Talat Husain – “Acting is a third-rate art”

Dawn Tuesday Review, 28 May – 3 Jun, 1996

If he were not an actor? I didn’t ask him the question because I wanted to get on with some serious topics: art cinema, Indo-Pakistani films, life, religion, society…

While he was rambling on about these subjects with the confidence of having perused a few thousand books at his ‘back’ and call (I mean literally, since we were sitting in his library) – I could not help but think that if he were not an actor, he could have been a professor. His warm smile and vast knowledge would have won him the admiration of any newcomer to his sessions, while the detached tone and stern visage would have kept the troublemakers at abeyance. He might not have given his students space to voice their own opinions but he would have quite certainly impressed their minds – because he is capable of challenging the set ideas of society and of intriguing your mind with some sharp, upside down theories about them. Here are selections from an eighty-minute conversation with the articulate Talat Husain.

On himself

Acting is third-rate art. I’m not being hard on acting, it’s just as simple as that: a third-rate art. You know who actors used to be … in Greek times? Slaves! It is a job for the slaves to perform what the masters, the intellectuals have written. So, it is slavery, basically.

How much should we believe you? How come you are in this business if this is so?

Well, as far as I am concerned, I personally feel it must be ego satisfaction … I am known, I have an identity. I started with radio and stage …

… back in the early sixties, although he does not look all that old…

The first play I did on stage was an English play which was done with the Main University Theatre Group for Canada, written by a Bengali playwriter Saeed Ahmed and directed by Younus Saeed. Then came the second break which was an Ibrahim Nafees production, three one-act-plays… Then there was my own production Khalid Ki Khala.

Moving on to film and television…

After that I left for London — ’72 to ’77 — that was the period when I was studying drama at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. And, after I qualified, I worked with Nottingham Playhouse for almost a year — the work include two productions of the National Theatre as well.

Basically I did not want to come back. But I cam back because of personal reasons. I don’t really regret coming back. Had I remained there it might have had turned out well or I could have ended up as ‘just another Asian actor’. “At one time I was also interested in signing, painting, writing … I gave up writing because it is a full-time job. Because I was busy earning just enough to support my family.

Now we want to hear something about the famous intellectual side of his self.

Obviously, my father was the first one to start guiding me. After my parents, the person who played the most important role in grooming me was Qamar Jameel… Intellectually whatever I am, I am because of him… Fazal Kamal helped me develop and insight into drama. Among other people who played an important role in grooming me are Nasrullah Sahib, Hameed Zaman, Agha Nasir, late Zakir Husain, late Abdul Majid …

Art films

Film has been accepted as a twentieth century art form but the problem is that unlike previous art forms, it is a very marketable thing … You invest a certain amount of money and you want it back from the market. Obviously, then, it is basically a commercial venture … art form but a commercial art form. Every film is commercial. When you say art film, there is no such thing, so far as I am concerned, as art film. ‘Art film’ is perhaps something in which the director is more concerned with the aesthetics of the film and the questions it raises about the society … But even such films have to be marketable. I mean, Ingmar Bergman makes films. They are commercial. They run all over the world. He makes money out of them. Otherwise there will be no investment … So, the jargon ‘art film’ is incomprehensible as far as I am concerned.

Don’t you agree even to some extent that all films don’t belong to the same order?

Yes, you can differentiate between two sorts of films. There is one which aims almost exclusively for entertainment. The other, which, while entertaining, also raises certain questions about society. But you can’t deny that those films (which aim more on entertainment) also have to follow a certain aesthetic, called film aesthetics …

Talat is bent more towards film aesthetics than the cliché of ‘message’, which he reduces to ‘questions about society’. And he agrees with Satyajit Ray, who said that films cannot bring about social revoloutions.

Revolutions are caused by economic conditions. Or power struggle. Power struggles are again based on economic conditions. So it is basically economic conditions which inspire revolutions. Art never brings about revolutions in society. That is a fallacy. I shall not accept it.

