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The sassy voice and face of Pakistan

In a country where extremists rage, Ali Saleem dons the sari and lipstick of a flirty widow on his happily heretical hit TV show.

January 22, 2008|Bruce Wallace | 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."

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