Born in 1935 at Rohtak in India into a religious family, Ali bhai, as he was affectionately referred to, and his family migrated to Pakistan soon after Partition. After temporarily settling in Multan, the family made Hyderabad their permanent home. Ali started his career from Radio Pakistan Hyderabad in the late ‘50s and learned to control his voice during his days as a broadcaster and an actor.
Fazal Ahmed Karim Fazli’s Chiragh Jalta Raha (1962) was his entry into films as it was for his wife-to-be Zeba, character actor late Kamal Irani and film actress Deeba. The film was not successful at the box office but made Mohammad Ali, the film’s villain, a household name since his voice was something the audience had never experienced before. He played more negative roles in his initial films such as Munawwar Rasheed’s Bahadur (opposite Darpan), Iqbal Yusuf’s Daal Mein Kala and Javed Hashmi’s Dil Nay Tujhay Maan Liya (both opposite Syed Kamal). His first film as a hero came in 1964 when Rafiq Rizvi cast him in Shararat. The same year, he played a rebel in Jameel Akhtar’s Khamosh Raho where Ahmed Rushdi’s Main Nahin Maanta was banned by the Ayub Khan regime because of late Habib Jalib’s lyrics.
But what no one was able to stop was Mohammad Ali’s rise to stardom as he bagged his first Nigar Award as the best supporting actor for Khamosh Raho. Hassan Tariq’s Kaneez was his first super-hit film, where Waheed Murad played his younger brother, Zeba played their love interest and Sabiha Khanum played their mother.
After Kaneez, there was no stopping back for this actor who began to ease into every genre of acting including playing a suspicious doctor in Khursheed Anwar’s suspense-thriller Humraaz, a heart-broken younger brother in S. Suleman’s Lori, a dacoit in Humayun Mirza’s Aag Ka Darya, a hilarious servant in Naukar, a Romeo with two Juliets in S. Suleman’s Jaisay Jaante Nahin and Aag, a self-accused thief in Wazir Ali’s Aapka Khadim, a selfless friend in Iqbal Shahzad’s Baazi, Farhad in Sharif Nayyar’s Shireen Farhad, a gangster in Iqbal Yusuf’s Ghairao, a loving elder brother and a devoted father in countless movies, besides being a caring husband every time he was paired with a beautiful on-screen damsel, ranging from Deeba, Rani, Sangeeta, Shabnam, Shamim Ara, Nisho, Mumtaz, Aasya, Babra and his real-life wife, Zeba.
He continued to rule the silver screen when color was introduced in films and acted in many movies with contemporary heroes of his time such as Syed Kamal, Waheed Murad, Nadeem, Shahid, Darpan, Santosh Kumar and Sultan Rahi. He had the distinction of acting in numerous domains alongside veterans Qavi Khan, Agha Talish, Mustafa Qureshi, Lehri and Rangeela. He had command over dramatic as well as comic acting and some of his comical scenes are still remembered by his fans. He was also a well-known figure, equal in stature to Hollywood’s Marlon Brando and Bollywood’s Dilip Kumar, besides being their personal friend.
In his heyday, when Nadeem and Waheed Murad were performing the roles of heroes, Mohammad Ali acted as father to both actors in movies such as Nazrul Islam’s Amber, Zafar Shabab’s Awaaz and also to Babra Sharif in Hasan Askari’s Salakhain, Aag and countless other movies. In 1968, he married the renowned actress of those times, Zeba, who exclusively worked with her husband till their last film together — Manoj Kumar’s Clerk (1989) — that was produced across the border and had a star cast comprising Ashok Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Rekha, Shatrughan Sinha, Shashi Kapoor, Prem Chopra and Rajendra Kumar. His last successful Pakistani film was Saeed Rizvi’s Shanee, also the first science fiction film of the subcontinent. The lanky actor refused to be part of the film industry after Shanee (1989) and continued with social work with Zeba always at his side.
He made a short comeback with Zahoor Gillani’s Dum Mast Qalandar alongside Izhar Qazi, Sultan Rahi and folk singer Ataullah Khan Essa Khelvi in 1995, where he excelled as a young-to-old saviour of his fellow villagers. The film, however, failed at the box office.
Playback singers Ahmed Rushdi and Shahenshah-i-Ghazal Mehdi Hasan mostly lent his characters their voice. Mohammad Ali left the film industry in the ‘90s, citing disappointment with the kinds of films being made. During his 33-year association with films, where he appeared in more than 300 movies including Punjabi (Sher Di Bacchi, Wadda Khan and Wo Hati), Pushto (Damoro Intaqam and Dushman Kaka) and the Indian film (Clerk), he had the distinction of working with each and every quality director of his generation ranging from Hassan Tariq, Pervez Malik, Shabab Kiranvi, Iqbal Yusuf, Rafiq Rizvi, Riaz Shahid, Khursheed Anwar, Ali Sufyan Aafaqi, S. Suleman, Iqbal Akhtar, Nazrul Islam, Hassan Askari, Zafar Shabab, Saeed Rizvi and Manoj Kumar (India).
A hair piece that he donned for the first time in Laeeq Akhtar’s Saiqa (1968), a pair of white shoes and a John Wayne reminiscent walk were trademarks of Mohammad Ali who was also famous for his court-room confrontations, rendering “Judge sahib”, breaking the news of passing an examination to his mother “Maa, main Matric mein pass ho gaya” and referring to his love interest as “Shabbo”. He won 10 Nigar awards — one for best supporting actor (Khamosh Raho, 1964) and another special award for Dooriyan and Bobby in 1984. Others included best actor awards for Kaneez (1965), Aag Ka Darya (1966), Saiqa (1968), Wehshi (1971), Aas (1973), Aaina Aur Soorat (1974), Insaan Aur Aadmi (1975) and Haidar Ali (1978).
Former president Gen Ziaul Haq conferred a Pride of Performance award on Mohammad Ali in 1984 in recognition of his life-long services to the entertainment industry of Pakistan. He continued patronage to the Fatmid Foundation and kept himself busy in constructing hospitals for children suffering from blood diseases, besides numerous other respected NGOs till his last breath.
Mohammad Ali led an exemplary life as a husband, father, brother and actor and was never involved in any scandals. His work — both on and off screen — his mannerisms and his presence as a film star will be deeply missed and the void created by his demise is one that cannot be filled – Omair Alavi