and end in the drama never felt the need to do any research in this regard. They only kept decrying the degradation of literature.
In every sense, Amanullah Khan was a representative of the Wretched of the Earth: a ‘Miraasi’ belonging to a ‘low caste’ who worked as a street-hawker. Using his experience and observation, he learned the art of finding humour in the apathy and hypocrisy that was becoming the norm in our society. Charlie Chaplin had discovered a similar Little Man at the height of Hitler’s power. Amanullah Khan’s Little Man was the Pakistani who understood – with immaculate skill and great pain – the hollowness of the ‘middle class’ that was emerging in the 1980s thanks to remittances from the Persian Gulf. The ever-increasing greed of the nouveau riche and the graceless display of easy money were the real targets of Amanullah Khan’s wit. He reminded those people who became ‘honourable’ after buying plots in ‘housing societies’ and living in ‘kothis’ built thereon of their ‘true worth’, but always without being provocative.
Chekov had similarly exposed the nouveau riche in Russia through his dramas. But he also followed the basic principles of drama writing. He created characters based on his observation and brought them before us through a sound and coherent script. Amanullah Khan did not find writers like Chekov. He had no choice but to make his entry through a loose script and target his fellow characters with impromptu jugats.
There are standup comedians in America and Europe. They tell jokes while standing in restaurants. That tradition has not yet emerged in Pakistan. However, Amanullah Khan did resurrect on the modern stage our old tradition of the ‘band of jokers’. His work deserves not only praise but wholesome research.