Many Pakistan say there is an absence of good content on Pakistani television. Pakistani Twitter users have complain about “the typical and lifeless storyline of domestic issues in Pakistani serials" and critics have said “there are far too many channels and not enough quality content being made." [Source: Shayista Farooqi, BBC, June 16, 2020]

After a Turkish drama became very popular in Pakistan in 2020, AFP reported: “Usually state broadcaster PTV fills its programming with live charity fundraisers, quiz shows and religious content. Featuring heartthrob heroes, westernised heroines and picturesque scenery, dozens of Turkish soap operas have made it onto Pakistani television channels since 2012. But a dependence on imported content is a source of frustration for some Pakistani artists, producers and directors who bemoan prime-time slots being given to a foreign show. [Source: Zain Zaman Janjua, AFP, May 23, 2020]

“PTV once used to produce the subcontinent's best soap operas but has suffered in the face of rising competition from private channels. “It is a good opportunity for PTV management to look at themselves, shake their conscience and wonder how they are unable to produce a prime-time drama," Aehsun Talish, a Pakistani drama producer, told AFP, . The channel has profited from advertising breaks during the broadcasts but experts warn it is on shaky ground. “It's a cheap re-run, a temporary filling. If we truly want PTV's revival we will have to bank on local talent," Samina Ahmad, a veteran television actress, told AFP.

In 2006, Salman Masood wrote in the New York Times: “The government has asked private television channels to stop showing gruesome images of suicide bombings, accidents and terrorist attacks, officials and the news media say. The move comes a week after news programs broadcast scenes of the severed head of a suicide bomber from an attack in Karachi. While the channels are being asked to regulate themselves, the government said it would take legal action if the practices did not change. "The government is keen to continue its liberal media policy," Iftikhar Rasheed, chairman of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, said, according to Reuters. "But we can't have channels broadcasting pictures of mutilated bodies and severed heads that have a shock effect on women and children." [Source: Salman Masood, New York Times, July 22, 2006]

Television Shows in Pakistan

Games shows with modest prizes given by local businessmen. Pakistani dramas and soap operas, old films, old series in English, musical variety shows and panel discussions have traditionally been the staples of Pakistani television..

One of the most popular television shows in the mid 2000s was “George Ka Pakistan” (George’s Pakistan), a reality show with a British guy named George Fulton sampling different aspects of Pakistani life such as working at a gun factory in the tribal areas and milking cows in the Punjab. At the end of 13 weeks viewers voted whether or not he could become a Pakistani citizen. The Pakistani mini-series “The Veil is Burning” included an episode in which a newlywed wife is gagged and killed by her in laws upset about a low dowry.

Pakistani television produced a Hindi-Urdu version of “Seinfeld” called “Zara Dekh Kar” ("Look Out!"), featuring a wisecracking actor named Jaffrey who lives in Manhattan and has three friends that are just like Seinfeld's three friends. Even though the writers portrayed dating and flirting as a stage before marriage shows that dealt with that theme didn't get past Pakistani censors.

“Jutt and Bond” was a hit sitcom about a Punjabi film star and a British spy. American Soap operas like “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Santa Barbara, which were broadcast on Star Television, had big followings in Pakistan. Muslim extremist were not happy about the shows.

Pakistani Media Watchdog: TV Dramas Immoral and Too Feminist

In January 2019, Pakistan media watchdog said Pakistan's television channels are producing dramas that are too feminist, complaining about an absence of "children and men". Ben Farmer wrote in The Telegraph: “The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) singled out soap operas' fixation with storylines involving women and their mother-in-laws. Local dramas and soap operas, many of which seek to challenge conservative taboos, are immensely popular according to ratings. Plotlines have involved social issues including domestic violence, child abuse, and misogyny. But Pemra said such dramas depict a “hackneyed image of women and have confined themselves to feminist issues only, therefore, ignoring children, teenagers and men”. [Source: Ben Farmer, The Telegraph, January 9, 2019]

The authority also blasted television channels for scandalising viewers with “intimate moments between couples” and “bed scenes”, ordering a clean up of the airwaves. Dramas are glamourising infidelity, inappropriate dressing and drinking “in utter disregard to Pakistani culture and values”, it said, adding that hundreds of viewers had written in to complain. “All TV channels are therefore required to stop airing such content in dramas and produce content in consonance with the socio-cultural norms as per aspirations of Pakistani society,” read a statement from the regulator.

