Nirupama Subramanian

Pakistani TV channels are hitting back at the gag order on the media with an age-old and powerful political weapon: satire.

“Khushamdeed nazreen [welcome viewers],” the anchor starts off, brow furrowed, pen in hand, a business-like, no-nonsense air about him.

“We are back. The government said they would permit us to go on air only if we changed the programme. We want to assure our viewers that we have not changed anything, it is the same programme, the same hard talk, the same tough questions. Nothing has changed.”

The anchor then pulls out a bowl of vegetables and fruits from under his table, and says with the same serious frown on his face: “Today we will be discussing one of the burning issues of the day — how to cook up a dish combining bananas and capsicum, and for this we have invited two well-known experts to the programme, and they will be sharing their views with us.”

Welcome to “Four-Man Show,” Aaj TV’s side-splitting weekly self-spoof, which is now using its format of lampooning its own programmes to hit out at the Pakistan government’s draconian restrictions on the media following President Pervez Musharraf’s November 3 imposition of Emergency. Aaj Television was allowed back on air last week only after it agreed to axe two audience-pulling current affairs shows, perceived as anti-Musharraf: “Live with Talat,” anchored by Talat Hussain, one of Pakistan television’s most well-known faces, and “Bolta Pakistan,” an audience interactive talk show, also on current affairs, hosted by two respected names in Pakistani journalism, Nusrat Javed and Mushtaq Minhas.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority asked the channel to bring the two programmes in line with a new ordinance or pull the shows. The anchors refused to change anything, and the programmes had to go. But other regular programmes on the channel are hitting back at the gag order with an age-old and powerful political weapon: satire.

When “Four-Man Show,” a long-running spoof of “Live with Talat” and other Aaj news programmes, came back after the restoration of the channel following the agreement with the government, its crew had a ready-made subject — the blacking out of the two programmes.

Simple ideas

“This is no big, complicated concept or idea. It’s very simple. We are people who liked reading newspapers and watching television. Now we are not able to watch the programmes that we like. This is what we wanted to show,” said Murtaza Chaudhary, whose “Khalid Butt,” a side-splitting impersonation of Mr. Hussain, is one of the best lampoons on Pakistani television.

For his first show, which went on air this Monday, four days after the channel came back on cable, Mr. Chaudhary was spoofing Mr. Hussain again. The guests on his show: spitting-images of the sacked hosts of “Bolta Pakistan,” all discussing how to cook up a tasty dish out of bananas and capsicum.

“It is a way of conveying what we want to without saying it directly and without causing any offence to anyone,” said Mr. Chaudhary, who is also the producer of the show. “I am sure even if some people from the government, politicians were watching the show,” they were laughing,” he said.

Another regular political and political satire in quiz show format on Aaj — inspired by BBC’s “Have I got News For you” — hosted by Fasi Zaka called “News, Views and Confused,” which aired on Wednesday after a three-week gap due to the intervening ban on the channel, was also an unforgiving take-off on the Emergency. Mr. Zaka, his two co-hosts and guests discussed the goings-on in Turkey, Armenia, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and every other country in the world with restrictive media laws — except Pakistan — dismissing them all as “backward” and “silly” for not allowing their media to function freely.

During the programme, one of the co-hosts complains to Mr. Zaka that he must be the most unfashionably dressed personality on Pakistani television. Offering to “accesorise” him, he ties a black ribbon around Mr. Zaka’s arm, which stays on through the show. At one point, making a reference to the Karachi stock exchange nosedive following the imposition of Emergency, Mr. Zaka says the markets must count themselves lucky that they only had a “black Monday.”

“The rest of Pakistan had Black Saturday, Black Sunday, Black Monday, Black Tuesday …,” he deadpans.

Private television channels in Pakistan, which mushroomed in the relaxed media atmosphere fostered by the same President Musharraf who three weeks ago did a turnaround and gagged the media, have always been big on political satire. Almost every channel had a show mercilessly lampooning Pakistan’s politicians and the country’s politics. Politicians also demonstrated an almost British-like ability to take it all sportingly.

One of the most popular shows on Geo TV, a channel that is now shut down, was “Hum Sab Umeed Sey Hai (We are all Waiting with Great Expectations),” inspired by British television’s “Spitting Image,” but acted out by real look-alikes of the country’s main political players.

Before the present crisis, when President Musharraf and Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto were still hammering out their “deal,” the programme did a hilarious take-off on the negotiations using a Pepsi advertisement in which a couple pull at different ends of the same straw, fighting over the last drop of the soft drink.

New ordinance

But in the current environment, it is anybody’s guess how long the Aaj shows will be allowed to run. One of the clauses in the new PEMRA ordinance forbids broadcasting anything that brings the President, armed forces or state institutions into ridicule.

“Right now, we are testing the limits. We are going to do this until we can,” Mr. Zaka told The Hindu, adding that he would quit if any attempt was made to water down his programme.