Illustration: Farrukh Afaq/ Hum Nay Suna Hum Nay Dekha by Markings Khudi
Illustration: Farrukh Afaq/ Hum Nay Suna Hum Nay Dekha by Markings Khudi

In late 1983, a poetry recital was held at the Karachi Press Club (KPC). I had turned 17 that year, and had joined a government college in Karachi. Since the recital was being organised by a group of political and youth outfits who were opposed to the General Zia dictatorship, I accompanied some friends from my college to the recital. The fact that my father was a founding member of KPC made it easier for us to attend an already packed event.

Throughout the Zia dictatorship (1977-88) the KPC had been a hotbed of pro-democracy activities, and this recital was one of them. I do not remember who was hosting the event, but there were some well-known Urdu poets on the stage, including Habib Jalib. Among the invited poets was also Tariq Aziz.

When the host invited him to recite a poem, the announcement was greeted with loud boos from the audience. Undeterred, Aziz got up and smilingly walked up to the main microphone. The boos got louder and were soon followed by slogans.

‘Ghaddaar!’ [Traitor!] the agitated audience shouted. Aziz was unmoved. But just before he could begin, a shoe and then a slipper came flying towards him. Both missed the target, and Aziz was quickly escorted out.

At the time, Aziz was perhaps the most well-known TV personality in the country, mainly because of a popular quiz/game show, Neelam Ghar [Auction House], that he had been hosting on PTV since 1975. His signature style of hosting the show had a lot to do with its success. He would punctuate his speech with verses from a variety of Urdu poems, and witty remarks. And since he was also a pretty good character actor in a previous life, he often added drama to his style of hosting through his voice and exaggerated gestures.

The more Tariq Aziz was pushed in the background by new realities, the more he was parodied by comedians and, later, in memes. But in a way, this only secured his iconic status

So what happened at KPC? Why was this popular TV personality and a well-read and articulate cultivator of fine Urdu poetry, booed? The immediate answer to this question lies in what he is said to have done in 1977. The popular belief among Zia’s opponents at the time was that Aziz, to stop the Zia dictatorship from shutting down his game show on PTV, had written a letter to the dictator, apologising to him for supporting the former prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto.

Some 25 years later, when GeoTV’s Sohail Warraich asked him about the letter, Aziz stated that it was actually Zia who wrote him letters. He did not say what was in the letters, even though Aziz had not hesitated when he was asked by PTV to conduct Zia’s interview soon after the general had toppled the Bhutto regime in a coup d’état.

But here lies the crux of what made Aziz such a contradictory, yet fascinating character. He never shied away from explaining himself as an idealist. Yet, on so many occasions, he came across as being a supreme pragmatist. Born in Jalandhar (incidentally the same East Punjab city where Zia was born), Aziz’s family settled in Sahiwal (then Montgomery) after Partition. Gifted with a deep voice, he managed to get some work at Radio Pakistan. In 1964, he was chosen by the Ayub regime to announce the inauguration of PTV’s first-ever transmission. This made him the first person ever to appear on PTV.

Thus began Aziz’s foray into a life precariously shifting back and forth between some incredible cultural fame and equally incredible political somersaults. He made his debut as a film actor in 1967. The same year, he was smitten by the rise of Z.A. Bhutto and his then ‘socialist’ Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

During this period, fancying himself as a revolutionary socialist, Aziz spent most of his time moving between film sets and Bhutto’s rallies. In 1968, he joined the PPP. One of his tasks in the party was to get on stage during the rallies and warm up the crowds by delivering fiery revolutionary poetry and slogans.

He was often seen with Z.A. Bhutto during the party’s campaign for the 1970 elections. But Aziz’s film career was going nowhere, even when the PPP came to power in late December 1971. Aziz tried his luck as a TV actor, until an idea was presented to him by PTV, to host a quiz show. Called Neelam Ghar, it came hot on the heels of the success of two quiz shows, Kasauti and Sheeshay Ka Ghar.

Even though both the shows were popular, they were largely ‘intellectual.’ Neelam Ghar, on the other hand, was conceived as a more populist idea. It was also the first show in the country that was to be entirely funded by commercial sponsors, something that was not all that common in those days, except in the US.

Aziz took to the show like a fish to water. Soon, he began to mould it according to his own image, that of an artist who was a charismatic mixture of intellectual sophistication and rhetorical populism. Many believe he cultivated this image after being impressed by his political idol, Z.A. Bhutto.

The show became an instant hit, and soon everyone, it seemed, wanted to attend it. It was recorded in Karachi and, by 1976, PTV had to find larger halls to accommodate the growing number of audiences. Tickets were not sold. They were largely distributed by the sponsors of the show. According to a report in the January 2, 1976 issue of the Urdu daily Musawat, Aziz was quoted as saying that some people had even approached Prime Minister Bhutto for the tickets. Aziz had finally become a star.

