Aly Zaker, our most iconic theatre personality, has left us for eternity. He singlehandedly brought theatre out from an obscure corner of our cultural world to its very centre. He along with his co-actors in Nagarik, and fellow travellers in other theatre groups, made the stage the most powerful and effective vehicle of inculcating critical thinking and intellectual freedom so vitally needed for social change and progress. Through acting, direction, scriptwriting, adaptation and translation of plays he transformed the intellectual scope of our theatre from the limitations of what we inherited to the vastness of the world that our newly gained independence gave us the scope to venture into.
Save the personal, his life was consumed by two love affairs -- one for Bangladesh and the other for the theatre, and through his work he blended both. He was proudest of his involvement in our struggle for freedom and he was most passionate about his work as an actor. Through every action of his life he tried to bring his pride and his passion together. It is this coming together of the two most powerful forces within him that made Aly Zaker the exceptional patriot and the critically acclaimed actor, director, writer that he was.
His patriotism was of the most enlightened kind. It was far more than loyalty to a political entity. It was the people -- simple, tolerant, open-minded, friendly, hospitable and engaging -- that he loved most. His childhood memories of what we call "Gram Bangla" (far more than the term "rural Bengal" signifies), etched deeply in his subconscious from long travels on country boats, horseback and train with his father produced his lifelong love for Bangladesh's natural features to which, he says, he owes the origins of his creativity.
He was most pained to see his "Gram Bangla" exploited both economically -- that we mostly talk about -- and culturally. He strongly believed in the syncretic cultural heritage of Bangladesh and strongly resisted, through his plays, attempts to divide it. In all his television appearances, interviews and writings he tried to warn us against this trend and foresaw the damage that it would do to the future advancement of Bangladesh. Like every freethinker he abhorred prejudice and extremism of all kinds and, as a columnist, relentlessly wrote against them.
His creative work began, as he says, with his involvement with Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro in Kolkata in 1971, with the invitation of filmmaker Alamgir Kabir to do an hourly English language programme on our Muktijuddho. (I recall with pride my participation in several such programmes). Immediately after Bangladesh's liberation, he plunged himself into the world of theatre. Starting with Munier Chowdhury's play "Kobor", he joined Aranyak in 1972 and then there was no stopping him.
Equally important to his acting was his work in adaptation and translation. He chose the greatest of playwrights -- Sophocles, Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen, to name a few -- to translate and adapt, which itself became a greater source of intellectual exchanges. Nagorik and a few other theatre groups became mini-centres of discussion to understand what these great plays meant and how they could stimulate our own intellectual renaissance in post-liberation Bangladesh.
Aly Zaker's acting, intellectual stature, directing and his relentless effort to take Bangladeshi theatre to greater heights inspired thousands of young people to take up this art form as writers, directors, musicians, scriptwriters, stage managers, light and audio technicians, etc. In other words, he triggered a process that helped to make theatre production in Bangladesh a far more professional endeavour than it was ever before.
Most talented people are not so good at "guru shishya parampara" but his warm, inclusive, engaging and modest personality broke the barriers and inspired generations of youngsters to take to theatre or at least become knowledgeable about this art form. He played a leadership role in triggering what later became a movement that created hundreds of theatre groups, thousands of actors and millions of theatre fans in the newly liberated country. In fact, theatre movement became a beacon of hope for the establishment of the ideals of our independence struggle -- a democratic, prosperous and secular Bangladesh.
A tribute to Aly Zaker would be incomplete without mentioning the magic he would bring to stage the moment he would enter it. The first thing that would strike the audience from the word go was his presence. The moment he would step onto the stage, there was no question that he was the centre of gravity. As he would move around the stage so would our eyes, trying to extract all the meanings that were being conveyed with his facial expressions, gestures of his hands, various postures and looks -- oh those penetrating eyes, that would pierce the audience signalling the drama of what was to come. Then came the dialogue with his thundering voice modulated to perfection so that we would not miss a word or a whisper. For the duration of the play he would make a plaything of us, lingering on his every word, every movement and every dramatic entry or departure from the stage.
His love for the theatre was never more dramatically exemplified than by his reappearance on stage after his bout with cancer that was first detected in 2016. He acted as "Galileo" for the last time in 2018 for a full hour and a half, never showing fatigue or lack of stamina for a moment. Those of us in the audience knew well that we are never going to see our most favourite and perhaps the greatest of our stage personalities, ever again on stage.
During his last years, when he was bedridden, he would enjoy receiving friends. When Shaheen (my wife) and I last saw him, he was ever buoyant and talkative. Not for a moment did he refer to his cancer and the challenges he was facing. He talked about the founding days of The Daily Star (he was one of the few trusted friends I consulted before starting the paper; he was most supportive), the wonderful time we passed together, our meeting in various cities of the world, how much our friendship meant to him, and left us speechless with his enthusiastic prognosis of the future. He was acting his biggest role in life -- shunning pessimism and teaching us to win everything with optimism.
It is that ever optimistic Chotlu Bhai, as all of us lovingly called Aly Zaker, that we will remember him as.