Model, actor and now news anchor, Naveen Naqvi has done it all.
She has a commanding presence that fills the screen, a presence that spills out of your television set and dominates your living room. When you meet Naveen Naqvi in person, it’s even better. The professional presence is very much there, of course, but she also has a friendly look and a relaxed manner that puts you at ease.
We are seated in a glass-fronted cubicle in the middle of DawnNews studios’ open-floor plan. Young men and women are everywhere. Some are hunched over desktop computer screens while others are scurrying about from one end of the cavernous hall to the other. Despite the bustle, Naveen is as calm as you like, giving unwavering attention and conversing easily.
We have come to associate her with the anchor’s role on DawnNews, but there is more to Naveen Naqvi’s talents than meets the eye. “As most people are aware, I used to be a model,” she says, referring to the first of several things she has tried her hand at and done well. “After modelling, I started working on television. I hosted a music show and also acted in a few dramas. My first play was under the direction of Haider Imam Rizvi, and I went on from there.”
The road from acting to television news was a meandering one during which Naveen had an opportunity to express additional talents. “In 2000, I moved to Islamabad,” she continues. “When 9/11 happened, all the major international television networks rushed to Pakistan. One of them was NBC News, who hired me as a “fixer” – doing everything from logistics to equipment set-up. Within six months, I had worked my way up and become the producer, in charge of the NBC News operation in Pakistan.”
In many ways, Naveen Naqvi challenges stereotypes, epitomising Pakistan’s modern urban woman. Born in Karachi, she moved at an early age to Saudi Arabia, where her father had taken a job with an oil corporation. She spent her formative years there, receiving early education at an American International School. As a teenager, Naveen relocated to Karachi, finishing O Levels from the Centre for Advanced Studies and A Levels from Lyceum.
One of the surprises she unveils is that she has also written a book. “After my job with NBC News I took a break and wrote a book,” she says with deadpan delivery, as if writing a book is something you could do whenever you felt like it. But some indication of what it took and the steely resolve behind it comes through. “It took me two years and is now with me as a finished manuscript. I am determined to see it published, and need to set aside some time now so I can get to it.”
Naveen is shy about revealing too much about her book, saying only that it is set partly in Saudi Arabia and partly in Karachi, and centres around a girl who grows up battling stereotypes and searching for identity and values. The question is hard to avoid, so I ask her if it is autobiographical. “Not at all,” she declares. “I would say that it is fiction.”
When she got into modelling and entertainment, it was a young industry and a lot of young girls were entering the field. Traditional taboos against modelling and acting were being shed and Naveen’s parents were extremely supportive.
“It was an interesting time, a time of change in our society,” she reflects. “These opportunities were naturally very appealing to young girls who had lived relatively sheltered lives. All of a sudden, you could be part of an exciting and creative enterprise. Indeed, not just a part but at the centre of it. That’s what attracted me, too.”
Yet modelling, which appears the prototypical glamorous and carefree profession when viewed from a distance, was far from what it promised to be. “Modelling is pure hard work,” confirms Naveen, stressing each syllable to drive the point home. “Everything depends on your ability to sell yourself and your image. It can be especially challenging in Pakistan, because we have no agents or representatives who can negotiate contracts and deals on your behalf.”
The most difficult part, in fact, was making sure that you got your money. Naveen describes that she was sometimes even reduced to tears, just trying to recover the money that was owed to her. Although she hasn’t been involved with the industry for a while, she hopes things are better now. “Some things about modelling have become very challenging,” she says. “For example, models today are skinnier all over the world, including in Pakistan. But I know models now are paid better. Overall, it’s probably less of a struggle nowadays.”
After working for NBC News she took two years off, spending a lot of time in New York and writing her book. On her return to Karachi, Naveen ran into Hafsah, the producer of a morning show on Dawn News. Initially Naveen was considered as a host for the show, but she was then deemed more suitable for the position of a news anchor.
“It’s a lot of hard work but also a lot fun,” says Naveen about the job of anchoring the news coverage. What she likes most is that it’s an altogether different experience from what she’s done in the past. I asked her if the job had any similarities with modelling, which also requires you to project a certain image on a broadcast medium, but Naveen’s answer was clear-cut.
“No, I don’t think there are any similarities with modelling,” she continued, “apart from the fact that I wore make-up then, and I wear make-up now. To be a news anchor is to be a journalist. You have to be knowledgeable about current affairs, monitor all the papers and news sources, and understand what is happening in society and the world at large.”
There is a popular impression that being a news anchor just means reading the news. Naveen is quick to point this out as an unfortunate misconception. “In today’s television news, being an anchor means knowing the story so intimately and in-depth that you are able to rapidly process breaking news and developments and know the right questions to ask as you interview key people,” she says, adding that the foundation of a news anchor’s performance is in research and hard work.
“You also have to improvise and think fast on your feet,” says Naveen, explaining that there are times when there is no time — in a breaking news situation, for example — which places great demands on the news anchor’s job. “You’re not called an anchor for nothing. Your role ties the whole effort together. It keeps everything in its place. That’s a crucial difference between being a news reader and a news anchor.”
In contrast to news anchor, the term news reader evokes images of dupatta-clad ladies reciting stodgy typescript during the pre-cable days of PTV. But Naveen refuses to be drawn into any critique of the history of television news in Pakistan. “In fact, I am a great fan of Shaista Zaid. She had fine delivery and a definite presence.” she says with emphasis, referring to perhaps PTV’s best known English newscaster.
Naveen’s favourite news anchor on the international circuit is Veronica Petrosa, formerly of CNN, who is now an anchor on Al-Jazeera English. Naveen is also a big fan of Lyse Doucet from BBC News, whom she particularly admires for her skills as a reporter. CNN, says Naveen, has a different style — more casual and louder.
“Of course, they’re not as loud as Fox News, who always have to be so loud and exaggerated,” she continues. “I personally feel there should be some casualness in the role of news anchor, enough that the personality of the anchor comes through. But you also need to be serious and sensible, which are important for credibility.”
An inevitable by product of Naveen’s role on DawnNews is the celebrity status that comes with it. Judging from what celebrities generally have to say about their condition, this could either be a help or a hindrance. Naveen analyses the issue objectively. “I am much more recognised now than I was during my modelling or acting days,” she says matter-of-factly. DawnNews reaches a particular audience, among whom Naveen feels especially well recognised. But it’s a different kind of recognition. “It doesn’t invade your privacy,” she clarifies. “We’re not such a big industry that we’d be hounded by paparazzi. So, really, I’ve never had a problem with it. In fact, I am always grateful to people who admire me for my work.”
It’s been a tough past year in Pakistan, with one major crisis after another, but Naveen feels our future as a people and a nation is bright and full of promise. She is especially thrilled about the future of media in Pakistan. “The kinds of opportunities available in the media now in Pakistan are extraordinary,” she says. “I would even go so far as to say they are unprecedented and incomparable.”
In her spare time, Naveen enjoys swimming, going to the gym, and reading. She is fond of many authors, but Virginia Woolf stands out as a special favourite. From the subcontinent, she is partial to the mother-daughter pair of Anita and Kiran Desai, and although she thoroughly enjoyed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Naveen feels the author has been disappointing in her more recent public appearances. Among Pakistani authors, Naveen is very impressed with Mohammad Hanif, endorsing his debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes as a must-read book.
We were coming to the end of the interview — Naveen was required in the news studio within minutes — but I didn’t want to end without asking about her pet dislikes. Naveen said there weren’t many but, she added with a laugh expressing both despair and humour, “These days load-shedding and Karachi’s dug up roads are top of the list.”