Imran Aslam will be remembered by many as a visionary journalist, mentor and friend
n a recent introduction to a collection of his plays, writer Sarmad Sehbai narrates that in the late 1960s, the actor Usman Peerzada (then a student at Government College, Lahore) introduced him to a young man who was found reciting Hamlet by himself in the Open-Air Theatre. Those were the days when Sehbai was working on his play, Dark Room. This young man was Imran Aslam, who, Sehbai goes on to narrate, could only read Urdu in the Roman script but was an amazing actor. An actor, who in his lifetime became an acclaimed writer for the theatre, wrote TV plays and wrote scripts for cinema and award ceremonies; a visionary in the broadcast world, a journalist and editor who mentored many; and a dear, dear friend to all who knew him.
In the early 1980s, I was in my early years at university and eager to write columns. I was also interested in plays and theatre. In those days, a group of like-minded people had started a discussion to create a socially engaged theatre group. These conversations on my part had included people like the late Mansoor Saeed and the actor/ director Khalid Ahmad. The exchanges eventually led to the formation of Dastak when Aslam Azhar joined Mansoor to shape this vision for some of us. Around the same time, roaming the corridors of the Dawn office, perhaps looking for the editor of the Youth Section, I met Imran Aslam.
Both of us were relatively young, he somewhat older than I. At the time, he occupied a small office on the main floor of the Dawn office. He had returned from the UAE after working for the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The rumour then was that Imran had managed his fleet. It was a chance encounter in the hallway, but during that first meeting we started discussing a range of things and he told me about an amazing play by Dario Fo (the future Nobel prize winner), Accidental Death of an Anarchist. I was transfixed and mesmerised by Imran’s portrayal of Fo’s work.
We remained close after that first meeting. A year later, Aijaz Ahmad, the intellectual and literary figure, was visiting from the US, and I took him to meet Imran — that is when they discussed Edward Said’s orientalism. For me, a medical student of limited intellectual span, such conversations opened a world of ideas — I will forever remain indebted.
If memory serves me right, around the mid-1980s, Imran became the editor of The Star, the evening newspaper that re-made investigative journalism during Gen Zia-ul Haq’s regime. Working with a team described by Zamir Niazi as “typewriter guerillas,” The Star under Imran’s editorship, became the ground zero of Pakistani journalism in those oppressive days.
It became the most sought after newspaper for its political reporting (remember the late Idrees Bakhtiar), analysis of culture (the late Kaleem Omar with his ashtray full of cigarette butts clacking away at his typewriter), social issues, environmental concerns and hard-hitting editorials. He brought together and encouraged some of the best young and experienced people. The late Saneeya Hussain, Zohra Yusuf (later a chairperson of the HRCP), Zafar Abbas (now Dawn editor), Najma Sadeque, Kausar SK and a younger group that included the acclaimed journalist, Beena Sarwar, All produced some of the best journalism of the era and each one of them was linked to the emergent women’s movement and oppositional politics in the country during that time.
With columnists like the late Irfan Hussain, who at the time had a senior position in the civil service, and the late Ahmad Bashir, both writing under pseudonyms, Imran and his team took political risks and strove for civic freedoms during the dark days of the Zia regime.
It would not be an exaggeration to assert that a focus on The Star and Imran’s own leadership would help us write the cultural and political history of the era. The people he brought together, the features that were being written, coverage angles, the pushing of the boundaries and also the form of presentation — the full-page colour, the typeset, the way news was displayed, the co-mingling of hard-hitting news, deep political analysis, the long form essay, the investigative reporting along with humour, the use of puns in an age of hyper censorship, the wit and gossip and fun. Eventually, in the late 1980s, having time and again crossed the line of “permissible criticism,” Imran was given a choice: soft-pedal or resign; he resigned.
In the early 1990s, he was instrumental in starting the English daily, The News for the Jang group and trained many young journalists who would go on to become eminent journalists and news editors of various TV channels in the early 2000s. In 2002, Imran himself was part of the team that launched Geo News and led it for several years. Geo, from its early years as a pioneer in private news channels (even while operating from Dubai), took a position on sensitive societal and political issues and has helped to enlarge the space for public discussion, dissent and debate. The network was shut down for over two months when Gen Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November 2007, a bald attempt to strangle Geo financially. Geo and Imran refused to comply. It was a difficult time generally for the media in Pakistan, the channels were asked to sign a code of conduct in order to operate and there was a list of people the government would not allow to host talk shows. Imran, while showing me the democracy wall during one of my visits at the time, narrated how people came out in support of the channels. They arrived with flowers and wreaths and danced in the streets. The atmosphere became like a carnival. It gave the owners of the channels and everyone in the independent media confidence that they could take a stand. Finally, when Musharraf lifted the emergency decree, the channels were restored just in time for the February 2008 elections. It truly was a moment of pride for the media industry, and Imran was at the forefront of the struggle.
