It is a sad fact that we have let a number of our greatest artistes fade into oblivion once they have given their best to our institutions. One can recall numerous great names from film, music and television who passed away with a yearning to be acknowledged by the authorities and masses. Begum Khursheed Shahid, too, is a distinguished name from PTV’s glorious golden era. Ironically, many think that she is no longer among us mainly due to her long absence from television, the latter partly due to the fact that the lady speaks her mind whether it pleases someone or not.
She is as eloquent as the characters she has played in her career spanning several decades. The drawing room where I meet her is dimly lit, with sculptures along the walls lending an aura of mystery to the surroundings. Sitting across me, she reminisces her childhood days in Delhi, India before Partition, where her association with the performing arts began.
“I had a good voice in school and in the sixth grade I was picked to participate in a radio programme by Aruna Asif Ali of the Indian National Congress, who was a talent scout visiting various educational institutions in those days. I began with a poetry recital and since then, my involvement began with musical programmes on All India Radio on Ali Pur Road in Delhi. Later, the Broadcast House was shifted to Parliament Street. By that time, I was involved with a music show composed by Mr Roshan (Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan’s grandfather).”
The summer of 1947 saw Khursheed’s family move from Delhi, the hub of communal riots, to Lahore, Pakistan. Soon after, she joined Radio Pakistan and got married to producer Saleem Shahid at a very early age. “The marriage didn’t last long. My husband wanted me to quit my association with Radio which I unwillingly did for some time; however, mounting differences led to our separation. Salman, my only son, was very young at that time. My husband left for BBC London a few years after our marriage, where he stayed till his death. Although my family wanted me to get a divorce and remarry, I decided never to marry again. We never divorced but remained separated till the day my husband died.”
Raising a child on her own was difficult says Khursheed, but it was her own choice to do so. “I suffered a lot of hardships and saw ups and downs in close relationships; but I made it a point to be completely independent financially from the beginning. I refuse to take any money even from Salman to this day.”
The start of PTV saw Khursheed move towards drama and also theatre at Alhamra. “We used to do meaningful plays at Alhamra back then. Now, I wouldn’t even like to enter its premises. As with all things in our country, we start off with high standards and then gradually bring them down to an abysmal low. Just look at the TV plays today –– we hardly have anything to hold the viewer’s interest. Foreign locales, heavily made-up girls who even sleep with make-up on and unnatural personas have deteriorated drama completely. It is only to compete with Indian soaps that we have ruined our glorious legacy.
“Drama has been glamorised to such an extent that hardly anyone can relate to the story now. Even in India, for that matter, glamorised soaps do not depict Indian society’s true austere picture. Commercialism will be a natural outcome if TV channels are managed by people with a background in marketing, and who don’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of arts, aesthetics or production.”
So is it possible to undo the damage? “No,” comes the frank answer. “A few individuals cannot halt and reverse the decline. For a change of this magnitude, everyone must play his/her part which I don’t see happening anytime in the near future. A single Mehreen Jabbar, for instance, can’t undo the morass that has permeated all levels,” she says.
“In our times, artistes mingled with literary giants like Faiz saheb and Manto. I myself was good friends with Manto and Sadequain. Imagine the force of their pen influencing drama. Can we ever match that excellence with the shoddy scripts and fancy camerawork? Drama in those days influenced lives," she remembers fondly.
“I remember doing a play Masoom written by Dr Javaid Iqbal in which I played the leading lady who hypnotises her husband and gets him to smuggle goods. In order to carry out the hypnosis, I had to chant a long Sufi narrative that borrowed extensive text from Data Ganj Buksh’s Kashful Mahjoob and that, too, in a live recording. Anyone who has read the book will know that the text is full of Arabic and Persian words and very difficult to comprehend let alone memorise.
“I had thoroughly done my homework and delivered the lines accurately, much to the amazement of my panicked crew who were frequently putting the script on a prop a few inches away in case I forgot the lines. When the viewers saw the play, they were stupefied and even the Punjab University’s then vice chancellor asked me how I did it so that he could share tips with his students to aid in memorisation.”
Sadly, having witnessed the glorious days in her career, Khursheed also had to see her talent go unappreaciated by those who walked the corridors of power. “I was the pillar of Lahore drama and literally built the institution. I have even lost count of the number of hit plays I acted in because frankly, there were too many. I gave PTV its classics. Perhaps the tragic end of my career came when I was not given the best actress award for the play Fehmida Ki Kahani Ustani Rahat Ki Zabani.”
Her performances in classic PTV plays continue to spellbind viewers even today, after several decades. One remembers her magnificence as an actor in the mother’s role whose young daughter dies of depression. The play, Fehmida Ki Kahani Ustani Rahat Ki Zabani, is so compelling that despite being aired 20 years ago, it is still very popular with viewers. “While performing the last intense scene, I was so moved that long after the scene was over, I couldn’t stop crying. The crew consoled me and told me that it’s over. Later, I was struck down with a high fever and it took me a long time to recover from the state I had brought myself into. I even went to Islamabad for some time to get away from the intense feelings.
“That year, I was sure I would receive the PTV award for best actress. However, after last minute manipulation, it was given to another actress who was on really good terms with the person in charge of PTV affairs at that time. I was shocked. But perhaps it was little wonder since I wasn’t among the ones who towed the official lines.
“I got the Pride of Performance Award much later, after my juniors had all been awarded and much after my career hits had run and rerun on PTV repeatedly. By that time it had lost all its importance. To this day I believe I gave my best years to PTV, entering as a youth and leaving it as an aged woman. I never used glycerin in my entire career to fake tears; I always went ahead with a scene after reciting the kalima. To me, my work was truly my ibadat,” she says wistfully.
The senior thespian also has grievances against a well-established private channel. “The news and entertainment channel booked me for a serial within a span of three days by verbally negotiating the payment terms with my son Salman on the phone. I flew in a hurry for the shoot for which I had signed no contract and hadn’t seen the script. As the scenes kept being shot, I realized I was being paid peanuts compared to the rest of the cast with their fewer scenes. My part required the most difficult performances and I finally lost my patience when I had to record scenes from 10am in the morning to 7am the next morning, while others strolled in and out after recording their respective scenes.
“I decided to leave the serial right then; but the production team convinced me to come and get one crucial scene recorded after which my role in the play was over. No terms were negotiated; in fact a paltry cheque of Rs20,000 as advance payment was offered, which I refused. After over two years, I still haven’t received a penny from the channel despite having talked to the CEO of the group, who promised he would get back to me on the issue. People with business mindsets should be honest, which they are not. I plan to sue the channel if my dues are not cleared,” she says.
“Had I been an artiste in India, I would’ve been honestly acknowledged there. I remember meeting the great Motilal saheb back in 1962 when I went to Mumbai. He graciously gave me Delhi’s sightseeing tours and was very humble, unlike our film stars.