Interview: The actor par excellence
The world may see him as the quintessential villain but the veteran actor Mustafa Qureshi is down-to-earth, extremely unpretentious and quite accessible. Unlike his on-screen persona, the actor speaks his mind on a variety of issues and above all, loves his country more than he loves himself.
Born on May 11, 1938 in Hyderabad, Qureshi Sahib had no aspirations to become a film actor. “While I was studying, I joined Radio Pakistan in Hyderabad and in a little while became a staff artist. I worked as an announcer, hosted children and religious programmes as well as shows featuring songs.”
“It was during a trip to the local hotel where the cast of Aag Ka Darya including Mohammad Ali and Shamim Ara was staying that the cameraman and future-director Raza Mir (father of actor Asif Raza Mir) spotted me and decided to cast me. I told him that I was only there to watch the stars and had no intention of working in films. He persisted, I resisted and my resistance became firmer when I was told that the role I was supposed to do was that of a villain, in Laakhon Main Ek,” adds the celebrated artist.
The veteran of over 600 films continues. “That was just after the 1965 war and since I was the in charge of the war propaganda programme on radio, my mind was unable to accept the role of an Indian, that too, as a villain. It was a chance meeting with the respected scholar and educationist Allama I. I. Kazi who convinced me to accept the role and make the hero look good, by taking the hatred of the crowd. I accepted the role and that’s how my career began in films, nearly 45 years ago.”
Qureshi Sahib is tall, broad and handsome and even in his prime, he didn’t resemble a villain. So why did he go for negative roles? “No Pakistani film can be completed without a villain as he is the person who accepts the insults of the crowd and makes the good-natured leading character look larger-than-life. My aim was to tell people that there can be a heartless beast inside a handsome man and I think I succeeded in sending the message across. I may have started my career with roles that had shades of negativity, but later moved on and did many positive roles.”
For a person whose mother tongue is Sindhi and who has a flawless Urdu diction, how did he become successful in Punjabi films? “I used to get lots of offers from Punjabi producers and I told them repeatedly that my presence in their movies would ruin their project, as I was not fluent in their language. But they were adamant and I agreed to act in Punjabi films that did good business. Hence I continued to do Punjabi flicks,” states the artiste.
And the slow delivery style? “That was in order to counter Sultan Rahi’s brash dialogue delivery,” discloses Qureshi Sahib. “While Rahi was loud, I was soft. As his nemesis, that was the best way to stand my ground in his presence and I am thankful to my radio training that helped me develop my own style.”
The veteran performer talks in his usual style when asked to detail those aspects that have played their part in the decline of the local film industry. “Films are the best form of entertainment in any country. You can make films with a message and educate the people at the same time. Sadly, we made some films that were not up to the mark, due to which the families stopped visiting cinemas. Secondly, I also blame the inflation as well as the law and order situation in the country which has depressed the people and hit each and every industry in the country including films.”
He feels that showing Indian films in cinemas may have benefitted the cinema industry but has strangled the film makers who can’t compete with the high-budget films from across the border. “I am happy for the cinema industry that has sustained due to the release of Indian films, but I think the government should have asked the Indian authorities to release Pakistani films in India as well. It seems that the multiplexes in the country are built for Indian movies because I haven’t seen them screening any Pakistani film.”
“We don’t make films with consequential subjects anymore and that’s one of the reasons why the youth has stayed away from filmmaking. There are many talented youngsters who are learning filmmaking and developing ideas but without any financer and the government support, how can they fulfil their dreams? I am hopeful that the future governments will realise their potential and help them so that the youth would bring the change,” he predicts.
The small screen is not new for Qureshi Sahib who has always been a part of the tube. “I worked in a couple of long plays during the ’70s, one of them, Bikhri Yaadein, was scripted by Rafi Peer and was shown live on PTV, with late Fazal Kamal calling the shots. The other was an episode of Qila Kahani titled, Zille Ilahi, that was penned by Dr Enver Sajjad and Yawar Hayat was the director. I kept dabbling in long plays and special programmes because for an actor, all mediums are alike. It is only now that I have become a permanent feature on TV as the roles offered to me have substance and are meaningful.”
However, the artiste doesn’t shy away from asking the right questions as he raises his voice while talking about the airing of dubbed versions of Turkish dramas or even the original versions of Indian plays. “When you close the doors of creativity, the doors leading towards subversion are opened. It is like creating a grave for our own technicians, writers and artists whose livelihood depends on television industry.
“The officials could have had a healthy exchange, based on mutual consent but sadly, that didn’t happen. Instead we are giving them prime time slot, which demoralises those who want to do something for their country. For people like me, the entire gold supply of the world is nothing when compared to the love of my country!”
When asked to rate his favourite film out of his stock of 600, the actor replies humbly. “I don’t rate a single film as my favourite as I gave 100 per cent to all my roles. It is up to the public to decide which films they think are the best. I am still indebted to my fans who have been instrumental in my career from the day it began.”
He remains one of the few actors who have managed to make it successful both as an actor and as a politician. “I joined politics during the reign of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as those were the awaami days. I am glad that as an actor with political connections, I have helped the industry but we need to do more.”
The thespian with a signature Navaa’n Aaya Eh Sohniya tone is thankful to showbiz for giving him a direction, and a family. “Rubina and I were quite active during the Radio Pakistan days in Hyderabad. She is an enormously gifted singer who has represented Pakistan at world forums and still does riyaz despite quitting singing to manage the family. My son Aamir, on the other hand, is busy acting on TV these days and I have high hopes for him.”
The transistor in his drawing room reminds him of his glory days at Radio Pakistan. “The demise of people like Z.A. Bukhari and many others hurt the institution badly, but it still lives in my heart. Radio is still the most accessible form of entertainment in rural areas where there is no electricity. Whatever I am today is because of my faith and fans and it is due to them that I have received countless awards in addition to love and respect.”