How does one prepare to interview a living legend? Hardly surprising, it was with a lot of excitement and a little trepidation that we approached the interview with Nadeem Baig. And how does one react when the legend himself opens the door and welcomes you in? The biggest living name in the Pakistani film industry is also the most humble and down to earth celebrity in the country today. Even before we sat down to the interview, Nadeem sahib had already won us over. His simplicity humbled us and his hospitality warmed our hearts.
Nadeem sahib’s enduring star power most recently worked its magic in the hits Parey Hut Love and Superstar in which his aura and dignity holds its own amidst all the glitz and glamour.
Dignified and graceful, with his own special brand of understated charisma, Nadeem sahib spoke to us about the golden years of the film industry, its more recent revival and lots more.
You have had a remarkable career spanning several decades.
I’m still amazed that people tolerate me. (laughs). They are still not fed up with me. I’m most surprised when children come up to me and ask for pictures. How do they know me? They were not even born when I was starring in films.
How was the film industry different in the early days?
I consider myself lucky that I come from an era which had some of the best writers, directors, and music composers. We had amazing subjects, poetry, beautiful voices. Those voices elevated us. I had the likes of Mehdi Hasan Ahmad Rushdi behind my performances. Poetry was by Faiz, Saif, Faaraz, Qateel Shifai. There is no one who can write like that now.
And most of all we had trained film directors. Unlike theatre, film is completely a director’s medium. The audience is reached through the director’s vision. A good director can make a big movie on a very small subject and a big subject can be reduced to a small film with weak direction.
How do you feel about the recent revival of the film industry? What is the difference from the older films?
It’s wonderful that films are being made again. Some good, some bad but they will improve as more films are made. The earlier films had a balance, a flow. The pace of the new films seems jerky to me.
And why we have started doing item numbers,? It’s not our culture, it’s not even Indian culture. It is only Bollywood culture. You don’t need it. You need a good song in a film not an item song. Till today people hum the old film songs. But we will realize these things over time.
How did your film career begin?
I was visiting my uncle who lived in Dhaka. He had some friends in the film fraternity. I was fond of singing and I wanted to see the recordings. There I met Ehtasham sahib who was making the film Chakori at the time. Something happened and he was unhappy with the male singer. He turned to me and said you do the song. I was so taken aback, I was literally shaking… but I sang the song. It was a duet with Firdasui Begum.
But you had the lead role in Chakori. It was your first film.
Yes. After I sang the song, Ehtasham sahib cast me in a villain’s role in the film. In fact, I was growing a moustache for the role. Then one day Ehtasham sahib’s driver came to my house late at night with the message that I had to do the lead role. Apparently there was a problem with the dates with the actor who was playing the hero.
I was flattered and excited but also very nervous. I used to work for an advertising concern and my boss actually encouraged me to take the offer. He even kept my job for me in case things didn’t work out.
So you became an actor by accident ?
Completely by accident. I had never thought of doing this, I’m not trained for this. But I was very lucky that my first film was a hit. The first day of filming was at Cox’s Bazaar in which I had to lead a horse ridden by a child. It went off very well. Then I had to say my first dialogues. It was a long speech and I sat up the night before end learnt my lines…I couldn’t sleep anyway. I said the dialogue without any mistakes in the first shot. The only problem was that I was completely out of the camera frame. (laughs)
Chakori was a big hit. Then other successes followed.
I was very nervous after the first press showing of Chakori. I was cursing myself. ‘What had I gotten myself into!’ In fact, I left the show without meeting anyone and went straight home to bed. It was only later when the reviews started coming in that I realized the film was a actually a hit. And after that my next film was also a hit.
Then you settled down in Dhaka?
There were three centres of film then; Dhaka, Karachi and Lahore. I lived in Dhaka but shifted to Lahore later.
But my early years were spent in Karachi. As college students we would go to Eastern Studios to get a glimpse of actors like Santosh and Muhammad Ali. We would save up money and bribe the makrani chowkidar to let us in and watch shootings. I had never dreamed that one day I would work there.
One after the other, your films went on becoming hits.
Yes, a string of hits followed Chakori. As time passed I became confident, but you never gain complete mastery over the art. There is still so much I don’t know. One is always learning. I am my own sternest critic and I still catch flaws in my performances. It’s a continuous process of learning.
What were the reasons for the demise of the film industry in Pakistan?
I think those people who should have stayed far away from the industry entered it. A lot of ill begotten money was poured in, people turning black money white. Crores were spent and the industry was destroyed.
During this time you did some television.
Yes. Earlier I had no time to work on TV. But since no films were being made I did some television. TV and film have a very different temperament; the tempo, delivery, movement is all very different.
But most of our new crop of directors and actors have transitioned from TV to film.
That’s true, they are from television and advertising. And I feel they tend to focus more on glamour and embellishments rather than the story or character development. Film ka mizaaj nahin hai. The directors from my era came from a background of filmmaking. They had trained with big names before them.
But it’s good that educated boys and girls have entered the field today.
But now people are coming back to the cinema. Earlier cinema houses had also shut down.
True but there has been one very painful change…for me at least. These high-end cinemas in malls are so expensive that they are beyond the reach of the average cinegoer. The audience which occupied the four anna seats, who made our films a hit or a flop, have been completely excluded.
The rickshaw driver, who has no other entertainment, has been denied. I would like to appeal to the government to address this matter as part of our cultural policy. Watching films should not be an elite activity. The common man would watch a film of mine six times to make it a hit. India still has that crowd of cinegoers and watching films is a national habit.
Were you ever tempted to go into film-making?
I have done some production. But the director’s job is a huge responsibility. I don’t feel I could handle that. I marvel at the young directors today who take on this task.
Which actress have you done the most films with?
I have done the most films with Shabnam and then Barbara Sharif. I was recently asked to present an award to Shabnam. I said I would definitely be there since I had done so much work with her.
Your wife is the daughter of Ehtasham sahib, the director of Chakori. But your children did not enter films?
I have two sons. The elder one does production for television and the younger is into sound recording.
Do you have a favourite film of yours?
There were so many… Dillagi, Aina, Lazawaal, Chakori were all special. All my films are good in my eyes. But sometimes one can’t judge what the audience will like. Before Dillalagi was released I told Shabnam and Aslam Dar, ‘let’s leave the country. People will egg us for this.’ And that is one of my biggest hits today.
You have won innumerable awards including the Pride of Performance. Are the new trend of award shows beneficial?
Yes it’s good. In my time the Nigar Awards were like the local Oscar awards. But I won it so many times that I actually asked them to please award it to other people. I told them ‘you have encouraged me enough.’
Bu the real award is always people’s appreciation, love and prayers.