The face of the 9 pm daily Urdu news Khabarnama in the 1980s and 1990s, Ishrat Fatima, exuded grace in her signature style as she engaged the camera. Her broadcast held viewers captive from start to finish, making her a national treasure with an unmatched voice. Ishrat brought a hint of empowerment, challenging the norms for women by exploring fields beyond teaching or medicine. She maintained an unyielding eagerness to learn, seamlessly transitioning from radio to newscasting with fiery finesse, solidifying her influential presence.
In an exclusive chat with Social Diary, we explore Ishrat’s captivating journey, unraveling the humble beginnings shaped by her family’s push to master Urdu. This trajectory has propelled her to become the most recognized face in the world of Pakistani television, who manages to hold the highest viewership on Facebook for radio reporting to date.
SD: You are considered a legend whose impeccable style is synonymous with the golden era of Pakistan. However, I read your journey started by accident as you hadn’t planned on joining the radio or television.
Ishrat: That’s quite true. I used to be a debater in 10th grade, committed to my craft. Our teacher took us to a competition on Radio Pakistan and some auditions were being held as well. I took part and interestingly got selected. Once I started working on the Radio, there was a television producer who would visit the radio network frequently and he encouraged me to aim for the television. I went to audition for the position of a weather forecaster, however, when I did my rehearsal and showed them, they said to audition as a newscaster. I’ve never looked back since then.
SD: Did you ever consider pursuing any other profession?
Ishrat: I was also interested in becoming an air hostess and had applied for a position in the same while I gave my auditions for the Radio. I turned to my nana jee for guidance and he was the one who encouraged me to pursue Radio and Television. He is also a key player in defining my ambitions as he would get the Dawn newspaper at his house and insist I read it as well.
SD: Were there any setbacks you had to face?
Ishrat: Despite the support from my mother, she advised caution in sharing too much about my work within our circles. During that period, parents were hesitant about allowing their daughters to enter this field. Fortunately, the mindset has evolved, thanks to prominent role models breaking barriers in traditionally gender-restricted fields.
SD: Your delivery style on PTV was impeccable and distinctive; specifically your perfect Urdu proficiency- did you take ample practice in mastering it or were you a natural?
Ishrat: I strongly believe you can only master something when you put in the hours. From an early age, the need to embrace and master Urdu was instilled in me and my family. My mother was a teacher who would invest time in us whereas my father was also keen and ensured our Urdu was proficient from an early age. Also, my teachers played a strong role in this scenario. They would encourage me and help me to improve my speaking skills. Being Punjabi, having a strong connection with Urdu came naturally.
SD: Arts or Medicine- the two common areas of specialization for women especially in the eighties and early nineties. How did the drive to get into a field very uncommon for women even come from?
Ishrat: Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to read books. My home ambiance was very encouraging, as was my school. My primary school headmistress would encourage and support my drive. Even when I used to write speeches in my later school years, I would have her and my mother look at those, providing their suggestions. Going to college, my literature drive specifically relating to Urdu only grew with time. It is what led me to make a career out of it.
SD: You became the face of Pakistan TV; how often would you get recognized when you would go out?
Ishrat: I am extremely grateful for all the love and recognition I would get. However, people who know me, know I don’t like putting on makeup when it isn’t needed, and would only do so as a requirement of my job. So while some would appreciate me and ask for autographs, others would be quick to pass off negative remarks on my complexion. But I guess that comes with the job.
SD: Any uncomfortable incident that you remember too well?
Ishrat: During my newscasting days on PTV, I would have a very specific wardrobe and certain shops where I would get my shopping done. I remember once I was visiting the shop and a few women approached me. They did not hide their amusement as they spoke of how I looked so different from how I looked on screen. The shopkeeper who knew me well was aware of the conversation brewing and intervened on how so many of the people were shopping there because of my association as it had made his business bloom. The fact is the love you get cannot be pushed. It comes with Allah’s will and your grace.
SD: Being the recipient of Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, the Pride of Performance, among many other accolades, did you ever feel the pressure to give your 100% all the time?
Ishrat: I know I am far from perfect and you don’t gain perfection ever. This is why I felt I continuously needed to improve myself in my craft; even now I know there is always room for making myself a little better than I was yesterday. During those early days, I knew I had many shortcomings that I had to correct. For instance, when speaking, I felt my lips making a noise. When ending sentences, I used to make the mistake of not making a break in between. And then there was when reading from the teleprompter, I had to balance it out with the desk so that my audience felt they were connecting and I wasn’t giving off robotic vibes. So yes there was so much that needed to be learned, to be improved and it still stands. I have to give my 100% even when I know mistakes will happen. Even today, when I come across a new word whose pronunciation I am not familiar with, I feel no shame in asking for guidance.
SD: Looking at the ambiance in your workplace, how would you describe it?
Ishrat: The newsroom was very welcoming and supportive. They encouraged me and assured me I felt right at ease.
SD: Any memorable story you had to break while controlling your emotions?
Ishrat: In my reporting journey, I’ve faced numerous significant events, one of which was breaking the news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, 2007. Despite the emotional turmoil, maintaining composure was crucial to prevent inducing panic among listeners. Another challenging incident involved an unstable individual storming into my newsroom, demanding that I read his report on Nawaz Sharif becoming Prime Minister during Benazir Bhutto’s reign. Amidst the chaos, I discreetly turned off my microphone to shield listeners from the disturbance, engaging the intruder until help arrived.
SD: Having excelled in the field of news reporting, did you ever feel you could have made a name in the entertainment industry?
Ishrat: Interestingly, I had received offers for drama series and I accepted one. I even read the script and rehearsed for it. However, in a matter of a few days, I realized it wasn’t for me as I can’t bring so much variation in me. So I apologized and left the project.
SD: With 40 years in the news service, do you feel the art of news reporting has been progressing in the right direction?
Ishrat: In the ever-evolving realm of news reporting, it’s disheartening to witness the chaos we’ve introduced into the craft. The serenity that once defined our conduct seems to have given way to a more turbulent approach. We’ve veered away from the graceful art of storytelling, opting instead for a more painful and sensationalized delivery. The essence of the news is substantial on its own; there’s no need for excessive noise or dramatic embellishments. I reminisce about the unspoken rule in our newsroom – where our appearance never overshadowed the focus on the news. Decency and professionalism were the criteria, ensuring that the message always took center stage.
SD: Do you feel competition is the reason?
Ishrat: The essence of newsworthiness seems to have slipped away in the current media landscape. In 1999, the Pakistani coup d’état rightfully dominated breaking news, a stark contrast to the present trend of hyping up mediocre stories. Healthy competition has morphed into a frantic rat race, overshadowing the true purpose of journalism. One concerning trend is the emphasis on youth in newscasting, with some outlets favoring 16 and 17-year-olds without due consideration for experience or talent. In contrast, renowned news channels like CNN or BBC prioritize credibility and experience, valuing newscasters who mature and excel in their field over time. It’s a shift worth pondering as we navigate the evolving landscape of news reporting. It’s a shame how our society views getting aged means ending your career and your passion; I have seen people cry over the torment they go through as they are pressured to leave their work and let younger talent come through when we believe that ‘rizq’ is decided by the Almighty.
SD: Where can your fans listen to you nowadays?
Ishrat: I am reading news on the Radio that also comes live on Facebook. The unwavering support and affection showered upon me by my audience are truly heartening. The views on Facebook serve as a reflection of the consistent love and appreciation that my listeners bestow upon my work.