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Puppeteer Extraordinaire

Published 26 May, 2021 06:41pm
Remembering Farooq Qaiser.

“Aadhe ganjam, aadhe baalam!” (“Half bald, half haired!) – Uncle Sargam

Kaliyan, the television show helmed by the late Farooq Qaiser (who passed away on May 14, 2021) was always brimming with a variety of interesting content but it was its mushairas (poetry sessions) that I enjoyed the most. In those sessions, all the Kaliyan characters, from Masi Museebte to Rola, Bhola and the American Tourist, recited superb satirical poetry about themselves. What always got me was “Aadhe ganjam, aadhe baalam” because baalam here is used to indicate having hair on the head, but in reality it is means ‘beloved.’

It was this irresistible wordplay that, for me, elevated Qaiser’s work above everyone else. To me, the very sight of Uncle Sargam represents everything that I held dear in life. I grew up with him, yet he refused to grow old and instead brought new ideas to life every day. It debuted on TV two years before I was born, and it has been part of my life ever since. I still remember how it satirised almost everything else being broadcast on PTV – from kids’ music programmes to documentaries and dramas, and, sneakily, even the news, through skits and poetry and songs.

Another tremendously enjoyable segment used to be about the adventures of an American tourist (“Gora Saab”) and his desi guide. Gora Saab used to brag about fabulous inventions in his country and the awesome ways of the Western life, while his guide would bring him back to earth by demonstrating that Pakistani ‘ingenuity’ outshone everyone else.

Qaiser not only created a variety of characters, but wrote the skits and the songs. Kaliyan became an institution even before Fifty Fifty, and to my eyes at least, owed more to our culture and its idiosyncrasies than the latter, which was beholden to Saturday Night Live.

We lived this unbelievably rich time where talents like him, Moin Akhtar, Majid Jahangir, Arshad Mahmud, Shoaib Mansoor and Anwar Maqsood aired competing comedy shows, and we took those for granted. Think about that for a second!

Mere Pyare Allah Mian, yeh kaisa dastoor hai” (My sweet Lord, how mysterious are your ways). This was Bonga Bakheel, a character who always contrasted the travails faced by the oppressed and the poor with the life enjoyed by the rich. Interestingly, Uncle Sargam’s poetry also cantered on this theme, using “mein” (me) and “woh” (they) to present this contrast. The paeans directed at God were at once funny (and punny), heartbreakingly innocent, and dripping with social satire. I doubt anyone other than Qaiser could pull off that combination.

Did you ever think that a show dedicated to reading viewers letters (children, before email people used to write letters on real paper with actual ink) could ever be engaging, funny and in fact, the highlight of one’s week? You better believe it because NTM enlisted Uncle Sargam and his team for Daak Time – which saw the debut of actress and host Nadia Khan and a brief but magical return to the small screen by Shehnaz Shaikh. Many actors started their careers from Kaliyan and have remained household names thanks to it. But not because they became celebrities (after all, they were behind puppets)! It was because Qaiser taught them everything necessary to be amazing performers, rather than celebrities. Did you know that Bushra Ansari is one of them?

And to me, that is what Qaiser and Uncle Sargam stand for: decency, dignity, talent, intelligence, subtlety and social awareness. There are people who earned more fame and there are those that outlasted him – but I am sure that none of them check all these boxes.

We just lost an extraordinary talent.

Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.