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Welcome to Chowraha - crossroads!

Chowraha is the crossroads of thoughts, events, opinions and feelings...all that have been shaped by individuals living in an increasingly complex world inter-connected through various means of communications.

This blog is about the crossroads in society - whether it is those of a diaspora community, global media complicating the structure of nations and cultures, or individuals finding parallels in spaces unknown to them.

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The above picture is courtesy a much-admired photographer (Ali Khurshid) whose work is a source of inspiration and reaffirms the belief in the complex beauty of this world.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Begum Nawazish Ali: Frivolous Entertainment or Playing the Political?

"The sophisticated and flirtatious Begum Nawazish Ali has been on Pakistani airwaves for a few years now. With people tuning in to watch her grill, joke around, and shamelessly flirt with her guests who include celebrities and politicians, her talk shows have been huge hits....Her invasive questions, political interest, and classy style have made her a sensation on Pakistani television. Not to mention her beautiful saris, and flawless make-up.(Sobia 2008) 
Most introductions to Begum Nawazish Ali are similar - sharing amazement at her grace, her ability to flirt with every male celebrity or politician she brings as a guest on her show and the level of popularity she has received ever since she first came on air. The reason behind all of this amazement and interest in Begum Nawazish Ali is the fact that she is actually a male dressed up as a female hosting one of the most popular talk shows on television in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The program called “the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali” raises questions at numerous levels and makes an extremely interesting case-study to discuss when looking at the "entertainment" industry and trying to understand its role in society. Most accounts studying “entertainment” tend to find it divergent from any thing “informational” and hence are quick to dismiss entertainment as being unimportant. As Dyer (1992: 2) explains “part of its (entertainment’s) meaning is anti-seriousness…It rejects the claims of morality, politics…in a culture which still accords these high status.”  Studying the example of the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali, I will try and undo the politics depicted within this show and why the Late Night Show is still classified as “entertaining.”
"This idea, that politics is contained within non-political arenas like entertainment, is, of course, a familiar one” (Street 2001: 61). There are innumerable examples in history where tools of “entertainment” have been used to give voice to societal and political concerns. For example, John Street (2001: 61) shares Eugene Genovese’s (1976) account of American slave workers using songs as a voice for their defiance. A documentary-film by Bahman Ghobadi called No One Knows About Persian Cats highlights singers in contemporary Iran using their talent to raise their concerns regarding their government and its repressive policies. In a country which gets its idea of conception from a revered poet Allama Iqbal (Shamsie et al 2002), where singing has been an act of defiance against authority (The Organic Brew 2010), and where social reformist bands are at the forefront of the music scene (insert laal band blog), being political has never been neatly confined in the realms of traditional “politics.” Pakistani singers like Shehzad Roy have sung entire albums voicing their laments with the way the United States is meddling with Pakistan and with the way the Pakistani governments are meddling with the future of its citizens (Ahmed 2008). Street (2001: 61) points out that although “Political identities and arguments feature constantly in pop culture” “Seeing popular culture as 'political' remains a feature of the modern world. (Street 2001: 61) The following paper aims to study the example of the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali and seeing how entertainment plays with ‘the political.’ However, before delving into an analysis of Begum Nawazish Ali, it is important for the purposes of this paper, to define what entertainment is.  
 Understanding "Entertainment" 
Typically the definition of entertainment assumed widely is that of entertainment being taken quite literally "as entertainment" (Dyer 1992: 1).  Dyer (1992) explains that this means taking seriously the common sense of entertainment, notions like escapism, glamor, fun, stardom...as well as phrases like 'it takes your mind off things' ". Due to a lack of audience surveys, it is difficult to analyze exactly what the audience thought was entertaining about the show as the term is understood from the definition give above. However, based purely on the content of the 'Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali' it is not difficult to gauge why Begum Nawazish Ali may bring fun for her audience. A male dressed up in gorgeous saris, wearing flawless makeup and pulling the image off extremely well (as demonstrated by the show's popularity[i]) is "entertaining" in a society itself where the norm does not dictate such behavior. Perhaps this shows that the audience does not expect a male to be capable of appearing as graceful and with a flawless skin as Begum Nawazish Ali appears and this astonishment is a source of pleasure. Unlike other talk shows, here is a male figure pretending to be a female and bringing eminent and respected figures as guests brings pleasure to the program viewers. The set-up of the studio as Begum Nawazish Ali's drawing room (living room) and the different saris (but equally beautiful each time) she wears on every program showcase glamor and stardom” in Dyer’s words stated above
The above definition of “entertainment” is to “assume…that entertainment is already unproblematically known, neutral and given, is ‘only’ entertainment” (Dyer 1992: 7). A contrary definition of "entertainment" to the one above is what James Linton (1978: 17) called sugar on the pill, where sugar is the literally-speaking "entertainment" aspect of a program and pill is the ideological viewpoint it stands for. The "entertainment" aspect of a show then proves to be a disguise for the programme-maker's intent of either publicizing a certain viewpoint of the world or using the "entertainment" platform to condemn a group of people or different groups of people and their ideologies (Dyer 1992: 5). The following paper looks into how Begum Nawazish Ali in her Late Night Show manages to represent several identities (and hence opinions) by disguising herself in an interesting yet love-able urban and elite widow character who woos her guests with flirtatious innuendos. 
However, scholars like Bloch (1996) believe that this pill form of entertainment alone cannot make a change and for the pill to be available on television screens and gain popularity without facing much opposition requires a change in societal trends as well. Nothing will occur without social and political change (Bloch 1996). Dyer (1992: 12) possibly would explain the same concept by saying that “entertainment is not simply a way of describing something found equally in all societies at all times.” Duffort (2001) explains Bloch by giving the example of Spice Girls saying that Spice Girls managed to commercialize "Girl Power" because the idea of women's rights was more acceptable during their era than three decades ago. It is interesting to point out here that "in a country where extremists are at war with such cosmopolitan heresies, Ali Saleem (the real name behind the character Begum Nawazish Ali) has never received a single threat over his open lifestyle[ii]" (Wallace 2008). This fact itself speaks of the media liberalization prevalent in Pakistani society and makes it necessary for me to explain it further in the following section of the paper.   

