Kamal Ahmed Rizvi’s real forte was theatre and his contribution to the establishment of an urban theatrical tradition was truly significant. He also showed his fellow travellers that theatre could be made a source of earning a living. Most of the artistes before him did theatre part time while slogging their morning hours in more conventional professions.
It is ironic that the achievement or contribution of a person is determined by the medium he works for. If it happens to be a popular medium, a person gets fame and is known in a wider circle. That in a way overshadows his or her real contribution in some other area of the arts or even outside of the arts. Kamal Ahmed Rizvi is popularly known for his work on television, some of the serials that he scripted, produced and played roles in like Allan in the famed Alif Noon serial that ran many times. It was developed from its original black & white version during the early days of television in the country. But his work in theatre — that of writing, producing and particularly of directing —has largely gone unnoticed.
For then, as it is now, the staging of a play did not mean that everything was readymade and cut out. It implied convincing the authorities of the virtues of theatre, running around in mustering finances for the production, then the difficult task of writing or adapting a script and finally the actual direction or acting. What should come at the end or what should not be the concern of a playwright took up most of the time and energies, the mounting of a production treated as being the easiest hurdle to cross. Confronting the same set of challenges, the theatre personnel or playwrights that preceded Rizvi were Khawaja Mueenuddin in Karachi, Imtiaz Ali Taj, Safdar Mir, Ishrat Rehmani in Lahore followed by Ali Ahmed who migrated from India in the 1950s. Zia Mohyeddin did a few plays but then left for England and stayed there for about a decade and a half making a name for himself on the British stage which was no mean achievement in itself.
But some stayed back and decided to pull the cart of theatre no matter how steep the incline was. Promilla Thomas, Safia Deen, Sikandar Shaheen, Naeem Tahir, Khurshid Shahid, Enver Sajjad, Yasmin Taj (Tahir), Shoaib Hashmi and Salman Peerzada were just appearing on public stage after their stints in college plays. The most tenacious of them, Rizvi, also migrated from India in the early 1950s and started to work in publishing houses and, in the process, translated European and American classics. This was his introduction to Western literature in earnest and drama in particular. There were many influences to fall back upon like Russian, French and Spanish literature — mostly European but non-British — and that widened his horizon for the arts, literature and theatre in general.
The first play he did was Badshahat Ka Khatimah, an adaptation of a Manto script with Zakia Hasan (Sarwar). This was also the time when Faiz Ahmed Faiz became the secretary of the Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore and wanted better theatre to be presented on stage. In the 1950s, despite great earnestness, not much was played out on the Alhamra stage but when Faiz came, there was a more concerted effort. Plays that were basically western adaptations were staged regularly, mostly by the alumni of Government College, who were acquainted with drama through the Government College Dramatic Club and their reading of literature at the graduate and post graduate level.
Kamal Ahmed Rizvi was not initially part of that circle but fought his way in with determined ardour, resilience and most of all ability. For a small audience comprising the very urban educated, adaptations were considered quality plays. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight as Sayee, Carlo Goldoni’s Servants of Two Masters as Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam followed by Moliere’s Scoundrel Scapin as Bulaqi Badzat were outstanding successes. These plays established a tone in humour that was entertaining but not scatological. It was satire but in a more benign manner, not very hard-hitting because it was not a series of skits but ensconced in the entirety of the play.
When Alhamra had financial and censorship problems, Rizvi founded Little Theatre to work independently. Since original scripts for theatre had been very rare, he took up the cudgels and directed Subh-o-Shaam by Upendranath Ashk, then two more plays that were written specifically for the stage, Aadhi Baat by Bano Qudsia and Khaboan Ke Musafair by Intizar Husain, as examples to show that indigenous theatre could work.
He was a happy combination of grit and talent and that served him well right through, from the plays that were staged but watched by a very few due to the old Alhamra theatre being a small narrow hallway accommodating no more than a hundred to the stage that was relatively more popular and where the artistes could make a living by doing plays as their full time activity. He oversaw that transition especially with Hum Sab Chor Hain at the Wapda Auditorium but felt hopelessly out of step when it crossed the limit and became something like a one man show with ad libbing and impromptu remarks.
This often went beyond the parameter of a stage play, an exchange of repartees between the actors themselves and the actors with the audience for the sake of a few ‘claps’. From the narrow hallway to the thara outside that hall to the Wapda Auditorium, popular theatre took a quantum jump leaving him behind as a conscientious objector.
At least one of his serials on television was discontinued with or was banned Hazaron Khwahishain Aaisi because it was not about financial scandals and lust for power but the mannerism derived from hypocrisy and sanctimonious behaviour regarding sex and relationship with women. It was superb in the one or two episodes that were run in those black and white days. It was not slapstick, the only humour that we understand today, but far more sophisticatedly and subtly treated. It was good drama rather than just a succession of repartees.