But he almost lost it all when, in July 1977, Zia toppled the Bhutto regime in a military coup. Immediately, the dictatorship ‘blacklisted’ a number of actors, actresses, poets, writers, and shows on PTV, deeming them ‘anti-Pakistan’, ‘anti-establishment’ and, sometimes, even ‘anti-Islam’. Aziz’s name, too, was on this list. So was his show. This is when, some allege, Aziz wrote the apology letter to Zia and then agreed to interview the dictator.

Photo: White Star
Photo: White Star

Decades later, he told Warraich that Zia was a fan of the show, and thus allowed it to continue. The show not only continued, but became even bigger. But controversy was always close by. During the recording of the show in April 1980, a week after the first death anniversary of Z.A. Bhutto, who had been executed by the dictatorship through a sham trial, reports emerged in some Urdu dailies and the now defunct English eveninger Daily News that a fight had broken out on the sets between Aziz and a member of the audience.

The apocryphal story goes that, to a question asked by Aziz — ‘which is the most common animal found in Pakistan?’ — a man had replied, ‘Punjabis.’ This had infuriated Aziz and he slapped the man.

In any case, Aziz had become a household name in Pakistan. The first comedian to parody his signature style was the late Moin Akhtar. Aziz quite enjoyed it. A Pakistani advertising giant, the late S.M. Akhlaq, once told me in 2005, that brands that managed to get space or a mention in Neelam Ghar would do exceptionally well. Even small brands with insignificant products, such as water coolers, enjoyed booming sales because of their presence in the show.

Managing to get tickets to attend the show was a big deal, and whole families would turn up, dressed as if it were Eid. For a while, Aziz also became the most sought-after and expensive voice-over artist. He was allegedly paid millions of rupees to voice the launch TV commercial of Karachi’s Taj Mahal Hotel in 1982. The hotel is still there but is now called the Regent Plaza.

However, with Zia’s demise in August 1988, the show’s uninterrupted 13-year run came to a grinding halt. Angry at the manner in which Aziz had so casually dumped Z.A. Bhutto and then befriended his executioner Zia, the new regime, headed by Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, pulled the plug on Neelam Ghar for a short while. However, although he was able to persuade the PPP government to let the show on-air again, the hiccup also allowed Aziz to became close to Benazir’s then adversary Mian Nawaz Sharif. In 1994, there was another proposal to shut down the show because of dwindling sponsorships but the show was revived by handing over its marketing to private agencies.

After the fall of Benazir’s second government in 1996, Aziz officially joined Nawaz’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and was asked to contest the 1997 election from a Lahore constituency. Aziz won by defeating his PPP rival. Also on the ballot was the current PM of Pakistan Imran Khan, who only received a handful of votes. The new Nawaz regime also rebranded Neelam Ghar as the The Tariq Aziz Show in his honour.

Alas, times were rapidly changing. Pakistan now had a private TV channel as well, NTM, which, at least in the urban areas where it was available, had badly dented PTV’s monopoly. Yet, Aziz was somewhat able to retain an albeit shrinking fan base. What’s more, the revival of his show seemed to have energised him so much that, when a mob made up of PML-N supporters attacked the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Aziz was one of the attackers — although he would later claim he had accompanied the attackers only to stop them.

Nawaz had demanded that the Chief Justice at the time dismiss a case of contempt against him. When the court refused, its building was vandalised by Nawaz supporters. The episode came back to haunt Aziz, when in 1999, the Nawaz regime was removed by Gen Pervez Musharraf in a coup. Aziz was detained for attacking the Supreme Court building and his show was stopped. But Aziz was quick to compromise. In 2002, when Musharraf addressed his first major political rally in Lahore, the gathering was hosted by none other than Aziz, who welcomed Musharraf with fiery slogans. Aziz then joined the pro-Musharraf PML-Q.

His show returned as well, but it was by now a pale reflection of what it used to be. Snazzy private TV channels mushroomed during the Musharraf regime and Aziz began to be seen as a relic of the past. But, interestingly, with the advent of fledgling social media sites and online forums, a new generation of young Pakistanis, who would have been too young to even remember Neelam Ghar, suddenly began to share famous expressions that Aziz often used on his show, such as ‘Yeh watercooler aap ka hua!’ [This watercooler is yours!] or ‘Dekhti aankhon aur sunnte kaanon ko Tariq Aziz ka salaam’ [Greetings from Tariq Aziz to all those eyes watching and all those ears listening].

This generation wasn’t particularly interested in history, having grown up in an environment where a past before 1977 had been consciously repressed, as if it could threaten the very foundations of a more conservative political and cultural narrative built by the state after 1977. Nevertheless, some things did seep back in, even if they were devoid of their original context and were used rather irreverently. That’s why, ironically, the more Aziz was pushed in the background by new realities, the more he was parodied by comedians, and later, in memes. But in a way, this only secured his iconic status.

I’m not quite sure exactly when he retired from doing his game show, though the show had been off air for the last few years at least. Aziz became a recluse of sorts. Very few knew that he had been ill for the past five years or so. But even though he was 84 when he passed away, his death still came as a shock to most. Even to those who had only known him through parodies and memes.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 28th, 2020