The thing that always struck me about Javed Jabbar is his rich, deep voice and precise diction. Delivered in his commanding style, one listens carefully to even commonplace phrases. But more often than not, he has something of value to say. Adman, filmmaker, writer, development worker, former senator and former federal minister — Javed Jabbar has left a mark in many fields and still exudes vigour and enthusiasm for what lies ahead.
He ushered me into his study, lined with books and stacked with papers amongst which he seems to know exactly where to find what he is looking for. This well-used room is where he has churned out many of his 18 books, and countless articles and scripts. His recent book on his experience of working with Benazir Bhutto titled “But Prime Minister” has made it to the Amazon bestseller list in the United Kingdom.
Jabbar was born into an Urdu-speaking family which traces its roots to Central Asia but had settled in Hyderabad, Deccan. His father was employed by the Nizam of Hyderabad, famously known to be the world’s richest man at that time. He enjoyed a rank equivalent to that of a Deputy Commissioner and Jabbar and his older sister enjoyed an idyllic childhood until one day everything was rudely shattered. “Two days after the Quaid died, the Indians decided to invade and take over Hyderabad,” recounts Jabbar. “The state had a tiny army and could not resist. My father, posted at a border district, was arrested and asked to sign a surrender document. But he refused to do so saying he had no instructions to that effect.” The next thing they knew, the entire family, including children and servants were lined up in the compound outside to be shot. “The soldiers were asked to take aim and fire,” recalls Jabbar. “One of my earliest memories, seared into my mind, is being held tight by my mother while my panicking sister was being restrained. It was chilling. Then like a scene from a movie, in the nick of time, a jeep screeched in carrying a Brigadier who halted the execution. Instead, we were all bundled into trucks and taken to prison.” On being released from prison, the family had little choice but to migrate to Pakistan.
They moved to Karachi without knowing a soul in the city but, fortunately, Jabbar’s father managed to get a job with the government of Pakistan. Unfortunately, however, his parent’s marriage could not hold and the couple separated. Jabbar’s mother wanted to return to India where she had left behind property and jewellery and the six-year-old Javed left with her. Later, both his parents remarried and at the age of eleven, Javed moved back to Karachi to live with his father. It was a tumultuous childhood but Jabbar harbours no rancour and has a remarkably good relationship with his step siblings. “Parents shouldn’t be tyrannised by their children,” he maintains.
Javed Jabbar grew up in Karachi and attended the Cant. Public School, where he formed bonds which have endured over 64 years. This was followed by St. Patrick’s College which he says was notable chiefly because of the annual debate between St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Colleges. “It not only gave me a chance to represent my institution but allowed me access to the girl’s college,” he laughs. “The debates led to the principal of St. Joseph’s asking my help to stage a play. That’s where I spotted a certain girl called Shabnam and after that I didn’t concentrate on the play as much as on who this girl was.” Jabbar went on to marry the young lady and the couple have two children; his elder daughter Mehreen is a critically acclaimed film and television director, and his son Kamal is a well-established lawyer.
After college, Jabbar spent a memorable three years at the University of Karachi from where he earned a Bachelors in International Relations. It was the Ayub Khan era and the age of burgeoning political awareness. A powerful student’s movement was raising its voice against repressive state policies. In keeping with the spirit of the times, Jabbar and some friends launched a student newspaper called the Pakistan Students Observer. “I was the editor and we took up all kinds of issues.” At that time, student unions were politically aware but the strong nexus between political parties and the unions did not prevail — the Jamaat- e-Islami being the only exception. Student activism was unmarred by the violence that came to plague it in later years. “We were combative but not violent,” recalls Jabbar.
After finishing his Bachelors, journalism beckoned but Jabbar made a very pragmatic choice. “The monetary aspect of journalism wasn’t what I wanted for myself and so I decided to go into advertising. It was a selfish decision,” Jabbar says candidly. “But it gave me the material security that I wanted. Also it allowed me to pursue writing and creative work.”
Meanwhile, Jabbar had been persuaded to sit for the CSS examination, and despite his lack of enthusiasm for it, he topped the exam from Sindh. Now there was pressure to join the civil service from his own family as well as from his future in-laws. “But I wanted to be able to write and speak freely. The only person who backed my decision was my then fiancée, Shabnam.” And so Jabbar chose the adventure of setting up his own ad agency over the security of the civil service. And MNJ Advertising was born, formed with his partners Majeed and Nafees. “By the grace of God, MNJ took off and became one of the leading ad agencies in the 70s.”
