Master of all trades

Print edition : July 04, 2008

Zia Mohyeddin: "Urdu poetry. is evocative and creates a stirring in the minds of the audience. I feel if I have been able to arouse such stirrings, I have done my job."-KAJAL DAS

A conversation with Zia Mohyeddin.

ZIA MOHYEDDIN is a star in the true sense of the word. He fulfils Satyajit Rays definition of one, that is, a person who remains interesting even when doing nothing. At 75, he is amongst the select few in the acting profession who combine undeniable attractiveness with terrific talent. If he stands quietly in a corner of a large, crowded room, you would notice him. In his own domain on the stage, on screen or before television cameras, he immediately catches the eye even if he is not in the foreground.

Talking to him in Delhi on a mellow February morning a little while before he was to take a flight back home to Karachi, one discovered a man of wide experience and enduring charm. Although pressed for time, he did not once look at his watch, answered every question courteously, and when the interview ended abruptly with questions left hanging in the air, said: If theres anything else you want to know, e-mail me. Here are some snatches of the conversation:

Asked whether he was from Kotwara, Uttar Pradesh, he said: People often make that mistake. My first wife was from a Kotwara family. She was the nawabs daughter and film-maker Muzzafar Alis cousin. I was born in Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad, in 1933. It was built in the early 20th century by Sir Henry Lyall and named after him.

About his beginnings on stage, he said: It would be foolish of me to say that my acting career began on the stage in a play, written by my father, at the age of 11. A lot of people who act as schoolboys become lawyers or accountants or insurance agents. But something happened to me during that first experience. I lost all sense of time and space. It was as though I had lost my sense of recognition. The people I had been rehearsing with were strangers whom I had never seen before. As for the actual setting, it appeared to be a space in another world, a dream. And although I spoke my lines, it was quite sometime before I realised that it was I who was speaking. For the record, it was not a school play but a public performance.

Zia Mohyeddins father was a lecturer in Lyallpur College and a man with literary ambitions. Zia was brought up in Lahore and read English literature at the famed Government College. He gave up his masters in psychology to accept an offer to go to Australia under the Colombo Plan in the early 1950s and observe broadcasting methods there on a Frequent Broadcasting Fellowship. Asian students from Commonwealth countries were offered training facilities in the media in Britain and Australia.

His childhood love of the theatre reasserted itself, and he proceeded to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). About his being selected, he modestly declared: I was lucky enough to be selected. He was there from 1953 to 1955. Following this stint, he worked with various repertory companies, moved from one to another and considered it as quite a useful apprenticeship. He remembered:

It was a weekly rep system. We would work through the week rehearsing a play opening on Monday. Come Monday night, one started rehearsing another play, which would open the following week on Tuesday.

We were paid five pounds seventeen shillings and six pence a week. One could never have a proper meal. Making both ends meet was a problem. One had to decide whether to buy a tube of toothpaste or have an omelette. How one survived is still a mystery.... Survive he did. In his own words he was lucky to meet Jack (John) Briely, who was to write the script for Richard Attenboroughs film Gandhi. Jack was then setting up plays for American Air Force personnel based in England. I met him at a party. This was in 1956. I was paid 25 a week, so was Larry Hagman, one of the professional actors in the troupe. He went on to become a fine actor. Jack Brielys budget allowed for only two pros.

We played in Weisbaden. The engagement lasted for a month. The company was called On Target. I toured with them for 18 months. Wasnt bothered by owing too much to the landlady. Father had a coronary attack. I rushed back. He somehow managed to survive. I dont know how, but he did.

At Karachi Airport bumped into a friend who had been with me in Australia. This was at the end of 1957. He wanted me to do a play and get the newly founded Arts Council of Karachi to fund it. I did the first professional production for them, with proper wages for everybody. It was La Quila se Lalu Khet in Urdu written by Khwaja Mueenuddin from Hyderabad. Very Chekhovian in spirit, it traced the downward slide of an aristocratic family that had migrated from India.

He did Jean Anouils Ring Around the Moon, Shahr Bano (Romeo and Juliet) and Thornton Wilders The Matchmaker for the Pakistan Arts Council in Karachi. Meanwhile, the British Council suggested that he undertake a tour and study the works of theatre directors such as Tony Richardson and George Devine. He worked with the Guilford Repertory Company fairly often, and Philip North invited him to direct Garcia Lorcas play Yerma. Frank Hauser, a gifted, taciturn man in charge, let Zia Mohyeddin have his way.

In 1958-59, the Oxford Playhouse came to India with a very fine West End cast, including Eric Thompson (a director and actor and whose daughter Emma is a famous film actor), Kay Doubleday, Frank Windsor and Nicholas Winfrey. I went with the company to Pune, lovely train [the Deccan Queen], and then onto Madras [Chennai], Delhi, Calcutta [Kolkata]. In Pune, I spent three to four hours at the wedding of an impoverished couple. Frank was already fascinated.

In 1960, Zia Mohyeddin came into the limelight playing Aziz in Shanta Rama Raus stage adaptation of E.M. Forsters novel A Passage to India. The production in London took off, and the British stage discovered a really moving actor. The play was an even greater success in New York and Zia was lionised for his performance. I was the first Asian to have my name up in lights on Broadway, he said in the course of the interview.

