Mohammed Ali Naqvi filmed a documentary over many years with the late Gen Pervez Musharraf after he had been forced from power.
Published February 19, 2023

The last time I laid eyes on Gen Musharraf was around 2017 or 2018, and it was at his penthouse in Dubai.

For seven years, I had been following his journey as he tried to make a political comeback and ran for the 2013 elections. Fly-on-the-wall style, I filmed every moment, from his campaigns to his travels around the world, from his house arrest to his eventual exile, as he struggled to maintain his relevance. The result was a documentary film titled Insha’Allah Democracy, which had already premiered in the UK and was being screened at international film festivals.

I had made the trip to Dubai to show the film to Musharraf personally. I was under no obligation to do so and nor did he have any editorial control — but I considered him a friend and felt it was the right thing to do. Besides, the film had already been released by this point.

We sat in his study, and he went through various film reviews and read out passages to me. He then picked up an interview I had given about making the film and started reading my own words back to me:

“Coincidentally, Musharraf was going through his own process of metamorphosis. Here was a man, who at one time was one of the most powerful men in Pakistan and he had helped shape contemporary history. Now, he was licking his wounds — left to checking his Facebook page, surrounded by sycophantic yes-men.

Mohammed Ali Naqvi filmed a documentary over many years with the late Gen Pervez Musharraf after he had been forced from power. That documentary, Insha’Allah Democracy, was released in 2017, and caused quite a stir because of certain portions that revealed Musharraf’s secret jockeying to return to power. He recounts here his own journey while making the film and how his opinions changed about the charismatic but often contradictory former dictator…

And perhaps, in a strange way, because we met at the time we did, we became fast friends. I found Musharraf to be magnanimous, charming, unaffected and genuinely patriotic. At the same time, I also found him to be narcissistic, narrow-minded, self-sabotaging and insecure at times.“

Musharraf put down the reviews and fixed his gaze on me, his eyes full of sadness. I felt immense guilt and wanted to disappear.

 Insha’Allah Democracy provides viewers with a glimpse of the man behind the uniform
Insha’Allah Democracy provides viewers with a glimpse of the man behind the uniform

To avoid his gaze, I looked at a photo of the Quaid-e-Azam hanging on the wall behind him. It was a familiar image, one that many Pakistani generals display in their studies, featuring the Quaid posing with his dogs while smoking. The Quaid’s expression in the photo seemed to be one of disappointment, with a furrowed brow, as if he were disapproving of my actions.

Musharraf re-read the last line, “I also found him to be narcissistic, narrow-minded, self-sabotaging and insecure at times.”

“That really hurt me,” Musharraf continued, “I treated you like a son.”

An intense feeling of remorse washed over me suddenly. He had indeed treated me like his son — welcoming me into his life and granting me full access. I had repaid his kindness by revealing everything, even the less favourable aspects, in my documentary.

“To be fair, sir,” I stuttered, “in documentaries we try to show everything. There are negative issues, like when you overthrew the Constitution, put the chief justice in jail, arrested media people and, you know …. other stuff that comes with being a dictator… but I tried to show the positive aspects as well.”

Musharraf still had a betrayed expression on his face.

“I have a great deal of respect for you, sir,” I whispered.

It was true. I did. At the same time, I couldn’t deny that Musharraf had played a role in the erosion of civil rights and the setting of dangerous precedents that still affect the country today.

But those are intellectual arguments. On an emotional level, I had formed a close bond with Musharraf, whom I affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle’. Over the years, our unlikely friendship grew, as I spent time in his home, not just conducting interviews about his coup and political views, but also having breakfast, watching cricket, and relaxing on the beach together.

And indecently, I was grateful that he was in the room with me. Had he not been there, his staff and other assorted sycophants, who were glaring at me from the hallway outside the study, might have thrown me off the balcony.

Gen Musharraf didn’t seem fully convinced. The same sorrowful expression that he had earlier still lingered in his eyes. Before I left, he did mention that, despite certain scenes, he still enjoyed the film.