Javed Jabbar is, in fact, considered one of the pioneers of advertising in Pakistan. “We borrowed 10,000 rupees from UBL and set up an office in a room in the Central Hotel,” he recalls. “We had to teach ourselves everything. TV had just started and there was no heritage we could draw upon. By some miracle English Biscuits appointed us as their agency and the Peek Freans ad campaign followed.”
Featuring the iconic Peek Freans’ Pied Piper, this went on to become one of the most recognised and enduring advertising campaigns in Pakistan.
Many more trend-setting advertisements followed and as the agency flourished, Jabbar found time to pursue other creative leanings. ”I have always been interested in different disciplines; writing, film, radio, stage… one discipline enriched the other. In particular, cinema has always fascinated me.”
In 1974 Jabbar wrote, directed and produced Pakistan’s first English film, Beyond the Last Mountain. “I made it to reflect the reality of the English-speaking segment of Pakistani society, which was small but very influential. They had their own ethos and norms yet were thoroughly Pakistani,” explains Jabbar. “Of course, I was mad enough to do the whole thing in Urdu as well and so there was an Urdu version called Musafir. “
Released in 1976, the film was not a commercial success but it did make some ripples and was screened at various festivals. In fact, it was the first Pakistani film to be shown in India after the 71 war. “We didn’t make money on the film, although we recovered our investment,” says Jabbar. “But we had great fun doing it and it was a tremendous learning experience. Several scenes were shot in my house. There were no professional actors, even for the lead. In fact, it was the first film in our cinematic history in which educated women played the leads; Shamim Hilaly, Moneeza Hashmi, Marianna Kareem, Shireen Sanaullah. It was also Usman Peerzada’s first film.”
In the early ‘70s, Jabbar had turned to documentary filmmaking. His film Mohenjo Daro: The City That Must Not Die became the first PTV documentary to win an award abroad. Around the same time, Jabbar was involved with a campaign for the National Bank of Pakistan.
“The visionary banker Jamil Nishtar had come up with the radical concept of sending bank officers on bikes to the villages to extend credit.” Travelling through the interior of Sindh was an eye-opening experience for Jabbar. “I realised how much there was to learn about Pakistan. That led to my interest in social development and took me to Tharparkar.”
In Tharparkar, Jabbar laid the foundations of Baanh Beli, a social welfare organisation which is now in its 37th year. Bannh Beli brings rural and urban residents together and has served as a bridge between different religions and castes. “Most of our members and office bearers were from the untouchable caste. We don’t have any buildings or offices and the organisation is completely diffused into the village level.” Bannh Beli focuses on education, water resources and women’s health, with a strong emphasis on local participation. Today, the organisation has spread its work to other cities in Sindh as well. “A particularly interesting project we have currently had success with is the breeding of vultures which are in catastrophic decline the world over,” says Jabbar. “The locals have taken on the responsibility of protecting the vulture’s nest.”
Jabbar is also the Sindh chairman of the SOS Children’s Villages. Working in rural Sindh at the grassroots, Jabbar has built up an admirable network. “Some time ago, a Hindu family from Thar donated 10 acres of land to build a new SOS home in Islamkot,” he says. Jabbar has also co-founded the SPO (Strengthening Participatory Organization) with branches spread across Pakistan. The organisation works to support and strengthen disadvantaged communities by increasing awareness, developing skills and much more.
It was his passion for social service that led to Jabbar’s entry into politics. When the non-party based elections were announced by General Zia-ul Haq in 1985, Javed Jabbar ran for a senate seat. “My wife insisted that I contest,’” says Jabbar. “I wasn’t totally convinced but other friends agreed with her and urged me on. I was a complete newcomer and contested on a technocrat seat,” he recalls. “A very senior political personality told me that ‘you have to spend around 50 lakh rupees or forget about being elected.’ I spent a grand sum of 8,000 rupees to print my credentials on pamphlets and started canvassing; and I was helped greatly by friends who introduced me into political circles.” Jabbar was elected by a large margin and despite being a political novice, he took to the senate, in his own words like “a duck to water.”
