October Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Featured News | Profile | Published 10 years ago

Zia Mohyeddin opens the interview with a peremptory bluntness: “Everything about me has already been written.”

He’s right, but wrong too. Reams have been written about his nuanced performances across the globe, his meteoric career graph and his tumultuous personal life. There are also side stories of arrogance, irascibility, an acerbic tongue and an abiding contempt for mediocrity and pidgin. But who the man is, what really makes him tick, are missing.

Part of the reason has to do with the fact that in a life seemingly in thrall of the unforgiving minute, Mohyeddin’s passions, choices and trajectory have placed him beyond the diktat of conventional, simultaneous time. It is hard to locate his work within a particular context, to identify his peers among his few contemporaries, and to compare his personal and professional decisions with theirs. This schism and the absence of a contextual framework render him difficult to understand and impossible to slot into a neat category.

But the other part has to do with the fact that Mohyeddin is an intensely private man. (His secretary asked me what “source” I’d used to wangle an interview as she routinely fobs off similar requests). Despite his excoriating candour — he mocks himself as “a much-married man” and baldly confesses he is “not a very good father” — there is just something that remains forever beyond reach. As we talk in his spartan office at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), his side of the desk becomes his stage. At the end of a passionate diatribe against the hypocrisy inherent in the Pakistani understanding of culture, he steeples his fingers and wearily rests his forehead against them. Moments later, he casually swings his legs over so that his feet rest on the edge of his desk, reflecting the contempt in which he holds purveyors of ‘Muslim culture.’ Eighty-three years and counting, Zia Mohyeddin’s thoughts, words and actions still mirror each other and the reality of his tense. But even the expansiveness of his body language can’t disguise his innate reticence. One would imagine that a lifetime under the arc lights would have inured him to intrusions by strangers, but he is still reeling with the unease of having been forced to interact with chatty fans at the last Karachi Literary Festival.

“I’ve always been a bit of a loner,” he says, wiping an infinitesimal speck of dust off the leather-bound table. “I never had too many friends; never had the urge to go out. One needs energy to perform…” So no part of this aloneness is self-imposed? “Having stayed alone for so long… Parr gai aadat. Nearly everyone I knew is no more. [Polymath] Daud Rahbar, [British actor] Harold Lang, [British theatre director] Frank Hauser. To be able to share one’s deepest anxieties…” He pauses, as if to add something but decides against it: “No, it would hurt my wife…”

Tempting though it is to speculate about what or who he meant to refer to, it is hard to imagine Mohyeddin having confidantes. Even his book — A Carrot is a Carrot: Memories and Reflections — fails to deliver an unabridged Zia Mohyeddin or insights into who he is. “Frank Hauser once asked me, ‘Do you want to keep your virginity intact?’” he laughs, by way of a response.

The reply is typical Mohyeddin: the answer isn’t neat or convenient but it has core integrity. Sandwiched in between an exposition of what keeps him going, for example, comes the throwaway line: “I’m not a family man, not seriously.” The statement may seem disingenuous: he’s on his third marriage and has four children, including a 14-year-old daughter. But Mohyeddin isn’t coy about his own truth. “I was never very close to my children,” he says. “It’s one of my many weaknesses; I didn’t take much interest in their upbringing. Now my three sons are married, they have children of their own… I had five sisters; four have died and one is in the US. But we never talk much on the phone.” Is this regret? “I try not to think of my personal life,” he says matter-of-factly. “I used to; I don’t now. Self-laceration doesn’t help. I just do the things I can now…”


It’s a recurring motif, ‘doing things.’ As thespian, auteur, producer, broadcaster, he’s done it all — on the West End, Broadway, in Hollywood, at the BBC — that too, at a time when the politics of skin was far more exclusionary. In Pakistan, however, his work has traversed deeper socio-political rifts. When Bhutto asked him to stay back and set up the PIA Arts and Dance Academy, Mohyeddin was up against the mindset that shunned dance as “immoral.” (To date, the dancers who trained at the PIA Arts and Dance Academy speak of the unwavering discipline he established in order to secure dance its place as an acceptable art form.) Simultaneously, the Zia Mohyeddin Show that aired on PTV, gave Pakistan its first, larger-than-life impresario.

“In the initial stages, Bhutto would get up and shake hands. As the megalomania took over, he’d proffer a limp hand.” The relationship deteriorated accordingly. “I’d keep reminding him of the need to make a theatre since we only had halls at that time and while he had agreed initially, it subsequently emerged that he wanted an open-air theatre permanently installed in his lawns in Larkana.” Sculptor Shahid Sajjad, who worked with Mohyeddin on many of his production designs, was thus dispatched to Larkana for a recce while Mohyeddin followed. “Bhutto used to walk with an entourage of 17, 18 people but that time, he came alone with his two corgis in tow. I spoke about the theatre and he said, ‘I want one in which I’m the only star.’ That was when I decided to resign and go back to London.”

But that was not to be: post 1978, “the new dictator” wanted Mohyeddin to turn on Bhutto and Mohyeddin’s obduracy earned him a ‘not allowed to leave’ on his passport. It took many favours from friends in high places to get a new passport. “I met Zia a few years later when I was producing the Crescent of The Moon and he embraced me and pretended he didn’t know of what had happened to me at his behest,” laughs Mohyeddin.

