In this sixth installment of our ‘Crazy Diamonds’ series, we continue our tributary look at those promising Pakistanis who experienced the flip side of genius – an awkward state of being that some describe as being a kind of madness.
___________________________________Brigadier Saadullah Khan
Not only did Pakistan lose the war, it lost its entire east wing that eventually became the independent Bengali-majority republic of Bangladesh.
Shocked by the debacle, Pakistanis in the west wing (West Pakistan) demanded that the military’s high command be punished for not only losing the war but also lying about the way it was conducted.
There was still more anger within the junior officers, who now openly criticised their superiors for being more interested in playing politics than fighting wars and for trying to defend their positions and perks instead of the country’s borders.
But there were some exceptions. Like Brigadier Saadullah Khan. He was one of the very few commanders of the Pakistan Army who came out of the disastrous war relatively untainted.
He had fought gallantly, so much so, that some of his superiors began labelling him as ‘a nut’ for wanting to continue fighting to the very last man even when it had become obvious that there was no way the Indian troops could be defeated.
Saadullah was well aware of how certain senior Army officers (mainly General Yahya Khan) had manipulated the Pakistani dictator, Field Martial Ayub Khan, and dented Pakistan’s war effort against India in the 1965 war.
So when Saadullah decided to fight on in 1971 in a losing battle, he was simply trying to go down fighting a war that he believed was once again being bungled by the incompetent Yahya Khan and his circle of sycophants.
Saadullah was always considered to be an oddball of sorts, even when he had passed out from the military academy with honours and was seen as a brave, sharp and learned officer.
He had risen to the rank of Brigadier when he was sent to East Pakistan in 1970 – the year serious trouble began brewing there between the Pakistani state and Bengali nationalists.
A practising Sufi who was well versed in the writings, poetry and philosophy of ancient Sufi saints, Saadullah was largely a quiet and private man.
However, he was prone to explode and take direct action against anything or anyone he thought was bringing the Pakistan Army disrepute or disregarding the Sufi code of ethics he had weaved for himself.
Maybe it was this code that also elevated his reputation of being perhaps the only Pakistani military officer in East Pakistan who actually managed to gain respect from Bengali civilians.
This is saying a lot because from the late 1970 till December 1971, the Pakistan Army was continuously being accused of committing heinous crimes and acts of violence and even genocide against East Pakistan’s Bengali civilians.
As his military contemporaries in East Pakistan were busy organising death squads against the Bengalis and openly tolerating the soldiers’ atrocities like murder, torture and rape, Saadullah decided to do the opposite.
He laid down a strict, zero-tolerance policy for the men under his command and immediately admonished and punished any soldier under him who was found guilty of being involved in any atrocity against the Bengali civilians.
Once, while complaining against the conduct of the Pakistan Army against Bengali civilians in East Pakistan to a senior officer, he was told: ‘Brigadier, animals need to be treated like animals. They (the Bengalis) are traitors!’
To this, Saadullah is reported to have replied: ‘With all due respect, sir, had we not treated them like animals, they would never have risen up the way they have now.’
It is thus ironic that a soldier, who was seen as being an oddball and ‘soft on Bengalis,’ fought the hardest in the war.
As heads of most senior officers and commanders began to roll after the war, Saadullah stood out to become one of the few army men who actually managed to receive one of Pakistan’s highest gallantry awards for his conduct and show of bravery.
Saadullah accepted the award, but he never displayed it with much fanfare.
Soon after the war, Brigadier F B. Ali put three top Generals in custody and took command of the troops.
He was supported by Saadullah when Ali send two Colonels to Pakistan military dictator, General Yahya Khan and other senior Generals, with the message that they should resign and relinquish power or the Brigadiers and their troops would be forced to march on the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi.
To deflate the situation and to appease the disgruntled officers, Yahya Khan sent Lieutenant General Hamid Khan to address the officers at the GHQ.
The Brigadiers and the junior officers hardly let him speak, hissing and jeering every time Hamid tried to convince them that the loss to India was not due to the senior Generals.
