Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Moin Akhtar

For those of us who remember the 80s well, there was a lot of brilliance on Pakistan television. In the days of censorship and fear, PTV (especially its Karachi centre) always found ways of subverting the system and managing to poke fun at the dictator and his lackeys. Anwar Maqsood, Bushra Ansari and Moin Akhtar were the mainstay of satire in the days when things had to be said subtly to pass through censor, managing to get away with a lot more than anyone else could, and much more than is retrospectively appreciated.

In a really twisted bit of irony PTV's golden days of comedy died with Zia. Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar's later attempts to reignite the magic always seemed lacklustre in comparison to the greatness of their heydays. Loose Talk was no match for Show Time or Studio 2 1/2. To me even Rozee is a character from the declining days of the great comedian. What I will remember Moin Akhtar most for is his debonair presence as the host of many stage shows. His flawless Urdu delivery and confident baritone reached straight into the hearts of millions of Pakistanis who all watched the same television channel each night. This collective partaking of just one source of news and entertainment created a unique Pakistani cultural identity more real for the post-partition generation than the two-nation theory. Moin Akhtar was a huge part of that sense of cultural belonging.

His death today felt like the death of another piece of my childhood. As a Pakistani I had an inevitably politically aware and cerebral childhood, thanks to satire of such subtlety and wit being a part of our everyday existence.

My fondest recollection of Moin Akhtar is from the 1985 6th PTV Awards, undoubtedly the best live ceremony ever conducted by PTV. Shoaib Mansoor's script and Moin Akhtar's deadpan delivery of some ageless gems made it an unforgettable evening for all of Pakistan--one whose star appeal, grandeur and unparalleled entertainment value has never been matched since.

The first three and a half minutes of the following video are vintage Moin Akhtar, no doubt aided beautifully by the writing genius of Shoaib Mansoor, but no comic can carry off lines this well if he doesn't have his own ability to improvise. The crowd's thunderous applause at being made fun of is also quite remarkable--to have Moin Akhtar acknowledge you from that grand PTV stage was enough cause for glee, even if you were the target of that fun.

But the video that strikes me in an entirely different manner is a more recent one, of a rather grave and tired looking Moin Akhtar. He talks with the sageness of a man who has seen much in life. Yet, he is Moin Akhtar, he still has the ability to subvert and surprise. He completely turns the table on a question by the host regarding 'Pakistani youth'--she is probably expecting as run of the mill an answer as her question. Akhtar, however, unlike many of our 80s and 90s heroes who have either turned Tableeghi or Sufi or live in other shades of denial, chooses to answer with refreshing honesty and heartfelt depth. That his anger is born out of love is evident in the way he speaks. Along with the many hours of laughter he has provided me with, this act of plain speaking endeared Moin Akhtar even more to me.  Dear sir, thank you for your humanity. Rest in peace.

A version of this post was published in the Express Tribune blogs.