From then on, I knew I didnt have to bite my nails or wait for the phone to ring. He worked steadily on and became a jobbing actor on TV, films and the radio. A telling cameo in David Leans Lawrence of Arabia brought him to the notice of film producers. A larger role in Khartoum, directed by old-timer Basil Dearden, proved Zias mettle while performing in the company of acting giants such as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, not to forget a star like Charlton Heston. He worked with directors of unusual talent such as Fred Zinnemann in Behold a Pale Horse and Alexander Mackendrick in Sammy Going South.

His talent was noticed by Merchant-Ivory when they cast him in the pivotal role of Hari, the volatile scriptwriter and lyricist in love with the heros wife, in Bombay Talkie, which was about the intrigues and jealousies in the commercial Hindi cinema of Bombay (now Mumbai). He was easily the best thing in the film along with Subrata Mitras poetic, understated camerawork.

Along with his work on stage and in films, he became a much-sought-after actor on television. He appeared in Bergerac after Edmund Rostands famous play on the French swordsman-lover Cyrano de Bergerac, The Jewel in the Crown, Death of a Princess, Z-cars, and so on. Here, too, he made his mark. He hosted his own TV show in Pakistan, which was hugely popular and among its innovations was Zia-Ka-Theka, in which a tabla player played a rhythm cycle while someone would intone possibly a real question about a mother looking for a groom for her daughter, which went like this: Shakira-Ki-Ma-Ye-Boli-Apni-Ladki-Ke liye-Barr Chahiye.

The Zia Mohyeddin show ran for 26 episodes during 1970-71, and people still talk about it in Pakistan. He spent the 1970s and 1980s directing TV plays. He remembers: Didnt play in as many plays as I directed.

In 1973, he married Kathak dancer Naheed Siddhiqui and went back to England, following differences with the political regime, and worked in the 1980s in Birmingham, producing Here and Now, a multicultural programme for Central Television, which made a considerable impact.

More than 20 years ago he discovered Readers Theatre. Those who have heard Zia Mohyeddin read will not forget the experience. His voice, a judicious mixture of old, seasoned wood and vintage brandy along with flawless diction, intonation and pronunciation, will overwhelm even the confirmed cynic. It is safe to say that no one reads Urdu prose or poetry as he does. Every year on New Years Eve, the 400-seater Ali Theatre in Lahore is packed to capacity to hear him.

He has given readings wherever there are emigre populations who yearn to hear Urdu, be it in England, Australia, Canada or the United States. He has also come to India, and his performances have been warmly appreciated. One has heard him twice and has been touched to the core of ones being. About his singular effort, he says: Readers Theatre is a style of theatre featuring minimal movement and scenery and relying instead on the vocal expressiveness of the actor to create a sense of place, character and action. You have to do it all with your voice.

His inspiration was the great Shakespearean actor John Gielguds Ages of Man, which was a perfect example of what Readers Theatre is all about. One moment you were on the sea coast of Illyria, the next in the streets of Syracuse. And whatever the place, the characters emerge as large as life; now a Leontes seething with jealousy; now a Mercurio with all his braggadocio.

He continues: It is easy if you are a Gielgud. He was unique; he could pack more crochets and semi-breves in a single word than there are in a whole aria. Lesser mortals have vocal expressiveness with patience and hard work. Good speech alone, however, does not make one a good reader. Reading involves the simultaneous use of the eye, the ear and the voice, all coordinated by the brain. It is this three-pronged aspect of the operation that has to be practised and mastered.

If you hear Zia read, you will realise how completely he has mastered all the three. He makes a turn of phrase or a particularly felicitous metaphor in a poem, ghazal or nazm come alive with a subtle inflection of the voice, making eye contact with the audience almost simultaneously.

He has been peerless in his rendering of the Urdu poets, ranging from the classics, meaning Mir Taqi Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Momin and Ghalib, to the moderns such as Jigar Moradabadi, Josh Malihabadi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, not to forget the opaque ones such as Noon Meem Rashid or Meerajee.

About reading the difficult poets, he observes: Urdu poetry by Noon Meem Rashid or Meerajee, which is wonderful to read, is not always easy to understand (like Faiz) but it is evocative and creates a stirring in the minds of an audience. I feel if I have been able to arouse such stirrings, I have done my job.

Zia is currently devoting all his energies to developing theatre in Pakistan through the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi, of which he has been chairman since 2005. The state of theatre in Pakistan is much like what it is in India, sporadic and amateurish despite the existence of a National School of Drama in Delhi and a few repertory companies in other States. India can boast of a few fine directors such as Ratan Thiyam, but there is really no paying audience for serious theatre.

In Pakistan, the problem is simpler but nevertheless difficult to tackle. Zia Mohyeddin says in an e-mail to this writer: I am now so deeply engrossed in NAPA that I have given up all professional engagements. God knows whether my efforts will bear fruit. My sole concern is that I am able to inculcate not only professional ethics but aesthetic standards amongst our pupils. Some, if not all, will carry the torch, I hope.

His life has been an eventful journey, enriched by experiences bitter and sweet and of various kinds in between enriching it. Those who have seen him in the cinema or on stage are lucky, but luckier still are those who have heard him read.

His five-volume audio recordings of Urdu classics, prose and poetry alike, are a rare treat as is his 2002 audio-book version in English of Salman Rushdies Haroon and the Sea of Stories. Zia Mohyeddin is indeed an artist for all seasons.

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