You could be talking about a character from ancient mythology; a river that no longer exists, a rare breed of animal in the Amazon or an invention that changed the world – for Obaidullah Baig, it was simply a matter of 20 questions.
At a time when the search engine was not born, Baig was Pakistan’s Google personified. But alas, the spectacular documentary film-maker and true genius passed away in Karachi on Friday. He was 75. He leaves with us a suitcase of fond memories of unparalleled and thought-provoking programmes, something that TV personalities can only hope to give back to Pakistani television.
A Pakistani sensation
The year was 1967; the man that brought him to the forefront was Aslam Azhar, and the brilliant question-answer show was christened “Kasauti”. All of Pakistan became obsessed with its mastermind, Obaidullah Baig.
“Today, we complain about the lack of intellectually relevant programming. But I am afraid it was only possible with an unmatched genius like Baig,” Ghazi Salahuddin, a renowned scholar and journalist told The Express Tribune.
In the first transmission of “Kasauti”, popular Urdu poet Iftikhar Arif and Quresh Pur were on the team with Baig. Salahuddin, who replaced Arif in the 90s, said he felt honoured to have worked with Baig, whom he considers a dear friend.
“I used to tell him: mein ne Iftikhar ki jagah sirf is liye lee hai, keh aapko nazar na lag jaye (I replaced Iftikhar simply to keep you safe from the evil eye),” jokes Salahuddin.
The Baig-Salahuddin tagteam brought a new flavour to the show, as both members of the team were quite well-versed in a variety of subjects, particularly history, current affairs and literature. “Ours was a very different type of guessing team,” recalls Salahuddin. “With Arif and him (Baig), a lot of the knowledge overlapped. But since I was more into news and current affairs, we had our areas of focus and we enjoyed that diversity.”
It may come as a surprise that Baig had no formal education after his intermediate education. Later in his life, he ventured into documentary film-making and has to his credit the privilege of making the most number of documentaries on wildlife for Pakistani television.
“He was an amazing film-maker with a brilliant vision. The documentaries he made for PTV in the 70s were the best work of that era,” says Salahuddin fondly.
His former teammate, Arif, however, prefers to refer to Baig as Habib — the name used by his mother.
“Whenever we were on the set, I used to call out to him: Bhai Habib, Bhai Habib and people would laugh and wonder why I am calling him Bhabi, Bhabi!” recalls the poet.
Arif, who is counted as one of the most celebrated poets of the country, believes that Baig played a pivotal role in his life.
“He was more like an elder brother to me than a friend,” says Arif. “His words and the time I spent with him will always remain to be a source of inspiration for me.”
When Arif and Baig started “Kasauti”, they never expected it to be such a sensation in both East and West Pakistan. But despite all the magic the duo created, Arif says that it was all because of Baig and his brilliant memory.
“He needed no search engine; he needed no cues and no teleprompter. He was an encyclopedia in himself. I have yet to see a man so well-read in all disciplines,” says Arif.
Apart from his documentary work and “Kasauti”, Baig also ventured into writing a number of books under different pen names. When writing about history, he was Tughral Turkman; in hunting adventures he was Jim Junior and for novels he wrote as Habibullah Baig.
From popular novels like Aur Insaan Zinda Hai to his countless TV programmes on Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, what Baig gave to us is priceless. It may take a lifetime for Pakistan to produce another gem like him.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2012.