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The Dawning Diva – an interview with Saima Mohsin

It’s shortly before twelve o’clock on a Sunday morning inside the Depilex at Khadda Market in Karachi. A passel of fervent beauticians are busy doing what they do best while I chitchat with amiable Akku aapa, the day’s hair and makeup connoisseur. Overseeing the details is Mohammed Ali, Andleeb’s assistant and general factotum for the day. I watch him make one phone call after another, arranging for a get-together at Rizwan’s home studio afterwards, chosen location for the high style photo-shoot.
I am excited and anxious at the same time for I am about to interview Saima Mohsin—a bright young journalist from England who has given used and abused locutions like ‘balanced journalism’ and ‘woman of substance’ a whole new meaning in the seven months her show NewsEye has been on air.
I settle myself in a comfy chair to go through the notes one more time before Mohammed announces Saima’s timely arrival, and in walks the youngest looking 31 year old I’ve quite possibly ever met, sans makeup and absolutely gorgeous in dark blue jeans and a black cowl neck jumper. The contrast from what we see on the television and reality is apparent. “You look much younger in person.” I tell her and she responds with an endearing laugh, settling down for two hours of hair, makeup, interview and a much called for Xposé on the hottest new anchor on Pakistani telly…

The Early Days
Born in 1977, Saima was reared in South London by a doting mother and a gang of compassionate older siblings who went all out when it came to indulging their feisty baby sister. “I literally grew up with 4 sets of parents!” She recalls with a smile on her face. “With my father passing away when I was just a little girl, my brothers and sisters were always very keen that I enjoy and do all the things that they never had a chance to do…so they always gave me a lot of freedom and encouraged me to try new things like singing and acting…”
Even her mom, although a devout Muslim, didn’t have any qualms about sending her daughter to a church school, where Saima sang for the choir and actively participated in the school plays because she was, in her own words, “always quite a performer!”
At 16, she sat her mom down and told her that she either wanted to be a singer and an actress or a journalist, and her mom, true to her preplan South Asian gene, only approved of the latter idea on condition that she would, like a good Asian girl, aim for the top and become a newsreader and not just some run of the mill journalist. Subsequently, Saima went to the University of Birmingham to study Politics and English Literature, where she spent most of her spare time working for the university radio station and newspaper, and later a non-paying job in BBC Midland.

Life with BBC
Once sure what she wanted to do with her life, Saima was looking into the different avenues she could pave to become a journalist. “I was lucky in the sense I had the vision and always knew what I wanted to achieve. “
While still at university and working in BBC Midland on radio and television, Saima constantly “pestered” BBC World Service in London asking them for work. “There is a fine line in broadcasting between persistence and being a pain…somehow I managed to achieve that balance and land a job with their Urdu section of South Asia unit in London!” She recalls with a hearty laugh.
Amazingly, Saima’s conviction knew no bounds even at such a young age. The 19 year old had keenly given up her right to slack-off for something she was beginning to feel quite passionate about, so when she was on holiday from the university and all her friends were traveling and chilling out, she was working full time, for free, for BBC World Service in London. “I’ve worked very hard in every spare hour that I had to get where I am today!” she beams.
By the time she left university, Saima was reporting for BBC London Radio’s breakfast show for measly stipend. The fact that she wasn’t being offered a real job despite her eagerness to learn and move ahead prompted her to gain a Post Graduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism in 1999. The diploma basically certified her to do what she was already doing and getting good at. A part of the course was a 6 week placement which she did with BBC Greater Manchester as a reporter, which was easy because her sister, who happens to be UKs first Asian female heart surgeon, lived there. From there she went on to Meridian Television as a newsroom journalist and in 2002 moved to BBC Points West as a reporter and a presenter. Soon after she was asked to join BBC’s famed Watchdog, which pushed her to anchor-superstardom, complete with people recognizing her on the street and all.
“My most memorable times at the BBC have to be when I was working with national sports unit and I got to interview Sir Alex Ferguson and later an unexpected interview with Tony Blair when I was 21!

