SMOKERS’ CORNER: FIRST IN THE GAME

Updated 31 Jul 2017

Email

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The celebrity status of game show hosts in Pakistan has increasingly bloated beyond the usual parameters of what constitutes being a glorified show-biz personage. In the last decade or so, various game show hosts have continued to draw large TV audiences (and massive salaries). Interestingly, not only have they used their celebrity standing to expand into other areas of show business (such as TV soaps, films and brand endorsements), many of them are also not immune from unabashedly commenting on political, moral and religious issues of the day. And they are being heard by their many fans, most of whom see them as people who nonchalantly give away grand prizes for answering the most inane questions.

These ‘charitable’ men and women are dutifully heard when they decide to enlighten the populace about everything from faith to good morals and even about certain conspiracies being hatched by some powers against the republic.

All this is still a relatively new phenomenon, that has ­­— for lack of a better word — evolved in the last decade and a half after the government allowed the mushrooming of private TV channels in Pakistan. These channels decimated the monopoly once enjoyed by the state-owned PTV. Yet, whatever these 21st century TV game show hosts are now associated with, was once enjoyed and wielded by a man who preceded them by over 30 years!

Game shows are all the rage on television these days and their highly-paid hosts have their dedicated fans. But what about Tariq Aziz, the pioneer of Pakistani game shows?

In 1983 when I was a first-year-student at a local college in Karachi, I almost immediately fell in with student groups who were at the forefront of various movements against the intransigent Gen Zia dictatorship. At the time the Karachi Press Club (KPC) had become a bastion of sorts for the city’s anti-Zia intellectuals, media personnel and students.

In September 1983 when an anti-Zia movement orchestrated by a nine-party alliance, the MRD, was at its peak in Sindh, I accompanied a few college fellows to a mushaira (poetry recital) being held at the KPC. The recital was being participated in by a string of progressive Urdu poets who unlike poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Fahmida Riaz had not gone into exile.

When the host of the recital (I think a member of KPC’s union) began to read the names of the participants, the name of one Tariq Aziz too was announced. Even though I did not see him come on the stage, the audience, largely made up of intellectuals and journalists (and their families), and college and university students became agitated and started to shout, “Tariq Aziz ko bahir nikalo! [kick out Tariq Aziz].” I did not see him but word got around that he was on his way to the KPC.

Aziz was not a famous poet but he did like to pen couplets and recite verses authored by various Urdu bards. Yet, even though he never managed to make it to the stage, his name had provoked an agitated response from the audience. Aziz was just a TV game show host. But at the time his show, Neelam Ghar (Auction House) was the highest-rated show on PTV and his celebrity status even outweighed those of famous TV and film actors, and cricket and hockey stars of the day.

His producers were constantly pestered by men and women asking for passes to his show. At times even bureaucrats, business tycoons, military officials and politicians tried to exercise their influence to get in.

But just like today’s game show hosts, his large fandom was also offset by those who were not very approving of him. However, his story goes back a lot deeper than those of his more future contemporaries.

Born in 1936, Aziz (in the mid-1950s) had begun to describe himself as “a socialist” at college. After graduating, he joined Radio Pakistan as an announcer and then was invited to make the introductory announcement at the launch of PTV in 1964. He thus became among the first persons to appear on TV in Pakistan. He had also entered the then thriving Urdu film industry as a character actor. He also managed to bag a handful of leading roles, but his film career was rather unexceptional.

In the late 1960s, Aziz fell in love with the personality of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and became a member of ZAB’s left-leaning and populist, PPP. Journalist Mahmud Sham in his famous 1976 book, Larkana to Peking described Aziz as a passionate revolutionary. Ghulam Akbar in his 1989 book He Was Not Hanged wrote that Aziz was a “firebrand socialist” known for charging up the crowds with revolutionary slogans at ZAB’s rallies. Aziz also went around with a film camera and captured many such rallies on film. Footage from these films has continued to appear from the 1990s onward after footage of ZAB’s rallies owned by PTV was destroyed by the Zia regime.

In 1974, inspired by a quiz show Sheeshay Ka Ghar (The Glass House) on PTV, Aziz and Arif Rana came up with an idea for a more populist game show. Thus was born Neelam Ghar, which was broadcast from Karachi in 1975. It was an instant hit. Aziz’s flamboyant style of hosting soon turned him into the star he had always craved to be. The show survived the fall of ZAB’s regime in 1977 in a military coup. In fact, by the time ZAB was hanged in 1979, Aziz was close to the Zia dictatorship.

A feature on Aziz in the July 1997 issue of Herald suggested that one of the “compromises” that Aziz made with the military regime was to “add a religious zeal” to his show and advance the regime’s “rightist ideology.” This is exactly why the audiences at the KPC recital booed when his name was mentioned.

And this was also why Neelam Ghar was cancelled after ZAB’s daughter Benazir Bhutto was elected PM in 1988. Aziz was livid and demanded that the show be brought back. In 1996, Aziz, still enjoying a large fan base, joined Nawaz Sharif’s centre-right PML-N. In 1997 he was elected as an MNA from Lahore. The Sharif regime allowed Aziz to revive his show on PTV. Renamed the Tariq Aziz Show, it failed to recapture the popularity it had enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aziz later broke away from PML-N and joined the Gen Musharraf-backed PML-Q. He had hailed Musharraf’s coup against the PML-N regime in 1999. But he seemed lost in his new party and was soon sidelined. Even 81 years old, Aziz is still trying to locate his lost glory. He does a show called Bazm-i-Aziz on PTV, but its presence has been heavily weighed down by the more gaudy and exhibitionist game shows on private TV channels. And I personally know, some of their hosts have little or no clue about someone called Tariq Aziz — the original multitasking Pakistani TV game show host.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2017