“The warning came as the government has been accused of a wider crackdown on media freedom and also of pandering to religious conservatives. It was unclear how much notice television channels would take of the edict. Analysts said it remained to be seen how serious the government was about the issue and Pemra was often seen as toothless. Sherry Rehman, a leading senator, said: “So basically Pemra only wants cartoon shows for content? What are “sensitive” themes? Women/people talking about their rights to life, education, careers, property?”

Shaadi Online: Pakistan’s Popular Dating-Marriage TV Show

“Shaadi Online” was a popular television show in the 2000s in which young people and their parents tried to find the perfect mate, using the Internet. Associated Press reported: “Are you young? Single? Pakistani? Then “Shaadi Online” is just the Western-style dating — er, marriage — show for you. Using a combination of prime-time TV and the Internet, “Shaadi Online” has helped arrange dozens of marriages since going on air in Pakistan three years ago, shaking up a conservative Muslim culture in which family networks usually decide who weds whom. Unlike bawdy American and European shows that pair up couples for an embarrassing night out in the glare of the cameras, when the contestants choose a mate on “Shaadi Online” — which means “Marriage Online” in Urdu language — they really mean it. [Source: The Associated Press, June 7, 2006]

“Not only do viewers seem to like watching young Pakistanis choose their partner, but it offers a community service, helping men and women in what can be an agonizing search. “Shaadi Online” has also recorded shows in Dubai and London, catering to Pakistanis who struggle to find a suitable mate because they live overseas.

“Among the success stories are Sadaf Amir, 22, and her husband Amir Shaikh, 29, a pharmaceutical sales representative. He was the stand-out among a staggering 8,000 men who expressed an interest in marrying Amir after she appeared on the show. “It was great fun and much easier then the painful process of readying yourself to be shown to a new family ... and getting rejected,” Amir said in the small home she now shares with Shaikh in the southern city of Karachi. “Shaikh said he’d failed to find a wife through traditional matchmaking, “but this TV show did it for me.”

“Surprisingly, “Shaadi Online” hasn’t attracted strong resistance from the country’s formidable religious lobby, although some conservatives — if asked — object that it’s frivolous and undermines the Islamic nation’s values. “Our marriage and matchmaking has its own norms and traditions, but some television channels are implementing a certain agenda to Westernize society and harm our values,” said Merajul Huda, the leader in Karachi of Pakistan’s biggest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami. “This program is a glaring example.”

How Shaadi Online Worked

Associated Press reported: ““Each weekly program showcases two men and one woman, introduced in a prerecorded video presentation showing their family, friends and work life. Once on the set, they are gently questioned by the hosts on their preferences for a mate. That information is fed into a computer database of 100,000 singles. They are presented with a list of possible matches to choose from, and, on the show, they phone the ones that most catch their eye, while viewers listen in. Singles who have registered with the database via the Internet can also express an interest by e-mail. [Source: The Associated Press, June 7, 2006]

“A guest married couple is also on the set to offer advice on the suitability of a proposed match — a nod to Pakistani tradition that was certainly never featured in the original dating show: Chuck Barris’ irreverent “Dating Game” on American TV in the 1960s and ‘70s. On a recent “Shaadi Online,” 20-year old Aliya Ansari, who lives the United Arab Emirates, was seen in her video walking on Dubai’s white-sand beach, saying she was looking for an open-minded, professional and tall husband who would like to live in Dubai with her.

“As fate would have it, one of the computer matchups was Muhammad Kashif, a 24-year-old banker in Dubai, who happened to be one of the two men featured on the same show — which also caters to Pakistani expats looking for a partner in their homeland. “He looks nice and impressive,” said Ansari, who was wearing an orange T-shirt and a skintight blue jeans. “She is very beautiful,” responded Kashif, casually dressed in a black shirt and light brown pants.

