More than a quarter of a century ago, Pakistan seemed to be in the midst of a musical revolution. New bands were emerging left, right and centre and becoming sensations, live concerts took place regularly, TV shows ranked the week’s ‘top of the charts’, and private TV channels dedicated entirely to music were in the process of being launched. Riding this wave of new pop musical awareness was a young boy called Dino Ali.
His real name was Mohammad Ali but his boss at the Indus Music channel, veteran TV producer Ghazanfar Ali, had pointed out there were far too many Ali’s ambling about the music scene at the time. Since the boy’s nickname at home was ‘Dino’, and it became his professional name from thereon.
Fast-forward to the present day. I sit across Dino in a popular coffee shop in Karachi. From those early days when he was making his screen debut and was struggling to make a name for himself both as a VJ and a musician, he’s now one of the most familiar faces in Pakistan’s entertainment circuit.
Over the past two decades, it seems like he’s been everywhere: at major local live performances, hosting shows, taking over the airwaves on radio, interviewing practically every popular Pakistani celebrity under the sun, and even touching the lofty heights of the BBC in London for several years.
VJ, host, interviewer, musician and all around nice guy, Dino Ali has seen it all over the last two decades or so. Now settled back in Pakistan after a stint with the BBC in London, where does he go from here? Does he have any ambitions left?
Talking to him is like diving into an encyclopaedia dedicated to the annals of Pakistani entertainment. Encyclopaedias, though, tend to be heavy duty, dry tomes — Dino’s reminiscences are more colourful, peppered with anecdotes and inside analyses.
“I have been so lucky, so blessed,” he tells Icon several times during the conversation. “I have got the opportunity to meet all these people that I was a fan of, interviewed iconic bands that have now broken up and witnessed all these incredible live performances.”
It’s true that Dino’s lived a life that many young people dream of. As a host and interviewer, he’s travelled the concert circuit, hung out backstage with the greats, endorsed a multitude of ‘it’ brands and been paid for it all the way!
“It pays alright,” he tells me. “It all depends on what you’re required to do and the brand that you’re working with.”
He has also moonlighted as a musical artist, creating songs — some of which became quite popular — and singing covers. But now that he’s seen so much and done so much, does his job still excite him?
“Oh absolutely,” Dino nods. “It’s the kind of job where I constantly get to meet new people and talk to them. There are actually only four or five of us who work as hosts, and we all get along. We really enjoy ourselves when we are working at an event together, and also recommend possible jobs to each other if something comes our way.”
He continues: “I enjoy hosting, love live events, love radio …”
I interject: what about hosting concerts where the crowd goes out of control and gets violent? One has heard of so many such instances lately.
“Yes, that does happen,” his voice trails. “All I can do as a host is come on stage and try to calm the crowd down. I am particularly concerned about the women and children in the audience, and I try to point them out to the security personnel there. After that, if things get worse, the organiser has no choice but to halt the event.”
He adds, “Then, there’s the red carpet. Hosting it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s very hot and you have to stand there and wait for people to start arriving. You also have to make sure that you say the right things and know the person that you’re talking to. I am not very well-versed about the fashion industry, so the red carpet at fashion events tends to be the toughest.
“There are always so many new people, stylists, photographers, models, make-up artists. I think the fashion industry in Pakistan is one of the most progressive, with new people constantly coming in.”
So what’s the secret to conducting a good interview? “I just like to make the person I am interviewing as comfortable as possible,” he says. “They have given me this respect by talking to me and I want to reciprocate that. I also make sure that I do my research on the person that I am talking to, so that I can ask them informed questions. I have never interviewed anyone with the intention of getting a scoop out of them. That’s not my job.
“I think it helps that I am an artist myself and so many people in my family are artists — my father Latif Charlie was an actor, my mother Masooma Latif an actress, my brother-in-law Khaled Anum an actor and musician. I understand the pressures that artists go through. Why would I want to add to that stress by asking uncomfortable questions?”
He adds, “Often people just end up confiding in me because I have made them so comfortable! That’s happened a lot.” He laughs.
We move back in time to some of his favourite interviews. “When people ask me what’s the best interview that I’ve ever conducted, I always say that it was interviewing Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, back when I was working with the BBC,” he says.
“I mean, this was the man whose movies my brothers and sisters, all eight of us, would watch every weekend on the VCR. And here I was, talking to him. I asked him about cultural exchange and how it could one day mend ties between India and Pakistan, and he responded by saying that art certainly brought people together and that Pakistan’s TV content was definitely a lot better than India’s! I never pushed him into saying this but he said it, all on his own.”
At another point while with the BBC, he interviewed Shah Rukh Khan. “He was there to promote his movie Happy New Year,” Dino recalls, “and he just sat there, relaxed, while publications from around the world interviewed him. He was very intelligent and really as cool as I had imagined Shah Rukh Khan to be.
“The thing about working with the BBC was that, for me, it was just a job, but all these major stars from around the world would come there and give interviews. You’d be going down the corridor and bump into Denzel Washington, or exit the building and walk right into a Led Zeppelin concert being filmed for TV.
