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Imran Aslam: A renaissance man

Imran Aslam: A renaissance man
Written by Omair Alavi

Very few people managed to become everyone’s favourite as Imran Aslam did! Not everyone is an expert in whatever they do, but Imran Aslam was an exception to this rule.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

The world knows him as a credible journalist who launched daily newspapers, his friends considered him someone who could always make them laugh while his close associates acknowledged his creative prowess that gave one of the world’s best airlines its name, and Pakistan’s favourite biscuit its tagline.

Known as Tippu among his friends and family, Imran Aslam was born in the Indian city of Madras in 1952. His family migrated to Pakistan when he was young and then they settled in Lahore. Being extraordinaire, he eventually started making a name for himself in Lahore where he was studying as a creative individual and made friends who would go on to stay with him till death did them part.

He held many feathers to his cap and writing was the most known side of Imran. Writing came naturally to him; it was god-gifted. People know that he was a prolific writer, however, not many are aware that he wrote for TV, theatre and film as well.

While studying in Lahore, he realised that his first love is acting thus he began his career as an actor whereas writing went side by side.

“I met Imran Aslam at the Government College Lahore in 1967. Imran was reciting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the theatre room of the college and that too all alone. I was in shock and thought that what is he doing? I asked him, ‘Who are you? And he asked the same question too. We introduced each other,” recalls the veteran artiste Usman Peerzada.

“I asked Imran whom you are doing this for and why are you reciting these? He told me that he loved this particular soliloquy from ‘To be or not to be.’ We developed the friendship from there and never looked back.”

Usman went on to share that Imran and he discovered Sarmad Sehbai who became another valuable friend. Together they produced a play ‘Dark Room.’

“I took Imran with me and requested Sarmad to cast him in his play. However, Imran did not know writing and reading Urdu which seemed to be a hindrance. Sarmad told me that I am asking to cast someone who couldn’t read Urdu. I assured Sarmad that his Urdu is really good, he knows Urdu and will be reading Urdu to you tomorrow. Then the same night Veda Salahuddin (Imran’s cousin) and I made Imran write the play in roman Urdu. Then the rest is history as Dark Room became the best play of our lives,” says Usman Peerzada.

“Our friendship was meant to last forever. Communication wasn’t as easy as it is today and when I was not in Pakistan even then we never lost touch. We were a group of four to five friends who were equally handsome and ladies’ men because of the way we were at that time and still appear to be the same,” he said with a roaring laugh.

“After college, we all went into our worlds but we always touched base with each other and knew what was happening.”

Usman said that it was not only Sarmad Sehbai he introduced Imran to, but also to the president of a media group who was coming out with an English newspaper. “The current president of a media group asked me if I know someone who is reliable, intelligent and trustworthy. Imran was working as the editor of another media group. I told him about Imran’s work and incredible intelligence and he asked me to call Imran immediately as he was desperate to meet him. As we were in Lahore so we sent Imran a return ticket to come to Lahore.”

“Imran initially refused the offer as he was already working with a media group and found it unprofessional and unethical to leave on such a short notice. But later he joined and worked with this media group until his last days.”

Usman lamented that the true potential of Imran Aslam couldn’t be rightly tapped in Pakistan because his artistic brilliance, dialogue writing and wit were double-edged, remarkable and way beyond usual standards. Except for his professional abilities, he said that Imran was more than a friend to him. “Imran was somebody with whom I could sit for hours and not talk yet feel accompanied. We learned together and learned from each other. My world is saddened and empty that Imran Aslam doesn’t exist in my world now. But this is life and it goes on. People die and memories live and my memories with Imran are a lot that could not be resolved or described in a phone call. He was a great soul and I wish he could live more and come out with interesting things he used to discuss with me so often. In fact, Pakistan lost a great intellectual,” Usman Peerzada added.

Veteran TV and film actor Salman Shahid remembers his best friend as an achiever, not as a backbencher.

‘We were friends for a long time and hung around like-minded people pursuing their artistic pursuits. We started working together at the same time with a group called Alpha Players where besides Imran and myself, we had the likes of Usman Peerzada and Shafqat Mahmood. Before Imran ventured into journalism, he evolved as a creative individual who could write and act well. With the passage of time, he did things that showed his inclination towards journalism, which was the right place for him. After moving to Karachi from Lahore, he was busy as a writer than an actor and did so many things in his life from adapting plays, writing screenplays, heading organisations, etc. He was always the achiever in our group, and never the backbencher and that’s what took him to unimaginable heights.’