We are glad he accepts some limitations on the power of art and film. The question of limitations raises another issue: that films of great novels have generally failed. Comments …

The writer allows freedom to your imagination. While you are reading, your imagination is playing … But in film you materialize that imagination. You fix that imagination. You limit it. While I am watching a film, I can only see what they are showing on the screen. My own subjectivity is not playing any role unlike when I am reading a novel.

The Indo-Pakistani cinema

Seriousness of a film is what determines its status…

Eexcuse me, are you telling us that there is a seriousness in Indian and Pakistani popular cinema?

Yes, if for example you talk about Dagh, Pyaasa … or, recently, Bombay or Love Story 1942, they are commercial films but they do raise certain questions pertinent to a certain society. Although they are sugar-coated. Yes, and not very realistic –  they have got their music, dances … so many things. But the questions are there. So does one say that this is a commercial film, and that other film, Masoom is an art film? Yeh art film bekar ki baat hai [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][this ‘art film’ is a useless notion] … yes, if you begin to compare it with a film by Satyajit Ray I would agree that Ray’s films are more serious films …

Actually, the problem in our context is manifold. Film is an art form that has been brought to us by the technologically and culturally developed nations. They had a very rich tradition of theatre, so they took off from theatre. Theatre means drama … so they had a strong dramatic tradition which was lacking in our culture. Please understand this basic point. In the Hindu culture there was a very strong tradition of nautanki or theatre but that did not come up to the same standards as the dramatic tradition of the west.

The form of the film as it has developed here goes back to the tradition of the Hindu theatre … Indarasabha although written by Amanat, it still belonged to the Hindu tradition. Amanat was greatly influenced by Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.

Indarsabha was a cumbersome play written in Urdu sometime around the middle of the last century. It had more songs than several Indian films put together and was perhaps just as tedious. The Indo-Pak filmmakers just don’t seem to be growing out of their fascination with songs and dances, no matter how serious the topic of the film. Now, how can a film with eight songs be taken seriously?

There are generally two reasons for including songs in a film. One, so that the viewers could simply enjoy themselves. Two, as was the case in the old days, and still is the case with serious film today – a song is used to complement a situation and to make a kind of bridge from one situation to another. In such a situation, I don’t see why a song should not be used. After all, you do watch Western musicals with great interest so why can’t you watch these films? Just because those films are made in English? And the songs are sung in English?

You see, I basically don’t agree with these double standards.

When Jerry Lewis hangs upside down, you laugh and enjoy it. You say, we must go and watch Norman Wisdom, he makes you laugh like hell. But if Rangeela does the same things you say this is trash. Why is it? Because Rangeela is doing it in Urdu while Jerry Lewis is doing it in English? Where is the originality in Jim Carey? He is doing third-rate over-acting – although in better ‘packaging’. Has Umar Sharif [Pakistani comedian] done lesser amount of work than him? Just because Umar Sharif is speaking in Urdu, you don’t want to appreciate him? This is a load of rubbish …

What about Mira’s skirt getting too short?

I haven’t watched that film but I would like to go and watch it to find out what is it that people are calling obscene? Maybe there is obscenity in that film … But you see your concerns are completely off the track. Instead of objecting to films as films you are talking about behayaee in films. Who gives a damn about that, people aren’t watching movies in any case …!

Fareed Ahmed

Fareed Ahmed was a highly talented Pakistani director with genuine qualifications for filmmaking. Between mid-sixties and mid-seventies, he made a few excellent and one terrible movie. Only one of these was financially successful, so that the poor fellow did not really achieve much from his love affair with the films.

I played a side role in one of his film, Bandagi … I don’t even remember that film now … I personally feel that Fareed Ahmed had the potential of becoming a very, very strong and good director, except that the circumstances were not conducive for him. He began working at a time when things started going wrong in our country. I feel there was too much of ‘awami’ everywhere. I mean, everything started going awami. Culture never becomes awami – you had taken this communist idea from Russia. Culture is always elitist. There are always a selected few, a selected class, who patronises it. What is awami culture? “Mailey-thailey” [funfares] are awami culture, so that just go on anyway. Serious culture, high culture, never turns awami.