Life in Karachi
Saima joined GMTV in 2006, where she was happily reading news and reporting on Europe’s biggest breakfast show. “The show had six million viewers! I was being sent all over the world to cover stories and having a great time meeting all sorts of new people” when one day out of the blue, through a contact of a contact, someone called her up and told her that Dawn News, which was in its prelaunch stages those days, was looking for an established British-Pakistani journalist and that she could be it.
“It was an exciting idea because I’d been to Pakistan to cover several stories over the years and even though I’d considered working here before I’d never really given it much thought.” With her extended family residing in Lahore, Saima certainly had her doubts about moving to Karachi because she didn’t know anyone here except the execs at Dawn. “I knew I’d have to completely change my life… leave my home, my friends, family, my lifestyle, and just start from scratch!” But the challenge of establishing herself as senior anchor in the journalist’s heaven of the time was too much to resist. “I’ve always felt very Pakistani, so I thought why not!” After all, Pakistan was and still is the place to be with big stories happening one after another.
But was moving to Karachi worth it? “Without a shadow of doubt! As a career move, as a life experience…I just love Karachi! Sure the electricity and water issues are enough to bog you down, and frankly I’ve had my moments when I wanted to run back to England, but then I quickly get over it because Karachi’s a great metropolis,” she explains. “When I first moved out here I was totally on my own, but now I’ve made some great friends who take very good care of me and I feel I’m starting to settle in now…it’s getting comfortable.”
“Moving was possible with my mom’s support. I would never have achieved as much as I’ve achieved without my family’s support.”

NewsEye
“NewsEye is my baby!” She declares with sparkling eyes. “We worked so hard for many months pulling the team together and getting the context sorted, it’s great how we’ve managed to bang out a great flagship news program which is so popular…So despite all the glitches and moments of depression every now and then, I think its been quite an achievement!”
And why wouldn’t it be? With her vibrant, no-nonsense panache, the hard-hitting and fast-paced news and current affairs show was an immediate hit among Pakistan’s English speaking community. Debuting with a win-win story like Nawaz Sharif’s eventful return to the country followed by an incredible lineup of other momentous events, Saima hasn’t really had a chance to look back or fully realize the enormity of her recent accomplishments.
“When we first started out, the guests were a little anxious about speaking in English. But now we’ve got a following and all the ministers and other bigshots seem to know me and the program and their reaction to an invitation is amazing….some people initially had problem coming on if it was only for 10 minutes. They thought it was a waste of time. The whole idea behind ‘Cut the grey, lets talk black and white’ is lets not spend half an hour talking about nothing, instead lets get down to the nitty-gritty and the real issues.”
What sets NewsEye apart from other news programs crowding the airwaves these days is how Saima has based it on the broadcasting techniques she picked up in UK. “We also try to take the program out on the road…I’ve done the program from Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad, and plan to take it to other cities of Pakistan too, because that’s one thing I was very keen to bring in—doing a national program and actually taking it out on the road to the public, and that’s exactly what Azhar Abbas’s vision was for NewsEye as well.” The program also specifically covers politics only when it “matters to the people and it’s really important to cover it,” she explains. “It really frustrates me to see how everyone here seems to think that news is politics. My program is not about that. People are interested in human interest stories as well and I too want to focus more on those… I know we’ll be just scratching the surface in such little time, but just raising a certain level of awareness is achievement enough.”

The good, the bad and the ugly: Most memorable episodes of NewsEye
“The first one has to be September 10, 2007—the day Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan. It was an exhilarating experience, truly a fabulous day to be launching a show.”
Then there was the odd satirical episode when President Musharraf had just announced that he would drop his uniform. “We called in a stylist to discuss just how fashionable he’s been in the past and what kind of clothes would suit him etc. We had a lot of fun with that because it was a satirical way of doing news…we were covering a major story but with a twist, and that’s exactly what NewsEye is all about—doing the same news of the day but with a twist.”
Conversely, Saima’s heated repartee with Benazir Bhutto remains one of the most talked about episodes of the show. The incident landed her the nickname ‘BB hater’. “Funnily, it doesn’t matter what I think of someone…when I’m on screen, I’m impartial and balanced, and I’m not too scared to ask the tough questions without being disrespectful, and still get the answers out of them.” She explains, “At first BB seemed to enjoy the interview because she was speaking to someone with e British accent who was giving her a run for her money…but then I said some things she didn’t like and she asked me not to be so cynical and I got bored and pointed out her own failure to practice democracy and that basically ticked her off…”
“And then obviously her assassination was a big deal to cover as well… What’s really sad is that she was a role model for Pakistani women; so eloquent, a fabulous ambassador for Pakistan…I know she was marked by corruption and bad politics, but that aside, as a Pakistani woman, she was brilliant.”

Bloopers on the show
“Plenty! There have been guests who didn’t understand my British accent so that was a little awkward for me. Someone once told me they heard me talking in Punjabi during a commercial break back in the early days…my audio was accidentally being broadcast! I also got the giggles a couple of times in the middle of very serious interviews.”
“We have a lot of laughs on the set….I get on very well with my producer/director and we’ve developed a very strong working relationship.”

