When I was a child, I used to think that film actors actually sing the songs they dance to in the movies. I was pretty upset when I learned that they simply lip-sync to the music. I also realised that film heroes are not really superheroes who can do everything - they are just good looking people with acting skills.
But like everything else in life, there are exceptions in the acting profession, and one actor in Bangladeshi cinema specifically, comes to mind.
A blockbuster success
Zafar Iqbal was born in 1950 in Dhaka, but his native home was in Sirajganj. The younger generation were crazy about him since the Liberation War till the 1990s, but my memory of him is limited to the film Bhai Bondhu that aired on BTV, where he acted in the role of a blind singer. Those who remember Salman Shah as the real stylish film hero ahead of his time, need to watch only one or two films of Zafar Iqbal to realise their mistake. Zafar Iqbal’s complete adaptation of the latest fashions never appeared overdone, he carried the trends as if they were brought into existence with him in mind. But ultimately, his films never engaged me as much as Zafar Iqbal’s musical talents did.
Like any kid growing up in the 60s, Zafar Iqbal’s idol was Elvis, which prompted him to learn the guitar by the time he was in class seven. He performed Elvis’ songs regularly at cultural events at school and college. He formed his own band in 1966 with two of his friends. He only performed English numbers, otherwise his band Rambling Stone would have easily been considered as the first ever Bangladeshi band.
The band used to perform regularly at Hotel Intercontinental. Renowned music director Robin Ghosh even used him as a session guitarist in the film Pitch Dhala Poth. During one of those shows, Khan Ataur Rahman saw Zafar Iqbal and offered him work as an actor. Initially, he only said that he would think about it. After many conversations over the phone, however, Iqbal finally agreed to play the lead role in Apan Por. And that is when his musical identity was pushed to the background.
During the Liberation War, he joined the struggle as a freedom fighter, but he has never openly discussed these experiences. There were rumours of why he was silent on the matter, but the real reason is still unknown.
After the war, he started acting regularly from the mid-seventies, starring in lead roles in Shurjoshongram and its sequel Shurjoshadhin, opposite Bobita. His role in Mastan in 1975 solidified his image as the face of film heroes of that era. He was the singular choice for roles depicting post-independence youth struggling to cope with troubled lives and going astray in frustration. But he was a versatile actor, as demonstrated in Noyoner Alo, where he played the role of a rural youth. All of his 150 films were supremely successful, commercially.
What about his music?
Who can stifle the talent of a man whose elder brother was a composer like Anwar Parvez and whose younger sister was a singer like Shahnaz Rahmatullah? Even after becoming the most famous film hero, the musician lived on. Alauddin Ali used Iqbal as the session guitarist in almost all of the films he was the music director of. Ali even said later that guitarists of his quality were rare at the time.
He wrote - “Zafar Iqbal sang “Shukhey Theko O Amar Nondini.” There is an interesting story behind it. He was mainly a guitar player before coming into film. He was a fellow guitarist. He had a band. They used to play at the Sheraton Hotel every Saturday and Sunday. One day he came to our studio at Indira Road to record guitar for the song “Pitch Dhala Pothtakey Bhalobeshechi” composed by Robin Ghosh. He respected me a lot, as I worked with his elder brother Anwar Parvez. So, I said to him one day, “let’s do a song for television.” But he was quite shy about it. The first song that I composed for him was “Shesh Korona, Shurutei Khela, Na Bhengo Na.” After that I did “Shukhey Thako O Amar Nondini Hoye Karo Ghoroni.” After that I did about five or six more songs for him including “Jebhabei Achi Beche To Achi.” Later on he sang “Hoy Jodi Bodnam Hok Aro, Ami To Ekhon Ar Noi Karo,” in the film Bodnam directed by Razzak bhai (actor), which I wrote and composed.”
After the song “Shukhey Thako O Amar Nondini” was first broadcast, it was the subject of discussion for the next six months in every tea stall. In the mid-eighties, Iqbal released a solo album. He used to hangout more in musical circles than film ones. That’s where his heart was. I have heard that he used to spend his late afternoons watering his garden and that’s when young women from the surrounding buildings would gather up on their roof to watch him. That was in fact the inspiration for Kumar Biswajit’s famous song “Tumi Roj Bikeley Amar Baganey.”
Even though he was a father to two sons and was married, he was deeply in love with his co-star in more than 30 films - Bobita. His obsession for the alluring actress had become an open secret. To numb his pain, he started to drink heavily. It landed him in ICU once, where he famously asked the doctor after waking up: “give me a beer please.”
The talented actor and musician died early at the age of 40, in 1992. He was laid to rest in Azimpur cemetery. When his last film was released, a month after his death, the audience cried at the theatre, specifically when his character asked for directions to Azimpur. Strangely, it seemed, the character in the film knew about the actor’s impending fate.
Translated by: Saqib Sarker
Ishtiak Islam Khan is a music critic and lyricist who writes on Bangla rock music. He is currently working on a book on Bangla band music history.