After rumours, came reports of the demise of the legendary Kashmiri theatre artist and TV actor—whose comic roles cheered the cheerless valley during its distressing years. In Shadi Lal Kaul, Kashmir not only lost its beloved Shamasudin, but also the adored actor who played common man on the screen.
By Swati Joshi
IN THE 1980s when Kashmiris were reluctant to pay for watching theatre, one man brought all of them under the roof of Tagore Hall with tickets; a man who could make people leave the football ground and make a run to get a seat in the theatre; a man not known by his name but by the characters he played in his serials; a man known for his comic timing and improvisation; a man who has the longest-running program on DD Kashmir; a man named Shadi Lal Kaul aka Shamasudin.
The famous dialogue “Begum Salal Tse Kyaazi Goye Malaal” by Shamasudin from Shabrang is still famous amongst Kashmiris.
Back in the day, Shabrang became the longest-running television show with 104 episodes.
“The dialogue became a sensational hit in Kashmir and every husband could be heard addressing his wife with that famous line,” said Ayash Arif, a veteran actor and director based in Srinagar.
Arif was 16, when he met Kaul and became his real and reel life friend.
“From where should I start, it has been 45 years since I have known him,” Arif, who founded Kalidass Theatre at Srinagar’s Chotta Bazar with Kaul, said. “We were the unbreakable Jai-Veeru.”
As an epitome of friendship, Jai-Veeru are famous characters played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in the superhit Hindi movie, Sholay.
As a Kashmiri Pandit, Kaul had a huge fan base in the Muslim community. Arif recalled an incident when the late actor was going towards Hazratbal and people gathered around him recognizing him by his TV character, Shamasudin.
They took “Shamasudin” with them to offer namaaz at a mosque nearby and the late actor went with them without any hesitation.
“Such was the level of affection and respect he received from the Muslim community back then,” remembered Arif.
Born in the Chotta Bazar area of Srinagar, Kaul had to face many struggles while growing up. He lost his father at an early age. Being the eldest child, he was burdened by the responsibilities of his family. Later he would lose his young son to cancer.
“He was financially unstable during his son’s treatment but I never saw any sign of weakness in him,” Arif told Kashmir Observer. “Shadi Lal must be heartbroken but his acting never showed it- he acted as the script demanded. He would often say that whatever comes in life, good or bad, one has to face it boldly.”
Being a street smart, Kaul’s TV roles were inspired by common Kashmiri people like clerks, tongawalas, teachers, among others. He used to recreate those roles in theatre, said Arif.
The audience connected with him because through his comedy plays, he represented some serious issues in the society- be it corruption, marital problems and other social issues prevalent in Kashmir at that time.
He was such a keen observer that during Ashura—the day when Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali—Kaul used to join his neighbours, a majority of whom were Shia Muslims to understand their mannerism and worldview, said Arif.
Later this curious nature would help him to play some of his memorable TV roles with perfection.
In his first play “Yi Janam ti Su Janam” directed by Jai Kishan Zutshi, Kaul’s role earned him rousing reception. After that he was unstoppable.
He went on to work in all three mediums: theatre, television, radio. He acted in two serials—Gul Gulshan Gulfam and Katha Sagar—which were telecasted on national TV.
Later he would be conferred with Life Time Achievement Award by Sadiq Memorial Society for his contribution to Kashmiri Theatre.
But back in his day, the theatre wasn’t thought as a reliable career. People had to rely on other jobs or businesses. Kaul himself worked in the Sales Tax Department. He was suspended for more than 600 times for his theatre devotion, said Arif.
“He was so attached to the theatre that he used to bunk office to rehearse,” Arif remembered.
Legend has it that during the production of “Yi Janam ti Su Janam”, Kaul would leave office early to go for recording. But after his superiors didn’t allow him, he went to SMHS hospital to put a fake plaster on his left hand.
His condition moved his superior and Kaul managed to clear decks for his recording until his real life act was caught. He came putting plaster on his wrong—right—hand one day and faced suspension.
But that never obscured his acting focus.
He went on to play his roles and cemented his place as one of the finest performers of his generation.
One of his most popular plays that started a new era in Kashmir was “Local Tax Extra” written by Dr. Sohal Lal Koul.
Kashmiris never used to purchase tickets for drama but when Kaul started charging for “Local Tax Extra” people rushed to Tagore Hall to get their tickets, said Bihari Kak, a veteran actor, producer, and director.
“Such was the craze amongst people for Shamasudin that they purchased a Rs.5 ticket at Rs. 20 in black,” recalled Kak. “This was the first time in Kashmir when I saw people were eager to buy tickets to watch Shamasudin perform.”
Local Tax Extra gave tough competition to cinemas nearby. In a first, Doordarshan brought OB Van and Multi-Camera set up to record this drama which was repeatedly telecasted on TV.
Among his audience, Kaul was popular for his perfect comic timing.
“He used to derive comedy out of nothing,” said Kamal Razdan, a veteran actor based at Srinagar. “Kaul used to create comedy from grim topics. He was a Charlie Chaplin of Kashmir!”
Before going for a particular scene, the late actor used to do rigorous rehearsals and also encouraged his costars to do it, said Razdan.
“Many senior artists used to get annoyed with him because he didn’t leave his co-actors until he thought that the rehearsal has attained perfection,” recalled Razdan.
“Any person acting with Kaul knew that they had to do rigorous rehearsals to achieve the perfection he wanted in the act.”
Kaul remained the crowd-puller, before he along with his family migrated to Jammu in 1990 because of the turmoil in the valley. Even after leaving Kashmir, he had a deep connection with his roots.
“When his son was selected for a government job, Kaul asked him to take the posting in Srinagar,” said Shabir Mujahid, a former director Doordarshan, Srinagar.
But theatre wasn’t the same in the Kashmir valley after nineties. Even as it restarted in 1996, it could never retain its audience. However, Kaul kept showing in serials and uplifted the gloom in the valley during those harrowing times.
His friend Arif had cast him in his show Gulam Begum Badshah shot in Srinagar post-1990.
One day while they were shooting in “a supposed safe place” on the backside of Botanical Garden, a vehicle came with a raging speed.
“The vehicle crossed Kaul and then came back at the same speed,” Arif recalled his petrifying moment. “Two people came out of the vehicle and hugged Kaul asking, ‘aap kaha the, aap humare Amitabh Bachchan hai (Where were you? You are our Amitabh Bachchan).’ They invited Kaul for dinner and he went to their house. This incident was emotional for everyone on the set. It left everyone teary-eyed.”
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