“Ansari’s main concern was whether her would-be husband would allow her to work as a flight attendant. The reply from Kashif: “I have no objection if she insists.” They chatted about their respective families, and the show ended with the two shaking hands and smiling, apparently ready to become lifelong partners.

“The show’s makers play down comparisons with Western dating shows.“This is not really a dating show,” said host Mustanswer Hussain Tarar, a prominent romance writer and actor. “It offers a helping hand in making a social contract with the consent of the couple and their parents.” So far, it’s matched 35 couples for marriage — although many more may have been paired through the Web site. But not every applicant seeking “Shaadi Online’s” help has been single. “I was little puzzled when a lady came with her husband to get him a second wife as they were childless after several years of marriage,” Tarar said. The couple never made it on air, although according to Islamic tradition, a man can take four wives if he can support them all.

Turkish TV Drama Ertugrul Takes Pakistan by Storm

The popular Turkish historical TV drama, Dirilis Ertugrul (Ertugrul's Resurrection) became very popular in Pakistan after a dubbed version began airing in April 2020 and was publically endorsed by the country’s prime minister Imran Khan. Shayista Farooqi of the BBC wrote: “The show's immense popularity has generated contrasting opinions in Pakistan. Some feel it's a threat to local culture and promotes violence, while others support it for glorifying Muslim heroes. This is not the first Turkish drama that has become popular in Pakistan. But what is different about Ertugrul — often described as the Muslim Game of Thrones — is that it's being promoted directly by Prime Minister Imran Khan for reasons thought to be personal and political. [Source: Shayista Farooqi, BBC, June 16, 2020]

“Mr Khan is possibly one of the main reasons why this foreign serial is creating waves in Pakistan. He not only recommended the show and told PTV to air it but said it would help Pakistan understand the significance of Islamic civilisation. Ever since his remarks, the serial — which is being aired as Ertugrul Ghazi (warrior) in Urdu — has been breaking viewership records in Pakistan. Critics believe Mr Khan has backed the show because he relates to its promotion of Islamic values and it matches his goal of establishing Pakistan as an ideal Islamic society. Since he took over as prime minister, Mr Khan has been saying that "I want to create a Pakistan which is in line with the first Muslim society created by Prophet Muhammad in Medina." But it seems to be more than just a matter of personal interest.

“The series is based on the life of the 13th-century Muslim Oghuz Turk leader Ertugrul, whose son Osman Ghazi is considered to be the founder of the Ottoman Empire. It depicts the bravery of Muslim Oghuz Turks fighting the Mongol invaders, Christians, Byzantines and the Knights Templar in Anatolia. In Pakistan, some media outlets such as the Naya Daur website find that the drama "glorifies the Muslim value system and the Ottoman Empire".

“An article in popular local daily The Nation also believes that the drama "rightly glorifies Muslim heroes, Islamic history and ethics".Muslims have mostly been shown "through the gaze of negativity" in TV serials and films, hence this serial is a welcome change, analysts say. "Muslims craved for a powerful and positive depiction in the media globally. And Dirilis Ertugrul seems to have satiated that desperation to see a glorifying depiction of Muslims," says an article in English-language website The Global Village Space. Some, such as journalist Aamna Haider Isani — writing in The News daily — feel the show has served an "extremely important purpose of combating Islamophobia in the world".

“But critics such as activist Pervez Hoodbhoy disagree. "If it [Ertugrul] seeks to project Islam as a religion of peace and to counter Islamophobia, then the very opposite is achieved," he wrote in Dawn, citing the extensive violence and beheadings shown in the drama. And some, such as social activist-turned-politician Jibran Nasir say the show is creating an "identity crisis" among Pakistanis.

