P.O. Box 41, 4000 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON M6S 2T7
Renowned actor, producer, director, and television broadcaster, Zia Mohyeddin passed away on February 12, 2023. While the world mourns a man who was an institution unto himself, I have a personal connection with Zia that goes back many years.
I first saw Zia Mohyeddin a year after Lawrence of Arabia (in which he had a small role) was released. I was a student at St. Josephs College in Karachi and Zia was invited to speak at our college. The excitement was palpable with some girls ditching their uniforms to wear fashionable clothes and make up. I still remember Zia strode in wearing white pants and a white shirt and we thought we would swoon at the sight of him. Very few of us actually heard what he had to say (I’m sure it was profound as his oratory usually was) but we were just swayed away by his personality and short of swarming him (thanks to strict discipline by college administration) we were in awe. Next morning Sister Mary Emily, our principal had a note on the entrance notice board saying she had never seen such a disgraceful show of ‘giggling girls’ and in future we must proport ourselves in a more ‘ladylike’ manner – no one really cared because we had our day with a star and we were unashamedly starstruck.
Following Lawrence of Arabia, Zia had starred in Sammy Going South, Behold a Pale Horse and Khartoum. His fame had become international.
My best friend Antra was also in college in with me. She got married and moved to Birmingham U.K., while I got married and moved to Dubai. We used to visit Antra every six months or so. When Zia move to Birmingham U.K., he lived in a house few doors down from Antra and her doctor husband, Anwar who became Zia’s doctor eventually. Zia produced Central Television’s flagship multicultural programme Here and Now a weekly magazine program.
At this time Zia was married to Nahid Siddiqui and was at the peak of his career. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he got stage roles in Long Day’s Journey into Night and Julius Caesar, after which he made his West End debut as Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India at the Comedy Theatre, which ran for 302 performances.
Zia loved an audience and we were happy to listen to his amazing stories in his incredibly polished language and beautiful voice. Zia also loved to eat good food and fortunately for him, Antra was a great cook so we had him to ourselves. Many an evening was spent listening to classical music and stories from Zia Bhai (as we called him). He became close enough to us to correct us when we mixed English and Urdu. I still remember him telling me “Bebe, yeh urd-ish kiya hai…aik zabaan main baat karain” It made us all tense because we were so used to speaking a mixture. Zia never shied from airing his views about the lighter side of his own Panjabi heritage and language.
Zia moved back to Pakistan and being a lover of Bridge, he used to come and play the card game at my mothers-in-law’s house, once again revelling in her cooking. In Pakistan he anchored many Television shows and spent a lot time presenting Urdu poetry. Although he loved films and television, his first love was always the stage and oratory.
Fast forward to Canada where we came in 1989. A few years later we heard that Zia was coming to present in Toronto and we were ready. We reconnected with him and organized three shows for him. On these trips, he always made it a point to spend an evening with us. My mother in law lived with us so they talked about mutual friends from Pakistan and their favorite topic – Urdu poetry – while I tried to provide tasty food – he had to have a chapati at every meal. At one such gathering I remember telling him we had seen him in the film Immaculate Conception and he made a face and said that wasn’t his favorite role. We also met his new bride Azra who is one of the most charming people I have met and I even asked Zia very boldly how he ended up marrying such a young beautiful Shia lady? And he laughed and said “she tried to convert me but I’m secular”. So I reminded him that he had recited a beautiful English translation of Surah Rahman at which he said without blinking an eyelash “ghalti to ho jaati hai”.
As he aged, he continue to present poetry and I was dumbstruck at how he did this extempore without notes! His retention was incredible.
Zia Mohyeddin was a unique man with multiple talents and he was a pride for Pakistan. He will be sorely missed. May his soul rest in peace