The façade ended only when Brigadier Fazle Razzik got up and tore into the Generals, blaming them squarely for the loss and crimes against the people of Pakistan.
The rebelling soldiers then approached the Chief of General Staff, Gul Hassan. Hassan convinced Yahya to resign. Yahya did that on December 19, 1971. He was immediately put under house arrest.
Saadullah was visiting the shrine of Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, when he gave his consent to Gul Hassan and the rebelling officers to oust Yahya and fly in Z A. Bhutto from Rome to become Pakistan’s new President, as well as Chief Martial Law administrator.
Bhutto’s centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had won the majority of seats in West Pakistan in the 1970 election.
On assuming power, Bhutto dismissed a number of Generals and promoted Gul Hassan as Commander-in-Chief.
However, soon, he also removed the main officers who had risen up against Yahya. He believed that they had been emboldened enough to threaten his government as well.
Saadullah, however, was retained. In fact, he was a genuine Bhutto supporter.
Bhutto dismissed Gul Hassan in 1973 after Hassan refused Bhutto’s orders of using the military to break up a police strike in Peshawar.
Hassan was replaced by the unpopular General Tikka Khan whose conduct in the 1971 war had been severely criticised.
A group of young officers headed by Major Farouk Adam reacted adversely to Gul’s dismissal and Tikka’s promotion. They also believed that Bhutto had not done enough to punish senior officers whom they blamed for the loss of the 1971 war.
One is not quite sure whether Brigadier Saadullah was also approached by the disgruntled officers, but some sources suggest that he was.
Whatever the case, he was nowhere in the picture when the government aborted a military coup by Major Adam and his men.
‘Coups were not his cup of tea,’ a military colleague of Saadullah once told me. ‘He was a professional soldier and as a person, he was too steeped in Islamic mysticism to play power games.’
He continued: ‘He was a charismatic person. Upright, handsome, soft-spoken and very, very spiritual. His Sufi code had made him this way and he was able to gain a lot of respect from his juniors.’
The coup plotters were all arrested and put on trial. Tikka Khan chose Major General Ziaul Haq to lead the court martial proceedings against the arrested men.
Saadullah’s admiration for Bhutto began to wane. But he still refused to talk openly against him or for the arrested officers who had become popular among the junior officers.
In 1973 when Bhutto dismissed the provincial government in Balochistan headed by the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), groups of Baloch tribesmen and students escaped into the mountains of the rugged area and began an armed insurgency against the government.
Bhutto sent in the Army to quash the uprising. Brigadier Saadullah was also asked to go there, especially after keeping in mind the way he had handled his command in East Pakistan.
‘He was distraught,’ his colleague told me. ‘He saw it as the making of another East Pakistan-like situation. But he was too much of a professional soldier not to go.’
Just as he had stood out in East Pakistan with his ‘unconventional tactics’ of winning the hearts of Bengali civilians, Saadullah got down to do the same in Balochistan.
Every time he moved with his men across various Baloch villages, he made sure that his convoy of armoured cars was always followed by a truck full of rations.
Along the way, he would distribute food and other basic necessities to the villagers, so much so that he began making friends among many a disgruntled Baloch.
‘I’ll only fight those who pick up arms against me,’ he used to say. ‘Civil wars are fought and won with the heart as much as they are with weapons.’
His men considered him to be a Sufi saint but one who would turn into a fierce fighter if his troops were attacked.
Holed up in the mountains, he longed to visit his favourite Sufi shrines. And whereas, most Baloch fighters who were captured were brutally tortured by the military, he would keep his prisoners and feed them for as long as he could before delivering them to his superiors.
‘He used to have lengthy discussions with the prisoners,’ the colleague said. ‘But never on politics. He talked to them about Sufism and listened to their idea of faith, God and humanity.’
In March 1976, Bhutto, on the advice of the outgoing Tikka Khan, promoted Ziaul Haq to the rank of Army Chief.
