As 2015 ended, we lost a pioneer of Pakistani television during a television-frenetic age. When the journey began 51 years ago, the initial phase was fairly quiet and solitary because the Government monopolised the medium. As a new mass medium, television in the 1960s, even on a global level was still in its formative, direction-setting stage. Of the three individuals in Pakistan who played a crucial role in the medium’s advent into the country, Aslam Azhar was the only one who combined an instinct for TV’s creativity with an emerging vision of its vast potential. The other two persons who, in this writer’s opinion, played a decisive role in introducing and encouraging the medium’s growth were President Ayub Khan who approved its launch and Altaf Gauhar, then Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the founding Chairman of PTV, who provided an unusual intellectual depth in his official position.
Aslam Azhar was fortunate to be part of a small, gifted group of individuals who also became fellow-travellers in the journey. Several of them were, in their own right, recognised radio broadcasters. Many others were entering the communications field for the first time. Several of such persons were hand-picked by Aslam and encouraged to discover their own possibilities as, all together, they explored an unknown realm.
A multiple-level relationship
This writer knew Aslam Azhar at multiple levels. The first was a shared interest in the theatre in the 1960s. The second was when, as a freelance independent who periodically contributed to the creation of TV content in diverse ways, there were close interactions with him when he served as General Manager of Karachi TV Centre (1968-1972). Concurrently, as an occasional contributor to TV and 1969 onward, as a private advertising practitioner at my firm MNJ Communications, which produced and placed advertising on PTV for its clients and a few advertisements for PTV in overseas media when he became Managing Director of PTV (1972-76). As a friend and an elder brother (by about 13 years) with whom one also shared most, but not all, political views. As a consultant in 1978-79 when, after his arbitrary dismissal by General Ziaul Haq in March 1978, he joined me in Karachi at MNJ’s premises in a new initiative named Cinemathon to unsuccessfully test the media policy under martial law! As Chairman of PTV and PBC, when this writer served as Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting in Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s first Cabinet (1988-90) and ironically, in a sense, became one of Aslam’s two “bosses”, the other being the Prime Minister herself who retained the Ministerial portfolio but who allowed her Minister of State to be autonomous, up to a point! Finally, as an individual with whom contact gradually faded into indirect exchanges through his wife Nasreen or their second son, Areeb. Their first son, Usama migrated to Germany, while their daughter Umaima is a special child-person.
Spread across five decades and more, the multiplicity is joined by complexity. Throughout this eventful half-century, what remained continuous were one’s admiration for his character and integrity, for his pride in being himself while also practicing humility and simplicity. And one’s appreciation for the way he fused his creative instincts for TV’s scope, with leadership and inspirational ability, particularly in the two parts of the first golden years of PTV, especially his tenure at KTV and at headquarters in the Z.A. Bhutto Government.
Createlivity at KTV
To a critical degree, he was solely responsible for engendering and sustaining for about four years in KTV an aura of exciting experimentation and innovation, of freedom to venture towards new horizons, of a fraternal, convivial ambiance. This is why this writer has coined the term “Createlevity” to try to express the particular synthesis of creativity that Aslam spontaneously developed and which was specifically applied to facets of television.
From overseeing conventional coverage of day-to-day affairs to shepherding the absorbing Elections 70 live telecast and which became as unprecedented as the elections themselves (the first-ever held on the basis of direct adult franchise). From the difficult task of covering the tragedy unfolding in East Pakistan in 1971 with a state-centric view to grooming women and men to become newscasters and sportscasters. From himself learning-on-the-job about new TV technologies from Germany and Japan and guiding specialists to the same, to instilling confidence in actors appearing in TV drama “live” without the benefit of second “takes” or recording tapes (the supply was very limited). From attracting talented individuals to enter the field to respecting veterans from other, older fields: he became a pivotal force.
One’s personal experience at that time is evidence of how KTV flourished in his watch. Ghazi Salahuddin, now a senior journalist and then an already-rising social critic, and this writer, after our respective, separate, sporadic appearances on the small screen one day devised a new kind of programme. We wanted to accurately reflect the coexistence and the interplay between Urdu and English as part of a vibrantly multilingual Pakistani society. Ghazi insisted on speaking in Urdu. This writer, at that time, felt comfortable speaking only in English. We wanted to analyse literature, theatre, acting, poetry and the arts from this dual perspective and to depict that this apparently homogenous, predominantly Muslim country was actually quite pluralistic and open-minded to the rest of the world. Faced with this unconventional concept and format, Aslam did not blink an eye before giving us the nod. In the July-September 1969 quarter, we presented 13 programmes comprising a range of excerpts and episodes from material as varied as The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams to The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, from interviews with Kamal Ahmed Rizvi to our own expositions. Urdu purists had fits of rage, verbally and in print. A couple also wrote scathing reviews. Yet, for whatever reasons, the aptly titled series Tajurba survived for three months with a popular viewership, but mainly due to Aslam’s steadfast support.