As I made my way home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow betrayed him. Logically, I knew that this was an irrational thought — a documentarian’s duty, after all, is to capture and present events as they occur, and to seek out moments that reveal the truth.

This internal conflict within me was between my rational side, which saw Musharraf as a dictator, and my emotional side, which saw him as ‘Uncle Mush’. It was a timeless struggle between the heart and the mind. Its origins go back to late 1999 — when I first heard of Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Could I hear the narcissism and self-obsession? Certainly. Was it any different from any other Pakistani leader I had heard talk about themselves from Benazir Bhutto to Imran Khan? No. Despite this, I could sense that he was genuinely sincere, and I got the impression that he deeply missed his home country.


Growing up as a Shia Muslim in Karachi during the height of sectarian violence in the ’90s, my background played a significant role in driving my interest in this story. The atmosphere of insecurity was palpable and, as members of our community, including doctors and other prominent figures, were targeted, many in my extended family felt compelled to leave Pakistan.

The lack of action from the governments under Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif made the situation untenable. The murder of my uncle was the final straw for my family, who felt they had no other choice but to flee.

We would leave for long stretches of time, eventually returning to Karachi once we felt things had calmed down. My childhood was marked by frequent trips between New York and Karachi, as the situation in Pakistan stabilised.

I had two desires for Pakistan: one was for it to be a modern democratic state, but a bigger priority for me was to feel safe and secure. When Gen Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999, I was 19 years old. His rule brought a sense of stability and secularism (at least on the surface), and I saw the country change for the better. Even though he was a dictator, I saw him as a hero, and I was not going to let that label tarnish my perception of him.

Growing up, I used to adore Musharraf. I thought he was the only genuine leader we had ever had. He seemingly did wonders for our economy, he seemed liberal in his outlook, and most of all, he seemed capable of good governance and keeping the country on an even keel — at least in the earlier part of his term.

I’ll admit, at the time I was still relatively young and politically naive. My understanding of Gen Musharraf was limited to what I had learned from reading news articles and headlines. However, this all changed in 2010, when I finally had the opportunity to meet him in person.

I began filming this documentary in 2010. And one of the first people I interviewed was Ardeshir Cowasjee, who had this to say about Pakistan’s leaders:

“Nawaz Sharif didn’t desire democracy. Neither did Benazir. All of them just wanted power. Maybe Musharraf was slightly better than the rest.”

This statement by Ardeshir Cowasjee accurately reflected my feelings about the political landscape in Pakistan at that time. Maybe it wasn’t that Musharraf was so good, it was that the rest were so terrible.

Gen Musharraf was living in Dubai in 2010, unable to return to Pakistan due to the threat of treason charges. After his resignation and departure, the country had been plunged into turmoil. This was one of the most dangerous periods in Pakistan’s history, with the democratically elected government that succeeded him proving inadequate in addressing the country’s major issues, such as terrorism and security.

So, when the news of the former military ruler’s candidacy in the upcoming elections became known, it was impossible to ignore. All the other candidates lacked a strong stance on the growing threat of religious extremism, making Musharraf’s candidacy even more intriguing. I started this project with the aim of documenting the political comeback of a former leader.

 The writer interviewing Musharraf in 2010 | Vajih Khan
The writer interviewing Musharraf in 2010 | Vajih Khan


I was introduced to one of Gen Musharraf’s staff members through a family friend and, after a week of background checks, I was able to secure a meeting with Musharraf during his lecture tour in New York. Upon arrival at his hotel suite, I was searched by a handler, who instructed me to tuck in my shirt and wear a jacket. Although I felt that this pomp and circumstance was excessive, I complied.

I was then escorted into the room and announced to the general, who was sitting in the corner. When the handler announced me as “Mo sahib”, Musharraf made a joke about a younger brother of his who was “Mo-ta.” I had heard a ton of dim-witted fat jokes growing up in Pakistan, so I was unfazed by the comment. Instead, I took it as a positive sign that he was relaxed and open to our conversation.