Zia was a slippery character. A pious and practicing Muslim, he was also a master sycophant.
As a Brigadier he had been sent by the Pakistan government in 1967 to help train the Jordanian military.
In 1970 when Palestinian refugees, holed up in shanty towns in Jordan, rose up against the Jordanian monarchy, Brigadier Zia helped plan the crushing of the uprising in which numerous Palestinian refugees were killed. The rest were expelled from the territory on the behest of the Saudi monarchy.
The Jordanian monarch gave a thumbs-up when Bhutto enquired about Zia’s character shortly before promoting him.
Zia, though a staunch Muslim and an admirer of conservative Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi, was not known to be a fanatic.
On the contrary, a chain-smoker at the time, his circle of friends included a number of army men who were heavy drinkers and womanisers.
He was also a quick judge of character. He had been trying to get in the good books of Bhutto ever since he’d been made to head the court martial proceedings against the 1973 coup plotters.
He saw that Bhutto thrived on being praised, and Zia began to praise him to no end.
He presented himself as a completely apolitical General who was in awe of his prime minister.
But quietly, he had allowed letting Abul Ala Maududi’s party, the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), penetrate the ranks of the military’s middle ranking and junior officers.
When Bhutto found this out, Zia told him that religion would keep the soldiers busy and away from politics. Bhutto agreed and even praised Zia for the move.
However, he soon began to warn Bhutto of some officers’ ambition to use Islam to topple the elected government.
Hassan Abbas in his book, ‘Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism’, quotes Zia altering Bhutto about so-and-so officer ‘having overt religious beliefs’. And each time he advised the prime minister to let him dismiss the officer.
Bhutto seemed to have been so transfixed by his new Army General’s excessive love for his prime minister that he couldn’t be bothered to ask him why he was dismissing officers for their overt religiosity when he himself was promoting the trend in the army.
Saadullah was least impressed when Zia was made the Army Chief. He thought Zia to be ‘a stuffy man with myopic religious views.’
Not that Zia thought much of Saadullah as well. He also remembered that Saadullah had given his tact approval to Gul Hassan of forcing general Yahya to resign.
It is also believed that Saadullah never appreciated Zia’s role in Jordan.
Saadullah was a Sufi, apolitical and in fact, looked at religious political parties with great distaste – especially the Jamat-i-Islami.
Though most Generals had thought Saadullah’s tactics of fighting rebels and befriending civilians in East Pakistan and Balochistan odd, Zia looked at him with suspicion.
Truth was that Saadullah was one of the two officers who had been greatly incensed by Zia’s promotion. And Zia got rid of them.
Ironically, each one was dismissed on the pretext of being ‘too religious and (thus) a danger to the government.’
The first to go was Major General Tajamul Hussain, who was religious but not as much as Zia himself.
Second was Brigadier Saadullah, who neither drank nor even smoked.
Too bad he didn’t like Maududi that much and the brand of Islam Zia was infusing in the army.
One day in mid-1976 when Saadhullah was holding his command in Balochistan, he was suddenly asked by Zia to vacate his command in Balochistan within 24 hours and go home.
In his book, ‘Military & Politics of Pakistan’, Hassan Askari mentions an incident where Zia, while encouraging officers to promote Islamic thinking and practice in the soldiers, came to know that Saadullah had refused the order.
‘I’m a soldier, not a preacher,’ Saadullah responded; ‘faith was too personal a matter to be discussed in this manner.’
Brigadier Saadullah, who had fought gallantly in East Pakistan and then added a humanitarian dimension to the military’s brutal tussle with the Baloch was prematurely retired on the pretext of ‘being too religious’ by a General who would go on to topple his beloved prime minister on the pretext that ‘he was not religious enough.’
As Zia would enter the fray in 1977 and unleash unprecedented havoc on the country’s politics and fragile sectarian and ethnic make-up, Saadullah, the Sufi Brigadier, slipped into oblivion.
Somehow the name of one Mohsin Naqvi goes missing. Many times Naqvi did what Faiz did just once: That is to use populist Islamic imagery of resistance and justice to express modern socialistic ideas.