A Product of Media Liberalization
Without any doubt, President Pervez Musharraf who came into power following a military coup in 1999 and remained in power till 2008, was the man behind media liberalization in Pakistan. "...Even his critics acknowledge that...Musharraf's eight-year rule has seen a historic liberalization of television in the country" Bruce Wallace (2008) points out in the LA Times. Prior to his policy on media liberalization state-owned channel was the only national option for the television viewers and was full of news regarding the Prime Minister and the government's publicity. Satellite had made its way before Musharraf but cable was introduced by him and with his media liberalization policies there was a sudden mushrooming of all types of Pakistani channels. Immediately, there was a boom in 24-hour news channels and entertainment channels in the country airing programs ranging from talk shows, political sattire and soaps. Wallace’s (2008) article reminds us how "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." 
The program, "Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali", is hosted by Ali Saleem, dressed up as a flirtatious widow of an army officer who invites celebrities and politicians alike and seductively asks them poignant questions (both regarding the guest’s personal life and those that concern the public directly)Wallace (2008) is correct in pointing out that "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." Hence, it makes it difficult to share the exact viewership of the program. For the same reasons it may even be difficult to say which class Begum Nawazish Ali is more popular in and what the demographics of her audience looks like. But there is little doubt to the program's popularity by merely reading the coverage it has received worldwide. The program was first aired on Aaj TV in 2006 and gained such level of popularity that "advertising rates during its weekend prime time slot are triple that other shows in similar slots" (Zaidi 2007). As a result, Saleem became one of the highest paid television hosts in the country and rival channels began struggling to get him on board with alluring offers (Zaidi 2007).  
As a result of the media liberalization that was introduced by Musharraf, the trend of political satire caught on in the television industry. One of the first such shows was Hum Sub Ummeed Se Hain (We are all expecting) where actors dressed up as political figures and played out carefully written satire scripts. Ali Saleem’s first television appearance which caught public’s eye was his parody of the late Benazir Bhutto[iii] in this show that appeared on Geo television network. Ali Saleem dressed up as a female figure, Benazir Bhutto, and excelling at it had already reached a level of expectation and likeability amongst his viewers. Analyzing in light of Bloch’s views as stated above, Begum Nawazish Ali arrived at a time when there was already a level of acceptability in a man dressing up as a woman appearing on television.
Furthermore, media liberalization alone cannot be enough for the acceptance of a cross-dressed show host to appear and gain so much popularity. In Pakistan, a population of transvestites has been living within their social communities. In the face of the discrimination they faced in the society, in 2009 the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled that transgendered citizens could not be discriminated against (Berry 2009).

