Imran Aslam: Lessons in journalism from a life and legacy transcending borders across Southasia

By Abdullah Zahid 

12 January 2023: In the good old days when there was a regular exchange of theatre productions between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani satire ‘Lines Out of Control’ – ostensibly, a children’s play – was staged in Delhi.

The cheeky title was typical of the scriptwriter Imran Aslam. The play was part of the legendary Grips Theatre repertoire from Karachi, the children’s theatre inspired by a tradition from Berlin, Germany. 

The Indian audience was a bit snooty, recalls actor Faiza Kazi. Some told the visitors that the play better be good, or they would leave. But everyone stayed. “They were simply mesmerised.”

“It’s good to see Indians in their natural habitat,” quipped Imran Aslam later, making a pun on the venue, the India Habitat Center.

More than a playwright

Both the play’s title and the quip were typical of a man who was much more than a playwright, as friends, colleagues and family members testified recently, at the Karachi Arts Council for a tribute to Tippu, as he was also known.

Faiza Kazi, who worked in more than 50 Grips plays scripted by Aslam, said: “All plays reflected his love for Pakistan, the conviction that it was his country – good or bad – and that he had to work for it.”

Imran Aslam’s passing from cancer on 2 December 2022 is a huge loss to the world of diverse, inclusive and accessible journalism. Less than a month later, many in Karachi turned out to pay homage to Imran Aslam, his life and legacy on his birthday, 4 January. The tribute was put together by friends of Imran Aslam in collaboration with Geo TV network and Karachi Arts Council. 

The rich two-hour event had much to offer a young journalist like myself on how to remain steadfast and professional. Today, when I look at the industry for mentors, opportunities and encouragement, Imran Aslam’s legacy shines a light.

Many present also remembered Talat Aslam, Imran Aslam’s younger brother who passed away just six months earlier on 25 May 2022 and had served as editor of The News for over 15 years. He too had started out writing columns for The Star.

Imran Aslam’s life and legacy transcended borders across Southasia. Born to an illustrious family in Madras (later called Chennai, India) in 1951 – not 1952 as mentioned in some obituaries – he spent his childhood in East Pakistan, going to school in Chittagong. The family moved to Lahore in 1967 and he attended Government College (now University) there.

It was at the GC open-air theatre that another student, Usmaan Peerzada, came across the young Imran reciting Shakespeare and Hamlet to the bemusement of some students from small towns like Sahiwal and Mian Channu.

Not an ordinary person

Aslam went on to London for higher studies, transferring to the London School of Economics from a smaller school.

“It’s quite obvious that Tippu was not an ordinary person. A transfer from a south London college to the LSE should not be mistaken for a walkover,” commented Hameed Haroon, CEO, Dawn Media Group.

At LSE too, Imran Aslam was involved in the theatrical club, Haroon recounted. “He would start every rehearsal with a half-hour of acting drills dragging the other cast members along, which Tippu was very enthused about. Nobody exercised in London in 1971, save from those who played in experimental or professional theatres.”

Imran Aslam went on to contribute more than 60 plays for Pakistan’s TV and theatre, scripts that are regarded as historical classics.

After LSE and before turning to journalism, Imran oversaw personal flight operations for Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Moving back to Pakistan in 1982, he began writing for the eveninger The Star, and was later appointed editor. Along with a small team of courageous journalists and columnists, he used wit and satire to defy the heavy media censorship imposed by General Zia ul Haq’s military regime.

“A person who never had done journalism has altered the overall culture of journalism,” said senior journalist Mazhar Abbas who had reported under Aslam at The Star. He recalled how Imran learnt the ropes and “produced a daily which had enormous clarity on the political outlook.”

Watch: Remembering Imran Aslam’s Life & Legacy at the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi

It was Usmaan Peerzada who introduced Imran Aslam to Mir Shakilur Rehman when the latter was launching Jang/The News in 1990. This was the first Pakistani publication to install computers in newsrooms, a “technological revolution” recalled Ghazi Salahuddin who was the first editor of the paper. Aslam joined as news editor.

Computer phobia

Ironically, Imran himself was apprehensive of computers, testified his former personal assistant Yaqoob Haroon, who now heads Geo TV’s outstation reporters’ team – for which he credits Imran Aslam.

Outlining the thought process behind putting together a ‘dream team’, Salahuddin said, “We selected a group of people with a diversity of viewpoints who did not all come from the same dominating ideology, political party, or geographic region.”

When columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, who had first met Imran at The Star, began working for The News, Imran assigned him the task of writing a story on how women are treated at Sindh’s shrines.

As Paracha was leaving, Imran asked him to wait. “After about 30 minutes, Imran handed me a burqa and told me to put it on, saying: You will learn what really transpires with them.”

When Paracha completed the piece, the editorial board objected, saying it could not be published. “Imran insisted it would be printed without changing a single full stop.”

The iconic poet Zehra Nigah talked about her friendship with Imran Aslam and the pain of losing someone younger. Creative director of the Lux Style Awards Frieha Altaf shared video clips of Imran Aslam speaking at her shows.

The cross-media turnout of those present was a testament to Aslam’s stature that connected even rival media houses. Those present ranged from the top media executives to actors and artists from various cultural fields, including Sajeeruddin Khalifa of Grips Theatre, award-winning writer and artist Sehba Sarwar, journalists Fifi Haroon, Shahzeb Jillani, Muhammad Hanif, and Najia Ashar, among others

The video clips included a discussion between Aslam’s friends for over 50 years, since their Government College days – Salman Shahid, Sarwat Ali, and Usmaan Peerzada – sent for the occasion by Samina Peerzada. “I never knew Imran to raise his voice,” said Salman Shahid, remembering Aslam’s generous love and hospitality. 

Literary critic Sarwat Ali praised his wit and conversational approach. “He stood for a unique universe to me,” he added. Imran could talk about anything, from modern theatre and art, to the German-British psychologist Eysenck.

Imran Aslam’s keynote at the 28th convocation of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in February 2022
Great passion

Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai also sent a video message. He said that he and Imran were “soul brothers” hailing from the “twin cities” of Mumbai and Karachi respectively. He remembered the “kind and enriching” interactions with Imran whenever they crossed into the other’s country.

“Imran was always full, bubbling with energy, ideas and had a great passion for the world of news and entertainment and so much more. Pakistani journalism and journalism in the subcontinent has lost someone who was a trendsetter in every sense of the word,” Sardesai said.

Another video clip was the trailer of the unreleased series of 25 five-minute films Sincerely Yours, M. A. Jinnah, produced by advertising guru Anwar Rammal, based on Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s letters. Imran played the lead role, directed by his youngest brother Nasser Aslam.

Imran Aslam also wrote the script for blockbuster Parey Hut Love (ARY films, 2019), a clip from which featuring his cameo appearance was screened at the end of the event. The film garnered widespread local and international acclaim and bagged the “Best film on wholesome entertainment” award at the 2020 South Asia Forum for Art and Creative Heritage (SAFACH).

I came away with a sense of Aslam’s strong work ethic and soft skills – he possessed a herculean firmness and the politeness of Hermes. One may be super talented, a born genius or a prodigy, but it takes a team-player attitude, good communication skills, and solution-oriented approach to inspire people – and he did that through mentorship, love and understanding, said Ghazi Salahuddin.

From what I learnt, Aslam didn’t waste his energy impressing others. He competed with himself, and his past self. In other words, when you are in competition with others, you exude bad energy. When you focus on yourself and defeat your own weakness, you develop yourself.

Stay true to yourself

During Imran’s tenure as President of Geo TV, from the network’s launch in 2002 until his demise, he oversaw many projects including the groundbreaking Aman Ki Asha (hope for peace), which promoted good relations and cross-cultural exchanges between Pakistan and India.

Despite Geo TV being bogged down in legal battles and financial crises for years, Imran stayed steadfast and confronted the censorship head on.

Speakers mentioned that Imran had a talent for connecting to people and resolving their problems through motivational dialogues that left the other person better off for having met him.

People don’t overnight become prosperous, as I learned from a brief, moving biography of Imran’s life that the Geo TV team produced for the occasion. The voyage is replete with high and lows; in order to effectively navigate it, one must be consistent, work hard, be willing to make sacrifices, and be flexible enough to constantly evolve and adapt.

Another thing I picked up from Imran Aslam’s personality is that if you stay true to who you are and work to always be your best self, you will find your tribe – those who share your core values and are on the same wavelength as you.

Abdullah Zahid is a student and an aspiring journalist based in Karachi. Follow him on Twitter @AbdullahhZahid 

Lead photo credit: The Nation

Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’.

Sapan News Network syndicated feature also published in:

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