As Faiz in his famous ‘Hum Dekhein Gey,’ articulated his desire to see a socialist/proletarian revolution in Pakistan by using the iconoclastic imagery associated with the Prophet of Islam’s final victory over his enemies in ancient Makkah, Naqvi constantly evoked the brutal metaphors of the civil war between Hussain – the son of famous Islamic thinker and warrior, Ali – and the usurper, Yazid.
The Shia Muslim sect accuses Yazid of being a tyrant who used violence and oppression to stop Ali’s grandson from becoming the head of the then nascent Islamic polity.
Born in 1955 into a conservative Shia family, Naqvi began to write poetry while still at school.
He entered college in Multan as a passionate young man and a self-proclaimed Marxist. But much of his revolutionary activity was expressed through poetry.
When he enrolled at the Punjab University in 1977, Z A. Bhutto’s regime was toppled by General Ziaul Haq in a military coup.
Throughout Zia’s 11-year dictatorship, Naqvi wrote and recited angry poems against the General.
His tact of using the tales of sacrifices associated with Hussain in his losing battle against the tyrannical Yazid, fully emerged in 1981 when Zia enforced some ‘Islamic laws’ that the country’s Shia community rejected (suggesting they were imposed on the behest of some conservative Sunni Muslim ulema); and when the dictatorship sanctioned the creation of Sunni sectarian outfits to check the influence in Pakistan of the 1979 revolution in Iran that was led by Shia clerics.
As a university student and a Shia, Naqvi had hailed the Iranian Revolution against the monarchist Shah of Iran. But by the early 1980s, he became disillusioned by the revolutionary regime and accused it of becoming as tyrannical as the one that it had deposed.
As Naqvi rose to become a rabble-rousing poet who continued to use images of Hussain’s struggle against Yazid, his poetry gradually moved from advocating a revolutionary socialist uprising to relating Hussain’s rebellion as a struggle to erect a ‘true peoples democracy’ and the principles of universal humanitarianism.
A huge fan of the works of Iranian scholar, Ali Shariati, who, till his sudden demise in 1977, had expressed revolutionary Marxist ideas with the help of idioms and imagery associated with Hussain’s struggle, Naqvi saw the rise of sectarian organisations and the Zia dictatorship as the modern expressions of all what Yazid symbolised.
Threatened by these outfits and constantly harassed by the dictatorship, Naqvi continued undeterred. He then, celebrated the return of democracy in Pakistan in 1988 after the enigmatic (but violent) assassination of General Zia. Zia may have gone and so did his tyranny, but the sectarian mess that he had left behind continued to grow.
In the 1990s when sectarian violence grew on the streets of Punjab, Naqvi’s poetry became more pointed and even angrier.
The end of a reactionary dictatorship had failed to curb the monster of sectarian violence.
One evening in 1996 Naqvi was reciting one of his latest poems at a gathering in Lahore that included a line: ‘… these may be my last words.’
And as if on cue, as he left the venue, he was surrounded by three members of an extremist Sunni organisation and shot dead.
It is now believed that one of his killers was the notorious, Asghar Mawiya a hit man for a militant Sunni organisation.
In an ironic twist, 15 years after he had downed Naqvi, Mawiya was himself killed by men, some of whom had actually collaborated with him in murdering Naqvi.
At the time of his death, Naqvi was just 41 years old.
But Qadir’s career (and life) was as topsy-turvy as his unorthodox bowling action.
Born in Lahore into a struggling lower-middle-class family, Qadir’s father was a common peshiman at a local mosque.
Qadir had to take up odd jobs to supplement his schooling and would play school matches in a white kameez-shalwar because he couldn’t afford to buy the white cricketing kit.
Though he loved to bat and was often seen hitting boundaries during club games in Lahore, he developed an interest in leg-spin bowling after watching leg-break bowlers like Intikhab Alam.
