This interview was published in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine that a man of Imran Aslam’s calibre may have doubts about his skills.
Journalist, scriptwriter, thespian, voice-over artist, TV network head and an all-out visionary, Imran’s 36 years-long career has been marked, it seems, only by major accomplishments. He’s hobnobbed with political heavyweights, orchestrated hard-hitting news stories, worked with major entertainment industry veterans, writing scripts for them and planning out their shows and has always being one of those relentless ideas-people who have spurred Pakistan’s entertainment and news to what it is today.
He’s written advertising jingles that have become an inherent part of local pop culture —‘Mujhe Tuc Tuc ke saath chahiye’ was Imran’s brainchild during a period when he was out of work, and wrote a few jingles for some extra money. Of course, he is also the president, since its launch, of Geo Network, now the largest television network in the country. And he is currently envisioning stories for cinema’s new, young wave.
And yet, what he talks about is his nervousness. He tells me that he can never be sure about the audience’s reaction to a script that he has written. “I used to write plays that would be directed by Yasmeen Ismail, and I wouldn’t enter the auditorium. I would keep circling the place in my car, noting how many cars were parked outside. Once the play started, my wife, Fareshteh Aslam, would call me to tell me, ‘People are laughing now’, ‘They are clapping now’ — and I would feel relieved.
“This stress of never knowing whether a script is good or not is very important. It makes you want to do your best each and every time.”
Imran Aslam’s career as a writer and ideas-man has been marked with one accomplishment after another. But with his film screenwriting debut, Parey Hut Love, around the corner, he still is unsure if he’s good enough
We are meeting today to discuss the latest script that he has written — for Asim Raza’s upcoming cinematic release Parey Hut Love (PHL) — and Imran describes the story to me, smiling, but at the same time, adding in a ‘you never know’. “You never know with the audience but you have to bow down to their opinion. But with PHL, both Asim and I wanted to create a movie that would be entertaining. It’s a nicely mounted story with fun, laughter, romance and great music. And it’s inspired by every great romance that we have ever seen in the cinema, on TV, or read in a book.”
The Asim Raza Equation
Imran has, of course, worked with the very finest names in local entertainment — a long list that includes Aslam Azhar, Shoaib Hashmi, Sarmad Sehbai, Rahat Kazmi, Saira Kazmi, Sheema Kermani, Yasmeen Ismail, Faiza Kazi, Khaled Anum and Shahzad Khalil. Now, while forging a new equation with Asim Raza, did he feel that the director would be able to do justice to his script?
“Asim and I have known each other for a very long time, and whenever we would meet, we would casually talk about working together. Then, we did decide to work together!” he says. “I have always been very impressed with Asim’s work. He has a strong eye for aesthetics, a knack for music, and he is very diligent.
“I was quite sure that he would be great to work with,” Imran continues. “We discussed the story in great detail and voiced out any doubts that either of us had. Asim and I have a shared love for the movies, both international as well as Pakistani. There were so many great Pakistani movies that were made back in the day, beautifully told stories that weren’t as garish as people assume them to be: Naila, Devar Bhabhi, Anjuman, Tehzeeb, Chakori, Talash and Aakhri Station, where Shabnam played a crazed girl at the rail station, repeating one single dialogue constantly. These were stories that stayed with you. And Asim and I wanted to create a story that, likewise, stayed with the audience.”
From the looks of it, PHL is going to be a grand, glossy extravaganza. Is it possible that it may only appeal to the upper classes, alienating the country’s middle and lower classes? “I hope not,” Imran muses. “It’s the story of a struggling actor. Sometimes, people don’t want to come to the cinema and see stories about themselves. They see enough gritty realities on the news in TV. They also don’t always want to burdened by long, sermonising stories. I have written plenty of scripts laden with messages but they have always been subliminal, never in your face. I just think that, in the cinema, sometimes people just want to relax and enjoy themselves for a few hours. At the same time, the story needs to give some sort of feel of the country.”
This stress of never knowing whether a script is good or not is very important. It makes you want to do your best each and every time.”
What is his take on negative reviews of movies surfacing on the internet around the same time as the release? “To my mind, just any review is not important,” he says. “It matters to me who is saying it and where it’s being said. It’s very easy to dismiss and there is no accountability on the internet. You can say whatever you please and you won’t be served with a legal notice. I think that it is only when someone credible posts a responsibly written review, that a project can truly benefit or suffer.”