Although he started gaining recognition in Lahore as well, but once he moved to the city of lights, Karachi, he began to fly higher as Karachi gave Imran Aslam the freedom he desired to grow both as a writer and a journalist. Besides acting on the stage, writing screenplays, and editing newspapers, he found time to groom youngsters into becoming professionals who now have their own identities and voice as individuals. Veteran TV actor Sajid Hasan was one of those people who owed his entry to TV to Imran Aslam.

Contrary to popular belief, Sajid Hasan’s first drama was Khaleej, not Dhoop Kinarey and it was after the latter that the two drifted apart – Sajid as an actor, Imran as the editor of an English newspaper. He remembered his friends of five decades in glowing words and paid tribute to his legacy, and his friendship.

‘I met Imran Aslam at a time that seemed like another lifetime, where I was young and the world had endless possibilities. The strangest part of that meeting was that he treated me as an equal, which I wasn’t. He was the editor of The Star with laurels and I was just a rookie, wannabe journalist. Until someone tells you that you can do it, you really never start any journey – Imran was that kind of friend. He encouraged me, supported me, and put his weight behind every step I took towards acting. The first time I met him was at an event that I remember to this day. He kept us laughing for an hour with his impersonations and his very subtle wit. Little did we realise that later Imran was to become a genius with his unmatched ability to write fantastic one-liners.’

‘From my first stage-play appearance to my first TV serial Khaleej written by Imran Aslam, I was a regular fixture with everything he wrote for the Karachi Grips Theatre. Then TV serial Dhoop Kinarey happened and Imran and I parted ways. After that we would bump into each other and chat but gone were the days we used to hang with friends.’

He went on to add that when Imran Aslam became critically ill a year back, he hadn’t lost hope and was his usual self. That smile that most of his friends knew him for was still as bright as ever. However, he didn’t want to write which was not the usual response for someone who was a giant among journalists, taught editors how to edit and writers how to write.

‘Imran knew the trends but he couldn’t succumb to the lure of nothingness. He has written enough to make him a great theatre, television, and film writer. We were always planning a film that never saw the light of the day. In this desert of possibilities, I wish someday to be with my friend Imran Aslam and tell stories. Goodbye, my friend!’

Imran Aslam’s magic wasn’t just limited for his friends but also for those who believed in themselves no matter how young they might be. According to Mahira Khan, Pakistan’s leading film and TV actress, Imran Aslam was the first person who believed in her and told her that she would go places when many didn’t.

‘I still remember the day when Imran Aslam came to my place and asked me to switch to the new music channel that he was launching because he believed that it would help my career. At that very moment, I formed a connection with him because he somehow knew me better than I did, and believed in me. That belief was there when the same management offered me a morning show and I politely rejected it because I had set my eyes on film stardom. He was the only person in that room who believed in me with his trademark smile, and later told me that I would make it big because I had faith and vision.’

The Bin Roye actress also added that whoever knew Imran Aslam realised that they had some kind of unexplainable connection with him, and that was his beauty. ‘Whenever we used to meet, he was always smiling and talking about that day when I told everyone I wanted to be a film star. He didn’t just live his life but set an example for all of us so that we could value life just the way it should be valued. He was always there for the people around him, be it by giving them the needed push, or the sympathy required without making the other person feel bad about it. He may be gone but has left behind a legacy that would remain unmatched.’

Mahira Khan wouldn’t have achieved her dreams had she not worked with director Sarmad Khoosat in his super-successful TV serial Humsafar. However, Sarmad Khoosat believes that he wouldn’t have been able to go the distance had Imran Aslam not been there to promote him the way he did with most of the youngsters. He feels proud of the fact that he not only worked with Imran Aslam but learned a lot from him in the process.

‘Imran Aslam was the true genius. Being the gentle giant we all need in our lives, he was nothing short of a treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge. My association with him dates back to the time when his channel wanted to redo the TV serial Jangloos and had roped me in for the project. When I entered the conference room, everyone was shocked because apparently, they were either expecting someone older like Sarmad Sehbai, or only Sarmad Sehbai. It was Imran Aslam who broke the silence by saying that ‘Oye tum ne Sarmad Sehbai ki jaga Sarmad Khoosat ko bula lia … chalo is ko bhi involve karlete hain, direct Sarmad hi karega (you people invited the wrong Sarmad; it’s okay we will involve him as well as he will direct the project.)

I don’t know it was a joke or a blunder of the administrative team but for the next couple of days we worked on the project and I even got to meet the novelist Shaukat Siddiqui. I found him quite real as he comforted the other person in a way with his soft-spoken and easy-going attitude that made others accept that whatever he was saying was the right thing.

Sarmad added that Imran Aslam was always there as a member of the review committee when he was making the film Manto. ‘Every time I would present them with a cut he was there, always present, and was very candid in his critical analysis. He gave his opinion with such kindness and warmth, which is very rare these days that it felt like a gentle pat on the back.’