Even till he made it into the Lahore side in 1975, Qadir was not only sneaking out of his house to play cricket, he still didn’t have any money to buy a proper cricketing kit and clothes. His colleagues in the Lahore side used to lend him their spare white trousers and shoes.
Qadir was also a huge film and music fan but depended almost entirely on his friends to take him to the movies or a qawalli concert. He was also a regular visitor to Sufi shrines in Lahore and spent a lot of time loitering around the shrines.
After impressing the selectors with his slippery leg-break bowling, Qadir was selected to play for the Pakistan team during the England side’s tour of Pakistan in late 1977. He was 22 at the time.
He did well and also took his first 5-wicket-haul in only his second Test.
When he made his debut in the Lahore Test, Qadir turned up wearing simple canvas shoes.
He had never played in proper cricket shoes and a pair for him had to be arranged just before the Test. But Qadir insisted on playing in his worn out white canvas shoes!
His good performance in the series bagged him a playing and employment contract with the Habib Bank team.
He told his teammates that he could bowl six different kinds of deliveries in a single over.
However, his captain and mates were still trying to comprehend and make sense of his unconventional bowling style that included a bouncy, almost comical run-up to the wicket.
Qadir was selected for Pakistan’s return tour to England in mid-1978; a series the team badly lost 2-0. Qadir was not played at all.
Pakistan all-rounder and future captain, Imran Khan, who, along with four other Pakistani players had been chucked out for signing-up with the rebel Kerry Packer side in Australia, remembers (in his book), how surprised he was when the team did not include Qadir in the Tests in England.
Qadir was soon forgotten about and was not selected in the team till more than a year later when he got the call again.
He was picked in the 18-member squad (under Asif Iqbal) that toured India in late 1979 to play a six-Test series.
Qadir was played in the first three Tests but failed to impress and was duly dropped for the next three.
The claim of bowling six different deliveries in an over had failed to materialise and the Indian batsmen had taken him to the cleaners.
Qadir lingered in the country’s first-class circuit for another year, not bothered by the national selectors.
Even Javed Miandad, who was Qadir’s teammate at Habib Bank did not select him when he became Pakistan’s new captain in 1980.
However, when the West Indies side toured Pakistan in 1981, Miandad asked the selectors to pick Qadir.
Qadir was given two Tests but again he failed to impress. This bamboozled Miandad: ‘I had seen him run through batting line-ups in the domestic matches, but I just couldn’t understand why he underperformed whenever given a chance at the top-level,’ he later recalled.
The problem was that though outspoken, Qadir was never a very articulate man. His captains struggled to decide what field placing to give him and he failed to tell them what he wanted.
His emotional and volatile disposition made matters worse for him when failing to articulate the kind of field his unique bowling demanded, he would lose all concentration once the batsmen began to smash his bowling.
After he was dropped from the side in 1981, some of his teammates and experts convinced him that the modern game had no place left for leg-break bowlers.
He began to miss matches in the domestic level and went back to loitering around Sufi shrines or passing hours listening to Qawals and other Sufi musicians at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore.
In 1982, Imran Khan replaced Miandad as captain. As the selected squad for the 1982 series against England (in England) practiced at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium, Qadir walked in wearing a T-Shirt and a shalwar!
He approached Pakistan team coach and manager, Intikhab Alam, and asked him if he could help the team by bowling at its batsmen in the nets. Alam just shrugged his shoulders and threw him a ball.
After he had bowled a few deliveries, he caught the eye of Imran. Impressed by what he had seen, Khan approached him and asked him what he was up to these days.
‘Nothing much. I’m thinking of quitting cricket,’ Qadir told him, almost on the verge of crying.
‘We thought Qadir will soon have a nervous breakdown,’ former Pakistan spinner, Abdur Raqib, once told veteran sports journalist and Urdu commentator, Munir Hussain. ‘He was such an emotional character. He would fall in and out of depression at a drop of a hat. Totally moody.’
Khan asked Qadir to keep bowling and then picked up a bat to face him. He then asked the team’s two premier batsmen, Zaheer Abbas and Miandad, to do the same.
