Yousaf Salahuddin’s Haveli oozes cultural magnificence on this cold wintry evening. An unassuming façade, which could easily be missed from the road, opens into a wonderland of history and tradition. Cradled in the glory of the brilliantly lit-up Fort, it basks in the wonders of two worlds: the traditional, which encourages the use of old oil lamps in a power breakdown as opposed to a generator and the modern, which inspires him to build a comfortable living area in his bedroom and bathroom both. His rooftop springs color for Basant and his basement has become the breeding ground for many well-known musicians today. His courtyard is open to public, whether to host a mohallah wedding or shoot a Zille Huma music video. And he’s incomparable as a host, the courtyard becoming an impressive welcome mat to dignitaries from all over the world-Mick Jagger, Madhu Jaffery, Aamir Khan and Boney M included. Yousaf has led many celebrities to stardom, especially musicians and though he as won a bit of inevitable infamy on the way, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Mian Salli embodies the Power of One.
You’ve been a permanent peg in the industry for more than two decades now, whether in music, cinema, television or fashion. How exactly did you get involved?
It is difficult to say. I’ve always had a passion for music and you could say that my first involvement was a song I wrote and composed for Nazia Hassan –‘Taali dey Thalley’. The first person I really promoted was Nusrat Fateh Ali. That was a time when he hadn’t become famous. Imran Khan and I heard him and decided to work with him. At that time one was used to listening to his father and uncle, the Great Qawwals, and whatever Nusrat may have been he was not bigger than them. But over the years we became great friends
And you’re just as involved in Rahat’s career now?
Well Rahat is very very good and is improving. He has a good voice and if he continues his riaz for another ten years he’ll become very big. He’s already very big in India, by the way.
Amongst the odd connection of fusion/diffusion, do you think there’s a place for pure classical today?
Try to understand. The music that prevailed before Amir Khusro had a different beat altogether. By and large, he introduced the Tabla, which later became the fastest instrument in Indian music. That changed the whole tempo of music and that is exactly what we and the Hindu musicians follow today. I don’t think the change of beat makes any difference. Today’s musicians really do us proud. Our own youth, which at one time were more impressed with western and Indian music, listen to our own girls and boys now. That’s very important. The words are in Urdu, our own language. So if Ali Azmat is singing the kalaam of Bulley Shah or Iqbal, it’s wonderful. I’ve never heard little children singing the poetry of Iqbal before, ever. The following of classical music will always remain but as always it’ll be the elite, the rulers who will keep the tradition alive. Classical never was for the masses anyway. The masses heard folk or local music. So classical music will never die. The ustaads will survive.
You are famous for your optimism. How would you describe the present state of Pakistani cinema?
It is very bad but I’m still hopeful. There are a lot of good people coming into films, like Shoaib Mansoor. I had a cinema, which I had to close down but these people will bring in a positive change. You give girls from good families a clean environment and they’ll surely come into films. There’s no dearth of talent. Look at Meera. Mahesh Bhatt thinks she’s a great actress. Nirma and Zara have a lot of talent too. Look at Shaan. Look at the films he’s doing and look at the Khamaj video. I showed the video to Amir Khan and David Dhawan and they were both visibly impressed. That video has changed the way people are looking at Shaan. So what we really need now is new directors.
You’ve also been the force behind bringing the festival of Basant to its present status. In fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say that hosting Basant at the Haveli has been your strongest claim to fame. What else can be credited to you?
Well first of all I’m member of the Chief Minister’s Task Force in Lahore which aims at upgrading Lahore to the status of an international city. We want to make Lahore more tourist-friendly. We organized the South-Asian Master’s Exhibition to which MF Hussein came. Our next project is a Lahore Marathon which will be giving away prize money of over $100,000. Some of the world’s best runners are going to participate. We’re also working on a master plan for the old city. Then I’m member of a committee which manages the Lahore Fort and Shalimar gardens and I’m also member of the art council and Global Heritage Fund which is currently restoring the Tomb of Asaf Jah. Basically I’d be keen to promote anything good in Pakistan. I have made amazing connections all over the world and I use those connections to promote artists here.
You’ve been involved in helping the fashion industry too, whether it was introducing a new face or organizing an event. Tell me a little about that.