Despite his experiences with the earlier dictators, however, in 2004 Mohyeddin agreed to set up NAPA at Pervez Musharraf’s request. Establishing NAPA, without the aid of a blueprint for teaching the performing arts in Pakistan is a feat; it is rendered all the more so by Mohyeddin’s personal aversion to living in the land of his birth. “The trouble lies with the hypocrisy now part of our culture and the [pejorative] use of the term ‘professionals’ for people associated with the performing arts, as if it is not real work,” he fumes. “The one benchmark I have is when you can look your future mother-in-law in the eye and say you’re an actor.”

That, however, is only part of what he’s set out to do. “I find it frightening, what happened to the Bamiyan Buddhas. We only talk about Waziristan, not Punjab. And yet only art can humanise society, create accommodation and tolerance because only art shows them up for what they are. You see this in the videos now emerging of the Taliban watching stripteases, lewd dances, sodomising 10-15-year-old boys…”

And yet Mohyeddin is hostage to none of these achievements or his place in history.

Take ‘The Voice,’ for example. From Piccadilly Circus to the FTC auditorium, generations have been entranced by the timbred baritone famously described as “a cross between dark brown velvet and gravel moving gently in honey.” Yet Mohyeddin uses his voice as a writer would use a fine pen: he is neither in love with its sound nor deliberative about the effect on his listener.

Instead, emerges a man consumed by his work, engaged in the most ferocious battle with himself. Not self-centred — as he takes pains to point out — but totally self-absorbed; egocentric, perhaps, but not a narcissist. “Very little pleases me; I’m the most awful perfectionist,” he confides, shaking his head as he covers his face. “In the metaphorical sense, I constantly flagellate myself. From age 35 onwards, I’ve focused on just my work. How much better can I do this work? 98 per cent of my work is very ordinary, run of the mill, because my own standards keep growing. That I don’t meet my own standards, that I constantly aim for more keeps me alive. Otherwise, you accept what you’re doing as pretty good. In this age of mediocrity, we begin to accept mediocrity as pretty bloody good.”


When I next meet Mohyeddin, it’s at the Napa Repertory’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. The British director has transposed the story into the Mughal era and then contemporary Pakistan, and this interpretation features — variously — a Basant song, Punjabi accents and even clips from the Tahir Shah horror,  ‘Eye to Eye.’ To top it all, the second half of the play takes place with the audience sitting on stage, watching and participating in the unfolding narrative. For some, the liberties taken with a classic were unforgiveable; playwright Haseena Moin walked out. But at the end, Zia Mohyeddin took to the stage and talked about how the dramatic innovation was “true” to the spirit of Shakespeare.

It’s a textured reading of the Bard. As many Elizabethan scholars have pointed out, the audience was central to the Shakespearean dramatic enterprise and the fool was as integral to the plot as any soliloquy. “I’m dubbed a classicist, which creates the impression I’m a fuddy-duddy, an old fogey who’s not aware of what’s happening in today’s scientific world,” muses Mohyeddin, as he explains the difference between his hermeneutic approach and those who feel classicism is “a three-year degree at Oxford.” “But my work — reading, interpreting, projecting other people’s thoughts — have to do with the past. I re-read things I read 40, 50 years ago — Ghalib, Shakespeare — and because my terms of reference have expanded since, I’m able to find new meaning each time.”

And so he continues working frenetically. Apart from carrying a full teaching load at NAPA, Mohyeddin also puts up two to three productions a year. “When you’ve really performed well and you step downstage, the audience’s applause — and you can tell the difference between the genuine, which soars, and that which is polite — there’s no greater ecstacy. It’s worth all the money in the world.” His colleagues describe his meticulous attention to detail even in the plays he directs; he’s known to instruct actors on how they should walk, to reflect the ethos of a particular era. (He is also known to devote this level of attention to every other aspect of life too: the exact proportion of spices in food; the precise time he takes his tipple-and-cigarette combo — one each at 8 pm, the second set at 9 pm — as well as his loyalty to Rothman’s.)

In between, he reads compulsively and writes selectively, though he insists he’s not a natural writer. His current obsession is a book describing the impact of Buddhism on Ghalib’s poetics. (“People ask me which is my ‘favourite book’,” he says, mimicking a falsetto. “‘Favourite’ implies I’d choose to read that particular book to the exclusion of all other books. How can you pick one? It’s like asking someone what their favourite tarkaari is,” he finishes disgustedly.)

“When you read new things, it gives you energy and that’s what keeps you alive. Life is worth living because one can read this, hear this music. It scares me that there is so much I haven’t read and how little time there is.” And yet he’s determined to make every moment count: “I sleep on alternate nights now and so I read instead. But there’s a moment, around 5 o’clock in the morning, when the words blur and start interchanging. It’s a very trying time…”

I take my leave, thinking 60 seconds worth of distance run never seemed more achievable.

This profile was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue under the headline, ‘All The World’s His Stage.’