Begum Nawazish Ali –
Representation, Identity and ‘the Political’
Television schedules and newspaper layouts draw seemingly neat boundaries around what is 'politics' and what is 'entertainment'...But this formal distinction between what counts as 'politics' and what does not is not as clear as it sometimes seems. (Street 2001: 60). In this context, I find Khiabani and Sreberny (2007) very informative in explaining how social realms play into “the political.” They (2007: 563) explain that “while the social might be defined as the realm of sedimented social practices, not all of which are put into question at the same time, the realm of the political is … where agonistic debate about social practices takes place…” In the following section, I am going to study the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali in the light of the way it constructs "an account of politics and power relations" (Street 2001: 62) in the Pakistani society.

"The way 'politics' emerges in mass entertainment is through the stories it tells, the jokes it makes and the motives it assumes." (Street 2001: 79).  It is interesting to note how the program that chooses to show Begum Nawazish Ali as an elite woman describes her as having a military background – automatically evoking power. Begum Nawazish Ali, draped in her expensive saris inviting guests to her beautiful drawing room late on a Saturday evening for some gossip over tea also aims to represents the elite culture of a society. Ali 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.” (Wallace 2008).     
John Street (2001: 76) talks about how “one of the key features of popular entertainment is the way it operates across the boundaries between the public and the private, thereby 'domesticating' politics, particularly through its emphasis on the family". Begum Nawazish Ali, as the wife of a late army officer, comfortably shares jokes about her elite lifestyle and social life. In doing so, the character shared with the public what this lifestyle was like and the powers she gained from being in this social position. Ali Saleem’s character Begum Nawazish Ali is based on the wives of army officers he met while growing up in military bases around the country. His father, a retired colonel, is a military academy contemporary of Musharraf and a retired colonel. Ali Saleem shared with LA Times (2008) in an interview that "These wives are so politicalThey 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" thereby giving an example of the corruption in the most powerful institution of the country.
The host, a male dressed up as a woman, can also be seen as representing the transgendered population of Pakistan. It is interesting because being a gay is not possible in the Islamic republic, however being transgendered or eunuch is. Indeed, the term hijra in Pakistani society evokes all the terms such as gays, homosexuals, transgenders, etc. Sanjeev Berry (2009) in his article in the Huffington Post describes how “the word word hijra combines a range of sexual identities -- gay crossdressers, hermaphradites -- who identify as female, and male-to-female transgendered individuals. In Indian and Pakistani English, words like "eunuch" and "transvestite" are often used in place of the word hijra.” This may possibly also be the reason why Ali Saleem has not faced a backlash for his character of Begum Nawazish Ali. Although, being gay publicly is still not easy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the public appearance of transvestites is[iv] and Ali Saleem in his character is not necessarily showing his gay side (by dressing up as a man and showing his sexual preference for male guests) but rather his transsexual representation by cross-dressing like a female and showing his preference for male guests that he invites to his shows. Going back to Duffort’s (2001) point above, this acceptability of transgendered people perhaps allowed for the acceptability of the show[v].
 
We live in a society that has a lot of gender biases; where there is a lot of prejudice against women,” Ali Saleem shared his concern in an interview (Pakistani TV drama blog). However like Dame Edna, Salims teasing and sarcasm has allowed him to tackle head-on the discrimination women face in Pakistans male-dominated society. My show is about empowering women psychologically, Salim told the Associated Press on the set of his popular show filmed in Karachi. I am trying to show people that there is no difference between men and women. Men and women are equally capable of doing all the same things…’ “ (Despardes 2007) In this light, a “male” dressed up as a "female" could simply be seen as a man trying to assist the feminist cause in Pakistan.

Politics and femininity have often been seen as each other’s antithesis (Sreberny and van Zoonen 2000: 1). Begum Nawazish Ali represents the paradox in a society where the champion of a woman’s cause has to be a man. Ali Saleem told Wallace (2008) in an interview that 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." For a woman to hold a conversation of sexual nature, as implicit as it may be, is not necessarily the easiest task on broadcast television in a society which has elements of conservatism. Against this background for Ali Saleem to dress up as a woman and be so daring is pushing the limits of society’s expectations of a woman. A “woman” talking about sex publicly in this context, and not simply being subjected to it, becomes a political act here.

