Aly Zaker was far more than just an actor, and yet, his humility knew no bounds
As we mourn the passing away of Aly Zaker, who won universal acclaim for his outstanding contribution to the theatre world of Bangladesh as an actor, director, and playwright, tributes have been flowing in from all strata of society lamenting the void he has left behind.
But we must also pay homage to him as a true patriot and a decent human being, who was humility personified, a family man, and a great lover of nature.
For more than four decades, Aly Zaker, who was Chotlu Bhai to many of us, reigned supreme on the stage as well as television and cinema as a prolific actor. His presence brought an unparalleled aura on the stage, making him the centre of attraction with the eyes of the audience moving with all his movements.
His memorable stage performances include lead roles in Dewan Gazir Kissa and Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Tempest. He also acted in various adapted plays like Nishiddho Pollitey (Everything in the Garden by Edward Albee), Galileo (Betroit Brecht’s 1943 play The Life of Galileo), and Bidogdho Romonikul (Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes). Aly Zaker’s performance in Syed Shamsul Haque’s Nurul Diner Shara Jibon will remain etched in the minds of theatre-lovers for a long time.
Chotlu Bhai also made a mark in writing and directing plays for the stage and himself admitted that directing and writing gave him immense satisfaction. I was fortunate enough to have watched his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, named Darpan, at Mahila Samity auditorium in Dhaka.
But apart from his acting and directing prowess, Chotlu Bhai was a true patriot and loved his country for all it had to offer. He was part of all political movements in the 1960s in then East Pakistan with his left-leaning political ideas, and thought it appropriate to be part of the Liberation War in 1971 in whatever capacity that he could.
And so, when called upon by film-maker Alamgir Kabir to join Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro in Kolkata in 1971, he readily agreed. He used to host an hourly program in English for the wider international audience.
I first came to know Chotlu Bhai in 1986 when he came to London as part of a team of Nagorik to take part in the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore, organized by The Tagoreans and supported among others by the Bangladesh Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA), a cultural organization in London with which I was actively involved.
Nagorik staged a performance at the Shaw Theatre called "Agar Bhangar Pala" (Breaking The Barriers) based on four plays by Tagore and was directed by Ataur Rahman. It was then that I came to know Aly Zaker as a person so different from the actor Aly Zaker (in no time, he became Chotlu Bhai to me).
The human being
As on the stage, he used to be the centre of attraction in all discussions in our private get-togethers. He used to talk about his visits to his maternal grandparents' home in Kolkata during school holidays where he remembers watching stage stalwart Sambhu Mitra’s acting in famous Tagore plays, including Raktakarabi.
He could talk non-stop about his love for nature and, more importantly, about rural Bangladesh. He used to say that to love Bangladesh one has to love, in his words, “Gram Bangla.” I later came to know that he had built a house in a village and, whenever he had any time to spare, he used to go to his village home to be closer to nature.
A few years later, Chotlu Bhai and another noted theatre personality, Asaduzzaman Noor, came to England on a family visit and stayed with our common friend, journalist and radio broadcaster Urmi Rahman, who used to live near me.
But during her guests’ stay, Urmi had to be away for a few days and I was entrusted with the responsibility of looking after Chotlu Bhai and Asaduzzaman Noor. That gave me an opportunity to know more about this extraordinary personality and those few days remain some of the most enjoyable days of my life.
During that visit, when I asked Chotlu Bhai, his wife Sara Zaker, and Asaduzzaman Noor whether they would attend a reception to be accorded by Camden Centre, they readily agreed and they performed parts of some of their famous plays.
Although Chotlu Bhai had won accolades from many quarters for his prolific acting, he would say that all praise should be heaped on the playwright and director. He would argue that the actors could portray the characters for which they receive acclaim only because they were created by the playwrights, and the directors asked them to perform as they do on the stage. Such was his humility.
Not many people are aware that Chotlu Bhai was an avid cricket follower. If one brought up cricket as the topic in any adda, he could talk for hours with many interesting stories. Chotlu Bhai also excelled as a cricket commentator on radio. His grasp of both English and Bangla was excellent and he used to write columns for newspapers in both these languages.
Chotlu Bhai had a great passion for photography and used to love taking photographs of the nature around him. Just before he was diagnosed as suffering from cancer, he was invited to be the chief guest at the installation ceremony of the Rotary Club of Agrabad in Chattogram of which I am an active member.
When I called Chotlu Bhai to arrange for his air ticket from Dhaka, he said: “Uday, you don’t have to worry. I have decided to come by road and take photographs on my way. Haven’t used my camera for a long time.”
I must share this story about Chotlu Bhai’s humility. Before that installation ceremony, I asked Chotlu Bhai how we should describe him as the chief guest on the invitation card. I mentioned words like noted theatre personality, famous actor, director, playwright, and so on.
Chotlu Bhai stopped me and said: “Just write theatre worker.” I replied, “but, Chotlu Bhai …” He said, “All that you have mentioned could be true. But I could become all those things that you said only because I am a theatre worker, they are all part of it.”
In his speech as the chief guest on that occasion, Chotlu Bhai praised Rotarians for their work for the less fortunate in society and their love for humanity. But then he emphasized that love must start from the family and the one thing missing from us is our lack of expressing the love we have for our children.
He made a passionate plea for us to show our love for our children; we should hug them, whatever their age. That affection from a parent means a lot to children. It was evident that Chotlu Bhai was speaking from the core of his heart.
Chotlu Bhai was not just a theatre personality. He was much more than that. He was a decent human being with all the traits of a character one would expect from a person who cares for his fellow human beings, loves his country, and, above all, lives up to his ideals.
Very few people conquer death and live on, inspiring us with their ideals. Chotlu Bhai was certainly one of those few who had done exactly that, and any tribute to such a legend is timeless.
In Tagore’s words, Chotlu Bhai would be saying:
“The day has dawned and the lamp
That lit my dark corner is out.
A summons has come
And I am ready for my journey.
My salutation to you all.”
Chotlu Bhai, our salutations to you. We shall never forget you.
Uday Sankar Das is a senior journalist, political commentator, and sports analyst.