‘I try not to watch television these days’

Anwar Maqsood talks to Ally Adnan about showbiz, music, his family, and more

‘I try not to watch television these days’
Writer, television host, comedian, satirist, humorist, actor and painter, Anwar Maqsood is one of show business’ most innovative, unpredictable and funny stars in Pakistan. A recipient of Pakistan’s second highest civil award, Hilal-E-Imtiaz, Anwar Maqsood is well known for his unique brand of humor, as well as his dramatic work, both inside and outside of Pakistan. He has been associated with some of the most successful programs on Pakistani television. These include the Zia Mohyeddin Show, Fifty Fifty, Aangan Terha, Loose Talk, Silver Jubilee, and Show Sha.

AA: Your association with show business started when there was little, if any, money to be made in the field. Things have changed drastically over the years and a career in show business is very lucrative today. How has money changed the industry?

AM: Money has made the industry vulgar.  It has taken away class, refinement and culture. People in the industry have changed. I remember times when people like Parvez Malik, Sohail Rana and Masroor Ahmed used to sit at my home and work on creating great music. I remember long sittings with actors like Muhammad Qavi and Naveed Shehzad discussing screenplays in great detail. People of that caliber no longer exist in the industry. Show business in Pakistan is now inhabited by people one cannot even invite to his home, let alone work with them on something of artistic merit. Of course, a few good people remain but, for the most part, talent, intellect and class has disappeared from show business in Pakistan.

Anwar Maqsood with the author
Anwar Maqsood with the author

The profusion of television channels in Pakistan has hurt the quality of programming, which is abysmally low, to make just an understatement. Most of the channels started operations with the sole goal of cashing in on the growing success of television in Pakistan. They were launched because of greed and avarice, and not because they were ready to produce quality programming. Everything seems to be done in a rush these days. No one seems to have the time to focus on quality, excellence and merit.

I wrote the long play Daur-E-Junoon in 1983. It took me the better part of the year to complete the script. Muhammad Qavi and Naveed Shahzad rehearsed for a full two months before Muhammad Nisar Hussain became comfortable enough to start filming. Today, a half dozen serials will be completed in the time it took us to make the one long play. But excellence requires time, patience and perseverance as much as it does talent, expertise and skill. Work created in a rush is always ordinary and mediocre. This mediocrity pervades the industry today. And money is the reason.
"I did not like working with Noor Jehan"

AA: What is the root cause of the mediocrity you talk about?

AM: Poor scripts. No amount of bad acting can kill a good script. Poor production cannot take away much from a good story. Unfortunately, good stories are no longer written. Scripts are done piecemeal and given to actors on fragments of paper, often moments before the camera starts rolling. Television channels do not realize that good scripts are necessary for creating good plays. This the primary cause of the mediocrity of our plays.

AA: You had a very long and successful career at EMI.

AM: Yes, I did. The time that I spent with Noor Jehan, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano was great. We created great music under the EMI label. Those were the best of times. Some of my fondest memories are from the time when I worked for EMI.

Munni Begum in concert
Munni Begum in concert

AA: You introduced Munni Begum while at EMI.

AM: Yes, I did. The security guard at EMI was the one actually responsible for bringing me and Munni Begum together.

AA: Romantically?

AM: No, thankfully, no. He told me about a singer who had come from Bengal and sang for truck drivers at a small hill in Sohrab Goth, each evening.  My interest was piqued and I went to listen to her sing. I found Munni singing for large groups of people in exchange for tips. She was not a great singer, by any means, and certainly required proper training, but her music was charming and refreshingly different. I decided to introduce her to the world of professional singing. We recorded her first cassette at EMI a couple of weeks later. It went on to sell more than six hundred thousand copies in just two weeks and Munni became the top-selling artist very quickly. We made dozens of cassettes together. I used to enjoy working with her.

AA: She certainly has a very good sense of humor.

AM: She sure does. I remember Sabir Sahib who was the director of finance at EMI. He was a harmless man but had the habit of touching women. I was concerned about Munni Begum’s reaction to what was an innocent but offensive habit of his. She took it in stride and told me that she could handle him because she was used to the tailors of Karachi who took greater liberties while taking measurements.

Munni Begum was also an incorrigible liar. She had no sense of time and no discipline whatsoever. She would often disappear after making commitments and not show up for scheduled recording sessions. She would explain her disappearances with very wild and totally false stories. She was aware that I could tell when she was lying. That, however, did not stop her from spinning unbelievably fantastic tales to explain her erratic behavior. She must have buried her grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt and several other relatives at least a dozen times each, during the few years that we worked together.
"Musarrat Nazir has become very old and lives with her equally old husband near Viagra Falls"

AA: What do you think was the reason behind Munni Begum’s tremendous success?

