Islamabad – In the year 2000, Tasleem Elahi Zulfi took an early retirement from Air Canada in Toronto. He had a simple reason for retiring: He was about to launch a TV channel.
Twelve years later, Zufli’s project, Urdu TV, is one of the most popular desi cable channels among Canada’s South Asian community.
It would be difficult to pin down Zulfi’s nationality if he did not self-identify as a Pakistani Canadian. Some events in his life are almost Saleem Sinai-esque: He was born in Agra a month before Pakistan’s creation; he moved with his parents to Saudi Arabia, their ancestral homeland, from Pakistan two years after partition and when he returned for studies nine years later, Ayub Khan imposed Martial Law in the country the very next day. His mother language is Arabic, he is quadrilingual and has written 18 books to date, one of which even won him Pakistan’s third highest civilian award, the Sitara-e Imtiaz.
But for 30 of his 65 years, Zulfi worked as an aeronautical engineer, first with the Saudi Airlines and then with Air Canada. Somehow his childhood interest for writing, radio and TV survived the roar of airplane engines and the clatter of ground service equipment.
Once his children, one son and three daughters, were married and settled, he decided to go for his longtime ambition.
“I thought I have fulfilled my responsibilities (as a father), now I’m going to tend to my hobbies,” Zulfi says. “I’ll write books and make TV programmes.”
Zulfi was not new to the arts when he applied for the channel’s license in 1997. By then, he was already a published author with seven books to his name, including four collections of poetry. He had also worked at Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television during his student years in Karachi in the late ’60s.
But even then, running a 24-hour entertainment channel is not easy. He needed support to cover the 1.5 million Canadian dollars capital required for the project and help to generate the channel’s content.
“I got two business partners for the project,” Zulfi says, in a matter-of-fact tone.
What is unique about Zulfi’s idea is that one of his business partners is a Sikh Punjabi, the other a Hindu. And they all get four hours each of programming time on the channel.
So although the channel’s name might not represent the Hindi and Punjabi languages, its shows do.
“We don’t do four hours (of one language) in a row,” Zulfi says. “One programme is in Urdu, the next in Hindi or Punjabi, so that everyone stays tied to the channel.”
The appeal of the shows to the larger South Asian community, and not just Pakistani Canadians, might be a reason behind its success: Urdu TV has over 30,000 paid cable subscribers across Canada.
Another factor might be the team Zulfi has come up with for the channel’s Urdu shows.
“Some senior artists who used to work with Pakistan Television back in the day are now settled in Canada,” he says. “I got them onboard for programme production.”
For example, Sohail Rana, famous for composing the music for hit ’60s Waheed Murad-starrers such as Arman and Doraha, is the channel’s music director. Zulfi himself works as a TV host and newscaster. He takes pride in the channel’s “family programmes” and says 75 per cent of the channel’s content is created locally. The rest – dramas, musical shows, current affairs programmes and interviews – are imported through Pakistan’s TV Producers Association “on a daily-basis.”
Despite the broadcast channel’s success, Zulfi remains a poet at heart.
“Poetry is my first love,” he says. “And among poetry genres, ghazal is my favourite.”
Perhaps that is why he was so fascinated by Pakistan’s legenedary poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, that when Faiz sought asylum in Lebanon in 1968, Zulfi, who worked for Saudi Airlines at the time, transferred himself to the airline’s Beirut station.
The book Zulfi wrote about Faiz’s exile, “Faiz Ahmed Faiz Beirut Mein,” is one of his crowning achievements. Zulfi’s book shows Faiz in exile as a forlorn poet, depressed by the absence of fellow Urdu speakers and the lack of good company.
Zulfi proudly says he still has rough drafts of poems from Faiz’s “Meray Dil Meray Musafir,” which Faiz wrote while in Beirut.
But poetry has changed since 9/11, Zulfi says.
“Because of the levels of insecurity in the society, writers and poets are more alert and self-accountable in their writings,” he says. “Love used by the topic of poetry, but now we portray the fear we see all around us.”
He remains confident, however, that Urdu will survive the test of time. He says Urdu travels with the people who migrate away from the Indian subcontinent.
Maybe Zulfi is right. It is a fact that some migrants speak Urdu at their homes abroad. And now there is one who even opened an Urdu channel.