One role doesn’t define an actor; it’s usually a couple of good performances over a period of time that help the viewers judge the actor – but that wasn’t the case with Khalifa Sajeeruddin. The veteran theatre actor has been working on TV for the past 25 years but everyone remembers him as ‘Motun’ from Nadaan Nadia, and no matter what he does, the character has been stamped on him. The actor doesn’t mind but believes that had he not been doing good on theatre, he might never have been Motun at all. MAG had a detailed discussion with Khalifa Sajeeruddin who hasn’t aged much since the Nadaan Nadia days, and attributes this to staying happy all the time. Excerpts.
Everybody seems to know you by face … but when it comes to naming you, why is it that they usually say ‘Motun’ instead of Khalifa Sajeeruddin!
(Laughs) Well what can I say about that. When Nadaan Nadia was aired on television in the mid-90s, there were just two channels and people had limited options as there was no cable TV. Most of the people must have liked my performance in the play and since my character’s name was funny, it must have stuck to their minds. It’s good to be remembered by people no matter through which name they remember you.
Why have you done so less TV, compared to your contemporaries?
The simple answer to that would be … I’m not a sycophant for TV directors and that’s the reason they don’t cast me. The amount of work on TV that I have done, I am happy and content with it since it has been with good people who have given me respect. Secondly, since I was associated with teaching mostly since the last 15 years, I didn’t have time for television which is very time consuming, especially if you are punctual. Unlike theatre, TV lacks professional people and that’s one of the reasons why I am more comfortable on stage, where most of the work is done after office hours and you work with great, like-minded people.
Still you managed to play two prime ministers on TV …
Oh yes, that was interesting… the first time I did that was in Jinnah Se Quaid-e-Azam where I had to shave my head to play the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan. The second time I got to play the premier was in Geo TV’s Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain where I did Nawaz Sharif for 3 years. But since in the latter I was in make-up and wigs, I was hardly recognisable to the general people but it was fun nevertheless. I don’t remember any actor playing the prime minister even once! It would be interesting to know that my grandfather, Khalifa Shujauddin was the first speaker of the Punjab Assembly.
Tell us something about your education and background.
I did my O’ Levels from Karachi Grammar School after which I attended DJ Science College for my F.Sc. followed by Civil Engineering from NED, but since my father Dr. Khalifa Ziauddin had as many as four Ph.Ds, I don’t consider myself a very learned person. As for coming into theatre from an engineering background, it was my decision – my dad’s advice to me was ‘do whatever you want to the best of your abilities’ and I am still trying.
When did you realise you had potential for doing stage?
In 1979, while I was learning French from Alliance Francaise in Karachi, a group of friends thought of doing something in our free time, hence we had a debate competition in French. After two years, we did an English adaptation of a French play A Doctor Inspite of Himself which was our first foray into acting. None of us had any idea how one was to do theatre in those days but we played our part – both on, and off screen. I still remember I did carpentry for the sets, whereas others arranged for costumes as it was a period drama, some dabbled into direction, script writing and all. I was a shy person before entering theatre but stage turned me around. The late Yasmin Ismail did In Camera with us a few years later, and from thereon developed our friendship, and it was she who brought me to TV in 1989.
That was 25 years ago … you have played a long innings!
Still not out (smiles). Aslam Azhar sahib who headed PTV in those days asked Yasmin to do something for children in those days and she did Bachon Ka Theatre which was produced from Karachi and Lahore.
I was part of the Karachi production and since the plays became very popular, I got more work on stage. Sadly, Bachon Ka Theatre didn’t continue for long because I feel that while one can adapt from TV for stage, taking a thing from stage on TV doesn’t work usually.
And then came Nadaan Nadia … what’s the story behind it?
Director Sahira Kazmi used to bring her kids to all our shows in Karachi and it was she who recommended me to late Mohsin Ali, who ghost-directed Nadaan Nadia. At that time Anwar Maqsood and Mohsin sahib were looking for a fresh face who could carry the character of ‘Motun’ and I am glad I was selected since it was fun working with those people.
You did theatre with Anwar Maqsood in Aangan Terrha but that was 20 years after Nadaan
Nadia… did you find him any different?
Anwar sahib doesn’t change much (laughs). He is one-of-his-kind type of person and it is always good to be in his company. All of us as individuals have their own idiosyncrasies that make us different from the rest.
Do you think theatre is profitable business in Pakistan, considering you have given three decades of your life to it?
Theatre is a ‘vicious catch 22’ in Pakistan, if I may say so. You have to invest so much in it these days that makes the tickers expensive.But then it would be great if people with deep pockets came forward and used theatre as means of education because it has been my experience that what you can teach via theatrics in an hour is more than what a teacher can in a classroom. A sugar-coated slap is more effective. I also think that profitability shouldn’t be limited to monetary terms. The funds are there, it’s just that people don’t know how to spend them.
You have performed throughout Pakistan … which city do you think has the best audience?
All over Pakistan it’s good. I feel more at home in Karachi because it’s my city and it is where I started my career. Islamabad and Lahore are good as well and hats off to all those individuals who spend their time and money to watch theatre anywhere because if someone is taking out time for you, then it’s something to feel happy about. It’s because of them that good people are coming and doing theatre in Pakistan, otherwise it would have been dead.
Last question … why doesn’t Khalifa Sajeeruddin grow old?
Life is short, my friend. It’s better that a person lives it the way he wants to and since I am in the business of making friends, I try to stay happy and keep those around me happy as well. You can call it my secret for staying young if you want to!•