The late veteran film actor, Muhammad Ali and his wife, actress Zeba’s marriage was the stuff that fairytales are made of. Together, they made quite a couple, with the tall and handsome Muhammad Ali falling in love with the young, beautiful Zeba at first sight and the two getting married and living happily ever after … that is until Muhammad Ali passed away this time last year. The two were married for four decades.
I meet Zeba at her residence, AliZeb, situated on a broad avenue of Lahore bearing the same name. Contrary to the image of a grieving widow I have in mind, I find Zeba dressed in a fetching ice-blue silk shalwar kameez with matching shoes worn over pedicured feet with painted toenails. With sparkling diamonds earrings and solitaires flashing in her slender fingers, she puts to shame women half her age with her captivating beauty.
The moment we start, she makes it absolutely clear: “I will talk only about Muhammad Ali sahib.” With her past obscure, and she has consciously kept it so during the length of our conversation, the reference point in her life remains her meeting with Muhammad Ali. “When he joined Radio Pakistan, his father who was a religious scholar, opposed his decision. But Ali told him: ‘I’ll never bring disgrace to your name in this profession’ and he proved it so.”
She also remembers how they ended up on screen together: “Our first film together was Chiragh Jalta Raha (released on March 9, 1962 and directed by Fazal Karim Fazli). Its first shot picturised us together. Ali sahib told the press much later that he had decided to marry me the day he first saw me.” Chiragh Jalta Raha also marked the big-screen debut of Deeba and Kamal Irani. Zeba and Mohammad Ali got married some four years later in 1966. Says she, “It took us a while as I am not the kind who trusts someone out rightly or falls in love at first sight.”
So what made her decide to marry him? “His integrity and goodness. He belonged to a deeply religious family and despite being good-looking, he was sharif and would shun the advances made by other women. Muhammad Ali sahib had a generous heart and treated everyone with nothing but respect. He treated me like a queen and loved fulfilling my whims. It was hard not to take the decision to marry him. He would hand over all his earnings to me without a question as to how I spent it.”
Zeba goes on to add that in the later part of his life, Muhammad Ali was actively involved in philanthropic pursuits, specially pertaining to the AliZeb Foundation which treats the underprivileged patients of hemophilia and thalesemia free of charge.
It is commonly perceived that Ali was immensely possessive about Zeba working with other heroes of the time. Zeba, however, has this to say about the issue: “Ali once asked me ‘Would you like it if I accompanied you on your shoots like you do on mine?’ and I thought to myself: What is the point of being married if your work keeps you away from each other? So I decided to act in films that only cast him opposite me. Also, I think our society does not accept a married actress working opposite men other than her husband. Today, I don’t have any regrets as we made super-hit films together. In fact, we worked in 75 films which is an unmatched world record, even in Hollywood and Bollywood.”
Says Zeba, “We always made it a point to have lunch and dinner together. Muhammad Ali sahib also loved to entertain guests at home and never went anywhere without me.” On being asked how Ali was as a father to her only daughter from her previous marriage (they did not have any children of their own), Zeba cuts me short. “I don’t remember anything prior to meeting Muhammad Ali. He was an exemplary father to not only our daughter but also our grandchildren. He would get them expensive gifts from abroad and where I would admonish my grandchildren at times, he would spoil and pamper them to no end.”
With tears in her eyes, she says that life without Muhammad Ali is difficult for her. “I cannot even begin to explain the anguish I have suffered with Ali’s passing away. I have tried to pull myself together with difficulty but I still feel incomplete. The shock of his death has been unbelievable and I still suffer from the stress of it all. I would visit his grave and it would just not register that he is in there. But one can’t do anything against the will of Allah. For four months after his death, I did not read a single newspaper carrying the coverage of his funeral or watch a single TV programme made in his memory.
I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My grandchildren urged me to see the articles they had saved with them, saying I should see how he left this world in the grand manner that he had lived his life. I think it is only when you are so loved and admired by people that you receive the tremendous show of respect that Ali got on his last journey.”
Finally, Zeba says, “I ask Ali’s admirers to pray for his maghfirat and my forbearance to overcome the loss. I hope and pray that when my time comes, people will show me the same love and respect that they have shown to Muhammad Ali.”