January Issue 2006
Interview: Ali Saleem
“I get to have the best of both worlds”
– Ali Saleem
Ali Saleem, aka Begum Nawazish Ali, aka BB — son of a retired army officer — always evokes very strong reactions. Although his Benazir Bhutto impersonation may be his claim to fame, the Meera he has been doing lately tops that. Both acts, whenever performed, have always brought the house down, with the audience rolling over in hysterical laughter. Currently hosting The Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali on Aaj TV, Ali chats up invitees comprising the who’s who of the Pakistani literati, glitterati and chatterati. Whether it arouses disgust, curiosity or appreciation, the drag show is undoubtedly the talk of the town. The same can be said of Ali’s not-so-clean break with Geo TV and the subsequent court battle that ensued over the intellectual property rights of Begum Nawazish Ali. Apart from impersonations and drag, Ali also dabbles in writing and has penned Aap Jasai Koi, a series aired on HUM TV starring top models Aminah Haque and Iffat Rahim. Ali says he has “always wanted to be on stage,” and his ultimate fantasy was to “die performing on a glass stage in the middle of a vast sea with the whole world watching!” At some level, he feels he is spiritually connected to “the dancing girls from kothas” which he believes is the reason for his supreme confidence. Labelled a drag, a eunuch, a cross-dresser — Ali is firmly entrenched amongst the ever growing coterie of people Pakistanis generally love to hate. Over to Ali…
Q: You have been openly mimicking Benazir for ages now. Have you ever felt that you were stepping on political sensitivities?
A: Not for a minute. The first play I did was for Yasmeen Ismail at the Arts Council, organised by Interflow. I went on stage wearing a burqa and when I started my monologue, there was stunned silence — absolute disbelief — followed by a thunderous response. People even went to the extent of asking whether there was a tape recorder on, but they loved the performance.
Imran Aslam writes political satire and people who come to see the plays are politically aware and educated. The word of mouth publicity which we get is always good publicity. I was very young at that time and through the plays I was exposed to people much older than me as they were the ones who viewed my plays, giving me a chance to think better and mature faster.
There has never been a political reaction ever. I get my confidence from my honesty. I can face anybody in the world and don’t have to hide from anybody. I impersonate Meera on stage, wear saris and dance, imitate Benazir and am not scared of anybody because I am very confident and have never faced any problems
Q: Have you ever performed for Benazir?
A: I did it informally once at her request, at Nazia and Zoheb Hassan’s house. It was Zoheb’s dholki, and Nazia had pre-warned me not to, even if requested, emphasising that Benazir had no sense of humour. However, Benazir requested that I impersonate her and Nazia gave me a silent nod of approval. When I started, there was pin-drop silence amongst the small group of people present — until the [former] Prime Minister burst out laughing. She enjoyed the performance a lot and said, “You have made my day.”
Q: Is Begum Nawazish Ali also an impersonation?
A: No. Begum Nawazish Ali is me, something I have dreamt of since childhood. The Begum is an expression of me as a woman. She is a socialite, very sweet yet bitchy. Being a drag she can get away with a lot. The character actually came about following a suggestion from Dr. Omar Adil, who is an orthopaedic surgeon in Lahore. He has done a lot of research on the Pakistan film industry and was a close friend and doctor of Madam Noor Jehan’s. The minute he met me, we hit it off and during a casual chit-chat he suggested that I do something bigger than the Benazir impersonations because he felt my talent was unique. In fact, he said that he saw a diva in me and that I should bring that diva out! The idea appealed to me; I didn’t want to drop dead with just Benazir impersonations to my credit. So I wrote out a rough concept for the show, which was more like a character sketch since we had no idea of what kind of guests would appear on the show. I then sent the draft to Dr. Adil. He had a neighbour by the name of Begum Nawazish Ali, who was married to a colonel, and that’s how my character was given an identity as the late colonel’s wife.
Q: People compare Begum Nawazish Ali to Dame Edna — is she an inspiration?
A: None at all. Dame Edna is total ham — loud and very brash. How can you compare Begum Nawazish to her? Begum Nawazish Ali just comes from my heart.
Q: If the character was your brain-child, why does Geo TV claim credit for it? They even filed a law suit against you when the show started airing on Aaj TV.
A: I respect Geo a lot because I have a very long association with Imran Aslam. I started with Imran and have a great amount of regard and respect for him. I think he has done some of the best work to come out of the country. When we moved to Karachi from Islamabad, my parents were going through a divorce, which was a very difficult period in my life, and at that time I found Imran and Gripps to be of great support. Ever since I started working with Imran, there had been talk about Geo because obviously they had been working on it for years. He was the main think tank behind the channel and used to talk about its vision all the time — there was just PTV around at that time. So we fantasised about a medium where all of us would get the opportunity to do something different.