American-Financed , Urdu-Language “Sesame Street”

In October 2013, Associated Press reported: “Sesame Street is coming to Pakistan but not as generations of Americans know it. The TV show has a new cast of local characters led by a vivacious 6-year-old girl named Rani who loves cricket and traditional Pakistani music. Her sidekick, Munna, is a 5-year-old boy obsessed with numbers and banging away on Pakistani bongo drums, or tabla. The US is bankrolling the initiative with US$20 million, hoping it will improve education in a country where one-third of primary school-age children are not in class. Washington also hopes the program will increase tolerance at a time when the influence of radical views is growing. "One of the key goals of the show in Pakistan is to increase tolerance toward groups like women and ethnic minorities," said Larry Dolan, who was the head education officer for the US Agency for International Development in Pakistan until very recently. [Source: Associated Press, October 31, 2011]

The show, which started airing at the end of November 2011, “was jointly developed by Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American series, and Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, a group in the Pakistani city of Lahore that has been staging puppet shows for more than three decades. The US is worried that growing radicalization could one day destabilise the nuclear-armed country. Sesame Street has been in Pakistan before, televised in the early 1990s in English and later dubbed into national language Urdu.

“Rani, the new program's star, sports pigtails and a blue and white school uniform. Her innate curiosity is exemplified by the magnifying glass she often carries and her endless stream of questions. She is captain of the school cricket team and plays the harmonium, an instrument used to perform Qawwali music. The creators chose Rani as the lead character to emphasize the importance of sending girls to school, something that doesn't often happen in Pakistan's conservative, male-dominated society, said Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer of Rafi Peer and one of several family members who run the organization. "It makes the girl stand equally with the boy, which is very clear," said Peerzada.

“Rani and Munna are joined by Baily the donkey, Haseen O Jameel the crocodile, and Baaji, a spirited woman who serves as a mother figure for the others. Elmo, the lovable, red, child monster, is the only traditional Sesame Street character on the show, which is called Sim Sim Hamara, or Our Sim Sim. The action centers around a mock-up of a Pakistani town, complete with houses, a school and Baaji's dhaba, a small shop and restaurant found in many places in the country. The town also includes a large Banyan tree, known as the wisdom tree in South Asia, in the shade of which the children often play.

“Given the intense ethnic and regional divisions within Pakistan, the creators tried to build a set that was recognisable to Pakistani children but did not stand out as being from one part of the country. For similar reasons, the skin colors of the puppets range from very light brown to orange. A total of 78 episodes will be aired in Pakistan's national language, Urdu, over the next three years, as well as 13 in each of the four main regional languages, Baloch, Pashto, Punjabi and Sindhi. The shows will appear on Pakistan state television, and the producers hope they will reach 3 million children, 1 million of whom are out of school. They also plan radio programs and 600 live puppet performances they hope will reach millions more kids and parents.Each episode will be based around a word and a number, like the US version, and will tackle general themes like friendship, respect and valuing diversity. This last theme is particularly important in Pakistan, where extremists often target minority religious sects and others who disagree with their views. "There are many situations where we coexist peacefully, and that's what we want to focus on," said Imraan Peerzada, the show's head writer.

“The program will feature holidays celebrated by Muslims, Christians and Hindus in an attempt to get children to respect the traditions of different religious groups in Pakistan, said Peerzada. American officials stressed they were not involved in creating content for the show. The US is extremely unpopular in Pakistan, and suspicions run high about American manipulation in the country. The creators realise that there is some risk of militant backlash. Events held by Rafi Peer have been attacked several times in the past, including a world arts festival in 2008 that was hit by three small bomb blasts that wounded at least half a dozen people. "We can't just stop because of this fear," said Faizaan Peerzada.

Pakistan's "Sesame Street" Canceled Due to Fraud Charges

In June 2012, just months after it was launched, the United States cancelled funding for Pakistan’s version of “Sesame Street,” saying it had received credible allegations of fraud and corruption in the production of the show. Andrew Quinn of Reuters wrote: “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which had contracted with Pakistan’s Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop to produce the local version of “Sesame Street,” had been notified of the corruption charges through an anti-fraud hotline. “We did launch an investigation into the allegations. We also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement,” Toner told a news briefing. “No one is questioning, obviously, the value and positive impact of this kind of programming for children. But this is about allegations of corruption,” he said. [Source: Andrew Quinn, Reuters, June 6, 2012]

The U.S. decision to cancel funding for the program comes amid unrelenting tension between Islamabad and Washington, which are locked in a cycle of deepening mistrust over U.S. drone strikes, Pakistan’s closure of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan and other disputes. Toner said USAID had originally allocated US$20 million to produce the show and that about US$6.7 million of this had already been spent. The rest of the money has been terminated even though the investigation is still under way, Toner said. “We deemed that the allegations were serious enough that we wanted to suspend or cut off the program until we were able to complete this investigation because we take misuse and misspending of U.S. taxpayer dollars very seriously,” he said.