Of the 80 members of the senate elected on a non-party basis, 68 decided to join the pro-government party of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo. Jabbar was one of the few who refrained. “We remained independent and demanded that General Zia relinquish one of his two positions and that martial law should be lifted. Gradually, momentum built up and we got support from people like Fakhar Imam, Syeda Abida Hussain and Nur Khan in the National Assembly.”
When Benazir Bhutto became prime minister, she asked Javed Jabbar to join the PPP. “She was in the bizarre position of being elected by the National Assembly but she had no members of her party in the Senate which had been elected earlier,” explains Jabbar. “I felt very empathetic to Benazir. She was under tremendous assault and pressure and since my views aligned with hers, I agreed.” Jabbar became Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting for 10 months. “Then my free media policy proved too much,” he laughs. “And so I was asked to move to another ministry, that of science and technology.”
Earlier, Jabbar left the PPP and set up the Millat Party with former president Farooq Leghari. “He may have made some errors in judgement but he was a sincere man, well-educated and very capable,” Jabbar says of Leghari. Jabbar was Secretary-General and the party organised itself to contest the elections announced by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002. “We won 10 seats,” says Jabbar, who later took leave from the party to join Musharraf’s cabinet. He became Advisor on National Affairs and then Minister for Information and Broadcasting. It was during this time that Pakistan saw an unprecedented opening up of the media and the burgeoning of private channels.
“I had been urging the need to end state monopoly on television and radio for many years, even before joining politics, but there were no takers,” says Jabbar. “In 1997, in the caretaker government, I proposed and drafted a law to this effect and an ordinance was promulgated. It was expected that the next elected government would convert the ordinance into an act of parliament. But alas! Mr. Nawaz Sharif was not interested and it lapsed.”
Jabbar set up the Citizens Media Commission of Pakistan, with Justice Nasim Hasan Shah as chairman, and continued to mobilize public opinion on the issue. “Ironically, it took an unelected military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to revive the law. We introduced it under the tongue-in-cheek name RAMBO, to show how tough the independent media and state can be,” he smiles.
He unearths a magazine featuring a cover image of himself depicted as the muscle-bound, bandana-sporting movie character and we have a good laugh. “The cabinet approved it in principle but, meanwhile, my political differences with Musharraf had grown and I resigned. Musharraf delayed implementing the bill until, finally, in March 2002 it was implemented.” Rambo later became PEMRA, the regulatory body which now monitors all electronic media.
The electronic media landscape was undeniably transformed but many argue that the Pakistani media is still far from free. Jabbar disagrees. “Our media is free. I mean look at our news anchors and papers. There are some occasional instances of attacks on journalists and coercive pressure to take anchors off screen which is so wrong. But other than that, our papers write very candidly, they are openly critical of the establishment. In the age of social media, it is self-defeating to supress information when anyone can open a YouTube channel.”
After resigning from the Musharraf government, Jabbar also parted ways with the Millat Party some time later. “Farooq Leghari called me up one day and said that he and the other members had decided to merge with the PML-Q,” says Jabbar. “I was astounded. We had a vision, a manifesto but I was the only one who was resisting the move. I have heard of an individual quitting a party, but on this occasion the entire party left me!” he laughs.
Jabbar’s erudition and interest in political and international affairs made him an ideal candidate to engage in the Track-2 dialogue with India. He was part of the Neemrana initiative, the longest running Track-2 dialogue, set up by former Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik. “It was a government approved, but not controlled, non-media reported dialogue,” says Jabbar. “So the discussions were very candid and on the basis of these discussions we made proposals to our respective governments. It became the basis for the Four Point Formula agreed upon by Manmohan Singh and Musharraf. Singh was supposed to visit Islamabad in 2007 to sign it but, unfortunately, Musharraf decided to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry which completely derailed the process. Now India is not interested in anything but this hysterical projection of Pakistan as the demon. But they will have to come around.” Ensconced in his study during the Covid-19 pandemic, Jabbar wrote and produced a documentary on the separation of East Pakistan. “16th Dec 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the split, and I realised that not a single documentary had been made on the subject from the Pakistani perspective.” Titled 1971: The Untold Story, the film interviews several scholars abroad as well as in Pakistan. “It demolishes many myths,” says Jabbar.” It has been screened in many universities and not only students, but so many others have told me that they have learnt so much.”