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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 52, December 17, 2022

Pakistan: Imran Aslam, the veteran thespian journalist bows out | Beena Sarwar

Friday 16 December 2022

by Beena Sarwar

Dec 3, 2022

Imran Aslam (January 05, 1952 – December 02, 2022)

It would be hard to find a more unassuming ‘President’ of anything. No imposing office for the lanky Imran Aslam, President of Geo TV and Jang Group. His perch was a little cubicle on the floor along with others – wood frame and glass. A desktop computer, an ashtry, and minimal clutter. A ready smile, a laugh in his voice.

He had been Geo TV since before the channel’s launch in 2002. Twenty years later, having battled cancer for the past five years, he bows out with grace and courage, his wit and irreverent sense of humour intact.

He continued going in to work for even a few hours a day until he could do it no longer. Last Monday his system gave up and he was rushed to hospital. The only solace was that being heavily sedated, he was not in pain, says wife Fareshteh Gati.

I first met Imran at the offices of now defunct Karachi ‘eveninger’ The Star in 1986 or ‘87, in “those days of censorship” to quote the magazine editor Zohra Yusuf.. The place was sprinkled with luminaries like cartoonist Vai Ell and freelance contributors like prolific writer Kaleem Omar, whom Imran dubbed ‘Column Omar’, Najma Sadiq, Hilda Mazhar, Kausar S.K. and others quietly, creatively and courageously combatting the military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq.

I was just back from undergraduate studies in the U.S. Imran had recently returned to Pakistan from Abu Dhabi where he had headed the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi’s airplane fleet. We were both contributing to the Star Weekend. Hameed Haroon, revamping the Dawn group of newspapers, later appointed him as editor of The Star. Imran brought his special brand of humour with headlines like ‘Haq Off to Umra’ when the dictator went to Saudi Arabia.

“The ISI turned up at his door. Imran was our hero” remembers a friend’s sister.

A couple of decades later, he would again lead a team facing down another military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who blockaded all media channels during emergency of 2007.

Always a champion of the underdog, he was never ‘performative’ about it. His values and principles shone through his work, leadership, and mentorship. He never talked about his activism, but we knew of his support for Baloch rights [1]. He had virtually only one lung - didn’t stop him from smoking - due to tuberculosis developed during a brief incarceration some time after his return to Pakistan from LSE.

When I rejoined The Star Weekend in 1987, Saneeya Hussain had taken over charge from Zohra who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ due to pressure from the ‘authorities’. Saneeya’s family hailed from Madras, where Imran was born in 1952, nicknamed Tippu after a legendary Sultan. Saneeya’s passing away in 2005 was a major blow for all of us.

Legendary visitors to The Star office in the late 1980s included Benazir Bhutto. Fareshteh was a cricket reporter; other reporters included Afia Salam, Zaffar Abbas, initially a sports reporter who moved into politics, and the late Idris Bakhtiar.

Imran’s college buddy actor Salman Shahid from Government College (now University), Lahore, would visit while on theatre trips to Karachi. Often these trips would be with Shoaib Hashmi, Government College economics professor who mentored the acclaimed Government College Dramatic Club, GCDC. Imran and Salman along with friend Usmaan Peerzada were avid GCDC members. In Karachi, Shoaib Hashmi stayed at my parents’ home and held rehearsals in our living room.

After Government College, Imran had attended the London School of Economics, but his first love remained theatre. However, he made a clear distinction between the theatrics of public performances and the ‘performative’ culture that has emerged in recent years through social media, which he steered clear of. Even when his younger brother journalist Talat Aslam, Tito, passed away just six months ago, while not masking his grief, he refused to play to the gallery.

His myriad contributions to Pakistan’s stage, television and cinema include scripting a series of cutting-edge children’s plays in Urdu, adapted for the Goethe Institut’s Grips Theatre [2], drawing on a theatre tradition founded in the 1960s by students in West Germany. The word ‘Grips’ means the ability to understand quickly.