Sesame Workshopsaid it was “surprised and dismayed” by the allegations against the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop. “Sim Sim Hamara” has aired weekly on Pakistan television in Urdu along with editions in four additional languages for regional broadcast. Faizaan Peerzada of Pakistan Children’s Television, which was tasked with implementing the “Sim Sim Hamara” project, said the USAID portion had been due to end in September. “After this, Rafi Peer will continue to run it with its own resources. And the spiced up story is a lie,” Peerzada told Reuters, referring to reports of the corruption allegations. The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, in its own statement, said the joint project was drawing to a close “with mutual consent” and that it was confident it could find alternate sources of funding to keep the program running.

Pakistan Idol

Annabel Symington of the Wall Street Journal wrote “Auditions are underway for “Pakistan Idol,” a televised song and dance talent show that may provoke controversy in the Muslim-majority country, where an increasingly vocal and violent minority consider singing and dancing strictly against Islam.A line of young hopefuls, aged between 15 and 30, snaked around the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi on the first day of auditions in the coastal megacity and Pakistan’s commercial hub. Even as they waited they occasionally burst into song to cheers from the rest of the crowd. “There is a lot of talent,” said Muhammad Shafay Shiraz, 21, one of those auditioning, looking around nervously. [Source: Annabel Symington, Wall Street Journal, India Real Time, October 29, 2013]

“Muhammad Dannish, 24, who works in a textile mill on the edge of Karachi, planned to impress the judges with a song by Pakistani rock band, Jal. Mr. Shiraz was also going to sing a song by Jal, unless, he said, it looked like the judges were in a “romantic mood.” “I could sing ‘Suno Na’ by Shaan,” he said, referring to the Indian artist famous for his romantic ballads. Asma Naz, 25, traveled for four hours from Mirpur Khas in central Sindh to audition. Dressed in a turquoise shalwar kamise, the loose shirt and trousers commonly worn by men and women in Pakistan, with her head covered in a beige scarf, Ms. Naz waited patiently in line for her turn to impress the judges. “I have always wanted to be a singer,” she said, “I saw Indian Idol and got the inspiration to take part.” “When I heard there was going to be a ‘Pakistan Idol’ I was very excited,” Ms. Naz said that she had the full support of her family and friends, but admitted that sometimes they fun of her ambition. “My friends tease me because I always sing, but they know it is my dream,” she said. The young woman hoped to win a place on the talent show with her rendition of a ballad by Bollywood doyenne, Asha Bhosle.

“The TV show will follow the same format as that started in the U.K. as “Pop Idol”, and grew into an international franchise with country idols from across Europe, Africa and Asia. It will air on December 6 on Geo TV. Plans to bring the talent show franchise to Pakistan were first mooted in 2007, but security concerns stalled progress. Saad Bin Mujeeb, director of content and productions at Geo TV, who is overseeing the show’s production, acknowledges that the security situation has not improved much over the last six years but the company has grown and is now more used to dealing with the threats. “We are now more prepared to handle the situation,” Mr. Mujeeb said.

“Many of the “Idol” hopefuls in Karachi last week said that they wanted to remind Pakistanis — and the world — of the country’s rich musical heritage that has in many ways been sidelined by the violence and rising sectarian tensions. Yasal Kzmi, 17, from Karachi had prepared two songs for the audition by two of Pakistan’s most famous Sufi singers; Reshma and Abida Parveen. Sufism, a form of Islam with rich musical and poetic elements, is deeply rooted in Pakistan but it has largely been sidelined by the more puritanical Deobandi school of Islam, imported from India at the time of partition, and Wahhabi Islam, which comes from Saudi Arabia.