During our meeting, we had tea and I explained my film project to him. He was enthusiastic about the idea of sharing his life story. He even shared a story about his time in his commando unit.

“The first time I joined the commandos, the trainer showed the group an illustration of a giant screaming in pain. The giant had a tiny man hanging from [his genitals]. The trainer explained that this is what it means to be a commando — to have the power to bring even the biggest obstacles to their knees,” Musharraf recollected.

I politely nodded and said, ‘Masha’Allah, kitni bahadur hai hamari fauj! [God be praised, how brave is our army!]’ The staff and Musharraf erupted in laughter. I had made new friends.

My filming of Musharraf carried on in spits and spurts, and the access that I had to him grew eventually, as he became more comfortable.

He appeared to be so friendly and down-to-earth that it was difficult for me to take him seriously at first. He was nothing like what I had imagined a military leader who had staged a coup would be like.

To my surprise, he was very open and candid with me during our conversations. One of our first interviews took place at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, after a relaxing afternoon spent swimming on the beach. I asked him about his feelings surrounding his resignation and this is what he had to say:

“When I was president, I was everything. People loved me so much. When I was resigning, I know so many people who cried. Well, it was a tough experience. In that, suddenly, there were aspersions being cast against me, from all quarters. I was disappointed by the lack of character that was shown by people. In that, while they were with me in office, trying to show their loyalty to me, running around me… some had switched sides quite shamelessly — they just forget you.”

Could I hear the narcissism and self-obsession? Certainly. Was it any different from any other Pakistani leader I had heard talk about themselves from Benazir Bhutto to Imran Khan? No. Despite this, I could sense that he was genuinely sincere, and I got the impression that he deeply missed his home country.

 Musharraf during a meeting with the US House of Representatives | Mohammed Ali Naqvi
Musharraf during a meeting with the US House of Representatives | Mohammed Ali Naqvi


During my early days of shooting, we had a fixed routine. We would convene in the morning and Musharraf would work out and do some cardio, while I filmed him at the gym. After that, we would return to his apartment in Dubai and have breakfast with his mother, who was always present.

Despite his flaws, Musharraf was a caring and attentive son, always including his mother in conversations and playing music for her. These little actions endeared him to me as a person.

I was going through my own journey of self-discovery when Musharraf entered my life. I was grappling with feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty about the state of my country, and it was a challenge to reconcile these feelings with my sense of patriotism.

Meanwhile, Musharraf was also undergoing a personal transformation. He had once been one of the most powerful figures in Pakistan and had played a significant role in shaping its history. Now, he was living in exile, trying to regain a foothold in a country that had yet to forgive him. It’s strange to think about it, but because we both found ourselves at a crossroads at the same time, we formed a fast friendship.

The phrase “never meet your heroes” seems to hold true for me. My perspective on Musharraf changed dramatically in 2011, when Osama Bin Laden was discovered hiding in Abbottabad. At the time, I was in the United States accompanying Musharraf, who was giving a series of lectures. The media alleged that Bin Laden had been residing in Pakistan for the previous five years, suggesting that he had potentially been given refuge during Musharraf’s rule.

In an effort to exonerate himself, Musharraf tried to clear his name through the media and claimed that the intelligence agencies should be forgiven for the mistake. He then went on to visit Washington DC and meet with influential figures in the US Senate and Congress, hoping to prove his innocence and gain support for his political aspirations.

Musharraf expressed his ambitions to a group of American politicians, saying, “I have credentials of the past. I need to come in power again. And I need to be supported covertly, not overtly. So that we win again.”

Despite the boldness of his statement, he appeared very self-assured. In fact, he was so sure of himself that he had no qualms about me recording this conversation, despite his team’s attempts to disrupt my filming. I had to give him credit for his confidence.

One of the lobbyists pointedly asked Musharraf about whether or not he knew about bin Laden hiding in Pakistan:

Lobbyist: “You know, I have to tell you… We’ve known each other a long time, but it is very, very, very hard to believe, there was no complicity. At some level, some level, okay? Somebody knew something.”

