Zia Mohyeddin, as I remember him

Zia Mohyeddin, as I remember him

People have said that Urdu lost its voice with his death, but I say that I lost someone quite close, whose lovable smile will always remain etched in my memory.
14 Feb, 2023

“It’s Suhayb, (as in rehab, tab) not Sohaib (as in babe, rabe),” corrected Zia Mohyeddin sahab when I asked him to autograph his memoirs A Carrot is a Carrot and The God of My Idolatry for me. After several meetings with him at NAPA — the National Academy of Performing Arts — sometime around the beginning of 2021, I gathered the courage to ask him to sign my books. For someone who has been saying his own name incorrectly for over four decades, it was a wake-up call with the stroke of a pen.

For a generation like mine, who had the misfortune of growing up in the days of the tyrannical Zia-ul-Haq, Zia Mohyeddin was a nobody, although we listened to his recitations on audio cassettes. My elders were diehard fans of his as they grew up watching The Zia Mohyeddin Show on PTV in the 70s. Shakira ki maa kia boli and lagay theka — something he said to the musicians to start the thaika — were unknown to us. The closest we could get was the iconic parody by Moin Akhtar in 1986 at the sixth PTV Awards. “Yeh PTV award hai, design iska odd hai [this is the PTV award, its design is odd]” was rendered the same way Zia Sahab would have read it.

A trendsetter as far as talkshows were concerned, The Zia Mohyeddin Show was quite popular in its days. With most of the recording tapes lost in the PTV archives, I asked Zia Sahab about the following he amassed around that time and why he stopped the show after just two spells. “Well, after the success of the first spell from Karachi in 1971, I did the second and eventually the last spell from Lahore in 1973. After the airing of the episodes, it was getting difficult for me to move around. People would circle my car, feel proud for touching my shirt and tried to get closer to me, whenever I went out. Autographs were the selfies back then and as I was not used to such adulation, I decided to give it a break,” recalled Zia Sahab at one of the sittings.

The show also saw the debut of comedians Moin Akhtar, Ismail Tara and Khalid Abbas Dar, not to forget the famed compere Khushbakht Shujaat. The latter, who was a student back then, became an overnight star after engaging in a candid discussion with filmstar Muhammad Ali. Zia Sahab laughed when I mentioned watching that particular clip. “Khushbakht Aalia, as she was called back then, was hilarious, but Muhammad Ali Sahab mujhsay kuch naraaz hogaye thay uss qist ke baad [was a bit upset with me after that episode].”

Not many people know that Zia Mohyeddin was an inspiration to many, including chocolate hero Waheed Murad. Murad was introduced on stage for the first time in 1957 by the big man, who directed Romeo and Juliet at Karachi’s Theosophical Hall. He was given the role of Benvolio and Zia Sahab remembered working on his voice throw before selecting him for the part.

With changes coming in the political setup in Pakistan, Zia Sahab left for the UK by the mid-70s and continued working in Hollywood films and British TV. He came back in the mid-90s and relaunched the iconic show, but found his audience occupied elsewhere. An Evening with Zia Mohyeddin remained an annual fixture in Lahore for over 35 years where the thespian would read Urdu prose and poems. A disciple of the Western genre of “reading”, he introduced the youth to legends like Ghalib, Faiz, Noon Meem Rashid, Shaukat Thanvi, Ibn e Insha and Patras Bokhari.

The first formal introduction with Zia Sahab and my generation happened during the airing of Shoaib Mansoor’s Dhun hamari tumhare naam hui in the late 90s. He presented filmy songs that have been copied on both sides of the border over the years.

Zia Sahab was quite particular about many things — the spelling of “Mohyeddin” topping the list. He referred to his birth city as Lyallpur instead of Faisalabad till his last day. The other grey area was the topic of Mujrim Kaun, the only Urdu film in which he starred. Directed by Aslam Dar, the film had Zia Sahab pitted against stalwarts like Allauddin, Rehan, Rangeela and a budding Sultan Rahi. The mystery thriller failed, despite its excellent music.

I had the honour of trespassing the topic and coming out clean from the discussion, that too during my very first encounter with the great man. Arriving two minutes early, I was asked to wait. I was earlier cautioned by Arshad Mehmood, the actor and music director about Zia Sahab’s peculiarity. Being programme director of NAPA, Mehmood was in Lahore that day and told me that Zia Sahab has never entertained anyone for more than five minutes, be it a fellow like you or a head of the state. Once he reportedly even refused to meet Hollywood star Angelina Jolie when she arrived at NAPA unannounced.

When I came out of the room after 15 minutes, I got a call from Mehmood who said, “Tum le aaye hogay Mujrim Kaun ko beech me [You must have brought up Mujrim Kaun], otherwise there was no chance that you could have survived that long.”

Zia Sahab was a loving figure. The audio cassettes of his recitations were part of my grandfather’s collection. Whenever I met him at NAPA or the Arts Council, he displayed such affection that reminded me of my deceased grandfather. I mentioned it to him once and he simply patted me. People have said that Urdu lost its voice with his death, but I would say that I lost someone quite close, whose lovable smile will always remain etched in my memory.

Zia Sahab began his journey from Radio Pakistan in 1949. After 74 years mesmerising the world with his acting, recitation, Marsiya Goi, and hosting, his demise on World Radio Day is in itself a tribute to his work.