There’s a magic spell that the internationally acclaimed Pakistani actor, broadcaster and auteur Zia Mohyeddin casts on his audience every time they hear him speak at his annual prose and poetry recital programmes.
These are no ordinary recitals; these give the audience privileged access to the world’s best and most interesting — also, sometimes, barely known — literatures, which Mohyeddin has consumed voraciously over the course of his life.
At age 84, he is still vibrant and glib. His choice anecdotes and extracts from writers across all ages and cultures — be it the contemporary Urdu satirist and humorist Mushtaq Yusufi, or the early 20th century Austrian novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, or William Shakespeare and Ghalib, his two all-time favourites — make for delightful listening, especially when rendered in his trademark tenor. His diction is impeccable, and his command over the language he chooses to speak at a given time unquestionable — you would never find him committing a bilingual ‘foul’. “When I do my one-man show in English, I do it in English; and when I do it in Urdu, then it’s in Urdu entirely,” he tells Gulf News tabloid!, ahead of his first show in Dubai in six years. He’ll perform at Madinat Theatre on November 29. “I rarely add a piece which is in English, so that it can satisfy the sahib loag [elite].”
Winner of Hilal i Imtiaz, the highest civil award bestowed by the president of Pakistan, Mohyeddin rose to prominence in the 1960s when he produced the iconic Zia Mohyeddin Show on PTV. It was to become a blueprint for future shows of the kind. Earlier, he trained at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, before landing acting assignments in West End productions, such as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1957). He also featured on Broadway’s long-running theatrical rendition of EM Forster’s A Passage to India (1960). He became the first Pakistani actor to work in Hollywood, with David Lean’s epic historical, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which he followed up with small but significant parts in films like the Charlton Heston-starrer Khartoum (1966) and Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970). He also had a brief stint in Lollywood during this time.
In 1973, he was appointed the director of PIA Arts and Dance Academy, a position he held till General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial policies forced him into self-exile in England. He now appeared in the miniseries The Jewel in the Crown (1984), and also produced Central Television’s flagship multicultural programme, Here and Now. His later works include Jamil Dehlavi’s award-winning film Immaculate Conception (1992) alongside Shabana Azmi, where he famously played a transvestite.
He never returned to Pakistan TV after 1999’s Dhun Hamari Tumharay Naam Hui, a music show produced and directed by Shoaib Mansoor. Though, he says he’s always had offers but “I keep turning them down because, frankly, I find it [PTV] very tasteless. And I don’t find it exciting or challenging enough. Secondly, I am heading the National Academy of Performing Arts which I set up [in 2005] in Karachi. That keeps me occupied.”
Where his film and television assignments became fewer, Mohyeddin began to concentrate more on his recitation programme which he has since been holding in different cities of the world. “I’m glad that the people of Dubai have shown this jazba e saqafat [interest in culture],” he quips. “I’ve been here before also, and have done shows in Abu Dhabi and Muscat.”
When asked how he picks up stuff for his programme, Mohyeddin says, “Of course, I pick and choose. I make a lot of research, and I never repeat what I’ve done in the past. So, it’s always a new repertoire. I haven’t hired a munshi to do this for me. [Chuckles].”
“The method is to keep reading books, old and new, and see whatever strikes me, and which I deem fit to be read out,” he adds. “There’s something you read and have just for yourself, but there’s something which can be read out, and because it communicates, the text comes across almost dramatically. So, I pick up things, prose and poetry, according to my intellect, and communicate it too. And, I’ve been doing it now for over 30 years. A little more, actually. In Lahore, we do it every year on December 31.”
A highly accomplished person, Mohyeddin is known to be a perfectionist and a stickler for discipline — in his world, there is no place for tardiness and mediocrity. At NAPA, he is credited with reviving quality theatre in Karachi. He is also a widely read columnist who recently compiled his writings in two books, titled A Carrot is a Carrot: Memories and Reflections and The God of My Idolatry.
Don’t miss it
Tickets to Zia Mohyeddin’s performance at Madinat Theatre, Dubai, on November 29, start at Dh150, and are available on platinumlist.net.