From the archives

The social and cultural attitudes of medieval times have to be changed: Zia Mohyeddin

Updated Jul 06, 2017 12:32pm

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Photo taken from the February 1984 issue of the *Herald*
Photo taken from the February 1984 issue of the Herald

Getting to Birmingham was no problem. Trying to convince the cab driver of the existence of Woodlands Road, Mosely, was another matter. "Woodlands Road is not on the map," he said and nothing I said could make him change his mind. Having rather disgustedly deposited me in front of a phone booth, he drove off. The mini-cab driver I called was equally clueless and this time I was having serious doubts about the existence of the road and Zia Mohyeddin!

Finally, I found his semi-detached home in the suburbs of Birmingham. Zia greeted me, "I was getting worried Nadeem Sahib, we have to go house-hunting at 4.30."

I was one hour late for an appointment with a media man to whom time meant money (an hour of a television play is worth £250,000). But Zia's not the kind of person to make a guest feel uncomfortable. We settled down with tea and coffee and began to talk.

As the interview progressed and the time for the appointment with the house agent approached, Zia's wife Naheed Siddiqui (who holds dancing classes) made the odd anxious appearance with their three-year-old son Hassan in the background. We finished our talk in the car on the way to the station with Naheed, Hassan and his white nanny following in another car.

Before we parted Zia spoke about his work and his self-imposed exile. We caught up on a lot of lost time. I told Zia of M.Aslam's death and it took him back to 1972 and the Zia Mohyeddin Show, when all hell broke loose over my criticism of M.Aslam's novels. (I was an angry young man then, on that show, with Waheed Murad and Runa Laila).

PTV, the programme producer and Zia himself were subjected to a vicious well-orchestrated campaign of abuse by an Urdu paper of Lahore and an ultra-right party. Zia had to refute the allegations in the next show. That was in 1972; ten years later Zia was once again reminded of that episode:

Zia Mohyeddin: Reviewing the British television film, The Death of a Princess, (which officially wasn't even seen in Pakistan and had nothing to do with Pakistan), the Nawa-e-Waqt attacked me for acting in the film. I'm a professional actor; I do all kinds of roles – villains, heroes – but that doesn't mean I become those characters, that I am expressing my views through them. You know what they wrote? I have the cutting.

I get very little time for acting now. It has been reduced to two or three jobs a year. In 1983 I did three.

They said that Zia has been engaged in a conspiracy against Islam and Pakistan for a long time, since the days of his show, when he allowed a great Islamic writer M. Aslam to be humiliated. Now his purpose in participating in this film was to insult Islam and sing praises of the British.

Shahid Nadeem. Tell me, what are you doing these days?

Mohyeddin. I'm with central (one of the giant TV companies) on a regular basis. I produce the weekly magazine programme, Here and Now. I have to deliver 36 programmes every year. I am the presenter as well and have editorial control too. The programme has a fairly open format and I enjoy doing it. It's not a khairati programme for ethnic minorities; it's a multi-cultural programme aimed at everyone living in this region.

I don't believe in programmes telling Asians how to fill in unemployment benefit forms, or how to get to the post office; neither do I believe in excluding the host community from seeing programmes about the subcontinent. For instance, in the latest programme, I've done piece on Heer Ranjha, but not just for those who understand Waris Shah's language. I used the latest English translation and got a painter who was familiar with Asian romances and characters to do six paintings.

The camera slowly pans over these paintings while Heer is recited. We've also done a programme about Vietnamese refugees in Britain, one about remarkable Chinese artists and another on Red Indians.

Nadeem. So you are happy with Central?

Mohyeddin. Oh yes, I am. I have a very good working relationship with the directors, with my teams and with the company itself. I'm also doing a series of programmes for Channel 4, dealing with multi-cultural projects. One programme is about the image of blacks in Hollywood from the days when black artists could only appear as slaves, or jokers, or later as singers, to the present day when racial stereotypes have more or less disappeared.

It's a fascinating study; our team is doing research in the States. Another programme is about the only major multiracial pop group left in Britain, UB 40. You know what UB 40 stands for, don't you? It's the name of the form you have to fill when you register as unemployed. These youngsters set up a group when they were unemployed and called it UB 40. They'd never played or sung before and now they're in the charts as a top pop group.

We're also doing a programme on the Anglo-Indians (the "Currantas") who gave their total loyalty to the British, cut themselves off from the local people and then were betrayed and abandoned by their colonial masters.

Zia with Bharata Natyam dancer Alarmel Valli | Photo taken from the February 1984 issue of the *Herald*
Zia with Bharata Natyam dancer Alarmel Valli | Photo taken from the February 1984 issue of the Herald

About 45,000 of them migrated to Australia, many to Canada and some to Britain. We're trying to find out what happened to this unfortunate lot. I will be delivering the first four programmes in April 1984.

Nadeem. What about your acting?