Khan told Intikhab that he wanted Qadir in the touring squad. Alam thought Khan had lost it. So did the selectors and they refused his request. ‘He’s a lost cause,’ they told him.
But Khan kept insisting that Qadir’s style of bowling would trouble the English batsmen because they were not used to it.
Qadir was finally selected for the tour. Khan thought that though Qadir was a spinner, he had a temperament of an attacking fast bowler.
He then began to call him his trump card and a wizard to the British press.
Satisfied that he had created enough hype in the UK press and the English team, Khan then asked Qadir to grow a sharp French bread to look the part of a wily wizard. Qadir gladly obliged.
Though Qadir did not bag the amount of wickets he was expected to, he truly bamboozled the English batsmen, so much so that it was veteran Australian commentator, Ritchie Benaud, who first suggested that Qadir had revived the art of leg-break bowling in Test cricket.
Not only did Qadir become a regular member of the Test side, he was also used frequently by Imran in the 50-over games.
In fact, it was Qadir’s success in these games that broke the myth that there was no place for spinners in One Day cricket.
Qadir picked up dozens of wickets in his next nine Tests and shot to international fame, both for his bowling mastery, as well as his unconventional bowling action.
And since now that the world was watching him more closely, he finally proved that, indeed, he could bowl six different kinds of deliveries in an over.
He did that during the first Test against Australia in Karachi in 1983 in a series that Pakistan won 3-0.
He also became a close friend of Imran’s. He later noted: ‘Imran was the only person who understood me as a bowler and a person.’
Maybe that’s why Qadir lost his focus once Khan got injured in 1984. Qadir struggled under the new captain, Zaheer Abbas. He shaved off his French beard but then decided to keep it again when Zaheer was replaced by Miandad for the 1985 tour of New Zealand and Australia.
Qadir’s volatile and emotional nature erupted again when during a side game in New Zealand (being captained by Zaheer), Qadir clashed on the field with Zaheer.
When Zaheer admonished him for bad fielding, Qadir lashed back calling Zaheer greedy and a schemer. He was pulled off the field and then sent back home. He had already refused to tour India under Zaheer in 1984.
When Imran returned in 1986 as captain, he recalled Qadir to the side.
Bowling with Imran, Qadir demolished the touring West Indies side in 1986 (the series was squared 1-1).
He was back in the picture, this time closely being watched by a teenaged Shane Warne.
In 1987, former Pakistan opener, Qasim Umar, accused Imran and various other players of smoking marijuana and bringing prostitutes into their hotel rooms on tours.
Qadir vehemently defended Khan, but also suggested that as long as the team was playing well, no one had the right to question the players about their off-field activities.
Umar was chucked out from the team, and Pakistan went on to create history by winning its first ever series wins against India in India and then against England in England.
After the 1987 cricket World Cup, Qadir picked up 30 wickets in just 3 Tests during England’s 1987-88 tour of Pakistan.
But Qadir’s form started to slip after this career peak. Also, Khan had begun to depend more and more on his three new quick bowlers, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Aqib Javed. And a young leg-break bowler who had almost perfectly emulated Qadir’s bowling action, Mushtaq Ahmed, had begun to push the selectors.
In 1990 when Khan opted for Mushtaq instead of Qadir for a tour of Australia, cracks began to appear between the two.
In an interview Qadir lamented: ‘No doubt he (Imran) revived my career. But I didn’t like the way I was dropped from the side.’
Khan on the other hand suggested that Qadir always had a problem with his emotional side. And that once disturbed, it was very tough for a captain to steer him back to performing to his full potential.
Qadir played his last Test in 1990. He then injured his ankle and drifted further away from Imran.
He did make a comeback of sorts (under new captain Wasim Akram) in a ODI tournament in Sharjah in 1993, but it was obvious the wizard had lost his magic.
Shane Warne who had developed into an outstanding leg-break bowler came to Pakistan with the Australian team in 1994 for a 3-Test series.