AM: I think that it was the poetry she selected. It was simple and easy to understand. Listening to her songs did not require effort or knowledge. She sang a lot about wine and intoxication. People who enjoyed drinking wanted to listen only to her in their parties. I think that her voice was also new and different from what Pakistanis had heard heretofore. They were attracted to its unique quality.

AA: You also worked with Noor Jehan while at EMI and afterwards. What was your relationship with Noor Jehan like?

AM: It was a great relationship. She was intelligent, talented and a lot of fun. She appeared on television three times and was interviewed by me in one of the programs.

AA: Did you like working with her?

AM: No, not at all.

AA: Why?

AM: Noor Jehan was impossibly difficult to work with. She was temperamental, unpredictable and volatile. She had a nasty temper and a remarkably foul mouth. No one could ever make her do what she did not want to do. She could be unbearably obstinate at times. Yet, despite all her idiosyncrasies, she was a wonderful person, a truly great singer and a sincere friend. Working with her, albeit difficult and trying, was highly rewarding.

AA: What do you like about Noor Jehan’s singing?

AM: The emotion, the feeling and the passion. I remember that becoming totally enraptured when I first heard the song, Vay Lagiyan Di Laj Rakh Laeen from Chor Nalay Chatar. The emotional content of the song was magical. I could not listen to another song for months after I heard the song. It still captivates me. There are many other songs of hers, mostly Punjabi ones that I find haunting and listen to, all the time. Noor Jehan’s voice is able to evoke feelings – of happiness, of love, of eroticism, of patriotism, and of grief – that no other can. Her songs touch one’s heart. That is the quality that makes her the great singer that she is.

Madam was a true empress who ruled the music industry for over five decades. Fierce jealousies and rivalries exist in the business. It is an industry full of goons, hoodlums and criminals. The competition is fierce. Survival is tough. Ethics, laws, rules and codes of conduct do not exist. Anything goes. Men have found it difficult to survive in the decidedly perilous world of music. Yet, Noor Jehan ruled it for over half a century with a uniquely becoming but decidedly impudent imperiousness.


AA: You did manage to make her very angry once by releasing several cassettes of Musarrat Nazir in a short period of time?

AM: Oh yes. Madam was livid when she saw Musarrat Nazir’s cassettes being released by EMI. She called Arshad Mahmood, who used to work at EMI in those days, and chewed him out.  She vowed never to work with EMI again. No one at EMI was able to placate her anger. The task of calming her down finally fell in my lap.

AA: Were you successful in calming her down?

AM: Yes, I was. I told her that comparing Noor Jehan with Musarrat Nazir as a singer was like comparing Zeba with Nasira as a star. She saw the sense in my argument and calmed down.

AA: Where is Musarrat Nazir nowadays?

AM: She has become very old and lives with her equally old husband in Canada, near Viagra Falls.

AA: Do you mean Niagara Falls?

AM: If you say so.

AA: It seems that you like to work more with newcomers than with established actors.

AM: I do not like to work with stars. I cannot deal with arrogance, misbehavior and indiscipline. I like professionalism and believe that people should be reliable, dependable and trustworthy. I enjoy associating with people who are polite, cultured and well-mannered. A lot of the stars, the big ones in particular, lack these qualities, nowadays. I avoid working with them.

AA: The misbehavior that you talk seems to be more common in the younger generation of actors.

AM: Yes, that is true.

AA: Why?

AM: These kids have never read a book. They have never had an original thought. And they have never learned to be introspective.  They do not understand our culture, values and morals.


AM: They do not understand these because of easy money. When one does not have to earn money, when one is handed everything on a plate and when one has never had to work hard for anything, the first thing that is lost is respect. Intellect is next, followed by ethics, morals and principles. We are left with people who are unaware of the difficulties involved in making money the honest way. They equate success with monetary worth. They do not worry about the legitimacy of the source of their wealth. They are content if they have money and social standing. Of course, such people have no understanding of our values, morals and culture.

AA: You are a person of many talents. Your siblings are a very talented lot as well. Your elder sister, Fatima Suariya Bajiya, is a celebrated writer and Zehra Nigah is a distinguished poet. Zubaida Tariq is a renowned chef and well-known media personality.  Sughra Kazmi was a pioneer in the field of bridal wear whereas Sara Naqvi was a scientist and a journalist. Your brother, Ahmed Maqsood, was a senior civil servant. What was it about your upbringing that produced so many luminaries in a single household?

