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A man for all seasons

Interview with Mirza Nazeer Baig

A man for all seasons

Mirza Nazeer Baig or Nadeem, as screaming fans have called him throughout the 1970s and ’80s, once shone in cinemas and hearts of people across the subcontinent, until the spotlight that prominently had its angle fixed upon his façade, faded. His spirit didn’t; it hasn’t to date and one can quite unquestionably agree to that for when he sits down to speak. Much like his interpretation of age, he is vigorous, pragmatic and content with where he is.

One has enough evidence and instances to prove the dilemma of stars that no longer possessed the influence and stature they once had. Nadeem Sahab has not only kept himself grounded all this while, but is surprisingly humble for somebody conversing with him for the very first time. “I had started doing character roles even when I was being offered leading parts. I was always advised not to, but I’ve only wanted to do meaningful characters,” he points out as we speak of an organic metamorphosis. “People wouldn’t remember this, but I’ve even played Shabnam’s (whom Nadeem had a popular pairing alongside) father in a film.”

He now carefully handpicks his roles that to him, “psychologically and physically” suit his range and ability, and refuses to dictate directors on-set despite his patriarch status. He has purposely kept himself away from turning behind the camera (pardoning his melodious offerings from earlier in his career) and deems it as a responsibility he isn’t “prepared for I feel; I’m scared to direct”. Excerpts from our conversation follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Having pioneered an era of local cinema at its absolute finest, what do you think lead to its downfall?

Nadeem Baig (NB): I could see the decline in front of me with the kind of films that were being made, how they were presented and most importantly, the kind of people that had entered the industry, who had absolutely nothing to do with cinema. They had begun producing and directing, while some of our finest directors had either passed away or stepped back looking at such circumstances.

People still do watch some of our older Punjabi cinema, but then the standard for those deteriorated as well. We either started depending on nudity and sex or unnecessary violence which put off families as well. I don’t think box office numbers can be generated if a film doesn’t drag families to theatres. Unfortunately, we had called it upon ourselves and we are the ones to be held responsible. Had we maintained the quality of our content, our industry would’ve reached greater heights.

TNS: Is that also why you decided to turn to the small-screen nearly two decades ago; and were there ever any apprehensions of demotion?

NB: When the film industry had completely come to an end, there were barely any films being made and those were mostly Punjabi or Pashto-language films. I did try my hand at Punjabi cinema initially; in fact, I produced my own Punjabi film called Mukhra, which had done well also, but considering I’m not fluent in the language, it was difficult for me to pursue that. Working for such a long period, I didn’t know anything apart from acting, I still don’t.

That’s actually why I also left Lahore and moved to Karachi, to start working for television. I had to do something to survive and I started doing serials until films returned just recently, and so I get to do both now. I understand everyone sees cinema as an upgrade and going (towards films) from TV is considered acceptable. I had to do the opposite. I ended up producing my own serial, Bisaat and I received a good enough response to get to work with other people. In fact, I’d gotten so busy with work I haven’t had the chance to produce since.

Every new project I take up is like a new challenge that unfolds. Every scene and shot seems new to me and I feel like I’m doing it for the first time.

TNS: What medium of performing arts do you personally prefer and what was the shift like for you as an actor?

NB: Since I’d started my career with films, I still prefer doing them. I feel much at ease regardless of how well I perform. I feel more confident on a film-set. The two mediums, however, have nothing in common. There’s great difference in performances and execution. Coming from films, it took me a while to adjust myself to this completely new procedure. With films, you have to wind up your role with its arc within the given duration, which usually doesn’t exceed three-hours, so you have a very fast tempo, whilst television can go on from twenty to thirty-hours and the length is such that the performances require gaps and pauses that I wasn’t used to.

Even now, I still feel like I have to consciously adapt to television setting. There’s much difference in the way they’re shot also. I feel a film-director is much more focused and concentrates on the shots, the atmosphere; I remember when we would have to shoot a tragic or intense scene, the set was such as well. People wouldn’t talk much or joke around, which I don’t think is taken care of for tv At times, I’m asked to shoot a scene right after another that is a part of a much later episode, and that really troubles me at times, to get out of a scene and get into another one with no coherence.

TNS: You continue working on the silver screen post the local film industry’s reincarnation of sorts. How do you view the current state that cinema is in?

NB: It’s great that we’ve started making films again; I think it’s a good sign, but we have to concentrate on making quality content. Unless we don’t work towards that and focus on that primarily, films won’t appeal to people. People want to watch our films; they still have faith in us, but we have to give them something worthy of their time. Dragging people from the comfort of their homes to cinemas, given the influx of TV, there should be something they could at least sit through and watch.

I also think recent films have been tilted towards the Indian industry, if I’m not wrong. I think we’ve become very inspired (by Indian cinema) and there’s so much that’s happening in our films which isn’t our identity. If I’m not wrong, what’s being shown in Indian films isn’t Indian culture either, but we’re accepting that wholeheartedly. Why are we leaving everything we had of our own? Why do we have to go after item songs? A film doesn’t work because of ‘commercialism’. Films work because of their subjects, presentation, making and the performances of its actors.

TNS: Not only was your transition limited to mediums, but also from a leading man to character roles. Was it difficult coming to terms with that?

NB: It’s a natural process; one should take it as a part of life. Not everybody can be treated equally, when we started doing movies, naturally we were given more importance compared to our seniors. Of course, I can’t be doing a character that I could have, let’s just say, a decade ago even. I would be a misfit for Hercules or Majnu in a Laila-Majnu tale (laughs). There are new actors coming by the day and it is their time, we’ve had our time and life can never be stopped. Even if they’re being paid more than I am, it’s their right. You have to adjust and if you can’t, it’s best to leave.

TNS: With over five decades in the industry, what keeps you going?

NS: I sometimes think people have a lot of stamina that they still bear with me (laughs). For me, like I had said earlier, I know nothing else. I can’t sit and do nothing; I want to keep myself busy. I’ve worked all my life and from a very young age, and I enjoy what I do, even now. Every new project I take up is like a new challenge that unfolds. Every scene and shot seems new to me and I feel like I’m doing it for the first time. I firmly believe that nothing succeeds like success, so success gives you confidence, but it doesn’t mean you fully know your craft. Acting is a continuous process of learning; I want every day on-set to be like my first.

Ahmed Sarym

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