A major problem with our society is that all values have disappeared. There is only one value: materialism. Your entire society is money-oriented. So all goals are diverted towards money-making –at any level. Seriousness of purpose towards improving life on an abstract level, has gone.

Patriotism / political affiliation

From Homer onwards you do not find any masterpiece that did not reflect the politics of its time at some level or the other. If you are reflecting society you are bound to reflect political features.

Now, if you write something specially politicizing it, that I believe is not art. If you are a true artist, if you are reflecting society, if you are painting a certain situation of society, then all these things just seep into your work – if they are coming, let them be; if they are not, let them be. To specially drag something and show it in your art, to prove how great your commitment is to the current political Utopia, I think that negates art.

Historical plays

First, let us decide what is history. In our society history means: I will scratch your back, you scratch mine. You don’t have history. Then how can you talk about historical plays? First put your record straight. All your kings have been described as angelical beings in your history books.

In fact, you did not have historians, you only had waqai nigar [chroniclers] who would write down things to please their masters. I haven’t read any history of the Muslim kings that was written with any objectivity. I believe there must have been such books, but they are not available here.

He knows from experience. He wrote an excellent historical play once. The subject was Tariq Bin Ziyad of Jabal ul Tariq (Gibraltar) fame, who subdued Spain for the Omayyad Empire. Talat buried himself in the books of history and drew out a colourful picture of the ambitious general, which to his conscience, was closer the reality. However, when the teleplay was broadcast (1981), the public thought differently about it. The floodgates of criticism and condemnation were opened against him and the mirror held up to history was smashed in his face. What do you think went wrong?

You see, all we generally know about Tariq Bin Ziyad is Iqbal’s poem ‘Tariq Ki Dua’ … What I concluded from my research was that Tariq had developed a kind of rivalry with Musa Bin Nasayr (his mentor) and Musa actually hit Tariq on one occasion. Tariq’s speech delivered before his troops on Gibraltar has been recorded. It is considered a masterpiece in Spanish letters. If you read it you will discover an extremely cunning general whose moral and ethical values are very much in conformity with any warrior around … It has got nothing to do with Islamic ideology and Islamic ideals. There, as he is trying to encourage his soldiers to attack, you will find his words referring to the beautiful Spanish women bedecked with jewels, daughters of the nobles. And he says to his men that if they conquer Spain they will be able to marry these women. Now, the only difference (between him and any other contemporary warrior from a different nation) could be that he is saying this in the name of Islam, and adds towards the end (after mentioning these temptations of the flesh) that you will also earn paradise. Kahe ka Islam hai yar, he is a straightforward general who has gone to fight.

I personally believe that except for the early warriors – from the period of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or his four caliphs – even the Muslims, (who came in the later period), were ordinary warriors.

I have spoken to a lot of people who had gone to wars, Muslims and non-Muslims. Because once upon a time this question was of great importance to me to find out how does one feel when one is facing a situation where death is the only reality. Life means nothing. You either kill or die. That’s the only reality. Of all the people I spoke to, there were merely about one per cent who said that the fear of God or God Himself was important to them at that particular time. Most of them said, what are you talking about? The situation out there is just as simple as you receive a bullet or give it … what God, what life after death. The situation, generally speaking is a very godless situation … There are hardly one per cent to whom God has granted this ability to act according to the higher ideals of Islam or other religions [even in such a situation].


Historically, religion has played a very important role. I don’t know of any society that developed without religion – at any stage of development. Without religion, I think, man turns into an animal. And, you see, I was just saying that … in war, it is that same state of bestiality: you either die or you kill. Religion is a fact. It cannot be denied.

However, the form of religion that we have before us today, not that form. I am sorry, I don’t agree with it. Some time back I said this in Ru Baru [a discussion in NED University], I can repeat it here. That the objective side, the material side, the apparent element has been overemphasized in our society that its subjectivity, which concerns with your inner self, is being totally neglected. While, if you seriously think about the practices of the religion, it basically cultivates you inner self.


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