I was involved with the Rhythms of Indus show held at the Royal Albert Hall. London last year. I sent in artistes from Pakistan-Pappu Saeen and Fuzon. It was Pappu Saeen’s first performance abroad.
We heard the show didn’t go as well as it should have. What went wrong?
I don’t know. It was fully sold out.
Wasn’t it criticized for not being conducted in good taste?
Fashion was not my segment. I was involved with the music. But look, this is fashion and we want to promote it. As you know. I’ve also been on the Board of Governors of Lux Style Awards.
What will it take to get Fashion accepted on government level? PTV has not even begun to acknowledge it yet.
What difference does that make? There are other channels that run it. This is PTV’s loss. We have to make Pakistan a very tolerant society. People should not be looked down upon based on what they’re wearing unless what they’re doing is unacceptably vulgar. We generally have to become more tolerant.
Does that mean taking religion out of culture?
Not necessarily. Ours is the most liberal and logical religions of the world. I don’t think a fashion show would clash with Islam. I don’t understand how. I really don’t. It’s very easy tom blame everything on religion and there was a time when extremists called cricket unIslamic. I mean, how do you put an end to it?
Does your love for music and cultural liberation go beyond Lahore? Karachi perhaps?
Of course! I love Karachi. I have more friends in Karachi the in Lahore. But Karachi has Mr. Hameed Haroon.
Are you aware of being compared to Hameed Haroon; he as Patron of the Arts and you as Patron of the Prostitutes?
I’ve never heard this before. But if there’s someone from the Red Light Area who’s a great artist, I’ll have no qualms in promoting her. Where she comes from has nothing to do with it. A lot of our actresses who’ve made it big come from here but have always been afraid to admit it. Some of our greatest singers have come from here. What’s the big deal?
You lead a very luxurious life and are known for hosting the best dinners, throwing the greatest parties, organizing Basant, etc. Since you don’t seem to be making money out of any of this, is it fair for people to assume you’re just living off a very comfortable inheritance?
Of course there is the very comfortable heritage but there’s also a family business which I’m involved with. Then my son Jalal has an event management business which is doing really well. I’m glad he’s found his niche in life and basically it compliments me. We organized the recent Aamir Khan tour and changed the way of fund raising. Between Lahore, Karachi and the telethon it was a great success. We managed to raise over 12 crore.
And how was Aamir Khan?
I was very impressed by the young man. He’s grown up with a lot of values and is a wonderful human being.
Can you confirm the news that Shahrukh Khan is coming in March?
Well I can’t be sure about Shahrukh Khan but one other person we talked to in Bombay was Aishwarya and she was very keen to come. She gave a commitment to Imran. A very dear friend of Imran’s, Parmeshwar Godej, is very close to these people. She had a dinner and they were all there: Shahrukh, Aamir, Aishwarya, Preity Zinta and a lot of old friends like Dimple Kapadia. Rani does a lot of work for charity too.
Do you ever get overawed by the glamor around you?
Never (laughs). They’re all human beings like us. I went to Bombay for the first time in 1979 when Imran was playing and met all the stars at a dinner there. I was in fact, very rude to a Pakistani industrialist who I won’t name. He had a camera and kept taking pictures. I told him to stop and get some dignity. It just didn’t look nice. It was a private function anyway. Even in my house you’ll notice that there are very few pictures of these people.
This Haveli has had a monumental significance in your life, hasn’t it?
Yes, a lot has to do with this house. I got to meet everyone here whether for a shoot, a TV play or an event. I entertain a lot of world dignitaries here. Sometimes they come on personal connections and sometimes I’m asked by the government to entertain. People were always welcome here and slowly things came to where they are today. I consider myself very lucky. I moved into the inner city 15 years ago, restores this 300 year old house and just never wanted to go back. These are my friends, the people I grew up with. This is a very warm, secure feeling.
And you’ve never thought of moving back into the city?
Never. I have a very strong affiliation with Pakistan and my roots are here. I belong to a family who came up with the very concept of this country and worked very hard for it. I’ve carved a role for myself around that. I couldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing something for my country. This whole area uses my house. The courtyard is used for weddings and sometimes I’m miserable because there’s a Mehndi going on and there’s singing and dancing going on until 4 in the morning. But that’s the way you live in the old city: you care and you share.
Hasn’t living here brought you a bit of disrepute as well?
