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Pakistani polymath Zia Mohyeddin was one of a kind

The British-Pakistani actor-broadcaster Zia Mohyeddin, the first Pakistani ever to work in Hollywood, who breathed his last on Faiz Ahmad Faiz's birth anniversary, February 13, was a larger-than-life figure who dedicated his entire life to propel the arts.

February 19, 2023 / 06:29 PM IST
Zia Mohyeddin, the British-Pakistani film actor, producer, director, and television broadcaster, died on February 13.

Zia Mohyeddin, the British-Pakistani film actor, producer, director, and television broadcaster, died on February 13.

The great Zia Mohyeddin, who was born on June 30 (or December 20) 1931 in Lyallpur, Pakistan, and passed away on February 13, 2023 in Karachi, aged 91, was already a legend when I first interacted with him as an adult in the mid-1990s. He had recently moved to Lahore where I then lived at Lakshmi Mansion at Regal Chowk. I was working on the launch of weekly The News on Friday, a brainchild of my editor the multi-talented Imran Aslam who revered Zia sahib.

Both were alumni of the prestigious Government College Lahore and its GCDC, the Government College Drama Club. Knowing my family’s connection to Zia sahib, Imran asked me to approach him for a weekly column.

Pakistan’s progressive movement revolved largely around the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose work Zia Mohyeddin so eloquently recited in his signature style, his distinctive, gravelly voice setting him apart from others. As part of the same circle, Zia sahib, born in 1931 in then Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Punjab, knew my father Dr M Sarwar who led Pakistan’s first nationwide student movement, the Democratic Students Federation, 1948-54.

Zia Mohyeddin breathed his last on the day Faiz Ahmad Faiz sahib’s birth anniversary is celebrated. Feeling unwell, he had been rushed to the hospital where he had to undergo surgery for an aneurysm. He reportedly told the surgeon, “Do what you have to do fast and patch me up, I have a lot of work.” This included travelling to Lahore for the Faiz Festival, from February 17-19.

For over 30 years, Faiz sahib’s poems were among the literary pieces Zia sahib recited every December 31st in Lahore at the annual "Zia Mohyeddin ke saath aik sham" (an evening with Zia Mohyeddin). The tradition, started in 1986 by his nephew Naveed "Bobby" Riaz, was interrupted only by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and 2020.

A theatre graduate of London’s renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), the suave Zia Mohyeddin had acted in several theatre productions, making his West End debut in A Passage to India as Dr Aziz in 1965. He played memorable roles in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970) as well. He had also starred in Jamil Dehlavi’s Immaculate Conception (1992) and the mini-series, The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

For several years he hosted "The Zia Mohyeddin Show", a talk show-cum-variety programme for Pakistan Television, 1969-73, showcasing talent from across the country with his trademark sophistication and wit.

“It was such a sophisticated, well presented show.  I remember thinking, I wish we had more like him,” recalls feminist activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka.

During most of Gen. Zia-ul Haq’s military rule, Zia sahib had lived in self-exile in Birmingham, UK with his second wife, the iconic Kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui. Gen. Zia’s death in a mid-air explosion followed by Benazir Bhutto’s win in the already scheduled elections in 1988 cleared the way for the return of progressive activists, writers, and artists to Pakistan. Zia sahib and Nahid split up in 1991.

Shortly afterwards, aged little over 60, he met Azra Bano Zaidi, an emerging singer and actor through her friend, the singer Tina Sani. Their love story defied their 30-year age difference and the two had married in 1994.

The late Zia Mohyeddin with his third wife Azra Bano Zaidi. (Photo: Mohyeddin family) The late Zia Mohyeddin with his third wife Azra Bano Zaidi. (Photo: Mohyeddin family)

Obtaining Zia sahib’s phone number from Bobby, I called and introduced myself. Zia sahib graciously invited me over. That’s when I first met Azra although our families have pre-partition connections. She is now a well established performer in her own right.