Despite all accomplishments, Imran was one of the most caring, humble and generous human beings I have known. Always available, always there. Funny to the core and with the sharpest of wit.
These struggles were nothing new for Imran (and not only faced during military rule), while at The News during Benazir Bhutto’s (whom he knew as a personal friend and had supported during the 1980s) and Nawaz Sharif’s governments in the 1990s, he relayed to me how intimidation and blackmail were used to discipline the media. (This continued during military and civilian rule in the 2000s). He once told me how while he was working for The News, the owner was asked to fire a number of his news staff. He refused. The following morning when he arrived at his office, there were tax notices on the owner’s table from decades back, which the government had probably kept as a weapon to be used at the appropriate time. The government confiscated their newsprint and forced the paper to be reduced to about four pages. But Imran shared, “we continued to fight.” He said, “we called it a war on Jang“ (ever the master of one-liners and provocative headlines).
Under his leadership, Geo also took some creative decisions that have left an enduring impact on the industry. In the spring of 2003, the still-new private television channel Geo TV created some controversy by telecasting with much fanfare Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s early Twentieth-Century Urdu novel, Umrao Jan Ada (adapted by the poet Zehra Nigah, a friend of Imran’s mother) as its first serialised television play. Umrao, one of the most expensive TV series produced till then in Pakistan with lavish sets and costumes, depicts the life and times of a mid-Nineteenth Century courtesan in Lucknow. Geo, under Imran, took the daring decision to produce Umrao in a country where extramarital sex remains a crime against the state and where memories of severe punishment for sexual liaisons under the Hudood Ordinance of the Zia-ul Haq era in the 1980s still resonated among the populace. Geo‘s production managed to bring courtesan life into domestic spaces (50 million of 150 million Pakistanis then had access to TV). It also intervened in a debate on morality, sexuality and gender politics at the time. Personal assessments aside, the issue of depicting the life-worlds of the courtesan as a metaphor to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy was monumental. Imran, as in journalism, was encouraging his colleagues to test moral boundaries (perhaps using a classic literary text to intervene in a contemporary debate). In his quiet and unassuming way, he fought for all kinds of freedoms, whether they be personal inclinations or public speech or the desire to express one’s identity… he steadfastly pushed the envelope.
He eventually became the group president of the Geo TV Network. Despite all these accomplishments, Imran was one of the most caring, humble and generous human beings I have known. Always available, always there. Funny to the core and with the sharpest of wit. His one-liners are legendary. He retained his love for the theatre and wrote many plays for television, including film scripts (Parey Hut Love). In the 1980s, he worked closely with the late Yasmin Ismail to translate socially relevant children’s plays and produce them, especially from the German Grips theatre (Stokkerlok und Millipilli, Choti, Moti, Tota aur SM Hamid). In the early ’80s, when Dastak was in its nascent phase, we once invited Imran to my house in North Nazimabad. He came and conducted a reading of his translation of the Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It was an amazing performance and had us laughing all the way. He later translated David Hare’s Pravda, a story about press freedoms, during the Zia period. The play was staged in Karachi, a treat for all of us.
If and when the history of modern media in all its forms is written — print and broadcast journalism, TV plays, cinema, award shows and more, Imran’s contribution will be central to this effort. Yet, at the core of his being, he was a person who loved theatre. The young man reciting Hamlet by himself remained an integral part of him. In early 2016, while speaking at the launch of my book on communist history in Pakistan, Imran characteristically turned to characters from Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to emphasise how I had brought bit players in history (those in the wings) to be the central characters. A kind, brilliant and thoughtful analysis of the text. He was a dear friend to many and always took out time to reach out with small gestures.
Imran loved his entire family (he was really disheartened at losing his brilliant journalist brother Tito six months back) and was looking forward to his son Aryaan graduating from his own alma mater, LSE. He, unfortunately, was not keeping well for the past few years. I kept on visiting him whenever I was in Pakistan. I had hoped to see him on my visit this past December. He wrote to me recently saying he was thinking of me fondly. I was touched and moved and called him back immediately. He said he could not talk much as he was on in-law duty — his sense of humour always intact. He once remarked in his characteristic way, Sarmad Sehbai made Urdu sexy for me — Imran, my friend, you made the world sexy for all of us. You left us too soon.
Imran Aslam passed away after a long illness on December 2, 2022.
pehlay to maeñ ch h kay
roy aur phir hañsnay
b dal garj, bijl chamk,
tum yaad aa.ay
din bhar to maeñ duniy
kay dhandoñ maiñ khoy rah
jab d v roñ say dhuup
Dhal tum yaad aa.ay
The writer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin