“When a great actor dies, there is a void produced in society, a gap which requires to be filled up,” said essayist William Hazlitt’s, his words so forcible, so right, so filled with an infinite melancholy. They ring especially true today, on the passing of Zia Mohyeddin. Of his genius, many have already spoken. So I will take the liberty to share a personal anecdote.
Although a regular frequenter of theatre, I only recently started writing about it critically. In June 2022, the curtain had barely opened on a performance of an Urdu adaptation of perhaps the most popular English drama by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet when the monsoon season took its toll and it started raining cats and dogs. The abysmal consequence of the rain was that the electricity went out and the generator failed to provide support to the darkness at the venue. The full house was adamant about watching the play and flashed their torchlights as the actors continued to perform.
What followed was a crowd of students ushering him — the literary icon and legendary director of the play — down the flight of steps to announce the cancellation and rescheduling of the production. As the crowd stood in ovation and reverence, I noticed how respectfully the surrounding students held his hand to help him down the steps but he held himself firmly on his own. He was 90 at the time.
I reviewed the play for Dawn’s ICON, and it was a pleasurable surprise to know, from Junaid Zuberi, the CEO of NAPA, that Zia Sahab had appreciated the review and wished to meet the writer. Thrilled, I visited the old Hindu Gymkhana building where the theatre academy is nestled. He met me there with grace and a genteel bearing, with the utmost gusto, but never overplayed a single moment, making sure I was not overwhelmed by his presence.
As surreal as it was, it was unbelievable to enjoy the richness of his conversation and the literary treasure trove that he had to share. A fan moment with Zia Sahab and a conversation on literature, cinema, and theatre meant truly being in the presence of greatness. He even humoured me with a picture, and as I stood to stand next to him, he suggested we go to the other side of the room, for the light was better there.
He soon left for his diction class, making sure he was not running late, leaving me utterly spellbound at the perfectionist that he was. They don’t make people like him anymore. Is it any wonder that under the pressure of such splendid actor and the present poignancy of today, his memory should stand fixed for a space in my mind and heart?
Zia Mohyeddin was a potpourri. And a nonpareil at that. An actor, director, voice artist, pioneering television broadcaster, orator, and twinkle-eyed adventurous soul with a hair-trigger wit. Born on June 20, 1931 in Faisalabad, the founding head of the National Academy of Performing Arts trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London from 1953 to 1956.
His stage roles in Long Day’s Journey into Night and Julius Caesar were masterful and soon after, he made his West End debut in A Passage to India, originating the role of Dr Aziz, from April to December 1960 at the Comedy Theatre, running for 302 performances. His film debut in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), playing the role of Tafas, remains unforgettable. He worked as an actor in the UK for years before he made his return to Pakistan where he gained fame famous for his blockbuster PTV talk show Zia Mohyeddin Show (1969–1973).
He was appointed director of the PIA Arts Academy from 1973 till 1977 but his differences with the military regime of then General Zia-ul-Haq forced him to return to the UK in the late 1970s. He worked in Birmingham, where he produced Central Television’s flagship weekly multicultural programme Here and Now (1986 – 1989).
The first Pakistani to ever work in Hollywood, he contributed richly to both Pakistani and British cinema and television throughout his illustrious career — brimming with accented inflections, dramatic pauses, and varied nuances. He gave Urdu poetry and prose recitations the excellence they deserved. His readings of English letters and literature were remarkable to the ears.
In February 2005, then president Pervez Musharraf cherry-picked Zia Sahab to form the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi, of which he has been president emeritus since its inception. The Government of Pakistan awarded Zia Sahab the Sitara-i-Imtiaz Award in 2003 and he was honoured with the Hilal-i-Imtiaz Award in 2012 for his contributions to the arts.
Off stage and outside the studio, Zia Sahab indulged in his passions in the most creative of ways. He authored A Carrot is a Carrot, and The God of My Idolatry: Memories and Reflections. But despite his accomplishments, he was unfailingly modest.
When death struck Zia Sahab, it hit a shining mark, a signal blow. As a nation, we are much too inclined to take our great artists for granted. Our poets and painters, our singers and actors, all doing the state much service, live mainly in the north of our everyday opinion. For now, as the empty echoes float back, we are left with the baffling reflection that Zia Sahab lies upon another shore, that the spirit of our great actor is beyond our little words, that his place shall not know him anymore. Must we go on with the rest of the world learning some things too late because in our flurry, we forget to appreciate the hallmark of true brilliance we possess?
Goodbye to Zia Sahab, as he transcends to the heavenly abode. One thinks of him in some lines from a poem by Michelangelo:
Now weary and nearing my last word
I have come to an understanding with death.