KARACHI: From a gatekeeper at Lyric Cinema to one of the greatest actors Pakistan has ever seen, Talat Hussain has had his share of hardships to make it to the top.
Covered in blankets and with gloves over his hands, a rather frail Hussain walks into a room at his residence in Karachi. The actor has lost several pounds since the last time he was seen on stage performing Anton Chekov’s play ‘Seagull’.
As soon as he takes a seat, Hussain gets conscious about the gloves he is wearing and quickly says, “My skin is peeling off because of dryness. I have to keep my hands soaked in petroleum jelly and covered with gloves all the time. It really helps.”
As his hands tremble, it is difficult for him to hold a teacup and light his cigarette.
The legendary actor’s health started deteriorating two years ago when he caught a skin allergy.
It was not the allergy that got the worst of him, but a bad dose of Cortisone administered by a skin specialist.
“I don’t blame the doctor because it was my fault. There is a new breed of doctors in Defence (Karachi), who call themselves “skin specialists” but they are cosmetologists and not dermatologists. I should have been more careful and so should everyone else,” he told The Express Tribune in an exclusive interview. “I couldn’t even talk properly, let alone walk or sit after the treatment.”
The legendary actor behind some of the most memorable plays on Pakistan Television had aspired to be an English Literature professor, although his first love was painting. His parents, however, desperately wished he would stay far away from the arts.
Hussain’s mother wanted him to join the civil services. When he formally entered the industry in 1964 for a radio drama called Mohammad Bin Qasim, his mother did all that she could to stop him. “She called up the producer of the show and asked him to make sure I fail the auditions. But the producer said that he would not do that and told my mother that if she wanted to stop me she had to prevent me from coming to the auditions. But somehow, I made it.”
Spending almost four golden decades in the entertainment industry, Hussain did not make it to the top easily. The work at Radio Pakistan was not enough to make ends meet, so Hussain got a job at Lyric cinema. “I started working as a gatekeeper for Lyric cinema and when the owner realised I could speak English I was promoted to the booking office. You can call that my first promotion,” he said with a hearty laugh.
At that time he did not know that one day he would become a part of the silver screen himself, giving the industry films like Laaj, Sultan ki beti and Jinnah.
However, his biggest and perhaps most unnoticeable achievement is the Amanda award (also known as the Scandinavian Oscar) for a Scandinavian film in the category of best supporting actor.
In the film called Import Eksport, Hussain plays a Norwegian Desi. He had to learn Norwegian to play his part. “It took me two months to train myself in Norwegian and whenever I was delivering a line I had to keep the English translation in mind,” he said. “I usually do not take award ceremonies seriously, but when my name was announced I fell from my seat. I could not believe it.”
Be it the evergreen characters like “Aali Ja” or drama serials like “Parchayian,” the benchmarks he has achieved are countless.
Hussain says that at the moment there is a dearth of good actors on both sides of the border. “As far as Pakistan is concerned you do not find the likes of Khalida Riyasat and Ruhi Bano anymore and as far as Bollywood is concerned I have not seen any one after Dilip Kumar. Amitabh (Bachan) is a good actor, but not as promising as Kumar.”
Due to his illness, Hussain had to leave a number of projects hanging and has not been able to give time at the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), where he teaches acting. “Right now I am not in a position to take any stress,” he said, adding “I feel slightly better, but I am still very weak and not in a position to act.”
But his timeless voice has not changed. “Not calling my voice or acting skills God’s gift would be sacrilegious. I am because God wanted me to be.”
Hussain’s heath has not lessened his passion for acting. He has requested his fans around the world to pray for his recovery so he can light up their screens again.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2012.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the article incorrectly implied that the character “Aali Ja” was in drama serial “Parchayian”. The error has been rectified.
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