Musharraf responded: “When you say that you know me so well… Tell me… I am looking into your eyes and I say I didn’t know it, do you mistrust me?”

Lobbyist: “As the leader of the country, you would have known there were some bad actors who could have done this kind of thing who could have been, you know, complicit in this. And that you probably, for whatever reasons, didn’t find it a priority to take care of the bad actors.”

Despite the attempts of his handlers to remove me from the meeting, I managed to capture it all on film. My stature as a physically big guy came in handy, as I stood my ground, and the staff was unable to move me.

This event marked the end of my overlooking Musharraf’s past wrongdoings. I chose to confront him about his beliefs and practices. It was well-known that the military embraced the concept of ‘strategic depth’ and faced accusations of being two-faced in their efforts to combat militancy — capturing terrorists to appease the US while secretly harbouring others as military assets against our enemies.

When I asked Musharraf about this, he admitted to his own involvement in covertly supporting militancy as a means of engaging in a proxy war with India. This revelation shattered my original reason for supporting him, as it became clear that he was more concerned with battling India than keeping Pakistan secure.

He seemed disinterested in the backlash that Pakistanis had faced because of the military’s use of militancy as a policy. It turned out that his supposed liberal and secular outlook was nothing more than a facade beyond his person.


The focus of the documentary shifted from just being about Musharraf to also encompass my own journey.

I was no longer just an impartial observer; I was a stakeholder, a potential voter. This placed me in a rare position where I could observe a potential candidate firsthand and critically assess my own political beliefs and how they shaped my perspective. The film was not just about Musharraf, but it also became a reflection of my own personal journey and growth.

The film evolved into a reflection of my own journey as a first-time voter in the 2013 elections. It was a significant moment for Pakistan and for me personally. As Pakistanis, we were embracing democracy and taking control of our own destiny, with a civilian-to-civilian transfer of power for the first time in our history.

This was an opportunity for us to be our own heroes, rather than relying on the military or external forces. For the first time, I had a voice in shaping the future of my country, and I felt a sense of empowerment and solidarity with other Pakistanis. Key to this story was engaging in the difficult task of unpacking my own story, which had informed my politics up until this point.

Did I belong to the group of Musharraf supporters, known as the “Musharraf-istas”? Was I part of the urban elite or the rising middle class who enjoyed attending parties, perceived economic growth, and a liberal lifestyle blended with the concept of “enlightened moderation”? Yes, I fit those descriptions.

During my upbringing, was I largely sheltered and focused solely on my own life, unaware of the experiences of the rest of the country, who suffered under Musharraf’s rule through violence and the loss of democratic representation? Sadly, that was also the case.

Ultimately, the making of the film became a personal journey of my political awakening. In this regard, it reflects the experiences of many fellow Pakistanis who have undergone or are still undergoing this process.

I may criticise the Pakistan Peoples Party’s slogan of “Democracy is the best revenge” because of its dynasty-based politics, which goes against any genuine democratic ideals, or roll my eyes at the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s claims of preserving democracy when they had stormed the Supreme Court. But the most significant lesson I learned is that leaders can be held accountable through voting.

Musharraf, on the other hand, was immune to accountability. When he arrested the chief justice, instigated the Baloch insurgency, declared an emergency, or overstepped military authority in the fight against terrorism, there was no way to stop him.

The objective is not about specific leaders such as Musharraf, Imran Khan or Benazir Bhutto, but rather it is about strengthening our civilian institutions and processes through active participation in the democratic process.

This counters the commonly held belief by living room uncles, that “Pakistan is not ready for democracy.” That argument overlooks the fact that any reforms, be it social, political or economic, are temporary without the strengthening of our civilian institutions and processes. This way, Pakistan will never be ready for democracy.

Yes, while Gen Musharraf may not have been Gen Zia, he was still part of the military establishment. There is no such thing as a dictator who acts solely for the benefit of the people. Military rule, regardless of its secular inclinations, brings with it lasting negative effects that cause substantial harm.

