Pakistan’s tolerance for a funny drag act

Ben Leung February 8, 2007
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Has Pakistan, one of the world’s most conservative countries, found the unlikeliest TV star in the form of a drag queen?

The idea might seem far-fetched, except it’s a very real possibility.

Indeed, such is the power of curiosity and critical acclaim that millions have been tuning in to the The Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali to witness the drag performer’s latest shenanigans.

Ali Saleem, a 28-year-old actor who portrays the Begum, has broken nearly all the taboos in the largely conservative landscape of Pakistani television.

He modelled the character on an aristocratic widow of an army colonel, and the middle-aged glamorous hostess now presides over a top-rated programme on the fledgling channel, Aaj.

And as Begum (‘Madam’ in Urdu) Nawazish Ali, she is famed for her risque monologues and combative interviews with famous Pakistani politicians and celebrities.

Her sly digs at Pakistani politics are also frequent topics of conversations amongst the urban elite, whilst her sharp dress sense such as sequined blouses has made her a style icon amongst women.

Begum Ali also flirts outrageously with his male guests – which goes against the rule book for Muslim women – and even probes into their private lives.

Comparisons have already been made with the grand dame of television chat shows, Dame Edna Everage, but Saleem says his character is less crude and more sophisticated than his Australian counterpart.

He openly declared his bisexuality, because “it does justice to the man in me and the woman in me.”

By doing so, Saleem is one of a handful – possibly the only one – to freely admit his sexuality in a society where talk of such matters is strictly off-limits.

However, such is Saleem’s star power/Begum Ali’s influence that even some of Pakistan’s religious figures appeared to have been won over by his act.

He has already convinced a septuagenarian from the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, to appear on the chat-show, with the guest proclaiming “he had no idea what he had got himself into” afterwards.

“We couldn’t convince Qazi Hussain Ahmed (the head of a Muslim political party) to come on the show. But he was very good-natured about it.

“He praised the Begum and said he would rather just watch the show on television,” Saleem told NBC WorldBlog.

Saleem is already one of the most high-profile television personalities in the country, with numerous offers for his service from rival stations.

His show also commands the highest advertising rates during its weekend prime time slot.

Of course, such a controversial and taboo-breaking show is not immune from criticism.

For example, Pakistan’s military leadership has threatened to take the programme off air, whilst an online petition has urged Aaj TV to cancel the show.

However, Saleem is unperturbed, and believes the key to his success lay in the nature of the Pakistani society,

“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.

“Men, on the other hand, find her intriguing because she transcends all kinds of restrictions and plays with their imagination.”

In the long run, Saleem aims to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan. His ambition is to break down break down barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to help bring people closer.

With elections scheduled for later this year, Begum Ali is in no danger of running out of material just yet.

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