The Talented Mr. Liaquat

Published in The Express Tribune – photo by Diego Ibarra Sanchez

He urges austerity while wearing the most violent floral patterns. He breaks character — his zen, side-parting, heavy-breathing character — to sing Rishi Kapoor songs. He gives away free mangoes, at other times free babies. Aunties swear the light of heaven has touched his face, even as he swears something filthy at the studio help. His television show turns the holy month into a high-glitz free-for-all, and in spite of it (or because of it) is the most watched in the country. He’s a scholar without schooling, a doctor without a degree, part priest and part prima donna. He is, in short, a star they could only make in Pakistan.

To paraphrase John Lowy, Aamir Liaquat’s truth is too strange for credible fiction. But it all just fell into place for Pakistan’s first true televangelist. For one brief moment in the mid-2000s, his stars aligned: the M.Q.M. was running Karachi, General Musharraf was shaking his fists at passersby, and a loosed media was exploding all over the place. As golden boy of all three, Mr. Liaquat took ‘enlightened moderation’, those weasel words everyone was repeating back then, and turned it into Aalim Online. He never looked back. We could never look away.

And there lies the problem. Mr. Liaquat’s Ramazan viewership is massive and growing. A fraction may watch his show to write scathing blogs afterwards; the vast majority will take him seriously. This lends Mr. Liaquat a giant megaphone into society, with ideas that range from dangerous to highly dangerous. This also makes him a cash cow — the fattest one this quarter — one that network executives are finding increasingly hard to sacrifice purely for ethics’ sake.

But like most gentlemen with white collars, the network bosses have tried hard to clean up the doctor’s grimier younger days, when our airwaves would be filled with primetime hate. Part of this is down to Mr. Liaquat’s skill at reinventing himself.

The other part is media spin; a fresh narrative where Aamir Liaquat helps us achieve another, more worldly nirvana: Soft Pakistan. In a warm and fuzzy profile by The New York Times, one TV exec argued that it would take an Aamir Liaquat to lead society away from the extremist abyss, admitting ‘we need people like him to ease us down the mountain.’ Earning his keep, Mr. Liaquat played his adorable self, returning from New York with something he called ‘his Manhattan sauce.’ A character arc so convincing, it almost makes us forget so much money’s at stake.

But even shorn of his past, Aamir Liaquat 2.0 remains as unhealthy for society as the original. Few would disagree that Mr. Liaquat’s broadcasts headline Ramazan. But besides fasting, the holy month is the time we lower our voices and open our minds. It’s meant for restraint and reflection, a spiritual experience that makes us aware there’s a higher calling.

But Mr. Liaquat’s every intention, it seems, is to upend that higher calling and drive us ever further into life’s rat race. What should be about ideas and introspection is now about washing machines and DVD players, as Mr. Liaquat wheels around flinging home appliances at his guests. Plugging his sponsor’s products in ways that would make the cast of Bulbulay blush (‘Dunia ka sab se shaandaar mobile aap ka hua’), Mr. Liaquat has smothered the spirit of Ramazan in Firdaus lawn. And for a society already more materialistic than measured, it is the wrong message to be receiving.

Mr. Liaquat’s show needs to be pulled, or at the very least overhauled. Since only network chiefs can exercise the first option, chances are low. If high ratings can justify giving away human babies — amid motorbikes and clothes irons — studio heads certainly aren’t taking their viewers’ sensibilities into account. Overhaul would require Mr Liaquat to change, preferably back to the gentleman that pushed for a fatwa against suicide bombing some years ago. But even in that incarnation, Mr. Liaquat was neither enlightened nor moderate. He changes according to climate.

It’s left to the viewers to set that climate for him. There are growing signs of disgust: at the gaudiness of the show, at his casual rants against critics, in giving away orphan children on national television. But it was Mr. Liaquat’s recent treatment of Taher Shah that revolted people to anger. This is in large part because it was a moment of clarity. For someone who claimed that his degrees were real, that his outtakes were fake, that the cricket team lost because their shoe soles were coloured the green of Islam, there was finally nothing left to lie about. The essence of Aamir Liaquat was in sharp relief.

Like a toe-curling inversion of Britney Spears, Mr. Liaquat whirled around Mr. Shah with a snake slung across his shoulders. He was physical and crass. Mr. Shah, meanwhile, showed us the kind of humility befitting a Ramazan special. A tweet by Sami Shah does more justice to him than all the ink that’s flown since his song went viral: ‘I think I love Taher Shah unironically. He put his art out there. That’s more than most of us ever achieve.’ God bless him.

If Mr. Liaquat’s target audience still requires dissuading, it should consult his outtakes leaked one fateful Ramazan sehri-time. In one clip, in a question alluding to rape, a caller asks if religion would permit a woman to take her own life beforehand. Steadying himself, Mr. Liaquat’s guest mufti begins, ‘Jee, bohat naazuk surat-i-haal hai,’ before Mr. Liaquat starts snorting, then giggling, then finally losing his breath. The mufti is laughed into silence, laughter that seems to be coming from the depths of Mr. Liaquat’s soul. By now, convulsing with laughter, Mr. Liaquat manages to wheeze, ‘Bohat naazuk surat-i-haal hai?’

It’s all there; the schoolboy sadism, the screwball sense of humour. The authentic, out-of-character Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain. It’s not too hard to imagine a similar reaction whenever his ratings come in. We could do our part and change the channel.