Transnational Aims of Begum's Late Night Show

To the actor Saleem, there is little doubt about why audiences are tuning in – they’re all waiting to see what the well-coiffed, manicured character will say next.’ (Zaidi 2007) Female guests often find themselves comparing wardrobes and jewelry with her, while male guests have had to bear the brunt of a suggestive proposition from her.Some people compare her to Dame Edna's character on British television, said Saleem, "but Begum Nawazish Ali is much too sophisticated to ever be that crude.
Perhaps in the programme makers minds there was little comparison between Dame Edna and Begum Nawazish Ali but more of an interest in improving the image of Pakistan. Given the post 9/11 scenario of the world, Pakistan has turned out to be one of the biggest casualties of the war on terrorism. The government has been a war against Taliban for years and much of the international coverage has chosen to focus more on its “failed state” and “most dangerous country in the world” images. In LA Times (2008), Begum Nawazish Ali tells Wallace that "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." Muslim Media Watch asserts the same and shows how the country has embraced the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali and made it the most popular show.
Thanks to satellite and cable television, Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali could be seen outside of Pakistan and it did catch a lot of international attention too. Ali Saleem, to break the misconception about religious extremism in Pakistan shared a story with LA Times. He recounted how while on a domestic flight he came across a lot of religious leaders who were on the flight too. “While collecting his bags from the overhead compartment upon landing,”… one of the mullahs put a hand on his shoulder. Ali Saleem confessed that he was taken aback.  "He told me he liked the show," recalled Saleem, clearly thrilled to tell the story.   
The Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali was not just an attempt at improving the image of Pakistan but also of raising the Pakistani point of view on the international politics of the country. "Using 'wit and ridicule,' writes Dustin Griffin (1994: 1), satire 'seeks to persuade an audience that something or someone is reprehensible or ridiculous'. (Street 2001: 63)  On one of her shows Begum Nawazish Ali berated an American leader who had called her up that evening to complain that she had invited a terrorist as a guest to her show (Wallace 2008). The show that night was a leader from a religious party and an ex-mayor of the city of Karachi. Begum Nawazish Ali said "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." (Wallace 2008)
Sanjeev Berry (2009) echoed the same views as that of Ali Saleem in his article in the Hufington Post. Talking specifically about the US media, Berry described how the US had developed a narrative for Pakistan that was different from that of India’s. Pakistan was a “failed state” full of extremists and suicide bombers. India was an economically advancing country, the largest democracy in the world and hence an ally. Berry accused the media of only picking up stories about the specific countries that fit the narrative of the respective country. He wondered why the story of the Chief Executive granting equal status to transgenders did not make it to the news, but when India a few months later granted equal rights to homosexuals the story was covered worldwide. Berry explain how lives of hijras in both India and Pakistan were the same and the term hijra meant the same in both the countries.

In an article in the leading English newspaper in Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid[vi] (2010), described the various reasons for optimism in the Pakistani society despite its current war between Taliban and the government, and the toll it is taking on civilian life and peace in the country. He explains howCulturally, too, we are incredibly diverse. We have transvestite talk-show hosts, advocates for “eunuch rights”, burka-wearers, turbaned men with beards, outstanding fast bowlers, mediocre opening batsmen, tribal chieftains, bhang-drinking farmers, semi-nomadic shepherds, and at least one champion female sprinter. We have the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party and we have Porsche dealerships. We are nobody’s stereotype. 

