Benazir Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27 hit Ali Saleem particularly hard. He began his career impersonating Bhutto, and Begum Nawazish Ali was an extension of the possibilities uncovered by that role.
Saleem is not sure how to reconcile his depression over Pakistan's accelerating descent into violence with the Begum's sunny optimism.
"I see a lot of filth in Pakistan," Saleem said as he prepared to leave for a second series of tapings in India, where he hopes the Begum can secure a regular time slot on an Indian network. "I'm an actor, but I'm not going to feed people a bunch of garbage that all will be fine. The reality has become too bitter."
He recently taped his first "Late Show" since the assassination. The Begum read a line from a piece by revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, lamenting a sorrow so deep it can't be expressed. But he said he made a conscious decision to keep the mood light. The "Begum's character is inclined to look on the bright side of life," Saleem said. "I stuck mostly to my frivolous, colorful self."
That attitude has defined the show, which sees the Begum pining over men, including a little thing she has for Bush, with whom she flirts during fake phone calls, but she is never too smitten to scold.
On one show last year, she berated the American leader who had purportedly called to complain that her guest that night -- Naimatullah Khan, a mullah who was once mayor of Karachi -- was a terrorist.
"The CIA tells you I've got a bearded Taliban suspect sitting in my drawing room?" she said incredulously. "Georgie, do something about your paranoia. Your CIA cannot see a thing."
But "The Late Show's" true subversiveness lies in its willingness to deal with underground topics such as sex, homosexuality and recreational stimulants. "I'd love to get stoned with you," the Begum told handsome Indian actor John Abraham as she swooned during a show shot in the Indian city of Mumbai recently. Though the show's conversations are conducted in a patois of Urdu and English, that one-liner was intentionally delivered in English. Most of the Begum's riskier material is in English, making it more of an in-joke among more cosmopolitan viewers.
No one knows exactly how many Pakistanis are watching "The Late Show." There are no reliable audience measurements in Pakistan, and even the number of cable recipients is inaccurate because many people simply tap into cable the same way some have been stealing electricity for years.
Saleem said his character is based on the wives of army officers he met as a young man growing up on bases around the country, following a father who is a military academy contemporary of Musharraf and a retired colonel.
"These wives are so political," he said. "They sit there in the background, and then you discover that promotions and things like that happen because of them, who they like and who they don't. They have great power over their men."
Saleem said he had always been most comfortable around older women. He described a sheltered childhood, growing up with the privileges bestowed upon his father in a state where the army was by far the most powerful institution.
"We had no contact with the real world that most Pakistanis face," Saleem recalled. "Our water and electricity never went off. We had our own clubs."
The harder life most Pakistanis face became apparent to him only when he moved to Karachi a decade ago to begin a career in theater. His climb began with his impression of Bhutto. His producer and friend Nadeem Baig claimed credit for seeing the wider creative possibilities of Saleem in drag.
"She has grace," Baig said of Begum Nawazish Ali. "There are some people who think she's too flamboyant. She is definitely cheeky. But her show is not just fluff. She asks intelligent questions. We want people to take her seriously."
Saleem said the secret of his character's success is that she never mocks her guests. The aim is to build bridges between Pakistanis, not drive them apart, he said. He also sees the possibility of using the character to improve ties with India.
Yet despite Saleem's insistence that the Begum reveals a cosmopolitan Pakistan the rest of the world never sees, the flip side of the phenomenon is that conservatives may regard the act as another example of a Westernized, decadent virus that needs to be to be expunged from the country.
After all, Saleem acknowledged that the Begum has one thing going for her that has enabled her to succeed in an officially conservative country: Beneath the saris and the makeup and the cooing voice, she is a man.
"If she was really a woman, flirting with men the way I do, she would have landed in hot soup," he said. "As a man in a male-dominated culture, I get away with much, much more than she would."
Wallace, The Times' Tokyo Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Pakistan.