September, 2018

Please describe yourself for us.
I started in another world I think, a very different world, another planet. I think we were the first post-partition generation. Now I don’t even call it post-partition, I call it independence from two parts, one from the British and the other from India. My early childhood was spent in East Pakistan. At the starting point, it was a completely different world compared to what it is today. The first place we lived in didn’t have water or electricity so I feel very comfortable now without water and electricity. And it was a happy childhood with full of people. The family was mostly there but the people we met we became friends with.

It was a political journey as well because my parents were into talking about politics and history and stuff like that. Both my parents were at Aligarh University so we had that kind of environment. We have a large family with four brothers and a sister and we all were called by strange names. My elder brother was called Dabbu, I was Tippu, then there was Tito and Ditto. We then thought that if we had a fifth brother what would we call him, to which everyone agreed on Repeato but luckily it was a girl.

There was interest right from the beginning, in acting, in writing and in performing. I was the star of the household and was trotted out to do mimicry, crack some jokes and sing. I suppose it stuck with you because you always wanted to be in the limelight and perform all the time, if possible. Despite having a slightly shy nature, I didn’t want to overdo it but I inevitably landed up performing in school plays and dramas. I was also writing for school magazines even when no one let us do so as they used to say that we didn’t know how to write. So, there was a small group of us who decided that we will do our own and put it up in the library.

But we also saw the other side of partition that was brewing around us. I used to play cricket with people like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s children, they were friends with my brothers and then there was Admiral Ahsan. Generally, it was a political sort of feeling without being antagonistic towards anybody. There was no animus but we had those things about the rivalry. My father was working for a shipping company at that time in Chittagong and then he came to Dhaka and joined Juettners Association. My mother was a great entertainer and a great storyteller and even when she used to return from the market, she always had a bunch of stories which was enough for us to be happy. As I said, it was a very happy and meaningful childhood, apart from the fact that it was very scenic and very open. There were jungles, animals, open fields, seas and a different cultural ethos with music, art and dance as we never considered these things as bad.

When I look back, as always there is a formative period which stays with you. It’s a kind of a path about which you don’t know where it will take you.

You basically studied economics, then how did you land in journalism?
I came to West Pakistan in 1967 and joined Government College, Lahore, a totally different world. You come out of your elitist comfort zone and into a huge university type place where there are people of all cultures speaking different languages.
I had nobody from my previous school in the new college. As I was from Dhaka there was hardly anyone I knew. But we all became friends and have sustained those relationships even today. Salman Shahid, Usman Peerzada, Sarmad Ali and Arshad Mahmud are a few names. Shoaib Sahab was our teacher and I did plays and debates with him.

We also witnessed Ayub Khan’s era and its effects on student politics. It was an exciting time, meeting interesting people like Ustad Daman, Faiz Sahab and Bhutto Sahab. We had the sort of environment where we could sit with them. When we did our plays, they would be watching and gave us motivation. Safdar Mir and Muhammad Idrees were also among them. I consider myself fortunate that we were living in a period when it was easy to have access to such people.

1968 was the time when the whole world seemed to be in a ferment - in Paris, Germany and Pakistan. Some hippies arrived talking of free love. Music and The Beatles then followed. Pakistan was at a crossroad.

I went to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). My subjects were economics, politics, philosophy and international relations but I did my M. Phil in Political Science. The topic of my thesis was ‘Political Evolution in Balochistan.’ I wasn’t with any group but, unfortunately, I landed up in jail for 10 to 15 days.

After coming out, I had this strange sensory deprivation. One morning when I woke up, I was not able to read and no matter how hard I tried, the alphabets just wouldn’t form in my head. At my bedside was a small pack of MaCleans toothpaste. I still remember Chlorophyll was the word written on it that I tried reading. Then I went to Abu Dhabi.

For about 6 to 7 years I was in Abu Dhabi running the royal flight of Sheikh Zayed’s aeroplanes which was a different world altogether. At first, there was only one aeroplane but with time it increased to 7, forming an airline. My parents were in Abu Dhabi and I went to visit them. I was sitting one day when a person came asking if I knew anything about flying. I said no but he took me to the airport. He was in the ruler’s office and was looking for somebody to handle their planes. I first agreed but soon learned that I would have to see things like bringing the crew and seeing to the landing charges, maintenance, catering and VIP handling. In the staff there was only one member and if something went wrong, I was responsible. Yasir Arafat, Bani Sadar and Murtaza Bhutto were among the people that I flew. One morning I questioned myself that at the end of it, what would I do, join PIA? I did not think so. My experience can surely be part of some book.