Dealing with the Paradoxes
Just as “politics” playing into “entertainment” is a paradox that emerges when entertainment is looked at closely, Begum Nawazish Ali’s Late Night Show, as an example in itself, deals with several paradoxes. To begin with, here is a homosexual man dressing up as a straight woman. If we agree with the above account that Begum Nawazish Ali is representing the rights of a woman to be accepted as someone who can dictate her life’s pleasures, it is paradoxically a man representing this life of a woman. “Although women’s function is often to decorate programs, their increasing visibility also provides chances for alternative portrayals of gender identities” (Aslama 2000). Despite the fact that the show may be empowering for the cause of women, it has to take the host of the show to adorn him/herself lavishly and expose the femininity of the character to catch the public’s attention.
It just does not take a man to present a woman’s cause but a host from an elite background to question the politics of power. "The review of satire in Britain since the 1950s highlights that the satirists tend to be men, highly educated and middle-class...If any thing, the satire of the 1960s was even more a product of privilege. Ali Saleem was brought up in an army household and brought in his show how military remains one of the most powerful institutions in the country. For Wagg political sattire emerged 'from within the culture of the dominant social classes' (ibid.: 255; original emphasis). Saleem recalled. "Our water and electricity never went off. We had our own clubs." (Wallace 2008)."We had no contact with the real world that most Pakistanis face,"
Hewison (1988: 34) makes a similar point: 'Private Eye shows how the satire movement was a means of ventilating ideas rather than challenging society with some new complete blueprint (Street 2001: 67).  The LA Times article points out how "The Late Show's" true subversiveness lay 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. (Wallace 2008)
Speaking of paradoxes, it is the conditions that prevail in a society that may attract the audience to enjoy shows that demonstrate a world beyond the horrors of life (Dyer 1992:14). In other words, when a society lacks a certain aspect, that is when it attracts itself towards the opposites. Interestingly enough, this is the paradox that prevails in entertainment too – whereas it represents the horrors of life as proven by the politics of power the Late Night Show brings to light, the show also serves as a form of escapism from the horrors of life present in the politics of power.
Dyer (1992: 24) shares how scarcity in a society calls for broadcast programs to show abundance, exhaustion in lifestyle calls for energy in programs, dreariness demands intensity, manipulation calls for transparency, and fragmentation in a nation attracts sentiments of community. “The advantage of this analysis is that it does offer some explanation of why entertainment works. It is not just left-overs from history, it is not just what show business, or ‘they’, force on the rest of us, it is not simply the expression of needs – it responds to real needs created by society. Although, this analysis does not take into account what the audience itself may claim to enjoy about the show, but it is an analysis that becomes interesting to look at in the context of Begum Nawazish Ali’s Late Night Show in Pakistan. A country where an extremely large population lives below the poverty line, she represents abundance, a nation which has been riveted with conflict within itself may it be of domestic nature or with the Taliban the show demonstrates a more cool and modern front of the country as Ali Saleem himself puts it. A society which otherwise ridicules and discriminates against transsexuals (the law claiming their equal status being only a recent one) wants to see a show which demonstrates the opposite.   
Conclusion
Entertainment is, therefore, more than “just” entertainment and it would be ignorant to regard it as frivolous and unimportant. More often than not, the way producers make the show and the way audiences receive it reflect the politics of power in a society. Throughout history and up to this day, tools of entertainment have been used to express laments against authority and it can therefore be concluded that entertainment plays in the field of political constantly.
Begum Nawazish Ali, represents the voice for those who have been "othered" in society including women, homosexuals and trans-sexuals. Paradoxically what Begum Nawazish Ali also represents is the skewed balance of power in society whereby it is a male (brought up in an elite family) that is able to become a voice for the mis-represented or the "marginalized" in society. Begum Nawazish Ali is a role played by Ali Saleem who declares to be a bi-sexual and openly admits to being a "woman in a man's body." At the same time the show is an identity for Pakistan against the image that it is portrayed with in media outside of Pakistan. It is a performer’s attempt to portray Pakistan differently from what the outside media has mostly shown it as.  
I would like to use the same anecdote John Street (2001) used in explaining entertainment’s importance. He recounted how "Margaret Thatcher once defended a comic who told a tasteless joke at a party rally: 'It is a pity if you cannot regard the remarks of a comedian as being exactly what they are: humour, and that is all' (New Statesman, 10 October 1997). Unfortunately, entertainment cannot and should not be dismissed so easily as being frivolous and unimportant. It is obvious from this paper that in entertainment lies the account of politics and power which speak volumes about the society the show emanates from.







[i] In the section titled "A Product of Media Liberalization" I explain further why I claim the show to be an extremely popular one. 
[ii] Ali Saleem calls himself a tri-sexual. "I will try any thing" (in article “A Male Feminist” – see reference). This is further explained in the sections below. 
[iii] Fomer Prime Minister of Pakistan, and daughter of late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ms. Bhutto was one of the most popular figures of the country.  
[iv] From my own personal experience, I have always come across “hijras” (transvestites as described in the paper above) begging on the streets. They have certain habits or traits that people enjoy looking at – I have often found male chauffers (an occupation very common in Pakistan due to the labor being cheap) laughing at them. Personally, I have found transvestite beggars to be known as behaving lovingly (although perhaps teasingly) towards the males they are begging in front of. 
[v] This does not imply that there is no stigma or discrimination against the hijras. 
[vi] Famous contemporary fiction writer – author of “Moth Smoke” and “the Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Hamid lived for over two decades in the US and UK and only recently moved back to Pakistan permanently.


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