Fashion
“I’m not a fashion victim at all. I avoid wearing designer wear as much as I can because I’ve never really felt the need to. Comfort is more important to me.” She tells me rather confidently. Yet, over the last seven months, Saima has managed to carve out a very professional yet sexy and sparkly image for herself. How does she do it? With her 2-wardrobe-fulls of impeccable suits! According to the diva, “when you’re reading news, you need to look formal and mean business, and nothing exemplifies that better than a well tailored suit.” She also pays special attention to earrings and never forgets to wear a pair because her mom hates to see her without them. “I actually hear her voice in the dressing room reminding me to wear earrings!”
“I also love wearing heels—they make you confident and attractive.”

A day in the life of Saima Mohsin…
“I wake up quite early. I go through all the papers that are delivered to my house (Reading a front page headline that I’d already covered on NewsEye the night before is just great—it makes my day!) I then have breakfast after which I go in for work without wearing any makeup. People find it hard to believe but I’m a very simple person, really. Some days I don’t even brush my hair!”
“We have a midday meeting where the whole NewsEye team sits down and everyone’s encouraged and expected to bring in ideas for the program. I then move on to do a little writing and chasing guests…some guests insist on speaking with me before committing themselves because they want to find out what I’m going to ask them!”
“I’m basically kept very busy till 6 O’clock; that’s when I go into makeup. I want my makeup done very fast because I want to spend minimum time in there and maximum time out on the set with my team getting the show ready.”
“After makeup, I go through the reporter script and polish it if I have to. Everything has to be right on the mark because I’m on a very tight schedule. Then I get my questions roughly down, and by 8 O’clock, everybody on the set including myself is running around like a headless chicken! At 9 O’clock, we go live with the headlines and bang, NewsEye is on air!”

5 years from now…
“In 5 years I guess I’d like to be married and having children, spending a little less time working obviously…I would like to continue doing a bit of both—reporting and anchoring. I think I can see myself here in 5 years because I feel it has a lot to offer me and I have a lot to offer Pakistan in terms of being a journalist.”

The freedom of media movement
“Every channel has its own angle. I feel quite strongly in a poles-apart sort of opinion. I think the government was outrageous in shutting down the channels. I mean, you can’t just give with one hand and take away with the other because you don’t like what they’re saying. But at the same time, channels needed to keep check and balance on what their reporters and anchors were saying and broadcasting! I remember watching some shows and thinking they’ve just taken someone off the street, sat them in a studio and asked them to do whatever they please!”
“I’m lucky I came from a different background. In England you’re supposed to have studied Media Law before being broadcast. As a professional journalist, you should know what you can and cannot say on air. I already had that impartiality. I strongly believe in credibility and checking my sources and keeping balance.”
Her expectation from the elections…
“I hope the elections will be a fresh start for Pakistan, its government, its people and how the country is perceived…I am not sure how many people will vote, either through apathy and indifference, a conscious boycott or fear for their safety. But these reasons are indicative of what must change in our politics to ensure people feel there is something worth voting for and acting as responsible citizens with a hope for development and progression.”
What are the 5 things you need to look and feel your best?
– Inner confidence, a great smile, lipstick, comfort wear and nice pairs of heels.

First designer product you bought?
Don’t remember because I’m not into flashy labels and all that…
Local designers you prefer?
Sana and Safinaz and HSY.
International designers?
Chanel (with the exception of their suits) and Chloe.
What was the last thing you purchased?
4 pairs of shoes from Charles & Keith.
Favorite style icon?
Sofia Lauren.
Best compliment you’ve ever received?
Someone once told me that I was a beautiful woman who reminded him of his mother.
What do you look for in men?
Someone who’s supportive, confident, fun and friendly.
Best/weirdest pick-up lines used on you?
The weirdest has to be: you look a lot fatter on telly.
Guilty pleasure?
In bed eating lots of chocolate, drinking coke and watching Pop Idol.
Your idea of an evening well spent?
Laughing a lot with someone you love.
Weekends in Karachi?
Beach Bar-B-Qs and picnics. I love Karachi’s weather!
Book?
I prefer poetry and Robert Browning is my favorite poet. Favorite book of all time is “Birdsong” based on the First World War.
Movie?
I have three actually…Spartacus, Grease and True Romance.
Music?
Wide and varied from soul (Anita Baker) to dance (Basement Jaxx, Chemical Brothers) to rock (Bon jovi). I love singing and was in a choir so love listening to ecclesiastical works too.
BBC or Dawn?
Dawn.
London or Karachi?
South Africa!
What would you rather be known as: beauty or brains?
Brains definitely.
What’s the one thing you can’t leave home without?
My cell phone.
Who do you look up to?
My mother and my sisters who’ve basically paved the way for me to be a very strong, independent woman who has a real cultural identity.