 Musharraf’s authoritarian rule was also accompanied by liberal reforms| Vajih Khan
Musharraf’s authoritarian rule was also accompanied by liberal reforms| Vajih Khan


Towards the end of filming, Musharraf had been disqualified from running for office and was placed under house arrest. However, I was able to gain access to film with him by telling security that I was distant family.

After travelling together from Dubai to Karachi and filming with Musharraf during his campaign in Pakistan, I was unable to see him for a while once he was disqualified and placed under house arrest. It wasn’t until 2014 that I had the opportunity to see him again.

We met and spent the day in his basement, watching HBO’s Caeser which I found apt, given the situation. Afterwards, I asked him why he had returned despite all the risks?

And he replied, that “I missed Bundoo Khan. I missed gulab jamuns. I missed my house. And my German shepherd, who is the handsomest dog you have ever seen.”

“But the treason charge might result in a death penalty — that is a huge price to pay — doesn’t that bother you?” I pressed him.

Musharraf chuckled, “Frankly no. If that is what you get for all that I’ve done for this country, then it’s a pity. Let me be known for that at least.”

I was at a loss for words. While one could attribute his confidence to the establishment’s protection, I sensed it was more than that. Perhaps Musharraf genuinely believed in himself and was not aware of his limitations.

After a pause he continued, “You don’t really know what it’s like to be away from your home. The toll it can take on you.”

It’s possible that Musharraf was simply overjoyed to be back home. This reminded me of when Benazir returned to Karachi after exile and was moved to tears upon touching the ground after disembarking from the plane.

After saying my goodbyes, we filmed a couple more times before Musharraf left for Dubai a few months later. It turned out to be the last time he would ever be in Pakistan.


This week as I was doom-scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across this post written by a friend and colleague:

“What’s with the Musharraf hang-up among our chattering classes? Don’t people realise the harm he did to this country? The renditions of Pakistanis to black sites abroad? The boost he gave to the military’s theft of land in Karachi that we now see translated into an obscene number of DHAs across the country? The placing of the backbreaking burden of military pensions on the civilian govt? The murder of Bugti that transformed the latter into a hero for the Baloch insurgency and keeps it going today? Not to mention suspending the Constitution (yeah, the basic law of the land that guarantees you your fundamental rights) which, whether you like it or not, is an act of treason according to the Pakistan Penal Code?”

I reacted instantly. I felt defensive and my mind raced as I reactively answered her questions.

Don’t people realise the harm he did to this country?

Answer: Ugh- who hasn’t harmed this country?

The boost he gave to the military’s theft of land in Karachi that we now see translated into an obscene number of DHAs across the country?

Answer: That’s not just Mush. Stop holding Uncle responsible for an entire institution!

Not to mention suspending the Constitution:

Answer: Enough with this Constitution. Not one government including that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto really gave a s*** about your precious Constitution — a document which re-enforces bigotry and hatred against minorities.

Of course, I understand that the author’s points were valid and accurate. Intellectually, I acknowledged this, but my initial response was emotional and unrefined. It was an outpouring of my inner thoughts and feelings. It was an expression of sadness and grief.

Perhaps I was grieving for Musharraf but, more so, I was grieving for my own lost innocence and idealism. I was mourning the loss of what I once believed was possible for Pakistan. There were no longer any heroes, no more dreams, and the Pakistan of my youth was gone.

Musharraf was one of us. An average person placed in an exceptional situation and, despite his initial sincere efforts to serve Pakistan, he was flawed, like all of us, and he ultimately gave in to his own self-interest. Musharraf was capable of being a monster or an angel in equal measure. Most of all, he was human just like us, and that’s why some people love him and some despise him so vehemently.

Rest in peace General Sahib, and thank you for sharing your story with me….

The writer is a filmmaker, a recipient of the Emmy’s Television Academy Honour and a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. His recent projects include the Netflix series Turning Point.

For further pictures and clips from the documentary, see online

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2023

Header photo: Gen Musharraf’s personal affability was often at odds with his status as a dictator who had twice violated the Constitution | Mohammed Ali Naqvi