Meet Saba Imtiaz, the woman who inspired Sonakshi Sinha's new film on journalism, Noor

Saba Imtiaz, whose book Karachi, You're Killing Me! is being made into Noor starring Sonakshi Sinha talks to us about Bollywood, feminism, and more.

Ankita Maneck March 18, 2017 09:59:20 IST
Meet Saba Imtiaz, the woman who inspired Sonakshi Sinha's new film on journalism, Noor

Noor starring Sonakshi Sinha is all set to release on 6 April, 2017. The Bridget Jones-esque film revolves around the adventures of a journalist in Mumbai (even though the book is based in Karachi), and also stars Purab Kohli and comedian Kanan Gill.

Published last year by Random House Saba Imtiaz's Karachi, You're Killing Me! chronicles the life of Ayesha Khan, a twenty something journalist who drinks and smokes, putting her modern attitude in contrast to Karachi's more traditional atmosphere. We talked to the critically acclaimed journalist about Karachi, You're Killing Me!, Bollywood and much, much more. Here are the edited excerpts:

Meet Saba Imtiaz the woman who inspired Sonakshi Sinhas new film on journalism Noor

Photo Credit: Nefer Sehgal

What part was most difficult to write in the book? In your 2014 interview with The Mumbai Litfest, you say it was writing about Ayesha's love interest. Can you tell us more?

Writing is difficult, period. Don’t trust anyone who tells you that it’s easy or that they churn out thousands of words in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee. But writing about Ayesha’s relationships was difficult because I’d never essayed that kind of emotion before. I’m very dispassionate when I write. I have zero emotion and so to be able to write about friendship or love was difficult.

Karachi, You’re Killing Me portrays Karachi in a very strong light. It seems to be one of the lead protagonists rather than just a city in the background; it has its own flaws but still seems to be an amazing city to live in, with its own unique character. Noor is set in Mumbai. Do you think the story will translate well into another city?

I think just the fact that it’s being adapted shows that there are elements to the book that can translate into another city. At its heart, the book is about a single woman living a complicated life in a cosmopolitan city, and living in any big city comes with its own unique set of problems. I’m really looking forward to seeing Noor and how that element of a single girl in a big city comes across. The book isn’t a word-for-word adaptation, it’s a starting cue, and so there’s no exact translation or just transplanting a story into another city.

Are you a fan of Bollywood? Any favourite Bollywood films?

I can’t recall what I did last week but I can recite large chunks of dialogues from Bollywood films from memory, so I guess the answer is yes. Andaz Apna Apna will always, always be at the top of my list – nothing has ever come close to that film. Other favourites: Masoom, Maachis, Maqbool, and Jab We Met. I’m still fairly partial to Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin. Of recent films, I really liked Shahid and Queen as well as Kapoor & Sons, which I thought showed familial conflict incredibly well.

Do you think it is hard to be a reporter, and a woman at that in Pakistan or even India, which is  steeped with tradition and sexism?

I can’t say about India since I’ve never worked there. There have been female reporters and editors in Pakistani newsrooms for decades, but there’s a lot more visibility of female reporters now because of the plethora of television channels, so I don’t think people find it strange to encounter a female reporter, or to be interviewed by a woman. There is a level of hesitance at times, and it’s hard to get that same level of access that male reporters do – particularly in crime and political beats — or to build the same kind of relationship with contacts.

There are also the rare, occasional advantages to being a female reporter – you get more access to families, it’s easier to get into places at times. But these advantages are outweighed by how the odds are stacked against women because of their gender.

The problem is inherently in newsrooms, and how journalism has evolved over the last few years. Despite the fact that women have excelled at every beat in journalism in Pakistan, the challenge is when women are only considered capable of reporting on beats that are considered 'safe' or 'easy' – even though nothing is easy (not even fashion, as some people assume) – or when they’re shut out of the boys club in newsrooms, not considered for promotions, are underpaid, and are subject to verbal and sexual harassment and have no recourse because no one will take their complaints seriously. There is a glass ceiling. Dawn – one of the oldest English newspapers in Pakistan – has never had a female editor-in-chief. There are a mere handful – actually probably less than that - women in senior editorial positions at news channels, but no one is running a major TV network. The language and treatment of women in the press are appalling, and that’s because of this ingrained culture that doesn’t consider women’s lives to have any degree of importance, that doesn’t treat their problems or concerns or opinions as important, and because women from other socio-economic groups aren’t considered equals.