So, the next highlight of Qadir’s career came when Warne drove to Qadir’s house in Lahore to meet him. He had lunch with Qadir and a long chat. He acknowledged Qadir to be a prime influence.
Qadir faded away, but reemerged on the scene in 2006 when he was made the Chief Selector by the Pakistan Cricket Board.
But it was soon obvious that even in his 50s, he had retained his unpredictable and volatile nature.
In 2007 he stormed out of his job claiming that the players were more interested in making money than playing.
Today he operates a coaching centre and is often invited as a cricket expert on TV channels.
He maintains that he is still friends with Imran.
Born in Rampure, India, Ali’s mother died at childbirth. His father, an Islamic scholar, educated him in Islamic schools and madrassas where Ali learned Islamic texts and writings in Arabic, Urdu and Persian.
The family moved to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 first to Hyderabad and then to Multan. After completing his matriculation in 1948, the family moved back to Hyderabad, where Ali joined college.
His home was on the same street as the city’s famous Firdous Cinema. He would bunk classes to watch films here.
At college, he rose to become a passionate speaker and debater. His heavy voice and style of speaking made his elder brother, who was working at Radio Hyderabad, introduce him to the world of radio plays.
Still at college, Ali began his radio career in 1956 and then branched out to act on stage.
He soon moved to Karachi to join Radio Karachi and it was here he met famous radio personality, Z A. Boukhari who became Ali’s mentor.
In Boukhari Ali found a father figure who understood his passion for acting. Boukhari soon introduced him to a film producer who casted Ali as a villain in his film.
After working in three films as a villain (out of which only one was a hit), Ali finally managed to bag a role as hero in 1963’s ‘Sharart.’
His next three films were all hits and he managed to gather enough money to move to Lahore and buy his own house there.
His booming voice, tall and well-built structure and passionate outbursts (on the screen) soon made film critics label him as ‘Shahensha-e-Jazbat’ (King of Emotions).
He began a torrid affair with actress Shamim Ara in the early 1960s, but the relationship soon collapsed. Ali rebounded and began another affair, this time with Iranian film actress, Shahparah.
Shahpara often visited Pakistan to spend time with Ali, but discouraged him to come to Iran. However, in 1965 he visited Tehran to attend a film festival only to learn that the love of his life, Shahpara, was already married!
Both heartbroken and disoriented, he plunged back into the local film world and was soon having an affair with actress, Zeba.
Both married secretly in 1966 and announced their marriage on the sets of their film, ‘Tum Milay, Pyar Mila.’ This was Zeba’s third marriage.
Though Ali as a hero was appearing in soft romantic farces, his interest in politics was going the other way.
He had supported the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan in the early 1960s and appreciated what the regime had done to give great momentum and support to the film industry. But in 1968 Ali became smitten by the socialist rhetoric of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
By the late 1960s he had begun to produce films as well, but he did not use his films to reflect his politics. Instead, he used his growing stature as a movie star to endorse Bhutto’s party and by 1971 he was able to befriend Bhutto.
Bhutto, himself a film buff, became a regular guest at Ali’s house in Lahore where both passed the evenings drinking and talking politics and films.
In 1971 after a brutal Civil War in former East Pakistan and then Pakistan’s second major war with India ended in the defeat of the Pakistan Army and the separation of East Pakistan, Ali decided to boycott a film festival in the Soviet Union.
Like the socialists in the PPP, Ali too was pro-China and anti-Soviet Union due to the latter’s support to India in the war.
He was encouraged to go to the festival in Moscow by Bhutto where Ali wore black throughout the event to protest against the capture of over 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war by India.
Though, still acting in and producing apolitical romantic films, in 1972 Ali began to donate an impressive portion of the profits that he was making from the films to the offices of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) that had begun to spring up across Pakistan during the Bhutto regime.
The same year he used his friendship with Bhutto to get director Riaz Shahid’s film on the struggle of Kashmiris against the Indian government, ‘Yeh Aman’ released.