But has he ever been affected by a bad review? Has anyone ever not liked a script that he has written? “I have known myself when I have written something that isn’t up to par,” muses Imran. “I wrote Khaleej, Dastak, Rozy and then, I wrote Bisaat, which was actor Nadeem Baig’s TV acting debut. Bisaat was this grand production, shot in Paris, with Aaminah Haq in the cast, and there were certain requirements that I had to fulfill with the script. I think that they ended up restricting me from writing as well. We still had a great time in Paris!”
Does he worry that his script will get altered by the director and producer once it is in their hands? “It’s a personal rule of mine to not stress out over the script once I have handed it over,” he says. “I do tell directors and producers to come to me if they want to make any changes. I can edit it as many times as they like. It’s just that, as a writer, there is a certain tempo that you build in a story, a certain way in which you imagine that the characters will speak. It’s good if that remains consistent throughout the script.
“I have been lucky, though, that most people that I have worked with have taken my scripts and just ran with them. Most of my friends think that my best work has been with them. Sahira [Kazmi] says that it’s been with her, Sheema [Kermani] says that the plays I wrote for her were the best. It’s quite flattering.”
Imran continues, “When I wrote scripts for TV for Sahira, sometimes she would send me a message, ‘Im, zim chaheeay.’ ‘Im’ was me, and ‘zim’ was ‘zameema’ or a supplementary addition to the story. I would then make the additions. Coming back to PHL, I’m sure that they have made their changes, but I have faith that they’ll be great ones.”
Stories from then and now
Having seen Pakistani entertainment’s highs and lows, how does he compare today’s TV and cinema with that of the past? Does he, like so many other veterans, bemoan the lack of quality productions in the present day? “Nostalgia is a dangerous thing,” he laughs. “You have to remember that in the past, we were a captive audience, watching just a single channel. Some exceptional work was done and we loved it, and still remember it. But some very bad work was also done. It’s the same case now, except that we now have 40 channels churning out all sorts of dramas, both good and bad. The audience has so many choices now that I think everyone just watches different things. The only topic that remains a united point of discussion is cricket!
“As for cinema, we’re yet to get there. I don’t think that we’ll be able to refer to our films as part of an ‘industry’ until we have at least 170 releases every year. Humein baarish ki zaroorat hai … aur Karachi mein baarish kum hoti hai … Lahore mein bohot hoti hai [We need rain... but it hardly rains in Karachi … it rains a lot in Lahore...]… but most of the industry isn’t there anymore.
“It’s unfortunate that even though local cinema has resurfaced, aided by the rise of multiplexes in urban cities, a large segment of Pakistani cinema is no more,” he observes. “The lower classes no longer watch movies because they feel intimidated by these shiny new cinema houses. Single screens are redundant. Punjabi and Pashto films, however you may think they were, had a large audience. They were watched and they brought in money. That genre has died.”
And how is journalism different, then and now? “We have to be slightly more careful about what we write now. Then again, I remember the time when we weren’t permitted to write Benazir Bhutto’s name in the paper. An armed soldier, standing right above my head, would tear up any newspaper film that he felt was inadmissible.
“The one great thing about the past is that there was no social media. We had our successes and we made our mistakes, and the latter are now forgotten. They aren’t recorded for posterity on the world wide web!”
There are many stories that Imran shares. There’s the one in which Benazir Bhutto came to see a play that he was acting in at the Alliance Francaise in Karachi. The one where he saw Mahira Khan once on TV, saw that she had potential and proceeded to spend hours at her home, taking her on board for a job. Stories of how he curated the style-centric TV show Lux Style ki Duniya with Frieha Altaf and Fareshteh Aslam, shooting models in the then dilapidated Hindu Gymkhana or Meera in Lahore’s Shahi Hamam, or exploring a building called Mohatta Palace that lay festering in bramble bushes at the time. And the anecdote that, despite his large repertoire of work,whenever he sat in a taxi and the driver asked him what he did, for a long time the easiest answer was that he wrote the Moin Akhtar starrer Rozy.
There’s also his more recent experience of getting operated on for a bacterial infection that became critical. “I was in narco land for a while. I actually thought that all the women who came to see me — my wife, Zeba Bakhtiar, Samina Peerzada — were the hoors of heaven!” he laughs. Asim, who also came to see him, was befittingly presumed to be an angel.
Imran returned from the hospital and had a look at an obituary that had been pre-written for him in a paper. “I edited it a bit,” he grins.
You should write a book, I tell him.
“No one would believe me,” he quips. “My first job, at the age of 24, was as director of Sheikh Zayed’s Royal Flight. I would be managing the secret travelling schedules of these famous politicians. That could be a different book altogether.”
It would be a best-selling book, certainly. For now, he’s written a script for a movie that releases this Eidul Azha. It may not involve Sheikh Zayed but it is likely to be a royal flight nonetheless.
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 28th, 2019