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Zaheen Tahira during her younger days | Guddu Film Archive
Zaheen Tahira during her younger days | Guddu Film Archive

The Zaheen Apa I knew had a mysterious aura about her. She was a dignified woman who acted with a grace and elegance unsurpassed by any of her generation. She loved life, acting and music. I’m glad that I got to meet her and am privileged that I had the opportunity to work with her too.

Growing up I saw once a repeat telecast of the seminal serial Khuda Ki Basti in which Zaheen Apa was playing one of the leads, the widow who is wooed by a scammer who is more interested in her money and her daughter. I saw Zaheen Apa’s captivating and beautiful face. The way she delivered her dialogue seemed effortless. I loved her Lukhnavi Urdu and was mesmerised by her control of its poetic rhythms. It was like music to my ears, so lyrical it sounded.

I was also fascinated by her natural expressions and her soothing voice. She was totally natural and was born to do the job she loved. I could tell by the way she carried herself that she was a master of good etiquette and discipline. She seemed so proper and organised. Although I did not know anything about her personal life then, I imagined she’d had a happy childhood and adulthood too. Back then, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that, one day, I would be working with her. The universe works in mysterious ways.

Sakina Samo, who had always been in awe of Zaheen Tahira, remembers the time spent with her on the set of her production Gohar-e-Nayaab, and cherishes the memories spent in her company

And so it goes that a few years ago I was fortunate enough to work with her, directing her in the television drama Gohar-e-Nayaab. Meeting her for the first time felt like deja vu. Having grown up watching Zaheen Apa and others of her generation on PTV, seeing them for the first time felt like I’d opened a nostalgic time capsule. I was very happy she was on board with us in the production and we ended up spending a month or so together in close proximity.

In Gohar-e-Nayaab Zaheen Apa played Sajal Aly’s grandmother. The first day on set, she sat quietly with a smile on her beautiful face and observed everyone and everything on the set. Her soft hazel eyes followed me whilst I manically ran around the set fiddling with props —straightening the curtains, laying the dining table etc. Later on, Zaheen Apa praised my ‘obsession’ for details. She told me, ‘Only women directors bother with such details’. She then mentioned that she had produced dramas herself and wanted to explore direction further. I couldn’t help but admire her courage to forsake retirement and her desire to keep pushing herself in new directions.

Zaheen Apa’s general charisma and presence had a very positive effect on the production. She loved dressing up with matching accessories, both in beautiful saris and shalwar qameez alike. Once I admired her neat joorra (hairbun) with a flower perched on the side. She came up to me to show her make-up and asked politely ‘Does this lipstick and eyeliner look okay; it’s not too much is it?’ Like most women, she took care to look after herself. I made sure to sit with her during every lunch and tea break. She sang old romantic classics with great love and joy. I enjoyed listening to her beautiful stories about Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt.

Although she was a diabetic, she never complained about working under the tough conditions of being on set for twelve hours at a stretch. And it was never just a pay cheque for her; she put in her all in the work she did, all her heart. You couldn’t miss Zaheen Apa’s magnificent spark in her presence, that stood out wherever she’d go. That dignified old-school mannerism she carried with such elegance and delight couldn’t be ignored. Now she is gone but her presence and her hard-earned body of work is preserved in a TV time capsule forever.

I will always remember her with all my heart. I am sad that she’s gone (‘gone’ is the saddest word in any language) and sad that I never had the chance to visit her at her place. ‘I wish, I wish’, we always say in the end, don’t we? So we must make an effort to be there for whoever needs our time and attention. Be there for people who love us, the ones we love and the ones we admire.

Zaheen Apa, I hope you had a wonderful life. I am sure whatever obstacles you had in your way, you surpassed them with the same dignity and elegance that always surrounded you. You faced all the lows and highs and fought a great fight, as we all must. But television will never be the same again without you, Apa.

May you be happy on the other side. Thank you for giving us such beautiful memories. We will be visiting your dramas again and again to marvel at your effortlessness. And you will always be living in our hearts.

The writer is an actor and director

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 21st, 2019