Had Munawwar Saeed’s family not migrated to Pakistan in 1960, we would have lost him to the Indian world of cinema and the performing arts. As a young student at the Aligarh University in India, Munawwar Saeed had already started emitting the acting sparks in him. And when he approached his uncle, Kamal Amrohi, owner of the Filmistan Studios, whose fabled production of Pakeeza in the 70s made him synonymous with inimitability, he made his nephew promise that if he failed as an actor in Bombay, he would pack up and go back to Aligarh. Before Munawwar Saeed had a chance to impress the Bombay filmmakers, his father asked him to come back; the Sayyad family from Amroha, a small place in the Uttar Pradesh, was ready to migrate to Pakistan.
“My passport and ticket were ready, and I, along with the rest of the family, landed in Karachi. I think my uncle Kamal had already tipped off my father because I had gone to Bombay without telling him. The decision to migrate in 1960 instead of 1947 was taken by my father, partially in fear of my acting ambitions. He wanted me to finish my studies first, which I did when we came to Karachi.”
Even though Munawwar Saeed enrolled in the Government College of Technology in Karachi, to study engineering, the-would-be actor’s mind had been made up to follow his heart’s desire. He knew that his chances of taking up acting would be next to impossible if he did not finish engineering. The example of Kamal Amrohi stood starkly before him.
“The family never accepted him, and I knew that I had an equally tough fight before me to convince them,” says Munawwar Saeed, while drawing leisurely on a cigar.
Saeed successfully completed his degree in engineering and took up a teaching post at his alma mater. His serious approach to life made his father reconsider his objection to acting. Saeed sr. relented when Munawwar sought his permission to join the premier transmission of Pakistan television in 1967.
“I had already been doing radio and stage plays, as well as broadcasting news on radio as a college student in Karachi. When television was launched in Pakistan, I simply had to join it,” elaborates the multi-faceted actor.
By that time Munawwar Saeed was too involved in acting to be distracted by the additional responsibilities of an engineering professor. He resigned from the post and moved to Lahore in 1970. “The decision was, of course, taken after consulting with my father.” His initial plays for television immediately strengthened his image as a sober actor, capable of characterizing roles normally done by experienced artists. The television of the early 70s saw performances by Munawwar Saeed in such unforgettable plays as Taqreeb-e-Imtihan, written by Ashfaque Ahmed, Akhara’ and Gandasa. He won his first Graduate Award for a convincing performance in Azadi Kay Mujrim, a television play based on the freedom fight, one of the finest acting moments of Munawwar Saeed’s life.
“It is replayed each year at the anniversary of Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar and is kept in the archives of PTV’s classics,” says he. In the same period, the actor moved to the big screen and was cast as a villain in his first movie, Ghar Damaad. It did not fare well at the box-office, but he caught the attention of Lollywood’s celebrated producer, Shebab Kiranvi, who gave him an important character to play in Bazaar.
“The movie made new records and I started getting roles one after the other,” comments Saeed. But the roles were typecast and put Munawwar Saeed in a straitjacket of negative roles. As an actor recognized for giving meaning to characters on stage and television, Munawwar Saeed could not replicate his impressions on the silver screen.
“I admit my movie career was nothing extraordinary. Much of it had to do with the kind of roles I was getting, which lacked variety. Films restricted me and put me in a particular slot which was difficult for me to break.”
Whatever was lacking in terms of a film career, was amply made up by television and stage. He was ever so busy donning one role and slipping comfortably into another, giving him just about enough time to play bridge at the prestigious Gymkhana Club in Lahore. “I did not stay behind after shooting to chat with the film people. Much as I was interested in doing films, on a personal level I could not be part of their lifestyle. I suppose it had a lot to do with my family background too.”
The actor’s career kept a steady graph, till the time of PTV’s most memorable play, Waris. Much as he denies that the character of Chaudhry Yakub was a routine character for him, Munawwar Saeed’s inclusion in the unforgettable Waris gave him the exclusivity vied by many. “No, I don’t think that Waris was a milestone in my career, I was established much before that,” contends he. Munawwar Saeed has worked with almost every notable producer and director of cinema and the performing arts, and can still be seen in television’s private productions.
“It’s not the same anymore. These private productions are driven by profit and lack quality. I am not even given the time to rehearse, something which was unheard of in the past. I am usually called to give a shot at a day’s notice. There is no rehearsal, no time to discuss the character with the director. That’s the way things work now. Plays are made to get maximum sponsorship, not to entertain the public,” Munawwar Saeed shakes his head regrettably.
Nearly two hundred movies and 1000 plays later, Munawwar Saeed rests against the floor cushion and comments on not receiving the nationally coveted, Pride of Performance. “It really does not matter. In fact, if you know the method of selection you’ll be glad to be excluded. Generally, and this happens to be my personal opinion, you are not merited for your work, but are chosen to fill your province’s quota. No, I don’t want to fill out any quota.”
And yet, he is glad that his father made the decision to migrate to Pakistan. His last visit to his hometown in India, in 1992, left a sad impression. Munawwar Saeed came back to Lahore, determined never to go back again. “Muslims are suppressed there. They are afraid of the majority. I don’t want to live in such a country where bias exists under the false impression of secularism.” But having said that, Munawwar Saeed is confident that he would have made it in Bollywood as an actor, if his uncle Kamal Amrohi had not informed his father. “I might sound too boastful, but there’s no doubt about it that talent speaks for itself, no matter where you are.”