My poor ankle
I remained on call throughout the next few weeks. The routine was ridiculously similar: the second or third assistant director would tell me to be on the set, ready and made-up, (there was no call-sheet) by ten' clock the following morning. He knew that the make-up and costume people -- even the sweepers -- didn't turn up till after 10, but he had his instructions. I obliged. Punctuality had been drilled into me as the first tenet of an actor's bible. We were both slaves to our inflexible incorrigibility.
To while away the idle hours I used to carry the thick volume of St. John Ervine's study of Bernard Shaw which had just been published. I often overheard the studio hands refer to me as purhakoo. I was happily engrossed in the book one day when somebody tapped my shoulder and I heard a voice say, "They are not wrong, these studio boys. You are a book-worm".
I looked up to see my co-star, Talish, whom I had met in the studios of Lahore Radio way back in 1948. He was a 'staff artiste' then, a trained pro; I was a hired 'voice', a mere fledgling. Fledglings did not hob-nob with the 'pros'.
Talish was more filled out now, a chubby rotund man with pink cheeks that seemed to hold an egg on either side; he was a picture of joviality. He leaned over, lifted me by the shoulders and said, "Come and have some lunch." He was by now, an established movie star. I knew he was to be in the film, but I hadn't come across him because he was busy with half a dozen other films.
Talish used to bring his own lunch, a sumptuous affair with all kinds of delicacies like gurdah-kabab etc. People drifted in, uninvited, but he had a welcoming smile for everyone. Most of the dishes like meth qeema and sag pulao were cooked by him. He was an accomplished cook.
From then on, he never let me touch my own packet of woeful sandwiches that I used to carry with me. My protests were in vain. The 'diet food' as he called it, was not good for me. He thought I needed to put a 'bit of colour' on my cheeks. Talish was a genial host. My rickety Fiat refused to start one evening and it was Talish who had it taken away to be repaired by his regular mechanic. He drove me home that evening and had me picked up the next morning. His driver, one of his distant cousins, took me to his home. Talish lived in Muslim Town, in a house full of countless family members. It was soon after ten and he was busy having his lunch packed. Even at that hour a huge feast of Baqar Khanis, Balai and Khagina was laid out for me.
The day at last arrived when I had to don my overcoat and be ready for rehearsal on the set. The studio had been converted into a road. On one side of the road was a pavement with a make-shift staircase at the far end which led to some apartments; on the other side were stalls and kiosks. I was meant to come down the staircase on to the pavement, cross the street and move to a tea-stall run by a hard-hearted Pathan, (played by Talish), listen to his harangue about the money owed to him by young wastrels, look 'meaningfully' and 'searchingly' at the Pathan so as to make him feel 'ashamed', (director's words) bring out a wallet and give him the money owed to him – and walk away (without a word) looking at the world with eyes squirted.
The 'searching' look was a bit of a bind, but after a few rehearsals the "great director", was at last satisfied with my eye-squirting. Orders were given to roll the cameras. The moment of my immortalisation arrived.
I came down the first few steps, paused, as required and looked at the scene on the street, took the next step without looking down. Alas, the step on the poorly assembled staircase had caved in. I tumbled, twisting my right ankle.
Lights were turned off. I was lifted by the assistants and eased into a chair. The pain was agonising. Fareedoon rubbed his hands, partly in sympathy and partly because he could see a disastrous suspension of work. The 'great director' put his hand on my shoulder, sympathetically, and muttered something about amateurish carpentry. This kind of a thing could never happen in Bombay.
The man who wasn't going to live long had to lie flat on this back for the next four weeks. The film came to a halt not because of my accident but because there had been a serious rift between the 'great director' and the English-speaking Fareedoon.
Some time later, Fareedoon visited me. For the first time he spoke to me in Urdu. He cursed Zia Sarhady whose whereabouts were not known to anyone. The director had not only absconded but had taken with him the unexposed cans of film he had shot. Fareedoon had decided to sue him and he had come to enlist my support as a witness. I told him to get on his bike. He hadn't paid me a penny more than the 'advance' payment of 1500 rupees. I never saw Fareedoon again.
Thirty years later in 1987, I was appearing in a play in London. After the performance one night there was a knock on my dressing room door. My dresser went out to see who it was and came back with a slip of paper on which was scrawled, "Your director -- 1957" Zia Sarhady did not look a day older as he walked in with a smile. His thick mop of silvery hair had perhaps thinned but otherwise he had the same Somerset Maugham face.
He made no mention of the play I was in, or the film that he had abandoned. We talked of this and that. He seemed curiously detached. There were silences. He had been in London for a while but he didn't like the weather. He was now going to reside in Spain. "Your eyes", he said after a while, "that is what I first noticed about you. And you know something?" he smiled affectionately, "I discovered you before the Western world did."
I thought of asking him about the cans of unexposed film but didn't. He had withdrawn from the world and it would have been futile to bring him back to it.
As I nursed my aching ankle in my hotel room in Lahore, I thought that it was not without irony that the hotel in which I kept my foot aloft for weeks was exactly where I was now. Only then it was called Nedous Hotel.