Monday, June 19, 2006
Karachi (Reuters): Every Saturday night Pakistani actor Ali Saleem puts on a bright saree and chunky jewellery and transforms himself into glamorous widow Begum Nawazish Ali, who teases guests with flirty questions on a television chat show. Begum Nawazish exemplifies changing media trends in predominantly Muslim Pakistan as the still-conservative society struggles to reconcile traditional values with brash, modern ways. Saleem's ground-breaking chat show is hugely popular and he's making no apologies. ''There's acceptance of my character. I've received no threats or hate mail from anyone,'' Saleem told Reuters as he puffed on a cigarette in the coffee shop of a hotel in the city of Karachi.
Saleem, the clean-shaven 27-year-old son of a retired army colonel, has been doing cross-dressing acts for five years and said he had no fear of dressing as a woman. By day, Saleem dresses in a casual white shirt and scruffy jeans. Only his bronzed hair and blue nail polish hint at his Begum Nawazish alter ego. Begum Nawazish has attracted heavyweight politicians, actresses, businessmen and Indian film stars to her plush drawing room set where they are greeted with a peck on the cheek or an elegant handshake. ''I've always been honest with myself and my family and I don't see Begum Nawazish as a cross-dresser. It's my tribute to femininity and women like Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto'' he said referring to the former British and Pakistani leaders. ''My programme is a celebration that we are a free nation. It is a statement against the prevailing hypocrisy in society.'' Begum Nawazish's is not the only new programme pushing the boundaries and provoking debate in drawing rooms, and on newspaper letters pages, across the country.
One programme, inspired by US confessional shows, gets people on stage to talk about the sort of personal problems that have raditionally been kept hidden behind a veil of family secrecy. In a recent episode, a man came to blows with the son-in-law he thought was not good enough for his daughter. A programme on another channel features a lawyer holding simulated court sessions and making decisions on issues such as divorces and property disputes. The wave of new programmes follows the liberalisation of the media under President Pervez Musharraf.
The president, who is also army chief, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and has been criticised since then for stifling democracy.
But Musharraf, who espouses a philosophy of ''enlightened moderation'', has let a free, and critical, media flourish. More than a dozen private television channels have appeared and applications for another 27 have been lodged. Shahida Kazi, a professor of mass communications, said the new channels were a huge improvement over the turgid fare churned out by state television, but there was a danger serious issues were becoming trivialised. ''There is a worrying trend of channels laying more stress on glamour and treating serious issues superficially. ''In the long run, this won't have a good impact on society.
The media should make good use of the opportunities now available.'' Producers of the new breed of talk shows believe people relate to them because they see their problems discussed by real people. ''People are accepting entertainment blended with serious issues. They want more freedom of expression,'' said one producer, Adnan Hadi. But not everyone is enthusiastic about the new media. Naimatullah Khan, a former mayor of Karachi and a top member of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, said most of the new channels didn't reflect Pakistani culture and values.''There's a need to have a regulatory watchdog body to keep an eye on the programming of these channels,'' Khan said. Khan actually appeared on Begum Nawazish's show, only realising at the last minute the host was a man dressed as a woman. By then it was too late to call off the interview, he said. ''We had a very good discussion,'' he said.