Sarmad also discussed his collaboration with Imran Aslam in Jal Pari and Mor Mahal, two projects that he considers different from the run-of-the-mill stuff.

‘Jal Pari was the most difficult project of my life but it was also one of the most satisfying ones as well. It was penned by Sarmad Sehbai and I am sure that it was Imran Aslam who convinced the legendary playwright to trust his script to me. We needed a narration in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s OST and when I asked him to give the narration, he agreed without thinking twice. Also, in Mor Mahal, after watching the plot, he looked at me with his animated smile and praised the use of the candlelight source which was something not many noticed. His contribution to my career was immense, and although it seemed he wasn’t around, he was always present. I hope he is somewhere where his knowledge and his light are valued better than we did.’

For some people, Imran Aslam was an anchor on whom they could depend for the best advice. He sometimes knew what the other person was capable of, even if that person wasn’t sure, said Sania Saeed the veteran TV and film artiste who credits Imran Aslam for keeping her on the theatre track after she had debuted on TV.

‘After doing my first play on TV, I would have drifted away from theatre had it not been for Imran Aslam. Since I had done his adaptation of a Brecht play in Balochi for kids in Golimar, he knew of me from Yasmin Ismail, which is why when his Bachon Ka Theatre was being televised, they chose me for characters previously done by Marina Khan. No one wrote like him when it came to children’s stage plays and since adults acted as kids on stage in these plays, they were quite successful. His plays were all about the environment, politics, ethnic cohesion, violence, etc. and he also dealt with the treatment of children through his writings. He was also part of my father’s play Galileo as an actor which is how I knew him for his acting skills as well.’

Sania Saeed added that Imran Aslam’s sense of humour set him apart from his contemporaries as it was urban, modern, and angrezi. He never showed off his genius and always made the other person feel comfortable in his presence.

‘I interviewed him for my talk show on mothers named Maa and it was a great experience since he began the conversation by saying that his mother was mad. I was surprised at first but when he elaborated it all made sense. He explained it in a hilarious way that she was a proactive woman for her time whose parenting style would have been illegal today. He even said that she once punished his younger brother by hanging him over a well just because he wasn’t sleeping in the evenings. Throughout the interview, he treated me like a kid but never treated me as an inferior which is what set him apart.’

After writing for theatre, Imran Aslam turned to TV and was successful with his very first play Khaleej which aired in 1986 and introduced the world to the talented Adarsh Ayaz. The actor who played Dodo in that play remembers Imran Aslam, first as his parents’ friend and later as someone who saw the acting talent in him when no one else did.

‘My parents Babar Ayaz and Najma Babar were both journalists and that’s how I knew Imran Aslam, who worked with them in The Star. When he was writing Khaleej, they needed a young boy who would replace their original casting who was having his exams, and he saw me disrupting the lives of people in my mother’s office (laughs) and asked her if she would let me act. Sahira Kazmi then took my audition from where I started my career as an actor, so as much as I owe my career to Sahira Kazmi, I owe it to Imran Aslam as well. He saw that this kid might be inclined towards acting and suggested it and I owe him for that.’

He went on to add that growing up, he saw Imran Aslam as a rock star journalist whom people would flock around because he was writing stage plays and acting besides editing newspapers. ‘He knew how to nurture people who had a creative spark. He was amongst those people who would promote others and I had the pleasure of working with him there as well. Our interview became an interesting conversation when he put his glasses on the table and asked me to build a story around it and when I did, I was selected.’

Imran Aslam was loved by all who knew him, worked with him, and spent time with him because he carried positive energy with him that many lacked.

‘The person who always wrote socially and politically conscious drama had his lifelong wish and that was playing Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah on screen. He was very disappointed when he wasn’t selected to play the father of the nation in the film that had Christopher Lee as the main lead. It was his dream to play that character which was fulfilled when his younger brother produced a short film and cast him in that role. Not only did he do justice to the character but also excelled in that performance because he was fit for that character. Also, despite being very senior to the many people he knew, Imran Aslam had no airs about him and never threw his clout around. That’s how we all should remember him, as a creative genius who wanted to do interesting things and managed to do that in his lifetime,’ Adarsh Ayaz said.

A man of many talents, Imran Aslam is no more with us. However, he will be alive through his creative work as well as the enriched legacy left behind. – Ends

About the author

Omair Alavi

Omair Alavi is a highly regarded journalist, critic, and commentator, specializing in news, sports, showbiz, film, blogs, articles, drama, reviews, and PTV drama. With extensive experience and a keen eye for storytelling, he captivates audiences with his insightful analysis and compelling presentations. His expertise and contributions have made him a prominent figure in the media and entertainment industry.