Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In Pakistan, the Biggest Star is in Drag

NBC Worldblog
posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 7:49 AM
Categories: Islamabad, Pakistan

"Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali" host Ali Saleem in drag. [M&C note: visit original story for a VIDEO of Begum Nawazish preparing for the show.]

By NBC News' Hasan Zaidi, reporting from Karachi, Pakistan

Last year when a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir asked me what the "story" was behind Begum Nawazish Ali, I was more than just surprised. The Begum (the term means "Lady" in Urdu) in question is the host of Pakistan's most popular TV talk show – "Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali."

I didn’t think Aaj, the fledgling television channel which broadcasts the show, was even seen outside the country. I asked him how he knew the name of Pakistan’s rising star and he said "Oh, we all watch her program off satellite!"

The talk show host making waves in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (and apparently Kashmir) is purportedly a stylish, middle-aged, socialite widow of an army colonel. Her monologues are often laced with sexual innuendo, she flirts openly with her guests, and sometimes embarrasses them with probing questions about their private lives. Her guests include some of Pakistan's most well-known personalities: the urban elite, film and television stars and even some top politicians. Most are nevertheless thrilled to be invited to appear on a program millions are watching.

Viewers are obviously fascinated too. Dinner party conversations here in Karachi are often peppered with anecdotes about her risqué banter and sly digs at Pakistani politics. Women call the television station to inquire about the tailoring of her sequined blouses and where to buy her glamorous saris.

The thing is, Begum Nawazish Ali is actually a man. Ali Saleem, the 28-year-old man who dons lipstick, mascara and a wig to Begum Nawazish Ali, has managed to break many taboos in conservative Pakistan through the character.

A strong, glamorous Pakistani woman
When I nonchalantly mentioned that the host was in drag to the Kashmiri journalist, his eyes almost popped out of his head. That was almost a bigger surprise for me. I thought that fact was obvious to everyone and was part of the show's success. Certainly no Pakistani woman on television could get away with the kind of double entendres she gets away with.

To the actor Saleem, there is little doubt about why audiences are tuning in – they’re all waiting to see what the well-coiffed, manicured character will say next.

Female guests often find themselves comparing wardrobes and jewelry with her, while male guests have had to bear the brunt of a suggestive proposition from her. "Some people compare her to Dame Edna's character on British television," said Saleem, "but Begum Nawazish Ali is much too sophisticated to ever be that crude."

So popular is the show that advertising rates during its weekend prime time slot are triple that of other shows in similar slots. Saleem is now one of the highest paid television hosts in the country and is constantly receiving offers from rival channels to bring the show to them.

During an arduous three-hour hair and make-up session before the recording of a show, Saleem was philosophical about the reasons why the show has clicked with audiences.

"I think Begum Nawazish Ali inspires women in particular because she is a strong, glamorous, opinionated woman who is unafraid of saying what she thinks and of flirting with men if she feels like it," explained Saleem. "Men, on the other hand, find her intriguing because she transcends all kinds of restrictions and plays with their imagination."

More open than outsiders think
So far, despite the thin line Saleem treads between the outrageous and the socially acceptable – overt sexuality of any kind is frowned upon in conservative Pakistan – his celebrity guests have also been good sports.

Surprisingly even Pakistan's firebrand religious leaders have never attacked the show. "We couldn't convince [the head of the main religious parties alliance] Qazi Hussain Ahmed to come on the show," said Saleem, "but he was very good-natured about it. He praised the Begum and said he would rather just watch the show on television."

Even a septuagenarian belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, claimed that he did not know what he was getting into after appearing on the show.

Saleem got his first big break famously impersonating former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in theatre and on television, but says it's the Ali character that brings out the real woman inside him. "I am happy to openly accept my bisexuality because it does justice to the man in me and the woman in me," he said with a laugh. He claims he has "only received love, adoration and respect, never anything evenly remotely negative."

Then Saleem dropped a bombshell. "You are the first person I am announcing this to, but I have decided to file my papers for the upcoming general elections," he exclaimed. "I am going to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent from all over Pakistan and I am going to campaign as Begum Nawazish Ali!" The note of triumph and excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

"I want to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan," he continued. "The idea was always to break barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to bring people closer. In any case, I think Begum Nawazish Ali is the strongest woman in Pakistan!"

Whether Pakistanis agree or not, the elections at the end of the year are likely to be one of the most uproarious in recent times.

No comments: