Zia Sarhadi’s Last Interview
What inspired you to make Hum Log (1951), a film with obvious leftist, Marxist leanings?
In fact, such ideas had been storming my mind for quite some time then, and I was attracted to the Marxist ideology. The whole of India was involved in a struggle at that time. From whatever I had learnt from reading and writing, I arrived at the conclusion that I should try to locate myself, recognize myself and discover what I wanted. What was the aim of my life? Was I following it or not? One such idea took me towards Marxism. I decided to make a film for the Indian masses. This was in fact, my first step towards film-making. Chandulal Shah was the producer. In fact he asked me to direct two films, Hum Log and Footpath.
Hum Log apparently never saw the light of day.
The print is still there. Many people have seen it and it is still being exhibited. I hear that its music and print have been re-issued.
How did you come to select Ramesh Thapar for Footpath (1953)?
I preferred to work with new faces, because your thinking gets refreshed and renewed with new people. One can also convey one’s feelings easily through them. I picked up Ramesh Thapar with this in mind. He used to act in English plays of IPTA and I liked his acting. He was not at all interested in doing Hindi films. Ramesh was a highly educated person, a scholar and a man with an impressive personality. I am glad he did the role. He has put in his best performance in the film.
Footpath was followed by a long lull in your career before you joined Mehboob and directed his Awaaz (1956). Comment.
Yes, I had to face a few disappointments. However during that period I wrote Baiju Bawra (1952).
Wasn’t Mehboob Khan’s Deccan Queen (1936) your first film?
Yes. It’s story was written by someone else but the screenplay and dialogue were mine. For the film, Mehboob also made me write a song, Yaad na kar dile haseen bhooli hui kahaniyan. It was sung by Surinder and the song was an instant hit. Nothing succeeds like success here. I was signed up by director Chimanlal who asked me to script an entire project for him — the story, screenplay and dialogues. From then on I started writing regularly for films. I wrote Chiman Desai’s film. Even the songs which I had penned were major hits. The most popular was Tumhi ne mujhko pyar sikhaya.
For a year or two after your initial success you didn’t work on any films. Why?
I wanted to do something different. I wasn’t sure what. While I was still thinking I went around with some of my communist friends. Then I came in contact with leaders like Dange, Joshi and Gopal.
Isn’t Zia your pen name?
My original name is Fazal. You see, my family was very rich and money was all that mattered to them. I couldn’t adjust myself with that atmosphere. I was a communist and an artist within. I rebelled against my family and contradicted them at every point, which harmed their reputation. At the same time, I was quite impressed by the communist ideology and its exponents. I began to understand what life was all about. I decided to change my name since I didn’t want to stick to the name given by my family. And so I became Zia. While I was writing poetry under the name Zia in Peshawar, I came across another poet who also wrote under the same name. He was Zia Jaffery. So I decided to change from Zia to Zia Sarhadi.
Tell us about your early days.
I matriculated from Peshawar. After coming to Bombay I joined St. Xavier’s College, but wasn’t too inclined towards academics. Later, I worked for Ranjit and Sagar Movietone and then, independently. Also, I did a little work for Sohrab Modi. I got a good character role in Manmohan. I continued acting, but not for long.
Were you acquainted with Sadat Hasan Manto?
Of course, I knew Manto, Krishnan Chander and Rajendra Singh Bedi very well. Manto was an authoritative man. Some people are usually recognized much later than in their time. He was one of them. He was a man with conviction, and so were his contemporaries, Krishnan Chander and Bedi. They all wrote for cinema. Krishnan Chander made a film also. Rajendra Singh Bedi also directed a movie but Manto did not. Manto wrote some articles about film-people like Ashok Kumar, Shyam etc. In fact, he started his film career as the editor of a film magazine. I had a two-sided relationship with Manto. One was literary because he was a good, committed writer and I was impressed by him
How did you come in contact with Sadat Hasan Manto?
I read his works comprehensively. My father-in- law, Rafique Ghaznavi, was a music director and he was a close friend of Manto. There was one Jagdish Sethi, who, along with Rafique and Prithviraj Kapoor belonged to a group of ex-students of Grant College (Lahore). Though Manto was not of that group, he was close to them. Then there was another gentleman by the name of Daga. He signed Rafique Ghaznavi to provide music for his film Malgadi. I approached Manto to write a screenplay for a story of mine Mahesh Kaul also joined us and a team was formed. A film called Ghounsley was started with Kishore Sahu in the lead, but it wasn’t completed because of a rift amongst the producers. My relations with Manto were strengthened when I married Rafique’s daughter.
People like Mehboob Khan who made Elaan were afraid as to how the masses and the government would react after its exhibition, in the context of the partition.
I wrote Elaan for Mehboob. No, there was no such feeling though there was a little protest against the film.
Did Mehboob experience any indecision regarding whether to remain in India or go to Pakistan?
No, there was no such feeling in him. He was determined that he would stay in India. In fact, there was a line in a song in Elaan, Har mulk mein goonja hai Quran hamara, Elaan hai, Elaan hai. Elaan hamara.
Were you confused about whether to live in Pakistan or India?
No. I was fully satisfied about my future, even politically. In 1958, I went to Pakistan and lived there for a while. Then I couldn’t decide what to do and where to live. So I went to England. Later I made some documentaries in Pakistan but returned to India, the country I still love and admire. I have deep faith in the nobility of mankind. All the rest is political gimmickry of the leaders and it is there in every religion.
Have there been good literary works on partition?
Many books were written on the subject. Krishnan Chander has written some good stories. Manto and Ramanand Sagar have also contributed. Rajendra Singh Bedi’s story Apne dukh mujhe de do was highly appreciated, along with Lajwanti. When I went to Pakistan, some people insisted that I write something about the partition. So I wrote a love story.
Did any of your books get published?
At one time, I had written a novel. But it has not been published yet. Now I am working on my autobiography, titled Behind the Curtain.
What was the studio atmosphere like in the thirties?
There were very few freelancers. Those days, film companies used to employ actors on two or three year contracts. Established artistes were awarded longer contracts. Later, artistes started working freelance. They could earn more that way. Mehboob had a big team of writers, including Agha Jani Kashmiri. But I had joined Mehboob earlier. Mehboob had started his production earlier. He used to be the director and I, the writer. Later, Agha Jani Kashmiri and Wajahat Mirza joined us. Ali Raza came much later – This interview was conducted by Rafique Baghdadi Manohar Vaid in 1997.