“My friends would sometimes be so mad at me. For instance, I wasn’t the biggest Led Zeppelin fan but, since I was there, I took a picture with the band’s lead vocalist, Robert Plant. As soon as I uploaded the picture on Facebook, my friends started attacking me, challenging me to name five Led Zeppelin songs and how I did not deserve to have met Robert Plant!” he laughs.
“The same thing happened when I took a picture with the guys from the TV show Top Gear. I didn’t know who they were, I just took a picture and my friends thought that it was sacrilegious!
“One of my favourite memories is of unexpectedly running into British R&B artist Craig David outside the BBC building,” he says. “I had been his biggest fan for the longest time, and knew the lyrics to all the songs from his first album by heart. I just ran up to him and told him that I was from Pakistan and was his biggest fan. He was very surprised and happy to know that people were listening to his music in Pakistan.”
It all sounds so glamorous that I am prompted to ask him why he left his life in London and returned to Pakistan. “My family,” he says. “I had been working there for about six years when my mother fell ill. My contract with the BBC was just about to end, and I thought that the timing was just perfect for me to return home.
“Initially, I had planned to stay in Pakistan for just a few months, but then I started getting work here and I began to wonder if it was really worth going back again. I had already lived in London, experienced so much in six years but I really missed my family. I have never regretted deciding to stay back in Pakistan.”
Didn’t Pakistan’s entertainment arena seem limited and lacklustre to him after having rubbed shoulders with international stars while at the BBC?
“No, I have been fortunate to have met and interviewed some of Pakistan’s greatest legends,” he says. “I met Mehdi Hasan sahib and I touched his feet, told him it was an honour to meet him. I have met Alamgir — I am a big fan of his and he was the nicest guy. I had been shooting a show with him and, once we were done, he sat with me backstage for about an hour, asked me to sing for him and then gave me actual vocal tips.
I interviewed Vital Signs right before they broke up. I had only just started out and I remember being completely tongue-tied standing next to Junaid Jamshed! The very first event that I worked in was called Face of the Year. It was a beauty pageant organised by Zoheb Hasan which would get aired on the Indus Music channel. I was standing backstage and Zoheb Hasan was right there, and it was all so exciting!
“These were all people whose albums I had back at home and who I listened to all the time and, when I met them, they were all so accommodating and sweet. This is something that perhaps the newer lot of artists could learn from. The earlier lot were very humble, kind, and carried themselves with such grace.”
So are today’s young musicians more difficult to talk to? He pauses — perhaps not wanting to point fingers and swiftly changing tack. “Honestly, I have never had a single experience where an artist has been rude to me. Also, artists are ultimately humans. Perhaps you’ve caught them at a bad time and they just end up retaliating.
“Every artist struggles with creative blocks where they are unable to come up with new compositions for months at times. If their last song was a major hit, then the pressure on them is even more to deliver another song which is just as great. And sometimes, when the next song doesn’t become as popular, the artist starts questioning if he or she is good enough. You never know what state of mind someone is in.”
He continues: “Some of the Gen-Z artists are amazing. Kaifi Khalil is extraordinary on stage. He is lost in his own world, saying poetry, playing an acoustic guitar and you can tell that he truly loves what he’s doing.”
Dino himself has released a handful of compositions during his two decades in the industry, some of which were very well-liked — Pari, Suno Zara and Raat Bhar come to mind. Did he ever experience the ‘block’ that he has referred to?
“Yes, it’s why I stopped releasing new songs for the longest time,” he says. “I came up with these songs when I was feeling a certain way and was going through a certain time in my life. After that, I couldn’t write anything new for some time, because I didn’t have any new experiences to share.
“Earlier, I had simply been under the radar but, once people liked my work and started asking me when my next release would come, I just didn’t know what to do.
“Ultimately, though, a person has to realise that the wants and needs of others can’t be prioritised. We need to do what we’re doing because we like it. Jay Z once said that an artist’s goal should not be to be famous and successful, it should be to live your life through your God-given ability. I think every artist should remember that.”
About three years after he returned home to Pakistan, the coronavirus pandemic swooped in. Considering that his career relied largely on hosting, what did he do when the world went into lockdown?
“For the first two weeks, I felt that I was going mad,” he confesses. “But then, the pandemic gave me time to refocus on my music. I eventually launched a cover campaign called Classics in Lockdown, where I would release a cover song every day for six months.
“I also virtually collaborated with other artists, people such as Junaid Khan and Aashir Wajahat. I would record my part and they would record theirs, and then I would merge the two together.”
Now that events are on a roll once again, what does he have planned for himself in the future?
“Hosting, and I want to work on my music more,” he says. “You know, [actor] Saleem Mairaj once said to me that it’s very important for an artist to just do his or her best. Nothing less than that.”
And that’s what you want to do? I ask. “Yes,” he says. “I just want to do the best that I can, at whatever I do.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 17th, 2023