The living legend of Pakistani films, television and stage Zia Mohyeddin has taken his final bow and passed into oblivion. Zia’s journey in the field of entertainment and performing arts began in 1949 from the newly established and fledgling platform of Radio Pakistan. For 74 years he captivated and mesmerised generations of radio, film and television audiences with his recitations, acting, and hosting and marsia-goi. He was without doubt our greatest thespian, broadcaster, actor, orator and talk show host. He could cast a magical spell with words in English and Urdu and had a mastery of both languages – a unique gift not found in many notable celebrities of the media. He had the uncanny gift of reciting Shakespeare and Ghalib with equal ease and comfort that could hold his audience spellbound for the duration of his recitation.
Zia was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) of the UK and had performed in hundreds of shows in the West End Theatre of London while producing many successful TV productions, and then finally returning to Pakistan and providing an unforgettable service to his native land in the field of culture, language, literature, performing arts, films and TV. Zia of Lyallpur has finally left the world and his beloved stage after a successful breathtaking performance of 91 years in a blaze of glory, admiration, accolades and the love of countless fans. Many generations of actors and performers will not be able to come anywhere near his giant stature and will be just dwarves when compared to his gigantic stature.
During his last stint in Pakistan, Zia Mohyeddin was responsible for founding and setting up the National Academy Of Performing Arts (NAPA) in the old Hindu Gymkhana premises with himself as the founding member and president of the institute that he ran with such tender loving care. He also had the responsibility of teaching voice and diction to the fortunate students who attended his class. During his time as the head of NAPA, he cultivated cultural richness, flawless expression, great content, deep thinking and an unforgettable student-teacher relationship. He will always be remembered for his great contribution to the art and culture of Pakistan and the numerous students that he mentored and groomed. And many of these students will go on to become outstanding acting, vocal and dancing talent of Pakistan for the next few decades to come.
Such commitment to one’s love for the arts needs both disconnect and disenchantment from the mainstream – and only visionaries can translate that indifference into something much more than just a personality type or a flex
“In Pakistan, if someone is playing a drunkard, he feels it’s a necessity to drink before the performance even if the role doesn’t demand it – just so he can get his act together. Drinking is not the real problem, the core issue is the lack of professionalism,” he had said during a newspaper interview. He had a passionate belief in the artistic talent in the country and continued to do his part to find and nurture this talent. He always hated the decline of the society’s aesthetic sense and appreciation of the arts, but never abandoned the local media and kept coming back again and again as an actor or as a background voice for some advertisements or social campaigns.
In 1992 he worked in the Jamil Dehlvi production of Immaculate Conception, playing the role of a Khwaja Sira. The cast included Shabana Azmi, James Wilby and Melissa Leo. Despite a very busy life and a punishing schedule, he managed to write three books, the most famous being A Carrot is a Carrot, in which he talks about some personal and professional experiences and memories during his work in literature and theatre.
Theatre was the first love of his life and he continued to direct theatrical ventures at NAPA such as Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear in Urdu. In 2013 he directed Waiting for Godot in English and chose his daughter Aliya to play the role of the ghost. His tireless dedication and continuous hard work took a heavy toll on his health and private life, and he has talked about this in the documentary on his life titled From a lover to the beloved, produced in 2022.
He only had bad things to say about contemporary Pakistani TV and the deteriorating state of the Urdu language. Such commitment to one’s love for the arts needs both disconnect and disenchantment from the mainstream – and only visionaries can translate that indifference into something much more than just a personality type or a flex. Zia Moheyddin turned his dissatisfaction into an academy.
The generation of Pakistanis who grew up during the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq were great fans of Zia Mohyeddin and were in love with the Zia Mohyeddin Show aired every week on the only available state TV channel PTV. Who can forget his instructions to the musicians with the words “Laggay Theka”? Zia was the greatest trend setter of the 1970s and his show was the most popular TV show of the time. He had this to say about his show: “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.”
Zia Mohyeddin can also be credited with discovering and introducing such talented artists like Moin Akhtar, Ismail Tara, Khalid Abbas Dar and singing sensation Naheed Akhtar and TV host Khushbakht Shujaat. Zia was a father figure and an inspiration to many struggling actors like the chocolate hero of Pakistan Waheed Murad, who was introduced for the first time by none other than Zia at the Theosophical Hall in Karachi in 1957 and given the role of Benvolio – and this was after some voice training by Zia Mohyeddin.
By the mid-1970s, Zia returned to the UK and continued working in Hollywood films and TV. A disciple of the Western genre of “reading,” he introduced to the people of Pakistan former great legends of literature such as Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Noon Meem Rashid, Shaukat Thanvi, Ibn-i-Insha and Patras Bokhari. He will be remembered for his role in the Hollywood epics like Lawrence of Arabia and A passage to India –and particularly the West End Theatre role of Dr. Aziz in the latter.