Mohyeddin. I get very little time for acting now. It has been reduced to two or three jobs a year. In 1983 I did three. But the good thing is that I can choose now, I can say no. So I enjoy whatever role I do much more now. The role I really loved doing was the Bengali darzi in Farrukkh Dhondey's BBC play, Salt on a Snakes Tail. It's about an old Bengali immigrant, very timid and quiet, always discouraging his children from getting involved in politics or anti-social activities.

He tells them to stay away from trouble, say their prayers and be grateful that they they are living in such a civilised and affluent society. Then he becomes the victim of a vicious racial attack and transforms into a fighter, even kills a racist thug. I loved doing it."

Nadeem. How do you feel about the programmes for ethnic minorities on radio and television?

Mohyeddin. They preach a kind of ghettoism, producing separate programmes solely for Asians and blacks and deliberately excluding the whites. They attract an inbuilt audience by showing Indian films, curry recipes and immigration advice. These things can be done through educational programmes, but that shouldn't be the image of Asians or blacks, that they are backward, that they like staying aloof. And the programmes are amateurish.

The BBC salvaged its conscience by giving a half-hour slot on TV for Asians and now ITV has done the same with Eastern Eye. They show hundreds of letters to support their view that the community is happy, but that is not enough. It is not sufficient to give them Daleeps and Amitabhs. There is a need to help them gain their rights in this society. It's no use saying and hoping that they will go back. Most of them won't; they're here to stay.

I'm not satisfied with Channel Four's Eastern Eye but otherwise the programmes are good. Unfortunately they are under a great deal of pressure from the advertisers to get into the ratings game at the expense of quality. I'm actually more worried about cable television; quality is bound to suffer and there's going to be a lot of chaos and confusion. There won't be much control over the cable companies so more sex and violence is inevitable.

Nadeem. What do you think about the sudden interest in the subcontinent?

Mohyeddin. It's nothing new. It happens every few years. I remember when I did A passage to India, there were a flurry of interest in India. Now Gandhi has sparked it off. Even James Bond had to go to India for his Octupussy!

I think the festival of India in 1982 played an important role in this. I don't think much of Gandhi. There were historical distortions and Gandhi himself was portrayed in a way to appeal to Western audiences, a kind of Jesus Christ.

What I can't understand is why the film was banned in Pakistan it can't do any harm, it's just another film. I can't believe that Roshan Seth (who played Nehru) wasn't given a visa for Pakistan. I feel so helpless and angry about the incompetent and confused handling of Pakistan's cultural image abroad.

On the one hand we're upset that India gets the good image, gets the credit for subcontinental art, music, history and culture. We want Pakistan to be given its due recognition in these fields. But we do our best to discourage that, drive away the tourists by the limits we impose on them. Letters to the editor or dinners for some notables can't build an image.

We have strange hang-ups about trivial things that the outside world doesn't care about.

We have strange hang-ups about trivial things that the outside world doesn't care about. What is happening is that when it's culture, food or history, it's Indian, and when it is an insult it's 'Paki'. But people who should be upset about it, are not.

Nadeem. Do you miss Pakistan?

Mohyeddin. Why do you ask? Of course I do. That is my country. I miss my country, my people, friends, everything. That's why I feel strongly about things.

Nadeem. And as an artist?

Mohyeddin. No, I don't miss Pakistan professionally; there wasn't very much left when I left. If I had stayed I would have been finished by now. There's no respect, no encouragement, no consideration. You talk of the Muslim contribution to music and also call musicians 'meerasis.'

Classical dancing is condemned, but rotten degenerate, so called dancing is institutionalised and accepted. I still remember a news paper headline when Naheed used to present Payal on PTV. It said:

"Naheed Siddiqui is corrupting the morals of the children of the nation.' Can you imagine that?

Nadeem. But what are the prospects? What should one do?

Mohyeddin. You see, what we are trying to do is to 'Arabize' things. It is different from Islamising. We are trying to ape a different culture. That gives you a sense of inferiority about your own culture a loss of belongingness, rootlessness. But I don't want to get into that controversy any further; I already have enough enemies, enough trouble.

Nadeem. But surely it's not just the government or a particular group that's responsible? Musicians have been called meerasis before. This obscurantism and anti-pleasurism has been there all the time.

Mohyeddin. That's true, but the social and cultural attitudes of medieval times have to be changed. These attitudes are strengthened because of official support. The toady ideologues do it to appease the ruler and there is political capital to be achieved out of it. But we must not give up. We should try to achieve and secure freedom — freedom to speak out your mind, to express yourself, to create beauty and happiness for people. We should not give up.

Nadeem. But how can all this be achieved without getting involved in politics?

Mohyeddin. There are so many things I want to say but I know once I get started I wouldn't be able to stop. The truth is that I love my country and I want to be able to visit it whenever I can.

I want Naheed and the kids to visit it, I don't want trouble, I don't want to think that when I or my family visit our homeland we will be bothered or insulted. It would be a very painful experience for us all. That's all I want from Pakistan and that's exactly why I don't want to talk much about these things."


This article was originally published in the Herald's February 1984 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.