Over an elegant cup of tea, I explained what Imran Aslam wanted. Zia sahib knew Imran of course and liked the idea of writing a column. He was also firm about getting paid the top rate. He wouldn’t do a weekly piece but agreed to write a fortnightly one. The News on Friday became The News on Sunday after then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed the weekly holiday to conform with international banking days. Unfortunately, the digital archives of "The Zia Mohyeddin Column" don’t go to his earlier writings.

Some years later, I interviewed Zia sahib for my first documentary, Naheed Ki Katha, a project for my master’s degree in television journalism at Goldsmiths College, London. My focal character was Nahid Siddiqui, a symbol of how dance became a political issue under Gen. Zia-ul Haq. Zia Mohyeddin had headed the PIA Performing Arts Academy where they met and where she began her career. Talking to me at his Lahore home in April 2001, he shared his disappointment at how bureaucracy and bigotry have combined to oppress the arts in Pakistan.

A perfectionist and a stickler for detail, equally at home in English and Urdu, Zia sahib would not tolerate a mixing of the two languages — or a misspelling of his name.

In the mid-1990s, he painstakingly, for weeks, tutored a grandniece sitting for her "A" Levels, horrified that she intended to substitute a reading of Umrao Jan Ada (1899) with watching the movie.

When she returned after the exam he wanted to know what the questions were and how she had answered them. The last part of the exam had been a test of the feminine-masculine terms, including the feminine of "tattu" (mule).

“And what did you write for the feminine?” asked Zia sahib.

Now a senior financial communications specialist in Boston, Rima Hyder still laughs as she recalls how Zia Mamoo, as she called him, leapt agilely onto a sofa in horror at her response. Standing on the sofa he called out to Rima’s mother Tasawar in the kitchen. What kind of daughter had she raised? But Tasawar herself didn’t know the correct answer.

Outraged but amused, Zia sahib patiently explained that the feminine of mule in Urdu is "tattwani" — not the word which translates as excretion.

In 2005, he became the founding director of the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi which is still going strong. He has also received numerous awards and honours in Pakistan and abroad.

Zia Mohyeddin was the youngest of six siblings, with five older sisters. Family lore has it that when the baby Zia was born, his sisters announced their intention of skipping school to celebrate. Their father Khadim Mohyeddin, a writer and poet who was reportedly the first "professor of music" at the University of Punjab, would have none of it.

Zia Mohyeddin (centre) with his eldest son (right) and grandson. (Photo: Mohyeddin family) Zia Mohyeddin (centre) with his eldest son (right) and grandson. (Photo: Mohyeddin family)

His sole surviving sister Razia Ishaq, 101 years old, is a poet living in Indianapolis with her family. Besides Azra, he leaves behind two sons, Minos Ameer and Risha Ameer, from his first marriage with Sarwar Zemani; another Hassan "Moyo" Mohyeddin from Nahid Siddiqui, and a daughter, Alia, from Azra.

“He leaves behind a huge void,” says Nahid. “Just to have that kind of quality around in Pakistan was very consoling and inspiring.”

In June 2017, Zia sahib wrote his last piece for TNS: "For nearly a quarter of a century I have been writing a column which appeared in this newspaper every fortnight. I am grateful to TNS which allowed my ramblings to be worthy enough to appear in a section called "Literati". Enough is enough though, and my jottings on Hamlet should be considered as my swan song: Farewell!"

Farewell, Zia sahib. You will always be one of a kind.

Beena Sarwar, the author of this article, which has earlier appeared on Sapan News Network website, is a journalist and journalism teacher in Boston. She is founder editor Sapan News Network.

This is a Sapan (Southasia Peace Action Network) News syndicated feature available to use with credit to Sapan News Network.

Note on Southasia: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan uses "Southasia" as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means "dream".

Sapan News Network - or Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan) is a coalition of peace activists and organisations working towards freedom of trade, travel and tourism in the region, people-to-people contact especially between India and Pakistan, and for soft borders or visa on arrival for Southasians in each other’s countries. Views expressed are personal