AM: There was an abundance of love and a dearth of money in our household. When our parents passed, they left us nothing but a collection of books. There were ten of us and we enjoyed each other’s company. We loved talking to each other and valued the art of meaningful conversation. There was a lot of love for music, literature and poetry in our household. Poets and writers used to visit our home regularly. My maternal grandfather was a student of Mirza Daagh Dehlavi. He used to teach us Urdu with a special focus on proper pronunciation, diction and reading style. We were encouraged to memorize the works of great poets. Bajiya used to organize games of Bait Bazi on almost a daily basis. My maternal grandmother was a student of classical music. I remember Jaddan Bai coming to our home and singing for the family.

If I am to summarize, three things contributed to our upbringing. One, there was no focus on money and material things. Two, there was a great fondness for the arts. Three, there was a lot of love between the ten of us and we enjoyed each other’s company.

AA: Which one of the ten of you is the most talented?

AM: I would say Fatima Suariya Bajiya. She is a great woman. Her first novel, Muslim Samaj, was published when she was only twelve years old. Our father passed away when he was only forty-two years old. After his death, Bajiya took over the responsibility of running the household and raising her nine siblings. I admire the strength, selflessness and generosity with which she carried out the responsibility.

AA: The comic style of juggat is very popular in Pakistan these days and is featured in many programs such as Syasi Theater, Khabarnaak, Khabardar and Mazaq Raat. Do you like juggat bazi?

AM: I love it. I absolutely love it. No visit to Lahore is complete without me watching a play full of juggat bazi in the Open Air Theater. I am a fan of Amanullah Khan and several others, and often go backstage after the plays to commend their performances.

AA: A lot is being said about the resurgence and rebirth of cinema in Pakistan. What do you think of Pakistani cinema today?

AM: What is happening in our film industry today is not a ‘rebirth’; it is actually an ‘abortion’ of good cinema. These films are being funded by businessmen who do not understand, or even care about, art. They are being made by people who are enamored with technology and have no love of art. Filmmakers today do not focus on story and screenplay. The result is really bad cinema. No matter how much we celebrate it, our cinema will not become good unless filmmakers start focusing on the stories they tell. The screenplay is of paramount importance.

AA: Pakistan has produced a large number of dramatic actors and writers but very few comic ones. What is the reason for the imbalance?

AM: Comedy is significantly more difficult than drama. It is demanding, challenging and risky. And it is very tough. I believe that comedy is as difficult as ishq. It is very easy to veer into vulgarity and buffoonery when doing comedy. Comedy with intellect, dignity and culture requires a lot of talent.

AA: Who do you think has written good comedy in Pakistan?

AM: Without a doubt, Kamal Ahmed Rizvi.

AA: And who have been good comedic actors?

AM: Munawwar Zareef, first and foremost. Nanna for sure. Moeen Akhtar and Bushra Ansari were very good. There have been a few others as well.

AA: The comedy of Moeen Akhtar and Bushra Ansari seems to be heavily dependent on the script.

AM: Yes, it was dependent on the script but that is not a shortcoming. The two had a lot of comedic talent and worked wonders with a well-written script. Moeen, unfortunately, is gone now and Bushra has taken up singing.

AA: Do you like Bushra Ansari’s singing?

AM: No, I do not. She does not have the voice of a singer.

AA: Hina Dilapazir has appeared on the comedy scene in recent years. What do you think of her?

AM: Hina is very talented. She is one of the finest comedic actors we have today. I have to admit that I do not like any of the twenty-two characters she played in a recent television serial. She is better than that. I wish she had refused to act in the serial. Her immense talent deserves better writing.

AA: If you had to pick a female comedic actor for one of your upcoming plays, who would you pick today, Bushra Ansari or Hina Dilpazir?

AM: Hina Dilpazir.

AA: Do you watch a lot of television these days?

AM: I try not to.

AA: And what music do you listen to these days?

AM: I enjoy listening to Rashid Khan from India. He is a good classical vocalist. I listen to some songs of Mala and Naseem Begum regularly. I listen to Ustad Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Hirabai Barodekar very often. My day always starts with listening to Roshanara Begum. There is, of course, never a day in my life, when I do not listen to songs of Noor Jehan. Her Punjabi songs are an integral part of my life.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com