The film had been completed in 1970 but was banned by the Yayah Khan dictatorship because it was also critical of the Pakistan military.
Ali continued to make romantic hits and remain a steadfast friend of Bhutto, but he refused to join the government saying he was too busy with his film work.
The Pakistan film industry had begun to peak from the late 1960s onwards and produced a number of superstars and cinemas.
But, in spite of the fact that actors like Waheed Murad, Nadeem and Shahid had also become as big stars as him; Ali always managed to stand out with his booming, emotion-laden voice and domineering style of acting.
By 1976, Ali had been the recipient of over a dozen hit films and awards and it was then that he finally decided to make a film that was reflective of his political ideology.
In late 1976, Bhutto announced that the next general election would be held in January 1977. Ali helped the PPP in its election campaign by attending some of the party’s rallies. He also hired a scriptwriter to pen a script of a film based on the PPP’s slogan of ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan’ (Food, Clothing and Shelter).
The slogan was used in the 1970 election that saw the PPP sweeping the election in Sindh and the Punjab. It decided to retain it for the 1977 election as well.
While on a visit to Karachi to look for locations for his new film, Ali severely criticised the nine-member electoral alliance, the PNA that was being led by the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami.
PNA was strong in Karachi and its leaders asked the cinemas to boycott Ali’s films.
Undeterred by the threat, Ali managed to complete his first political film, ‘Roti, Kapra Aur Makan.’
It was released just before the 1977 election and became a minor hit.
The 1977 election results were rejected by the PNA and it began a movement against the Bhutto regime. The regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup in July 1977 by General Ziaul Haq who began to impose draconian laws and policies calling them ‘Islamic.’
A number of workers and leaders of the PPP and other progressive parties were arrested. Ali was picked up as well and thrown into jail.
He was released after 5 months (without trial) when he fell seriously ill. He was made to declare that he will not associate with the PPP and not make anymore political films.
Ali returned to films in 1978 and remained aloof from politics. In 1979, the year the Zia dictatorship executed Bhutto through a sham trial, Ali withdrew from the film world for a few months.
He reemerged as a changed man. He announced that he had ‘rediscovered Islam’ and would from then on serve it through his films. Ziaul Haq welcomed the move.
In 1980 he produced and starred in ‘Sangram.’ In it, he played the role of a Hindu in a village dominated by Hindu priests. He bumps into a mullah who converts him into a Muslim.
Energised by his conversion, he manages to convert the whole village to Islam. He then forms a preaching party and goes to other villages to convert residents there as well. His ‘noble mission’ is challenged by the Hindu priests whom his band of converts and ‘mujahids’ vanquish and convert village after village.
The bizarre and bigoted farce was thankfully a box-office flop. This flop was followed by the news that one of the now 49-year-old actor’s kidneys had failed.
After his release from the hospital, Ali began to do character roles, but as the film industry continued to plunge, his politics continued to move to the right.
In 1981 he produced and acted in ‘Watan’ in which he played a police officer who goes about closing down gambling dens and breaking alcohol bottles.
He also began to campaign for the Zia government’s plan to trigger a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan.
His new-found romance with the reactionary military regime got him close to pro-Zia politician and Chief Minister of Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif.
After the dictator’s death in 1988, Ali joined Sharif’s party, the centre-right PML-N. After the 1990 election when PML-N came to power, Ali was made an advisor by Sharif.
He quit films and on the advice of Sharif, he entered the construction business. Meanwhile, he also created the Ali-Zeb Foundation, a charity organisation for cancer patients.
He disassociated from politics again when the Sharif regime was dismissed in 1993 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, even though he continued to support PML-N.
For the next 10 years Ali spent a life of retirement, even though he often visited the offices of Ali-Zeb Foundation.
In 2001 a reporter asked him about his association with two distinctly opposite personalities, Z A. Bhutto and Ziaul Haq, and how he turned from being a socialist to a conservative?
He answered: ‘I like to remember them as people and not ideologies.’
Ali died of in 2006 at his home in Lahore. He was 75.
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