Smokers’ Corner: A last piece of chocolatePakistan
One of the paan shops where I usually buy my cigarettes from once had a fading poster of bygone Pakistani film star and icon, Waheed Murad. I had noticed the poster pasted in one corner of the shop ever since I first began buying my cigarette packs from this place almost 20 years ago.
I know the shop owner well. Today he is a white-haired man in his late 60s and his name is Yameen. He owns three more such paan and cigarette shops in the area and has done well for himself and his family.
He lives in a three bedroom apartment (which he owns) with his wife and three children (two sons and a daughter). The sons are college graduates. One of them looks after two of Yameen’s three shops, while the other son works in the sales department of a tea company. Last year Yameen’s daughter completed her intermediate from a local college.
Yet, despite the fact that I have known Yameen for over 20 years now, I had no idea that before he set up his first paan shop in Karachi’s Boat Basin area 31 years ago, he used to be a barber.
I came to know about this only recently after I finally asked him about the fading, dusty Waheed Murad poster that he just refused to peel off.
He began to laugh: ‘Arey, aap nahi jaantey …?’ (You still don’t know about this?).
One of Yameen’s, employees, Kudrat, smiled as well: ‘Yaar Paracha Sahib, aap nein Yawar Bhai ki dukhti rug par haath rak diya hai …’ (You have hit a sore nerve).
It turns out that the poster is over 40 years old! Yameen bought it from a street vendor in Saddar’s Regal area in 1974 when he was in his early 20s. He was a huge Waheed Murad fan.
At the time Pakistan’s film industry was thriving and Waheed Murad was one its biggest stars.
Yameen had joined one of his uncles’ barber shop in the city’s Guru Mandir area after he dropped out from a government school in the 10th grade.
‘I had become a barber because of Waheed Murad,’ he told me. ‘His hair style was all the rage in those days. Women were crazy about him and all the men wanted the barbers to give them the Waheed Murad Cut …’
In 1979 Yameen managed to set up his own barber shop. But four years later he suddenly sold it to a friend and used the money to open a paan shop in Clifton.
Wasn’t the shop doing well?
‘The shop was doing very well,’ Yameen replied. ‘I was making good money from it.’
But then why suddenly sell it?
‘Murad Sahib ki wafat hogayee thi …’ (Waheed Murad died), Yameen explained.
After Murad’s demise, Yameen stopped going to the cinema and anyway, by then the country’s Urdu film industry had already begun its downward slide and the extroverted and populist characteristics of the pre-1980s’ society had begun to fold inwards.
‘One day, just like that, I quit being a barber,’ Yameen explained. ‘I was heartbroken by his (Murad’s) death. But more saddening was the fact that people simply forgot about him. He had brought such joy and colour to so many Pakistanis, but very few mourned his death.’
When Pakistan’s film industry began its decline, a number of actors and filmmakers who had been joyfully reaping fame and fortune suddenly found themselves stranded and abandoned.
Some took to drinking and slipped into obscurity; some compromised their egos (and fee) and began doing TV plays; while others ventured into taking roles in loud, kitsch Punjabi films whose stock and popularity rose rather bizarrely in the 1980s.
The tragedy of the once idealised film stars suddenly losing all their sheen in Pakistan is most strikingly exemplified by the fate of a man who for more than a decade was the country’s leading film icon: Waheed Murad.
From the mid-1960s till about 1977, it seemed as if anything Murad touched turned to gold.
His hairstyle after 1967 was repeatedly copied by young men, and his lively romantic roles turned him into a heartthrob for millions of college girls and housewives.
He would only accept roles of ‘refined’ and gentle romantic men who wore their hearts on their sleeves and demonstrated their optimistic disposition with an unabashed rejection of both irony and cynicism. He was endearingly dubbed ‘the chocolate hero.’
But when things in the industry began to experience multiple jolts after a reactionary 1977 military coup in Pakistan, Murad became the calamity’s first casualty.
As Murad’s contemporaries, such as Mohammad Ali, actually turned rightwards to start making films that accorded with the ‘correct moral lines’ laid down by the in-coming dictatorship, Murad’s romantic heroes who would dance, sing and shed tears at the drop of a hat, suddenly went out of vogue.
Murad tried to reinvent himself as a character actor. But the image of a jolly romantic attached to him was just too fresh and overwhelming for anyone to take his more grounded roles seriously.
Even though another contemporary of his, Nadeem, was still dishing out hits till 1979, Murad began being ignored by the filmmakers. The fall from where he was till 1977 was just too sudden and rapid.
Perplexed and bitter, the man whose car (in 1971) was once mobbed by dozens of college girls in Karachi and literally painted red with lipstick (à la Rajesh Khanna), slipped into the dark void of heavy substance abuse.
When he appeared on a TV show in 1982 (in Anwar Maqsood’s show Silver Jubilee), Murad, by now looking exhausted and with deep, dark circles underneath his eyes, sounded like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
His wife of many years had temporarily left him when some film producers offered Murad to return to the big screen in the role of a hero (on the condition that he would clean up his act). Murad agreed.
But in 1982’s minor hit, Aahat, he seemed to be playing himself — a broken man surrounded by empty gin bottles, medicines and shattered pieces of what was once such a radiant life.
But destiny had marked him to fall even further. In early 1983, while driving under the influence of anti-depressants, he smashed his car into a tree, giving his face a terrible scar.
After the accident, he tried to find solace in his two children and yet more (empty) promises by film producers, who had to keep saying ‘yes’ to a man who had helped them make millions of rupees in the past. But, of course, they were in no mood to hire him again. It was just a gesture of pity.
Then finally it happened. In 1983, the now 46-year-old former star, heartthrob and cinematic Midas, was found dead in a bedroom of a friend’s house. The cause of death was an overdose of an assortment of psychotropic medicines, but many also believe that he had ended his own life.
A film critic lamented that it weren’t the pills and substance abuse that killed Murad. It was his broken heart that took his life.
When I told this to Yameen, he agreed: Bilkul! (Indeed). But then suddenly he withdrew and quietly walked out of the shop. His employee gestured to me with his hands that he (Yameen) would be alright. But he did add: ‘Kaha tha na, Paracha Sahib, Yawar Bhai ki dukti rag par haath rak diya aap nein …’ (I told you, you had hit a sore nerve).
Two days later when I visited the shop again, I noticed the poster had been peeled off. I asked Kudrat about it and he said, Yameen had pulled it off and disposed it somewhere.
And where was Yameen, I asked.
‘Wo retire hogaye hein’ (He has retired), Kudrat informed.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 15th, 2015