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Spotlight: Ali Saleem

Ali Saleem is definitely no stranger to controversy. He has had people rolling on the floor ó with laughter ó by impersonating Benazir Bhutto. He has dressed up as a sexy widow and wooed audiences by interviewing the stuffiest politicians on national television as Begum Nawazish Ali. He has also been extremely open about leading an extremely open lifestyle.

But when Ali Saleem decides to head for the straight and narrow road and announces that he is searching for a bride and that he plans to be married ó to a girl ó in December 2007, and that his popular show, The Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali, is going on a break, thereís a buzz in the air. Who will he marry? Why is he opting to get married? Why is the show being canned? Is it because of media censorship? Someoneís political agenda? In an interview with, Ali Saleem bares all Ö and just a bit more.

So tell us about your marriage plans?
Iím launching a web site, a song, and a video; and then Iím going on a nationwide hunt for my bride.

So why have you decided to marry a woman, especially given your open lifestyle?
I feel that especially in our part of the world, an all alternative lifestyle is not easy to have. Iíve openly confessed so many things and Iím a try-sexual ó I try everything. But I have realised that marriage is something that sort of brings you stability, that security that you know you have a home to come back to. My parents are separated, my mom is a darling and so is my dad. My dadís house is my house, my momís house is my house, my brotherís house is my house but then none of these houses is my house. I actually thought that marriage is a very stupid idea; but my brother just got married about a year back and Iíve seen how a marriage can change your life completely.

What are you looking for in your bride to be?
Someone extremely loving, extremely comfortable with herself and with people around her. I donít want somebody with an overblown ego. I want somebody who is as warm and as loving as I am and correct ó to always speak the truth, to always be kind to others, be correct in terms of character.

Given your open lifestyle, as you said so yourself, donít you think it would be difficult for any woman to come to terms with that?
Actually now this is something that Iíve been thinking about myself. Iíve been in relationships before and Iíve had a great time. And if Iíve ever cheated, itís been out of sheer reaction when I know my partnerís cheated.

Do you draw the line at human beings?
Of course, darling!

Would you be comfortable if your partner had an equally interesting lifestyle as yours?
I think it would be so much better if she could be as interesting.

So youíre sure itís a she?
Yeah. In Pakistan, people donít accept two men together; they cannot because traditionally we are not accustomed to that. Your close friends might even accept you but it is a constant struggle. But since for me it does not matter, Iíd rather go for the option which is less troublesome, more practical and more realistic.

Arenít you compromising then?
Iím not settling for this. Iíve had my chances and Iíve realised that Iím just making the more intelligent decision. Iím not scared of anyone. Iíve never been scared of anyone. My decision has to be more reality-based.

But why adopt such an elaborate plan to find a bride?
When you work in the media, the kind of life you have, you have lots of acquaintances, all for a jolly good time. But thatís not real friendship. Strange kind of people end up attaching themselves to you, which is particularly true in my case, because I canít keep my distance. I canít behave badly, I canít be rude to people. I find it very hard to say no. I know I sound silly and stupid saying this but you know, I sometimes feel used and abused.

Iím at that stage when Iíve met many people in my life, but somehow marriage is the most important thing in my life. My access to people is limited to those in showbiz and theyíre not what Iíd call Ďnormalí people. I donít have access to normal people.

Do you think that youíre normal?
Iím not normal and I think there is enough abnormality in my life and therefore, I need someone normal. Normal, yet somebody who can deal with my eccentricities, with my mad lifestyle, my stupid schedules, all of that also.

Coming to the bride hunt, it should be fun. How do you plan to go about it?
I will be posting a couple of ads in the newspaper. I have my bhabi and bhai taking care of the media plan.

The buzz in the industry that The Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali is going on a break. Is this true?
Begum Nawazish Ali is going on a break because the Begum has wanted to go on a break for a very long time. I recorded my first programme in June 2005, and now its June 2007. Itís been two years now. And ever since then people expect me to be Begum Nawazish Ali all the time. Sheís become my identity, rather than Ali Saleem. Theyíd like me to be dolled up all the time. And Iím like, ďGive me a break, Iím not some object!Ē Iíve enjoyed being the Begum, it satisfies my exhibitionist streak, since whenever I am around anyone I like to entertain them and capture their attention.