These are issues that aren’t just present in journalism; it’s difficult to work as a woman in Pakistan, period. Even if you’re the most incredible person in your field, there are dozen-odd challenges that are associated with your gender.

There's a constant struggle to portray women as 'nice' on screen. Women have to be perfect, great at cooking, cleaning and have to look good while doing it, that seems to be the general perception. Ayesha is a loveable yet flawed character. Is this a conscious decision?

No. I think the character evolved as I wrote it, and showed she had real issues that stood in contrast to the seemingly perfect women around her.

Your book also talks about how women in Pakistan have to fight to get their way in matters relating to their career and marriage. How hard is it for urban women to get their way?

There are millions of urban women in Pakistan, and I really have no idea how to talk about the urban woman’s experience in its entirety. A lot of the taboos about careers and marriages and sex are a widely social construct. And yet, work is not a choice for women in the lower socio-economic brackets: it’s a necessity.

There’s evidence of a shift: There are people who realize women have to work, and that their families can’t survive if women don’t have jobs, or that there is no value to an education if women don’t use their degrees. And then there are women who still have to fight every step of the way to be able to get an education and work.

Again, from what I’ve observed, some urban women have more choices when it comes to careers and marriages, and others don’t. But what I can tell you from personal experience is that there’s a general expectation of urban women – and this isn’t just from families, but also from your peers – to get married and have kids etc. I find the latter to be terribly disgusting – like your fellow 20- and 30-somethings judging you for not being married or for your career choices.

Do you think feminism in Pakistan is more of a upper middle class phenomenon?

There’s a stereotype that feminism is an upper middle-class or even a foreign phenomenon: feminism is rooted in our history and our culture.

There’s also an assumption that feminists are upper middle-class by default; no one really delves into their backgrounds to examine who they are and what life experiences they’re informed by. Sure, some women do come from privilege, but a lot of activists don’t. The assumption that only privileged women can be feminists is so disconnected from reality. If a woman speaks English, it’s assumed she’s a privileged feminist: how do you know how she learnt English anyway? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to correct assumptions about my background and life, or how shocked people are when I tell them that I gave my school and intermediate exams under the state-run examination system and yet can speak English. It’s sort of assumed that the two can’t be compatible.

Women have been on the streets for decades – fighting for every inch of space they could get on public buses and screaming out loud against street harassment and trying to ask for more wages – but these women are from lower-income groups and hence weren’t “visible” and didn’t have Instagram to document their struggle and so it’s assumed that the only women who are vocal are privileged. What is more disconcerting is that there’s so much talking 'at' women without trying to understand anything about their lives or why they may choose to do x thing or wear y item of clothing.

What about the state of journalism in Pakistan? Your book seems to have very strong views about how the balls rolls and how far it can go.

My book is a piece of fiction. The state of journalism in Pakistan is stuck between a hard place, and an even harder place, and a very crumbly cliff.

Are there any women journalists you look upto?

I don’t like journalists specifically because of their gender. I like journalists because of their work. I resent the assumption that as a woman I specifically look up to other women because men are never asked what male journalists they look up to.

I will say this, though: the late Razia Bhatti – the pioneering editor of Pakistan’s Newsline magazine, which I grew up reading, and her successor Rehana Hakim – cemented in my consciousness that women were fantastic journalists. I’ve learnt the most from women: my editor at The Express Tribune newspaper, Mahim Maher, transformed the way I worked and thought about reportage.

Could you tell us more about your second book, No Team of Angels? When will it be out?

No Team of Angels is my much-delayed second book (which I actually started on before Karachi, You’re Killing Me!) It’s a non-fiction book of reportage that explores how conflict develops in Karachi, and how x or y reason is often used as a cover. It’ll be out as soon as I finish it, which I say every year will be this year.

Updated Date:

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