Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A Titan of the Pakistani Performing Arts

Remembering Talat Hussain (1940-2024).
Updated 25 Jun, 2024 01:47pm

The curtain fell on the life of Talat Hussain, one of Pakistan’s finest actors, on May 26 this year, but his legacy will continue to shine brightly. His resonant baritone voice and unparalleled acting talent will be dearly missed by millions of fans, colleagues and students. Such remarkable talent is rare and his loss is deeply felt across the arts community. Hussain’s prolific career left an indelible mark on radio, stage, TV dramas and cinema.

I first met him in October 2000 to conduct an interview for Dawn’s Images, for which I frequently wrote. As I waited for him in his modest production office, Studio 9, memories of his enchanting radio voice from my school days flooded back. This voice, which had always sparked my interest, still held its magic. I asked if he missed working with his past colleagues, living or deceased. He mentioned several names, including Qamar Jameel, his mentor, and Fazal Kamal, his teacher in the field of acting. He also fondly recalled Salim Ahmed, S.M. Salim, Mujtaba Husain, Obaidullah Aleem, Abdul Majid, Razi Akhtar Shauq, Agha Nasir, Zaka Durrani and Mumtaz Saeed.

One of Hussain’s unforgettable performances was his powerful guest appearance in the British Pakistani biopic Jinnah (1998). His stirring cry of “Pakistan Zindabad!” as a newly arrived migrant facing Mohammad Ali Jinnah remains iconic.

He was born on September 18, 1940, in Patiala, undivided India. His early life was shaped by his parents, Altaf Hussain Warsi, a civil servant, and Shaista Begum, a broadcaster at All India Radio, who hailed from Mysore. The family migrated from Delhi to Karachi during Partition. His father took a position as a training instructor for Pakistan’s national airlines, and his mother joined Radio Pakistan. The legendary broadcaster Zulfiqar Ali Bokhari, who worked with All India Radio and later became the first DG of Radio Pakistan, is credited with its establishment and development. It was here that he began his journey in the arts, participating in Radio Pakistan’s children’s programmes.

Hussain pursued a bachelor of arts degree from Islamia College, and his acting career took off in the early sixties with the film Chiragh Jalta Raha, written, produced and directed by Fazal Ahmad Karim Fazli. It was also a debut film for Mohammad Ali, Zeba and Deeba, who later became big stars of the Pakistani cinema industry.

Hussain and his wife, Rakhshinda, first met at the radio station, where he was already a celebrated drama artist. One day, Rakhshinda, who participated in discussion programmes and had acted in a few radio plays, was accompanied by her younger sister, an ardent admirer of Hussain’s voice, and wanted to meet him. This brief meeting led to Hussain falling in love with Rakhshinda at first sight, a testament to his romantic spirit.

Some of his remarkable radio plays include Rooh Ka Chakkar, Rahain and Dil e Dard, and many others in the popular Studio Number Nau series, which was introduced in the early sixties and ran for several years. He was frequently paired with Sajida Syed, Humera Naeem, Rehana Siddiqi and her sister Talat Siddiqi.

Hussain was not only an exceptional actor and director; he was also a great conversationalist, fuelled by his love for books. His wife, Dr Rakhshinda Hussain, a retired professor of psychology, recalls his passion for reading and his extensive collection of books in English and Urdu on various subjects, including drama. She shared anecdotes highlighting his uncompromising nature and dedication to his principles. One story involved his departure from the English Department at Karachi University, where he was pursuing a master’s degree. He left it unfinished after a professor discouraged discussing Herbert Read, the renowned English poet, art historian, philosopher and anarchist, simply because the department head disliked Read.

He also performed on stage at the Theosophical Hall, which still exists opposite the old Radio Pakistan building on MA Jinnah Road, but more of his stage plays were performed at the Hormusji Katrak Hall, located behind Empress Market. In the play Khalid Ki Khala, which he also directed, he wore a gharara! He acted in Rakhwala, Chandwali Haveli and several other stage plays that were much appreciated. Unfortunately, Katrak Hall is no more. I too have fond memories of performing on both stages during my school and college days. 

After marrying Rakhshinda in 1972, he decided to further his education and moved to London, where he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. However, he soon realised that the sudden increase in fees and the restriction on working while studying made it unaffordable. Consequently, he transferred to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), where, at the end of two years, he earned a silver medal, followed by a gold for other short courses. During this time, he began securing programmes on the BBC and later performed at the West End in numerous plays.

Hussain’s innumerable TV plays include Eid ka Jora, Arjumand, Ansoo, Bandish, Kashkol, Des Pardes, Tariq Bin Ziad, and Hawain. He adapted and acted in Typist, originally written by Murray Schisgal, in which he acted opposite the late Khalida Riyasat. This memorable play only had two characters, and was directed by Qasim Jalali. Symbolism was introduced in TV plays for perhaps the first time. His acting credits include the British TV serials Traffik and Family Pride for Channel Four, as well as the Norwegian film Import-Eksport, for which he won the Amanda Award at the Norwegian International Film Festival. Besides acting in many Pakistani films, he also acted in an Indian film, Souten Ki Beti.

Uzma Sabeen, a NAPA graduate who later became a faculty member and is now the Arts Council’s artistic director, recalls his contributions at NAPA. He helped shape the syllabus, taught theatre history, and directed several plays, including A Doll’s House, Kaffan, Julius Caesar and Ewam Indrajeet. He also acted in the NAPA Repertory Theatre’s productions such as Habib Mamoon, The Seagull, Sufaid Khoon, ⁠Jo Chaley tau Jaan se Guzar Gaye and Wakeel Saheb.

Actor, director, playwright, and poet Kulsoom Aftab, one of the senior-most graduates from NAPA and a faculty member, says: “Talat sahib was one of the few theatre academics at NAPA who made a distinction between directing and teaching acting through production. This led him to cast some students who were otherwise underrated. He believed that diction was not the only important measure for acting and found ways to save actors from being sacrificed on the altar of linguistics.”

Aftab reminisces about working alongside Hussain on translations. While she was working on Stanislavsky, he was translating a story by Anton Chekhov. “It was mesmerising to observe him acting, first testing and tasting the words and then crafting the dialogue of his translation,” she remembers. “Our colleagueship mixed with comradeship was the result of something very precious – I call it ‘inmate bonding’. A connection forged by prisoners making art,” she says fondly.

Recently, Rakhshinda granted Hussain’s writings to his students, Kulsoom Aftab and Fawad Khan, for dramatic readings of three short stories: Sandooq, Pheekay Neelay Rung Ka Aasmaan and Taaza Bastiya’an. For the first performance in April this year, Hussain was present with his family, proud of his former students’ achievements. He had been writing short stories since the fifties, but many were unaware until Kulsoom presented them under her banner, Theatre K Productions.

Kulsoom recalls her final visit to Talat Hussain in the ICU, just three days before his passing. A poignant and touching moment. “I sang Begum Akhtar for him. His hands trembled, and he shed a tear from his right eye. I put my forehead on his and left,” she says gloomily.

Note: I am grateful to Dr Rakhshinda Hussain, Mr Raju Jamil, Dr Huma Mir, Ms Uzma Sabeen and Ms Kulsoom Aftab for providing some of the information used in this article.

Rumana Husain is an author, artist and educator.