Immediately thereafter he invited Ghazi, Irshad Qadir (who had never previously made films) and this writer to produce and direct four half-hour documentaries each, on different facets of youth in a series called Naujawan for the October-December 1969 quarter. One had already begun to write and direct advertising commercials for IAL and then for MNJ. But this was the first venture into documentary-length filmmaking. All four documentaries were screened as visualised by the Director with all their flaws, and whatever few merits, and instantly disappeared into oblivion because no prints were ever made. Yet the memories and the experience became invaluable because of the latitude that Aslam allowed all three novice directors.
In 1970 and 1971 one periodically appeared in current affairs programmes like Perspective and others in which the tragedy of an unravelling Pakistan was fitfully, perhaps inaccurately captured. He then invited me to become the host of the first regular English language weekly international affairs programme called The World Tonight. Initially using texts prepared by senior and eminent print journalists as notes but not read out verbatim, and also interjecting one’s own modest contributions, and without using a teleprompter, one became quickly accustomed to addressing the cold, blank, unsmiling camera lens to reflect on major events around the world. Even a sudden, almost fatal illness in 1972 that derailed me for a few months did not, thanks to Aslam, prevent my return to the same series which, to one’s pleasant surprise, became widely viewed. When the Foreign Office began to convey, through PTV HQ, its displeasure at certain remarks one had made about certain friendly Muslim countries,
I decided to end my association with this series. Aslam never directly asked me to change my views because he respected one’s independence.
In 1973, he invited me to write, direct and produce a documentary which I titled: Moenjodaro-the City that must not Die. As readers may be aware, the word Moenjodaro in Sindhi means “Mound of the Dead”. But the film was more than a play on words. The task was to raise global and national awareness on how the priceless, 5,000 year-old heritage of the Indus Valley Civilisation was being threatened by erosion from sub-soil water and from sheer neglect, unless Pakistan and UNESCO took urgent remedial steps.
It was a privilege to make this film with ace cameraman Nisar Mirza. And in recording Aslam’s inimitable voice for the narration and Sohail Rana’s thematically rich background music. The icing on the cake: the film became the first PTV documentary to win an international prize. Firstly, the Silver Prize at the 1973 Asian Youth Film Festival in Shiraz, Iran where this writer received the award from the charming Queen Farah. Subsequently, the film received two more international awards, in Germany and Japan. Aslam provided me this opportunity for achievement.
Simultaneous to such work as an independent creative contributor to PTV content, one was also unavoidably interacting with Aslam (when he became Chief Executive of PTV) in one’s other capacity as the Chief Executive of MNJ. Our firm was quickly becoming one of the top three (and later number one!) ad agencies, both in the volume of advertising placed on PTV and in the number of awards won for Best TV commercials.
Most visits to Rawalpindi-Islamabad in 1972-76 almost always included an evening with Nasreen and Aslam at their Harley Street home. There was warmth and gracious hospitality generously extended to energise candid discussion on the disturbing directions that Z.A. Bhutto’s Government was taking after helping initiate the renewal of Pakistan-post-1971. When Aslam was transferred to the new entity known as the State Film Authority in end-1976, the change did not surprise me. But Ziaul Haq’s seizure of power on July 5, 1977 signalled an ominous change for Aslam which then led to his arbitrary removal from employment in March 1978. Reference has already been made earlier in this text to our brief association in 1978-79.
When, about a whole decade later, we worked together in 1989 in BB’s first Government, there was once again a brief yet beautiful spring season of hope and promise that too soon gave way to the heat of narrow, partisan policies imposed by our leader. There were also some awkward moments, due to a kind of role-reversal alluded to in the tribute I wrote for Dawn Images on January 10, 2016. But my respect for him never diminished.
However, during the next two decades we inexplicably drifted apart, without any rupture or unpleasantness. Somehow, neither of us made adequate efforts to revive previous levels of regular interaction. Perhaps the onus rested on me: one did not strive hard enough to renew the relationship. Fortunately, there was no bitterness or regret that caused, or came to occupy, this gulf. As a TV path-breaker, as an educator, as a man of integrity, Aslam Azhar has defined an enduring example of excellence.
Nasreen Azhar’s invaluable role
No appreciation of Aslam Azhar can be complete without recording one’s profound admiration for Nasreen Azhar. She alone provided him with fulsome love, unstinting support, limitless patience for his eccentricities and his almost impractical refusal, with only a couple of brief exceptions, to find new and alternative sources of legitimate income, care and nurturing of their three children and her beautiful personality. In her own right, Nasreen is a woman of extraordinary courage, sensitivity and commitment to progressive causes. Her voluntary services for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other civil society forums, her professional work as a development practitioner and the elegance with which she combines her homemaking role with her external tasks sets stellar standards for all. Usama and Areeb each in his own exclusive way are persons of significant talents and skills. In her own gentle, affectionate way, Umaima gives comforting company to Nasreen. As Aslam’s soul discovers new frontiers of Createlevity in heaven, may Nasreen and their children benefit from good health and wellbeing on earth.
Javed Jabbar is Chairman and CE, JJ Media. Details about the writer are at www.javedjabbar.com