“Nearly 50,000 hopefuls attended initial auditions held across the country from conservative Peshawar to the cultural capital, Lahore. “We’ve seen everything from a street sweeper in Multan to the son of a landowner and politician in Faisalabad,” said Mr. Mujeeb. “I am hoping that it will be a very Pakistani show that shows our rich music culture,” said Mr. Mujeeb, “There are still people now who doubt that the show will happen. There is disbelief that this kind of show can happen in Pakistan. I say, why not?”

Idol Format: to Choose a Prime Minister?

In February 2008, “As the curtain fell on Sunday night on DawnNews’ seven-episode flagship series — ‘Enter the Prime Minister’ — a novel and unconventional solution was found to accommodate the verdict of the panel of six judges that constituted both the prosecution and voters in the programme. The chairman of the panel of judges, Karachi-based lawyer Qazi Faez Isa, declined to use his casting vote, and the verdict on the choice of prime minister was declared to be a ‘tie’ between the two final contesting candidates. Renowned human rights activist Asma Jehangir and her opponent corporate CEO and business activist Asad Umar accepted the solution for the post of prime minister in the coming government. The two candidates split the jackpot prize of two return tickets to Washington DC. [Source:, February 18, 2008

“‘Enter the Prime Minister’ was launched in early December in time for the January 8 elections by DawnNews as the icing on its elaborate package of informational programmes and talk shows surrounding the current elections. Approximately 1,000 names, both known and unknown ‘were nominated by members of the public’ and senior editors of the Dawn Media Group, a short list of 16 candidates from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad was created.

“The seven-episode series on television played out in three rounds. In round I — 16 candidates deemed ‘suitable’ by senior editors of the media group believed to possess the requisite qualities suitable for the post of prime minister. An evaluation of candidates was made by the panel of judges and from the first round two groups of three candidates each were selected for participation in Round II. Finally in Round III, two contesting candidates debated a host of policy issues on the basis of which the winner was to be chosen as the candidate amongst nominees ‘possessing the requisite abilities most suited to be prime minister.

“The shortlist of 16 consisted of four relatively unknown figures who acted as the ‘vox populi’ and who had little if no previous experience of public affairs. Arshad Bhatti, a media and education consultant; a young upcoming female entrepreneur Sadia Khan; a qualified corrosion technologist Dr Farid Malik; and Sarmad Tariq, a physically challenged HR motivational speaker.

“Twelve high-profile public personalities constituted the mainstay of debating and governance skills witnessed in the series. They included senator and PML-Q secretary-general Mushahid Hussain; internationally renowned rights activist Asma Jehangir; party leader from the NWFP-based PPP Patriots (Sherpao), Ms Anisa Zeb Taherkheli; public policy analyst Nasim Zehra; corporate CEO Asad Umar; policy activist on governance issues, Shafqat Mehmood; a distinguished former civil servant Tasneem Noorani, who has served at the helm of both the interior and commerce ministries; former interior minister and strongman from the early days of Musharraf’s government, Lt Gen (retired) Moinuddin Haider; a former dissident leader from the Sindh PPP, Makhdoom Khaleeq-uz-Zaman; foreign policy analyst and former politician, Shafqat Ali Shah Jamote; and PML-N party leader and restaurateur Sardar Rahim.

Begum Nawazish Ali: Pakistan’s Lovable Cross-Dressing Widow

In the 2000s, Ali Saleem, then in his 20s, portrayed Begum Nawazish Ali, a flirty, teasing widow, on Pakistani television, and was able to get away with doing and saying things that no Pakistan man or woman could. Salman Masood wrote in the New York Times: “Ali Saleem may have devised the perfect, if improbable, cover for breaking taboos in conservative, Muslim Pakistan.In a country where publicly talking about sex is strictly off limits, Mr. Saleem has managed not only to bring up the subject on his prime-time television talk show — but to do so without stirring a backlash from fundamentalist Islamic clerics. And he has done so as a woman. [Source: Salman Masood, New York Times, January 3, 2007]

“When Mr. Saleem takes to the airwaves, he is Begum Nawazish Ali, a coquettish widow who interviews Pakistan’s glitterati and some of its top politicians. A real woman could not possibly do what Mr. Saleem does. In the unlikely event a station would broadcast such a show, the hostess would be shunned. And taking on the guise of a married woman — whose virtue is crucial to her whole family — would be equally impossible. But apparently a cross-dressing man pretending to be a widow is another matter entirely.

“It is something of a mystery why a man who openly acknowledges he is bisexual is a sensation here. Traditional Islamic teaching rejects bisexuals and gays, and gay Pakistanis have few outlets for a social life. The gay party scenes in Lahore and Karachi are deep underground. Mr. Saleem has his own theory for his popularity: he thinks Pakistan has always been more open than outsiders believed.

Mr. Saleem is thrilled with his success for reasons that are both political (he is proud to be breaking ground in bringing up tough subjects) and profoundly personal. “My biggest high is to see myself gorgeous in the mirror” he said recently while reclining in a makeup-room chair. As a beautician outlined his eyes, adding glitter and eye shadow, he said, “Maybe, yes, I am a diva.”

Begum Nawazish Ali on His-Her Show

"The Late Show with Begum Nawazish Ali" was broadcast on Saturdays and featured Begum Nawazish Ali, welcoming guests into her drawing room for gossip, jokes, chit-chat and some discussion on meaty issues. Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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. [Source:Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2008]

“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.”

Salman Masood wrote in the New York Times: “With fluttering eyelids and glossy lips, Begum Nawazish Ali (Begum means Lady or Mrs. in Urdu) flirts with male guests using suggestive banter and sexual innuendo. With female guests, she is something of a tease, challenging them about who looks better. Questions are pointed and piercing. Politics, democracy and saucy gossip are enmeshed in her conversation. [Source: Salman Masood, New York Times, January 3, 2007]

“Colorful and witty, Mr. Saleem is open about his own sexuality and sprinkles his conversation with gender-bending phrases. “My life fluctuates between two extremes,” he says. “I always say this: I am a man and I am a woman. It is two gender extremes, and I am constantly trying to balance it.” He is unabashed at the criticism that his show often borders on raunchiness. “Sitting senators have sent requests to be on the show,” he says.

“Mr. Saleem has also been willing to take on tough political subjects. He is openly critical of the army’s role in ruling Pakistan, for instance. Mr. Saleem, who in the guise of Begum Nawazish Ali often gets away with questions to politicians that print journalists might be wary of, said his show would not have been a possibility earlier. “I owe Begum Nawazish Ali’s existence, in a certain way, to General Musharraf,” he said.

“But he appears to know his own limits. He shrugged when asked if he should not invite the general himself on the show, appearing to indicate that he knew that was one taboo he could not break. But it did not stop him from flirting with the idea, especially after General Musharraf made himself so open to the media during his book tour of the United States last year. “I would love it if Musharraf would come on the show,” he said. “If he can go on Jon Stewart’s show, then why not?”

Success of Begum Nawazish Ali Show

Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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. [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2008]

“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."

Salman Masood wrote in the New York Times: “It is hard to judge how successful Mr. Saleem’s show is — there is no form of Nielsen ratings here. And there are clearly people who find the show revolting. But by many measures, it is a success. Television critics have been generally supportive, and the show, which has been on a year and a half, has a prime-time slot despite its name, “Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali.” Mr. Saleem said it was named for its racy content, usually shown late, but he said the network scheduled it earlier hoping for a hit that would bring in more advertising revenue. [Source: Salman Masood, New York Times, January 3, 2007]

Urbanites, meanwhile, seem not to be able to get enough of the once-a-week show, which is rerun twice each week. They have showered praise on Mr. Saleem’s portrayal of a middle-aged widow who, in glamorous saris and glittery diamonds, invites to her drawing room politicians, movie stars and rights advocates from Pakistan and India. Mr. Saleem sees the show’s acceptance and commercial success as a testimony to the tolerance and moderation of Pakistan, a country often seen by the outside world as teetering on the edges of militancy and extremism.

Origin of the Begum Nawazish Ali Character

Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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." [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2008]

“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.” “But 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."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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