Today Aslam Azhar has no plans for the days ahead, but a wish. “I wish for a happier country to live in.”Honest to the core and respected by all, Aslam Azhar is the father of PTV, taking it to great heights after a humble start in 1964. In 1968, he was given Tamgha-i-Pakistan for his services for television in Pakistan.
Born in Lahore in September 1932, as a son of a government servant in the British India, he traveled to different places in the subcontinent. He still remembers his teacher Ghulam Nabi Butt of the Central Model School. “A beautiful teacher, he took me as a little boy and turned me into a man.” His eyes were misty when he talked about his teacher.
Aslam Azhar went to Cambridge to study law, jurisprudence for his Bachelor Honors, equivalent of an MA degree in 1954. He returned to join the Burmah Oil Company. Two years with the company and posted in Chittagong, one day it dawned upon him: “Parhein faarsi, aur bechein tel?” (Study Persian, and sell oil?). He resigned in 1960 and came to Karachi, and worked as freelance, making documentaries for the Department of Films and Publications. His film on Gandhara civilisation was well received.
But Aslam Azhar's passion was theatre. “There was a good friend who we called Sami (Fareed Ahmed). We started a theatre group called Karachi Arts Theater Society (Kats). It was very popular, and a dear old man called Wajid Mehmood financed us. We did a lot of plays in the Theosophical Hall.” It was in the theatre group he met Nasreen Jan, and “we decided to get married”.
Meanwhile, Pakistani government wanted to start television. 1964, the Japanese were given the contract to set up a pilot television station in Lahore.
“The Japanese had heard about me, and asked me to become head of programmes. I said 'I know nothing about it. Television was new all over the world.” The first time he saw television when the Queen was crowned. “When I said I knew nothing about television, I was told nor does anyone else!”
Aslam Azhar came to Lahore and started the television station for three months. “It was so successful that Pakistani government decided to buy it, and I was made programme director. All programmes were live and television was from 6-9pm only.” Monday was off for the first few years.
Aslam Azhar's father made sure he read good books, as his outstanding performances in Government College, Lahore's debating and dramatics helped him in setting up television.
With Alhamra Theatre strong in Lahore in those days, he convinced Ashfaque Ahmed, Bano Qudsia and Dr Anwar Sajjad to write for television. His wife Nasreen helped him with television programmes for women and children. Soon PTV was air programmes for all age groups and classes.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, his favourite poet, became his friend too. Surrounded by legendary literary figures and great actors, musicians and singers, Aslam Azhar created an environment where the great artists prospered and found satisfaction. He was hesitant about naming any names for fear of forgetting any one of them, which would be unforgivable. “Indians would record our plays and show them in their academies to their 'would-be' actors.”
Has television improved or deteriorated from the times of its beginnings? “I will say that the producers are as strong as they were then. But people tell me television drama is not what it used to be. I know that is true.”
For him, commitment counts. “In those days they wrote from the heart. Totally devoted and committed. It was a very cultured society. It was not at that time a consumer society.”
But over the years, like everywhere in the world, Pakistan has become a consumer society and television plays a consumer product. “The writer who wrote one play in a year now writes ten plays for ten channels.”
He looked down at the beautiful handmade carpet in his drawing room. “One family makes one hand-made carpet in three years. And a factory makes tens of carpets in the same time. There is a difference in value and quality. That is the difference between plays of those days, and now!”
When asked about PTV being a voice for the government, he felt that it was all right, as they own it, and have a right to use it as they feel. Azhar advocates “sensible censorship” and feels that self-censorship is the best option.
His advice to anyone wanting to join television? “Don't!” he said with a laugh!
“I don't watch television. I'll only watch it if I'm paid for it!” Now, he watches television for two days a week. “I'm a chairman of the viewing committee, where we watch television programs prepared by private productions.”
He feels that viewing less television is important. Reading more is better. “I get my pleasure from reading, books. It makes a statement. If it's a novel, it describes the situation…A book forces me to use my creative imagination. In television - everything is there. What is there for me to do? I'm sitting there with my eyes open and the eyes of my mind asleep. With a book the brain grows, with television it just becomes stale.”
For him, cinema and television are literal but books and music metaphorical. “It's the difference between littleness and greatness.” When asked if the two could be balanced, he said: “You don't balance good and evil.”
Nowadays Aslam Azhar is reading books, educating himself.
What is the secret of his success? “Honesty. To this day, I live in a rented house, I have no house, no … property. I have subordinates, whom I recruited in television. Who grew in senior positions, became dishonest and rich. Have houses. I was their boss, their teacher. I have not earned money. But I have earned respect. It's been a hard life but a happy one.”