The first entertainment programme on Geo was Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain and I did my Benazir on TV for the first time. It became the talk of the town. With stage, the exposure I had was limited but with TV I got national exposure. It was instant stardom for me, and Geo also got a lot of mileage from that show. So ever since its launch I have had a very good relationship with Geo. Later, they offered me employment on a full-time basis and I accepted it, thinking it would be a good platform for me. My position was that of a creative writer and I was supposed to give programme concepts and ideas.
Begum Nawazish was something I had been working on for much longer than that — years before I had even joined Geo. I had discussed the idea with them and had numerous discussions with Nadeem Baig (who, at the time, was also working there). But a year-and-a half later, things there were still moving very slowly. Ideas would get approved verbally, but all I was doing was Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain. I just got very frustrated. When Nadeem Baig joined Aaj TV, he asked me to bring the programme there, which he said he would send on air immediately, and that’s when the tussle started because Geo didn’t want me to leave and take the programme elsewhere.
Q: There is a very mixed response to the show — people either love or hate it.
A: If they hate the concept of a man dressed up as a woman then they need to grow up. I have taken a very bold step, given the falling media standards. The concept is original and something to be proud of. It has a viewership so I am very happy. Why, nothing like this has ever been done before, not even in India. India makes its heroes — they know how to build them up and then cash in on them later. Aishwarya is world famous while we peg Meera down at every given opportunity. Who is our national hero after Quaid-e-Azam? Bhutto was a criminal according to the law of the land, Imran Khan has one skeleton after the other popping up. I want to break this mindset through my show. We don’t let individuals live nor institutions flourish. We are a repressed, sick society and there is negativity everywhere. I stand for everything that is positive and not bad. It is very easy for ten people to sit in a drawing room and criticise others, and we are too jealous of anybody who is even slightly better than us. This should change with our generation.
Q: You invite very high profile people on it as guests. Is it easy to talk to them?
A: That is the interesting element of the show, and I owe Ameen Fahim a lot in this regard. I respect him a lot and meet him socially, so I had requested him to be in the first episode. It was a very major step for him since it was a drag show on TV, and he keeps a very low profile. But after that recording, hype was created merely by word of mouth of people who were on the set. The show was a big hit even before it had gone on air and now people call to be invited to it. The only two people who have refused to be on my show so far are Imran Khan and Ghinwa Bhutto — and for obvious reasons. Both are failed politicians and have too much to hide, issues which they will not be comfortable talking about. Imran has too many skeletons in his closet. Ghinwa has the ‘saas bhi kabhi bahu thee’ type melodrama which is going on in 70 Clifton to deal with, and that is her mere claim to fame. My programme is not intended as a personal attack, it is just a conversation without any agenda.
Q: Is it difficult being so unconventional?
A:Being a man, it is easier for me to get away with whatever I do but had I been my parent’s daughter, it would have been a different issue altogether. If I had wanted to live as unconventional a life as I am living right now, do you think I would have been allowed to do so? No, but because I am a son, my parents are cool with it and at the end of the day they know that whatever I do, I will get away with it because of my gender.
Q: Are you an effeminate man?
A: This is a very interesting question. From childhood, I have been a feminist and believe that women are actually superior to men. It is not essential that a man who is effeminate is a feminist also. At the end of the day, because they are guys, they would still want to be supreme. As a child, I was totally in awe of my mother and would love wearing her dupatta. I used to try and copy her and she was my role model. I have always enjoyed the company of my mother’s friends more than my father’s friends and have always liked aunties more than uncles. There were times when I was effeminate to a certain extent. Being a feminist, you can be effeminate, and subconsciously you mimic your female role models which is probably how the Benazir thing started. Ever since I have started doing Begum Nawazish, I feel less effeminate in my day-to-day life because the woman in me is expressed on the show.
Q: Weren’t you getting that satisfaction from mimicking Benazir and Meera?
A: No. Begum Nawazish Ali is actually me. It is something I have dreamed of since childhood. All my friends were women above 50 years of age and my mother would always chide me for that. She thought it was quite abnormal that the only friends visiting me at home were older women of my mother’s age. Yasmeen [Ismail] was my mentor, I loved her. She was a part of me, and even now she lives within me. I know one day we will be together again. I could relate to her in many ways. Muneeza Baseer used to always say to me that there is a 60-year-old woman inside of me. Half my married, female friends confide in me and I can actually understand them and at the same time, also give them a man’s perspective. I get to have the best of both worlds.