Present comedies don’t make viewers laugh – Athar Shah Khan
WHILE he was watching a movie, Athar Shah Khan’s family were preparing to go on an outing. Suddenly, the video went crazy, as the old videos on cassettes had a wont to, and he called his son back from the door. The young boy came back, took the remote, pressed a few buttons and returned everything to normal, as he rushed out yelling: “You know nothing at all, Abba.”
Â“I really don’t know anything at all that I need not know. For instance, in a computer I can recognize the mouse only,” says Athar Shah Khan in a lively interview with Dawn at his Gulistan-i-Jauhar apartment last Saturday. But he knows thoroughly about the subjects of his interest — be it a film story, TV play, short story or poetry.
Athar Shah Khan, better known for his acting in TV, stage and radio plays and humorous poetry recital, had been a prolific writer. Once he had remarked that if his manuscripts were weighed against him, they would be heavier. And he is a fairly weighty man. Besides a weekly column that he contributes to an Urdu newspaper, his short stories and serious poetry have appeared in almost all literary magazines and won him appreciation both from critics and readers. He is in the process of publishing separate collections of humorous and serious poetry as well as short stories.
When asked if he is as funny at home as he is commonly perceived to be, he says: “Listen, dear. Home is home. Can you ask Shoaib Akhtar to do fast bowling at home, or Shahid Afridi to hit sixers at home?
“You will be surprised to learn that many noted poets visit me, gossip and read out to me their verses, but when they ask me to do so, I refuse to oblige them. I politely tell them that the place to recite verses is a poetry recital. If you ask me to do a little acting here, I’ll not do so because for acting the place is before the cameras and for vocal performances it is the mike. I do things at their proper places.”
His radio programme Rung he rung, Jeddi kay sung ran for more than 19 years, a record no other commercial programme has broken yet. “A listener wrote to me: ‘I used to listen to your programme sitting on my father’s lap. Now my son listens to it sitting on my lap.’ For TV he has written plays such as Burger Family, Problem House and his satirical serial Baa adab, ba mulahiza, hoshiar, in which Qasim Jalali played the memorable role of Akbar.
He has written stories and dialogues for a number of popular films. His first film was Baazi, in which Mohammad Ali, Nadeem and Nisho appeared together for the first time. “It was my good luck that the film celebrated its golden jubilee.” Maan bani dulhan, Goonj uthi shehnai and Manji kithay danhwan were his other hit movies. The last one, a Punjabi comedy, celebrated its platinum jubilee.
When reminded that most people did not know him as a writer, he says literary people know him very well. “Even if people don’t know me for my fiction writing, it is not my fault. After all there are many people who do not know anything about Niagara Falls.”
His name, too, is an enigma for many people. When someone asked him how he could be a Shah and Khan at the same time, he quipped: “When I have to borrow money, I become a Shah (a magnanimous person). And when I have to seek repayment of my loan, I become a Khan (ruthless). On a serious note, he traces his rare Shah and Khan appellations to his ancestors being from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border area. So, some people call him Khan sahib, others prefer Shah sahib. He doesn’t mind even if someone hails him as Jeddi sahib. “All names are my own,” he says.
The story of Jeddi
How he became Jeddi, a popular name that clouded his name as a writer, has another story behind it. “I have never had passion for acting. I rather took pride in my being a writer. But when I wrote a serial for PTV, its managing-director asked me to perform the Jeddi character myself.”
Even in poetry he enjoys his serious verses. “My friend the late Ziaul Haq Qasmi persuaded me to write humorous poetry. Incidentally, humorous poetry is much more in demand than serious poetry. It fetches the poet a fatter cheque,” he says frankly.“I have been a thorough professional throughout my life seeking fees for my labour. I was not among the people who indulged in bad habits and ignored their families. Whatever I earned I put it into my wife’s hands.”
He, however, wrote short stories for self-satisfaction and did not expect money for them.
He is not happy with the current comedy programmes shown on various local and Indian channels. “If I say good comedy is not being written these days, it might be taken as if I had been writing very good comedy. Every era has its own demands. We may not always have good cricketers like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Saeed Anwar. We may hope that good comedy writers will also emerge from the current lot. But, honestly speaking, comic programmes do not elicit a laugh which, I think, is the basic requirement of a comedy.”
In 1975 when he arrived in Karachi from Lahore to write a PTV serial, he was asked to stay back here and write another one. “I had come here with only two children and two suitcases believing that I’ll return to Lahore soon. But here the number of both suitcases and children increased and after the completion of the task, I was persuaded by well-wishers to settle down here.”
When I ask how he could survive on the payment given by PTV, which was then notorious for its low remuneration, he says: “I didn’t depend solely on PTV for my bread and butter. I wrote plays for radio and worked for an advertising agency also. I had put several lines in the river of life. Whichever line was tugged at, I pulled it up and hauled the fish. It often happened that I wrote a play for radio in the morning, a play for TV at noon and for stage in the evening.”
Born in the Indian city of Rampur, Athar Shah Khan arrived in Lahore in 1947 with his family when he was “very young.” He studied at various schools and colleges before doing his master’s in journalism from Punjab University. He has four sons, all highly educated, three of them abroad.
When I ask who inspired him to write, he says: “I got inspiration from my own literary family. When I passed class three, my mother, a couple of months before her death, gave me Bang-i-Dara as a gift. My elder brother, Haroon Pasha, a well-known writer, also inspired me. Besides, I began taking part in children’s programmes on radio.”
A few years ago, Athar Shah Khan had suffered a major heart attack. He has since reduced his activities to the minimal. But a chain smoker he remains. “It is a bad habit indeed” says Khan sahib. “But please don’t ask me to quit smoking.”