Television actor Yasmeen Ismail directed the Karachi Grips projects, in which adults play children’s roles. Popular actor and singer Khaled Anam was among the staple actors, along with M. Sajeeruddin and Faiza Kazi. Sadly, Yasmeen passed away in 2002 of ovarian cancer, at age 52 [3].

The first two Karachi Grips plays, 1980 and 1984, were in English. The group then invited Imran to write the scripts in Urdu. He loved doing that, injecting the text with his signature wit and puns and coming up with creative titles.
His popular television plays for Pakistan Television include like Khaleej, Dastak, and Rosy, under the pen name Imran Saleem.

Imran Aslam joined The News as news editor, Karachi, when the paper was launched in 1991. By then I had moved to Lahore, having got married to Salman Shahid in 1988. Imran and my relationship never faltered even when my marriage with one of his best friends ended years later.

In 1993 Imran Imran handed me a project too exciting to refuse - The News on Friday (later Sunday) — a groundbreaking weekend paper that would change the media landscape of Pakistan. I left The Frontier Post Lahore, where I was features editor, and began to implement Imran’s vision.

Having shared the idea, he characteristically stepped back. It took us a while to launch the paper, and the process was sometimes frustrating. Imran remained patient, focused on the bigger picture, as always. He refused to get mired in details or negativity. This pattern was visible again and again in all that he did.

In 2002 when Geo TV was launched, Imran was one of the brains behind the project. Having just returned from London with a degree in Television Documentary, I had to go through an application process and do the month-long training with everyone else.

“Everything creative Team Geo did, either he thought of it, or had vetted, enabled, edited or enhanced it in some way,” says Mir Ibrahim Rehman, group owner Mir Shakilur Rehman’s eldest son.

This included Aman Ki Asha, the ‘hope for peace’ project between Pakistan and India for which he penned the groundbreaking joint editorial, as well as other projects for education and rational thinking.

Imran was a mentor to anyone who sought him out. It wasn’t just his doors but his heart that was always open, as Mir Ibrahim says. He was a teenager exploring the newsroom after school when Imran took him under his wing, with “patience and a smile”. He helped out not just with school projects, but also devised a campaign to win over a girl Mir Ibrahim liked - they were later married.

“He helped me edit my college application, he helped me launch Geo and more importantly to enjoy the struggle afterwards. He was always there for everyone and always gentle, creative and hopeful. Any serious somber moment was a joke away, every epiphany could be broken my comic genius,” says Mir Ibrahim.

You’d think the “president” of Pakistan’s largest media company would live in a fancy house and drive a fancy car. Not Imran. A darvesh at heart, he was never into materialism.

His gentle aristocratic bearing contained not a hint of elitism or classism as any number of reporters, sub-editors, office guards and others would testify.

Imran Aslam was as well versed in Indian and western classical music to songs and qawwalis, Sufi music and instrumental numbers, says niece Reema Abbasi, also a journalist. “He knew all of Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, besides Ghalib, Mir and Sufi kaafis by heart”.

Equally fluent in Urdu and English – and Bangla, having spent his childhood in East Pakistan – he could talk on or write about any number of topics, from sports to business, religious script to classical literature, Sufism and comic books.

Never didactic, his discourse was characterised by humility and wit. While fiercely patriotic, he refused to give into the flag-waving culture to prove himself.

As I write these words, Imran Aslam has transitioned into another world. He leaves behind many heartbroken friends, colleagues and family members. He will live on through his vision, his work, and in our hearts.

[An earlier version of this was first published in The News International, 3 December 2022 ]


[1In a class of his own, by Salman Shahid, Dawn, 3 Dec. 2022 https://www.dawn.com/news/1724319/obituary-in-a-class-of-his-own

[2Musical notes: Grips Theatre launches its first album while singing German and Bollywood songs https://tribune.com.pk/story/342691/musical-notes-grips-theatre-launches-its-first-album-while-singing-german-and-bollywood-songs

[3Obituary - Yasmeen Ismail, by Rumana Hussain, Dawn, Jan. 2002 https://www.dawn.com/news/15615/karachi-yasmeen-ismail-an-obituary

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