He gave Pakistan her voice

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Karachi, Pakistan

Out of costume but not out of character, one of Pakistan’s hottest TV stars was sipping his first tea of the day as the sun faded on a December afternoon, the shadow of his beard evidence of rising late after another night of partying hard in the country’s media capital.

“I want to lift all this negativity we have, to get my poor people to lighten up,” Ali Saleem said in the rapid, chatty style that has helped make his talk show popular with everyone from models to mullahs.

Amid the bombings and assassinations, Ali said, it’s his duty to give audiences a respite from reality, and to present a Pakistani face to the world that challenges the monochromatic image of a country descending into hell.

“My existence on TV discredits the misconception that Pakistan is a country of bearded extremists,” he said. “I want to show the world that we are just cool, normal people.”

It’s a message Saleem usually delivers swathed in gorgeous saris and thick makeup, with glitter on his hairless arms and a mischievous lipstick smile on his face.

Most Pakistanis know Saleem, 28, as Begum Nawazish Ali, a middle-aged widow who welcomes viewers into her drawing room on Saturday nights for a little gossip with the guests on “The Late Show with Begum Nawazish Ali.” Ensconced in the set’s chintz and candlelight, the Begum, who hasn’t lost the spark for sex, swaps fashion tips with female guests, flirts shamelessly with the men (even with a mullah on one night), and gets in frequent shots at politicians, including President Bush, for whom she carries a bit of a torch.

For those searching for a modern voice in the Muslim world, the Begum, which means Lady or Mrs., has been one answer: a sassy character, irreverent toward authority. “My people are not as barbaric as the West portrays us,” said the openly bisexual Saleem. (“Actually, I like to say I’m tri-sexual -- I’ll try anything,” is how he put it.)

And in a country where extremists are at war with such cosmopolitan heresies, Saleem has never received a single threat over his open lifestyle.

He gleefully recounted taking a domestic flight on which most of the passengers were religious leaders. He was collecting his bags from the overhead compartment upon landing, when one of the mullahs put a hand on his shoulder. He froze.

“He told me he liked the show,” recalled Saleem, clearly thrilled to tell the story. “But he did remind me to be sure to pray every day.”

“The Late Show” is not an aberration on Pakistani TV. President Pervez Musharraf may have come to power in a military coup, but even his critics acknowledge that until his recent crackdown on media, Musharraf’s eight-year rule has seen a historic liberalization of television in the country.

In addition to a boom in 24-hour news channels, the opening bequeathed a series of irreverent comedy shows mostly modeled on Western formats and relying heavily on politics for laughs.

It’s a sharp change from less than a decade ago, when Pakistanis could either watch PTV, the state broadcaster, or, if they were close enough to the Indian border, jiggle their antennas a bit to try to catch a signal from Amritsar. PTV was indispensable if you needed to know where the president ate lunch that day and what foreign dignitary was stopping by for a handshake, though it also fed viewers high-quality dramas and traditional musical entertainment.

Musharraf used to express pride in having opened up the airwaves. In his 2006 autobiography, he wrote that he expected free media would show the face of a more modern, culturally rich Pakistan, both to itself and the world. His government handed out TV licenses like candy, then watched, often in horror, as the newly liberalized television stations behaved like they were on a sugar rush.

“This whole electronic media thing was way beyond their comprehension,” said Nusrat Javed, host of a political TV talk show called “Bolta Pakistan” (“Pakistan Speaks”). The show was among those the government yanked off the air when Musharraf imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3, suspending the constitution, ostensibly to give himself added powers to fight terrorists. Most observers regard the move as a poorly veiled attack by Musharraf on his two most powerful opponents: the increasingly independent judiciary and the hyper-critical media. Though the state of emergency was lifted six weeks later, most of the restrictions on the media were not.

“The regime thought that the media would be so grateful for getting a license that everyone would behave timidly,” Javed said. “As soon as they saw what we were doing they got upset. My show went on in May, and they didn’t like it from the word go. After almost every show, high-ups in the government would call to complain.”

Even its boosters acknowledge that Pakistani television has become a free-fire zone. News channels compete ferociously for viewers, a frenzy that has led to a “top-this” mentality when showing, for example, graphic images of the dead and wounded after bomb attacks. Critics say every show was determined to prove its independence by being more anti-Musharraf than the next.

“The public debate is too negative, too toxic,” said Feisal Naqvi, a prominent Lahore lawyer who says the media acquired power overnight without an accompanying sense of responsibility.

“So we have a vigorous debate here,” Naqvi said sarcastically. “We have those who say Musharraf is Hitler. And we have those who say he is Stalin.”

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.

“She was the biggest inspiration of my life, my role model,” he said in an interview from Karachi this month. “I have followed her every move since I was 9 years old. I became a star because of her.”

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.