Syed Kamal was one of the most popular leading men in Pakistani cinema, mainly in Urdu cinema in the 1960s and to an extent even in Punjabi cinema through the late 1970s. He was commonly known as the ‘Raj Kapoor’ of Pakistan since his looks resembled the Indian film star and he was popular as a comic hero.
Kamal was born in undivided India in Meerat on April 27, it is said, in 1937 though some records also show his date of birth to be a good seven years earlier in 1930. Kamal did his schooling from the Faiz-e-Aam school in Meerat before going on to join Agra University for his BA degree. Hoping to be an actor and thus making the rounds of Bombay, he screen tested for filmmakers like Sohrab Modi and Mehboob Khan. It is said he was even offered a role in Mother India (1957). However, his family decided to migrate to Pakistan in 1956 and Indian cinema’s loss was Pakistan’s gain as Kamal became a film star in Pakistan.
Kamal began his career in his new country with Thandi Sarak (1957) opposite top leading lady of the day, Mussarat Nazir. His ‘Raj Kapoor’ hangover is evident in his first film itself as in a song sequence with Zarif in drag, he plays the tramp straight out of Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) and what’s more, the song itself recalls various films of Raj Kapoor! Following Thandi Sarak, Kamal did a string of films – Murad (1957) with Yasmin, Aaj Kal (1959) with Sabiha Khanum, Apna Paraya (1959) with Shamim Ara, Khan Bahadur (1960) with Mussarat again and Gulfarosh (1961) with Nayyar Sultana. His big hit finally came opposite Neelo in Banjaran (1962). The film was also the breakthrough film of singer Masood Rana and is still remembered for the beautiful Noor Jehan solo, Na Jane Kaisa Safar Hai Mera.
Kamal reached the peak of his career with Tauba (1964). The film co-starred Zeba, the great Indian character Kumar, and popular comedian Lehri. The film includes some beautiful music by A Hameed including the haunting Noor Jehan solo – O Re Sanam. The same year he also starred in West Pakistan’s first colour film, Ek Dil Do Deewane. He stayed a popular hero in Pakistani Urdu cinema for almost a decade more till 1973 making a likeable team with all the top Pakistani leading ladies of the day – Shamim Ara, Neelo, Deepa, Zeba, Husna and Rani. In particular, he was said to be involved with both Husna and Rani and even wanted to marry the latter!
Kamal tried his hand belatedly with Punjabi cinema and even tasted success with the huge success of Jatt Kudiyan Toon Darda (1976), which he produced and directed as well. The film also won him Pakistan’s equivalent of the Filmfare Award, the Nigar Award, for Best Punjabi Actor. He followed this by making the 2nd and 3rd parts, Ajj Di Kudian (1977) and Kal De Munde (1978), a rare trilogy or a 3-part film serial in Pakistani cinema. In spite of its success, Kamal was unable to sustain his stardom in Punjabi the way he did with Urdu cinema.
Other films directed by Kamal include Shehnai (1968), Honeymoon (1970) and Insaan aur Gadha (1973). Insaan aur Gadha was his one huge hit as director though it did run into some controversy as within the film, he symbolized the Pakistani people blindly listened to what the Government told them as donkeys! The last three films, he produced directed and acted in – Jatt Kamla Geya Dubai (1984), Mashraq-o-Maghrab (1985) and Siyasat (1986) all flopped miserably at he box-office.
Kamal’s last film appearances were in Choron Ke Ghar Chor (1996) and Mehndi (1996), both starring his son Ghalib Kamal as hero. After retiring from the movies, Kamal concentrated on acting in TV dramas. One of his best known roles on TV was in Kashkol, where he played a wealthy businessman whose son (Ghalib) is a heroin addict.
Bedridden for a month following a fall, Kamal passed away in Karachi on October 1, 2009 due to a cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife, a son and three daughters.
Kamal wrote his autobiography – Dastan-e-Kamal and also served on the National film Censor Board of Pakistan. He co-founded the Karachi Film Guild and the Pakistan Film and TV Academy and was also General Secretary of the Film Artists Association.
Header Photo courtesy Omar Ali Khan.