Aslam Azhar
Aslam Azhar

The first time I saw Aslam Azhar was in a cinema commercial for Cherry Blossom shoe polish, in the early 1960s. He played the Maharajah of Cherrypore who alights from an aircraft to a horde of mikes and cameras. 

Question: “Your Highness, what is the secret of your shining shoes?” Beaming, the regal answer was: “Cherry Blossom!” From that tongue-in-cheek start in the public eye, this exceptional individual transformed himself over the next three decades from an advertising model into a role model for the leaders of Pakistani electronic media.

With integrity, intellect and innovation, he helped establish the new mass medium in Pakistan and has left a splendid legacy of values and vision. His wife Nasreen (they married in September 1964) remained a pillar of abundant love for him and their three charming children — Umaima, Osama and Areeb — and for Yasmeen, the daughter from his first marriage in Germany. He was a warm, caring human being, sensitive to, and respectful of others.

His pioneering contribution combined creative insights and management ability, artistic sensibility and technical proficiency. He articulated ideas with clarity and conviction, synthesising times past, times emerging, fusing east and west, north and south, in a seamless way.

Aslam Azhar’s journey from appearing in a TV ad to laying the foundation of television in Pakistan

Several of his colleagues, a few equally senior, most of them junior, too numerous to name in this space, worked closely as a team to explore new frontiers. One of Azhar’s most unusual qualities was his instinctive capacity to assess the potential of other people. This attribute was all the more notable because, often, the persons themselves had no awareness of their own potential nor had they even planned entry into television. His net was cast wide to cover many streams — make-up, set design, newsreaders, sportscasters, writers, actors, producers-directors. He also had the breadth of vision to repose full confidence in others and resist meddling.

State-owned media are subject to strict parameters for content. For the crucial first seven years (1964-1971) when the PTV was born and initially bred under the two military-led governments of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, Azhar was able to introduce, train and support a large number of individuals, both as full-time staff and as free-lance independents (including me) all of whom helped to continuously test and expand official limits — written and unwritten — in current affairs, drama, satirical comedy, quiz shows, arts and literature.

While news bulletins could not be liberated from the iron-grip of government-first-and-most, their formatting and presentation were continuously improved. The path-breaking election coverage of December 1970 and the interviews with leaders of all contesting political parties, albeit approved by the Ministry of Information, reflected many of his own imaginative, courageous efforts.

He commenced his journey with the pilot project in Lahore, on Nov 26, 1964, going on to serve both as GM, Rawalpindi Centre and the PTV Central Training Institute. He moved to Karachi in November 1967 to make it a hotbed of creativity, through to January 1972 to become Managing Director in Rawalpindi-Islamabad, 1972-76. Pakistan had begun to be spiritually and cerebrally re-built after the Eastern wing’s secession. The PTV and Radio Pakistan gave powerful voice and image to this historic process wherein Azhar was a driving force.

But as Z.A. Bhutto’s promising, dynamic direction derailed into despotism, he exited from his fondest institution at the end of 1976 to head a new entity known as the State Film Authority. Yet too soon came Ziaul Haq in July 1977 — to initiate unprecedented regression. Following quick removal, Aslam’s services were arbitrarily terminated in March 1978.

For the next 10 years, with grit and inimitable grin intact, he faced difficult times with dignity and determination. For some months and more, we made an ultimately futile attempt to obtain permission to launch a new media entity which would include an independent TV channel / radio service, somewhat like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills.

The martial law regime must surely have thought we were cracking a sick joke if we dreamed of being permitted to establish independent electronic media when Ziaul Haq was at the helm. Aslam boldly returned, partly to theatre, with a group named Dastak with which he played the title role in Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, a perfect way to mock then-rising obscurantism. He evoked memories of his fine Hamlet from the early 1960s, also in Karachi.

One of Azhar’s most unusual qualities was his instinctive capacity to assess the potential of other people. This attribute was all the more notable because, often, the persons themselves had no awareness of their own potential nor had they even planned entry into television.

In January 1989, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto fittingly re-united him with the PTV, now as Chairman, with the equivalent position in PBC as a bonus. There was plenty to do, to set aside the rot of the past decade, to revive the soul and to adjust to new realities. Part of that adjustment was mutually personal for both of us since he had introduced me to TV. So I became the minister of state for information and broadcasting (with the PM as minister) while he became subject to the ministry’s policy framework.

Fortuitously, even before he was appointed, an entirely new news coverage policy had already been introduced in December 1988 to PTV and PBC. For the first time, fairly balanced coverage was given on a daily basis to the opposition in news bulletins and capsule coverage of parliamentary speeches. He fully supported the change which, alas, lasted only up to April 1989 because the PM was prevailed upon by party die-hards to reverse the policy.

Yet in that very period, his return brought new programme ideas to the PTV with, for instance, the first pop music show titled Music 89 that presented refreshing new sounds (causing enough concern among mullahs so that I actually defended the show in parliament!). He also injected new vigour to PTV ranks, to the extent that it sometimes caused concerns to the ministry.

For in his sensitive empathy with staff and workers he would announce promises for financial benefits for which funding provision was insufficient. While I left the information ministry for another ministry a few months later, we shared, spoken and unspoken, a disquiet over how the government, already assailed by a hostile Punjab government and uneasy relations with the president and the army, was sinking into a morass of corruption and disconnectedness.

His fairly swift alienation from the misuse of state power became ironically apparent when, even during the second tenure of PM Benazir Bhutto (late 1993-96) he was not re-invited to PTV. We shared this growing gulf because this writer also resigned from PPP membership in 1996 as a protest against the blatant misuse of office for corrupt practices. The ironies thickened with time.

When, during General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure we were able to introduce private TV and radio channels for the first time, proliferation became a profligacy of content, degrading the medium even as it brought unprecedented freedom. I left the cabinet before the hysteria became an unceasing onslaught while Azhar stayed steadfastly, wisely away. Thoughtfully, ever-respectfully, Akhtar Waqar Azeem, a former MD, PTV, and M. Arshad, then MD, PTV invited Aslam to serve as Chairman of PTV’s internal viewing committee to monitor drama content quality. He was able to accept this low-profile, non-executive task without compromising his views.

Aslam Azhar’s final decade became as much an intensive re-union with one of his great passions — reading books of substance — as a retreat from times in which television has, for the most part, become a caricature of what his purist vision wanted the medium to be: primarily, public service broadcasting which offers a blend of information, education and entertainment, with decorum and balance.

Over the only 15-odd years out of the 51-year history of PTV in which he held leadership positions in the organisation, he made a decisive contribution to bring TV to Pakistan, to find and nurture talent and skills, to introduce new programme concepts, to define professional ethics and standards that have become benchmarks. He departed this life enriched with respect as the Maharaja of Tellypore. May he rest in peace. Amen.

The writer is a former senator and federal minister.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 10th, 2016