A celebrated figure in the world of television and theatre, Aly Zaker is also a veteran of the advertising industry in Bangladesh. He is a recipient of the Ekushey Padak, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award, Bangabandhu Award, Munir Chowdhury Padak, Naren Biswas Padak, and the Meril Prothom Alo Lifetime Achievement Award. In an interview organized by ICE Today, writer Kingkor Ahsan chats with actor, businessman, and columnist Aly Zaker, and touches upon a variety of topics and anecdotes from the incredible journey that is his life.
We were to meet at Aly Zaker’s office at 1:30 pm, but in my enthusiasm to meet the man I respected so much, I decided to get there a little early. His office room was on the top floor, connected to the roof, with a huge window that welcomed in a stream of sunlight and a view of the bustling city. He arrived exactly on schedule. As his tall, handsome frame entered the room, he spotted me and his face lit up in his usual, warm smile and he said, “Let’s begin Kingkor.”
I had already prepared a few questions based on the bit of research I did about him from newspapers and the Internet. But he suggested that we keep it an informal chat and I was only too happy to oblige and decided I’d add in my questions here and there if needed once we began talking. I presented him with two of my books, Kissapurana, and Mokhmoli Muffler, and then we began.
KA: You began your acting career with the theatre group ‘Arannyak’. Whom did you learn acting from? How important is formal education in terms of acting?
AZ: Nobody really taught us acting in that regard. We basically learned through our own enthusiasm. We used to think about it a lot, read books on it, had discussions among ourselves. We noticed the many expressions of the people we got to meet — their laughter, anger, and tears. Understanding emotions are the most important aspect of acting.
I remember when we did Macbeth in collaboration with The British Council, under the direction of Christopher Sanford. He didn’t know a word of Bangla and I was worried about he how was going to direct an entire play in a language he didn’t understand. He noticed my apprehension and encouraged me with a few words. Sanford’s words made me realize that there is really no alternative than to understand emotions and expressions when it comes to acting. But yes, it is good to formally learn acting as well, if one has the opportunity. Shabana Azmi was indeed very fortunate to have been able to strengthen her skills under the tutelage of Farooq Sheikh when she began her studies in acting. There are so many things to learn. We also have to keep in mind that acting is not imitating. It is about noticing and learning and interpreting it fluidly into your own acting abilities.
KA: You and your peers brought about and witnessed a renaissance in the world of theatre in Bangladesh. People used to avidly watch and talk about performances and shows. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm seems to have fizzled out among young people today. Why do you think this is?
AZ: Young people today don’t appear to have the time for theatre or the time to think about it. But that’s not necessarily restricted to just youngsters. Sarah Zaker’s mother told me how she doesn’t really enjoy theatre when we were discussing it once. She said to me, “When they mention a blue sky while performing on stage, I can’t really see it, can I? I have to imagine it. An actor on stage may say, ‘I speak here under a clear, blue sky’, but the audience doesn’t see that clear, blue sky at the theatre. They have to use additional time and effort to imagine. But that’s not the case when it comes to television or cinema, which is why theatre has never intrigued me.’
Room for imagination is limited in this new competitive world of ours. We are all restless. I suppose this why reviving theatre is more difficult among youngsters today.
KA: You have many identities – actor, columnist, and businessman. You have been contributing to a national daily for many years now. Have you consciously thought about becoming a writer or did you happen to stumble upon this passion of yours?
AZ: I actually love pens and have a hobby of collecting them. My maternal grandfather’s home was in Kolkata, and as a boy, I used to visit there often with my mother. Like any young boy, I would eagerly take in the sights and sounds during our trips, and then pen them down with equal enthusiasm in elaborate letters to friends back home. I used to love writing letters. I suppose the habit and passion grew from there.
When I was young, there used to be someone who would come by to the front of our house and would read out from the novel Bishad Shindhu to a gathering of people, many among whom would have tears in their eyes as they listened to him recite. They would be captivated by the heart-wrenching tale of Bishad Shindhu, imagine the protagonist’s world and feel his pain just from listening to the words being read aloud.
There is not enough time to read and imagine nowadays. It seems to be an unfortunate side effect of this competitive world. I’m continuing my writing. I have a book coming out soon under Ittadi Publications.
“I AM CONFIDENT IN MY ABILITIES TO SUCCESSFULLY DIRECT THIS PLAY EVEN THOUGH IT IS IN BANGLA BECAUSE THE EXPRESSION OF EMOTIONS IS THE SAME ALL OVER THE WORLD. THE EXPRESSION OF AFFECTION BETWEEN A MOTHER AND HER CHILD, A FATHER’S FIRMNESS WITH HIS CHILDREN, THE BANTER BETWEEN SIBLINGS, OR THE TENDERNESS BETWEEN LOVERS ARE UNIVERSAL.”
KA: Acting and writing are similar in that they are both expressions of emotion. On the other hand, we perceive the world of business as harsh and ruthless. You are at the helm of Asiatic, one of the top advertising agencies in Bangladesh. When did you realise your interest in business and that you wanted to be a part of this world?
AZ: I’ve always thought of myself as an employee of Asiatic 360. I still go to the office, put in my work hours and draw a monthly salary, without concerning myself about the profit. We started our journey with only seven people and today Asiatic 360 has a team of over 650 employees. This is my family, my place of emotion. This is probably why I’ve never considered business as being harsh or ruthless.
Before the Liberation War, my elder brother had bought me a one-way ticket to Karachi. I stayed at my maternal uncle’s house for a few days in the beginning, but I later rented a small place for myself on Jahangir Road. It was a small room with a bed in one corner. I would go out every day hunting for jobs. I saw a job advertisement in the daily paper Dawn once. It was for the position of a Trainee Executive in an advertising firm. I went for the interview and almost immediately got the job. My salary was two hundred takas and my rent was a hundred and seventy-five. My second job provided me with the opportunity to return to Bangladesh. The Management there offered me a position as Senior Executive with a monthly salary of four hundred taka. My first boss was Enayet Karim. Things were going along smoothly enough until the Liberation War broke out, and I handed in my resignation to join the war efforts. After the War ended with the defeat of the Pakistani Army, I found myself at a loss over what to do with my life as a member of a newly liberated nation. Many suggested I apply for a Government job. Then somebody from the Ministry suggested taking up business. Everything was being started anew back then, and the Government was providing entrepreneurs with financial aid. I decided to remain in and focus in the field of Advertising. I took sixty-five thousand taka from my father-in-law. Within a year, on 8th February 1975, I managed to return that money from the profit we had made. That is how my journey began. I have managed to develop and establish each section of the agency as separate agencies. We have Forethought PR as the agency that looks after Public Relations. We have also established a separate agency that deals with media buying, as well as others that provide specific and holistic solutions to all aspects of the advertising world. I work with honesty in my line of business. There is only one battle I’m concerned with and that is talent.
KA: Do you have any regrets? Anything you look back at and feel you haven’t been able to do?
ZA: Not at all. My father was my idol. He would always say, “Life will give you back whatever you have put into it.” I believe in the same. I have put in my share of hard work. There was a lot of hard work, but there was enthusiasm too. We didn’t have many to show us the way or guide us. We stumbled here and there, but we learned from our experiences and managed to go on and make our own path. We have tried to contribute towards taking the nation forward through our own fields and in our own ways. I am happy with my life.
Translated by Farina Noireet