Anwar Maqsood: Pakistan’s “Sultan of Satire” in California
By Ras H. Siddiqui
The Human Development Foundation ( http://www.hdf.com/ ) also known as HDF held two fundraisers in Northern California (in Santa Clara and Sacramento) to the delight of many South Asians in the region. The HDF cause is a good one to support, because the need is great in Pakistan from where terrorism and lawlessness often capture the international headlines but the social depravation and grinding poverty that can possibly cause it are usually ignored.
HDF is taking a holistic approach to tackling various socio-economic problems there and amongst its supporters is Anwar Maqsood who was a star attraction at these recent events. The “Sultan of Satire” best describes him as he has written, produced and performed in “serious” comedy on Pakistan Television for over 50 years. Thanks to HDF, we were lucky enough to catch up with him in Sacramento.
Octogenarian Maqsood was born in the State of Hyderabad (India) in the 1930’s. His family included two very talented sisters, one a prolific writer of television dramas Fatima Surayya Bajia (who passed away in February) and the other poetess, Zehra Nigah. Needless to say, the family has had Urdu language literature somewhat conquered for a very long time. And to add another fact that Maqsood’s son Bilal makes up half of the music band Strings (of Zinda Hoon fame). And besides writing satirical plays and skits, Anwar Maqsood is also a poet and as we found out at this event also a painter and sculptor. But comedy and satire is what we know him best for so let us jump right in but with the caveat that the perfect English translation of Urdu is never an exact science and its accuracy here may not be complete.
Maqsood greeted the Sacramento event participants and informed us that this is the first time he has been to this part of America. He said that we in the audience know all about our country of origin. We often lack adequate water, education, food, and living space. But these are just small things, he added. We have the Atum Bum (Atomic Bomb in Urdu) so a pox on all these other necessary things! Who needs them? It appears that a country that has the Atum Bum needs nothing else! One can add that only a person of the stature of Anwar Maqsood can say this about Pakistan in front of Pakistanis and get away with it. He added that he is sometimes saddened by just thinking about this Bum. What use is it when so many other priorities are being neglected?
Anwar Maqsood has written for television programs in Pakistan for about fifty-five years. He said, I have actually always written for you who have been my audience. He shared with us the news that his play Siachen is running quite successfully these days. He said that Pakistan “opened” on 14 th August 1947. Did I say opened? I meant was founded! It has been quite a long time now. He said that he just saw an HDF slide presented here on “Waste Management” which would aptly describe some, if not all of Pakistan’s elected Assembly. He thanked General Musharraf who during his rule made it mandatory for all elected members of Pakistan’s parliament to be educated and have at least a Bachelor’s degree to hold office. And so it became possible for many of those elected to miraculously acquire these degrees in a surprising three days or months when it takes the rest of us several years of hard work to get them!
Maqsood said that General Zia’s rule lasted a very long time. He made General Zia his focus of affection or “ Mohabbat ka nishana” here and reflected on the dilemma faced by a liberal Pakistani during the General’s very conservative “Islamic” rule. Very few people escaped the wrath of General Zia’s dictatorship while being critical of it, and Anwar Maqsood was one of them. He spoke of an instance when the General had asked that he perform for a very limited time at a gathering because he had to meet a certain foreign official soon after. Maqsood went several hours over and the General sat there listening and missed his appointment. He was called the next day to explain himself to not just Zia but a group of other military officials. In reply he said that the General should not mind his length of performance because he himself came for a promised 90 days and was still ruling after all these years! He said that a Brigadier got up and grabbed him by the collar. Maqsood said that if the Brigadier was looking for his pocket, it was located elsewhere! Furious, the Brigadier said that Maqsood has crossed all borders (limits). Maqsood replied it is you who gets a salary to cross the border, not me!
Remembering one of South Asia’s greatest singers ever, the Melody Queen Nur Jehan (who appeared on Maqsood’s television show) generated its own laughs. Maqsood brought up the subject with her that many fine female vocalists in the country give up their singing careers on the requests of their husbands after getting married, never to be heard again and asked her views. Nur Jehan said that this has never been a problem for her because if a husband makes such a request, she just changed husbands!
One could go on and on but let us say that throughout his performance, Maqsood Sahib had the audience laughing and in the palm of his hand via his satirical humor. Once asked to create a slogan to promote PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) he came up with “ Ghar Se PIA” which translated into Urdu can also mean “Drink at home before travelling”, somewhat accurate since PIA is no longer able to serve alcoholic drinks on its flights! Maqsood also shared his thoughts on his many years of working with his comedy partner, the late Moin Akhtar and said that he was perhaps the best performer that the country has produced.
Anwar Maqsood also spoke on India-Pakistan relations and of his presence during a visit by the late Rajiv Gandhi to Pakistan when the late Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister and lamented the missed opportunities of a lasting peace between the two countries.
The evening ended with a fine musical performance by Rohit Saini and his music partners, including members of the audience - a real trip down memory lane for many attending.