Have you ever had an identity crisis considering that youíre always impersonating some woman or the other? First it was Benazir Bhutto and then Begum Nawazish Ali?
Should I be completely very honest with you? When I was much younger, around 13 or 14, most people around me were going through identity issues, but at that time I used to think that I was so lucky, I have it all worked out so well, I had the whole thing resolved. I was in tune with my womanly side as well as my manly side. Today, I have no hidden secrets; I can openly live the life the way I want to... I donít hide it from my parents, my siblings or from my friends. But only recently I have started having these strange thoughts and it was then when I realised that before it turns into an issue for me, let me take some time off.

What kind of strange thoughts?
Thoughts about my own self, my own existence. Just who I am; I couldnít see myself grow old and become Begum Nawazish Ali. If Iím constantly thinking as Begum Nawazish Ali, my thought process would automatically becomes hers, rather than Ali Saleemís. And you know, Begum is a fictitious character, she isnít real.

Do you enjoy the whole Begum experience?
I love being Begum! But now I think I should stop it, before being the begum stops becoming a passion for me, before I get sick of it and go through mental trauma. That is why I am taking a break, take some time off. But I think itís important to keep growing. I have some responsibilities Iíd like to take care of, and Iíd like to take some time off and pursue theatre. I constantly need something to be excited. Iím a very adventurous person.

Youíve gotten a lot of international media exposure from the show, from publications like The New York Times and channels such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC.
Iím very proud of this; Iíve been told by journalists from all over the world that itís so refreshing to get a story like Begum Nawazish Ali from Pakistan because usually, the stories that they get from Pakistan concern the Jamia Hafsa, the Taliban, dirty politics and violence. For people abroad, Begum Nawazish portrays a totally different image of Pakistan. And Iím glad I can do that. And more importantly, I think it shows that Pakistanis are moderate and tolerant people.

Speaking of Pakistanis, how has the general public reacted to the Begum?
Ordinary people on the road, people like food vendors, taxiwalas, chowkidars ó the general public finds Begum Nawazish very amusing, they are much more simple, much more innocent and for them anything that is fun and not dangerous is a welcome addition to their lives because everything for the common man nowadays spells danger. Once I was travelling in a train, and the compartment was full of green turbaned people. I was sitting there with nail polish, I hadnít taken off and I had red hair. And I was scared of how they would react. And while getting off, one of them just smiled at me and said ďBuhat acha kaam kar rahey hain. Lekin paanch waqt ki namaz chorian nahinĒ (Youíre doing great work, but donít forget to pray five times a dayĒ) which was so sweet.

Youíve managed to get a lot of politicians, a lot of people who have not come on national television before.
Since childhood, I have had a very keen interest in politics. I was affected when Ziaís plane crashed in 1988; I vividly remember Benazir Bhutto as prime minister. My favourite programmes on television were not cartoons, but Benazirís press conferences. I enjoyed sitting with my dadís (who was in the army) friends or my momís friends and talking about politics and Pakistan. I developed an interest in reading political books as well. I am a strong advocate of democracy; I am very passionate about it. I do not in any way condone a military rule. Itís wrong. Full stop, itís wrong. Pervaiz Musharraf could be a great man, but at the end of the day, heís an army man.

Has there been any pressure on you to end the show, mainly because it was a little controversial, especially given Musharrafís views on the media?
Absolutely not. Itís only because of a personal decision.

No pressure at all?
Begum Nawazish Ali will come back with a bang, darlings. With a big bang! I donít know but I will say that I am getting international projects but nothing nationally because itís very hush hush. But sheíll soon conquer India. Woh kaam jo Musharraf bhai nahin kar sake, Begum Nawazish Ali kar ke dikhain gi (Begum Nawazish Ali will do what Musharraf couldnít do).

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