After I came back, Hameed Haroon, a friend from college days, asked me to join the Star as a senior sub-editor. I had no journalism experience but I agreed as I loved writing. A few days later he told me that the editor was going and he wanted me to take the position. The experience was interesting as it was Ziaul Haq’s era and censorship was at its peak. I was fortunate as I had fantastic people like Zafar Abbas, Idrees Bakhtiar, Zohra Yousuf, Sania Hussain, Anjum Ayaz, Hassan Jafri, Farishtey Aslam and Talat Naqvi. This was when journalism was peaking and I found working with these amazing writers most fascinating.

After Star, I was without a job for about 2 years. I started writing jingles and plays. Khaleej, Rozi and Dastak were some plays I did with Yasmeen Ismail, based on satire as there was no other option. One venue was the Pakistan American Cultural Centre. The content was mostly censored as it was said to be political but the issue was overcome as we used to deliver our message through satire. Many plays like Saazish Ki Wajah Se Khail Multawi, Gaindey Goli Marte Nahi, Dete Hain, Langra Aam khaas Hota Hai, Dunya Mere Aagey and Unfit Born used to run 39 times straight at the PACC with packed auditoriums of kids and the message was going across. People like Faiza Qazi, Sajeel Uddin, Khalid Anum, Hameed Riaz and Ayesha were a great cast and they are still with us.

Then I started doing theatre. Every year we did two performances, mainly for charity organisations like Shaukat Khanum, SOS, SIUT and others. Shaukat Aziz and Pervez Musharraf used to call us to see our plays. Ali Saleem, who was launched at that time, used to mimic Benazir Bhutto. So Benazir called him and he did it in front of her and she literally enjoyed it.

In 1991, I launched The News with youngsters, new technologies and our newspaper was colourful compared to DAWN. We brought in talented people like Azhar Abbas, Abbas Nasir, Muhammad Hanif, Gul Hameed Bhatti, Owais Tauheed, Murtaza Solangi, Amir Zia and Nusrat Ameen.

We started thinking about GEO in 1996 or 1997 with the aim to manage everything under one channel - entertainment, news and whatsoever, just like PTV. In the whole concept of 24 hours news, the tension was whether advertisers would come or not and will the audience talk about it? The first time we went out for reporting, people made fun of us, saying that we will never show what they said. Now all you have to do is put a mike in front of them and they speak their heart out.


Even today there’s a lot of criticism on media but it is only the beginning as we are still in the process of defining the issues. We are a country that is having a great argument within itself. Who are we? Why are we? This is the kind of Pakistan that can be called a Naya Pakistan.

You have experienced Ayub, Zia and Musharraf eras. What is the difference?
We were young when Ayub came so we believed that he will make things right but unfortunately that didn’t happen. We had never experienced military dictatorship so we thought it was the answer to every problem but it suddenly vanished after a little progress. I think things took an ugly turn because of the gap between East and West Pakistan and we have one example that in our school we had a foreign principal but soon Major Mehboob replaced him. He at first made 2 cricket teams of Bengalis vs. non-Bengalis and we objected to it. I even wrote an editorial in my magazine that how one could even divide them into ethnic divisions. There was some antagonism so the Bengali team got separated with the speculations of taking out Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Now how can you take Tagore out from Bengal, it is like taking Ghalib out of Urdu.

Zia was more in your face with censorship. We started writing satire in his era as we understood that the only way we could make our voice heard was by writing satire and between the lines. We were also caught many times for this. I remember there was one headline that made waves. Actually, the news of a cyclone hitting Defence spread like fire and so people were running here and there. We photographed the moment and captioned it as ‘Defence on the run’. We used to publish these types of interesting headlines and we were often pulled up for it but every time we published a news story, people were interested in knowing its facts. Many journalists were flogged at that time and many faced fear but the day Zia’s plane crashed we were redundant as the object we were fighting against suddenly disappeared and things changed.

Musharraf was a dictator and I think dictatorship should be feared but most dictators want to be loved. They do all the things to get the trappings of legitimacy and then don’t take the decisions they should take.

How can the standards of Pakistani media be improved and what kind of people will bring this change?
Obviously, the electronic media today is changing slowly. When we started, nobody was trained in this medium so we just experimented. Even now we wonder whether people will watch television in the future or not or will everything be on social media? What about the audiences’ attention and their availability? Appointment viewing has decreased a lot, like if I want to see anything I will not see it at 9 o’clock as I can watch it anytime.