Not at all.
You are known to have a somewhat colorful association with people on the other side of the wall.
Of course. My life is always colorful. I have so many friends here-they’re all colorful people. What about them?
Now you’re deliberately missing the point. I’m referring to the women.
You know, people are just not used to seeing a man and a woman together here. For instance Aminah Haq, Iman Ali… all these girls are like my kids. They’re Jalal’s friends. I’m like a father figure to them. But if Aminah Haq and I are seen having dinner together, people make something very nasty of it all. You see, when you’re in the limelight you get accused of a lot of things.
So you’re a saint?
No I’m not saying that I’m an angel. I’m single and I’m ready to mingle. But I do think there are two ways of doing everything in life-a decent way and a stupid way. I hope I’m doing things the decent way.
Well if people think I’m a debaucher, lecherous, bad vibe guy, I’m not. I’ll defend myself here. There are women I know, my friends who’ll say that they never feel uncomfortable around me. I’m very good friends with my ex wife.
Jalal’s mother. We try to have lunch together as often as possible. I’m not in touch with the other one. I think she has remarried.
And the women you promote?
I have been a passage for many of these women. You see there are many kinds of girls who come into this field. Some come from better backgrounds; they’re what I call the English Speaking Union. Then come the ones who come from a less privileged background. They have a lot of talent but the way they deal with people is different. They’re the ones making all sorts of strange offers. But whenever I come across talent I just want to get it across to the right people.
So you have been promoting talent from the Red Light Area?
Look there are no girls here who are good enough. There’s only one girl, Karen, who’s talented. She’s a very graceful dancer. I’m hoping that she’ll take her career seriously.
Which reminds me, were you responsible for including her in the LSA program this year? There was controversy regarding her merits.
That you’ll have to ask the organizers. It was not the job of the BOGs to plan the show. It was entirely Unilever.
So you deny having a hand in putting her in the show?
I’ve never had a hand in the program. I’ve always voiced my disagreements, even this year. But Kiran went on as a dancer. She’s been performing on TV and went from there. So there shouldn’t be any controversy on this. In fact I’m hearing this from you only.
But you do admit to being a Father Figure to her?
Yes, but I’m very proud of Kiran for having no bones about her background. She’s very open about it. I ‘m also a father figure to Ali Zafar. The next thing I’ll hear is that I’m promoting him too. They guy has to have had some talent of his own to have made it this far. I heard ‘Channo’ years before Ali became famous and I’ve always been encouraging him.
Who else can you take the credit for leading to stardom?
Nusrat, Rahat, Kiran… I was the first person who shot Zara Sheikh when no one else was willing to. I had her shot by one of the best photographers in London for Libas. I promoted Neha and look at the sort of work she’s doing today. Mehreen Syed. Ayesha Omar- I’ve composed her first song which she performed at Amir Khan’s show. I’ve helped people become somebody but there must have been something in them to have come this far. You just can’t push someone blindly until they’re worth it. Now if someone asked me to plan a show around the talent in Pakistan. I’d take Ali Zafar, Fuzon, Junoon. I would take Kiran as a dancer. I’d probably take Pappu Saeen. I have a mind and what I conceive you can disagree with but then there will be ten people who’ll agree. If I’m wearing these shoes, it’s because I like them. I’m promoting these people because I think they have talent.
Has the Red Light Area changed over the years?
We’ve lost a whole culture of dancers. It’s completely gone; finished. People have been so nasty to them that they’ve packed up and left with the effect that there’s a whole lot of nonsense going on around the whole city. Earlier it was dancers and musicians. There were traditions and cultures that were alive. Some of the dancers would become courtesans to one man but that’s all. Prostitution was never as tacky as it’s made out to be.
So you’re saying that what the documentaries say is all wrong?
It has never been like that.
You have a lot of power here. Have you ever used it to help these women find a better life?
I have to frankly say I haven’t. I’ll have to admit that fact. This has always been here and there has always been a law which says prostitution is banned. The government should enforce that law.
You do have the power to help. Being a descendant of Allama Iqbal, has it been hard to live up to the expectations?
It’s always been positive. I’ve always gotten a lot of respect. Both my grandfathers were freedom fighters and I’m very very grateful for the legacy they’ve left behind. This country has given me so much. I owe so much to it and try to help do as much as I can.