I think it has to come from ourselves and mostly from the younger people. The only missing part in media today is the entire informal structure. We are still in the phase of ‘He Said, She Said journalism’. Even on TV the blame game is going on. The other parts of economics, structure, institutions and tools on television are quite difficult to design and get the product sold but people are not interested in watching them as they are boring.

I think platforms are available where younger people come along and take over to build up something and that is how I look at media. Problems like false news and censorship are there. We are going through a bad phase because we don’t know who is doing it. Even the tickers are dictated and just by reading them you know that something is going on, whether it is pre-poll rigging or not but when they ask for proof, we have none.

I was joking once when I said that everyone was of the view that GEO channel was pro-government and pro-Nawaz. How can a pro-government channel be shut? As the media is becoming polarized, sitting together and discussing is not happening as one media house will not talk to another and the journalists are also not part of it. We all used to be part of one fraternity. Today, electronic media do not have press clubs as the rivalry is so strong.

Everybody is hoping something good will come with this new government but I haven’t heard anything yet about freedom of the press, maybe because they feel everything is okay. I mean you may love Imran Khan but that does not mean you only have Imran Khan and it was clearly seen when Nawaz Sharif returned to the country as it was a complete blackout. Imran Khan has lived on television for like 4 to 5 years with his collar mike campaign. The powers that be understand the power of this medium so we should not be too scared as we still have some power.

You have been a playwright as well. What kind of writing do you prefer?
I enjoy writing plays. It was good old days when we use to write, we were all amateurs at that time. We were unprofessional and so we couldn’t earn a living by writing plays. We wrote because we loved writing and if it was enjoyed by people that made us happy. Now it is a different ball game as we have become professionals. I personally write when I feel like writing or if it is commissioned for a good cause. I usually prefer not to attend such gatherings; I just write the plays and give them to act. But my wife goes and she is the one who plays the role of a critic for me as I decide whether to go or not after receiving a message from her about the play. So that’s the way I do it but still, I try to be away from it.

Are you currently working on any play?
Actually, I have written a film and Asim Raza is doing it but my script was written 5 years back. For now, I can’t say whether I will write or not but I will try for sure.

What other areas do you want to explore?
I think a playwright is a frustrated actor as he writes the characters which he himself wants to act. One way or the other you want to perform and we were lucky that two years back, Hameed Haroon asked Rehana Saigol and me to do Love Letters, raising huge amounts of money for charity. It was a delightful experience to go back on stage at the Literature Festival in Lahore and at the Mohatta Palace for SIUT.

An interesting film that I have done is shot on 35 mm based entirely on the letters of Mr. Jinnah and is written by Jinnah himself. It is basically the letters that he wrote to Gandhi, Nehru, Azad and others. We took them and made a two and a half hour video which is divided into 6 minutes episodes. There is only one character of Jinnah and I tried performing the role because we thought that Jinnah was the sole spokesman and no other character was further required. The film is ready but I have to re-edit it as soon as I get some time.

I worked with some good people. Benazir herself called me to watch our play Anji but she was worried as she didn’t have a ticket so I told her not to worry and come to see the play. She enjoyed the play. Sheema Kirmani, Khalid and I acted in it.

What do you think about magazine journalism?
Magazine journalism is becoming obsolete; its shelf life is decreasing. It’s not an easy job nowadays for a magazine to prosper. Even newspapers are becoming difficult and electronic media is also the same. Once they understand the mechanics and the economics of social media, every medium will then vanish. You will witness that the digital world will take over and with smartphones, people are carrying a number of programs in their pockets. Our work will only be left to provide what is exclusive.
There is a lot of false news or fake pictures on social media which are there for fun and we also used to do it with Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain but now it has taken another turn with youngsters making memes and having fun with it.

What do you think of comedy?
I have written four to five theatre plays with Rahat Kazmi which catered to packed audiences because of being serious, political and funny. I think that is lacking now. In cinemas, back then people used to like either Rangeela or Lehri so there was the spectrum. Munawwar Zareef jokes also made people laugh and then there was slapstick. Punjab was dominant in cinema because of being the largest province though the Punjabi style had only one type of humour. That has now been picked up and slightly elevated by films like Teefa in Trouble, Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, Na Maloom Afraad and Actor in Law where you can find the Shoaib Hashmi kind of humour.

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