Aamir Liaquat: The star Aalim who ran us like a circus

Love him or hate him, the celebrated televangelist made sure no one will ever be able to forget him


KARACHI:

Sudden deaths are different. Not because no one expects death to come out of nowhere but because they don’t give mourners time to prepare a response. So many questions, so many complaints and reasons to forgive and to wish the deceased hell, all are left unsaid because time, the true god of destiny, outpaced your aspirations. When the bucket has been kicked, everything left unsaid seems so matter of fact that you come out of mourning by finding your catharsis in mortality. 

The fitting question really is whether this full circle of emotions is harder to achieve with the sudden death of someone you love or someone you despise. The process is similar – one driven by affection, the other by spite – and how you come to terms with your emotional arc signifies how strongly you felt about the person who just departed. This is not a question about legacy. A hatemonger dies a hatemonger, a philanthropist – a philanthropist. But at the same time, no one can erase the impact a dying individual leaves on others, regardless of affection or lack of it. 

Aamir Liaquat. PHOTO: TWITTER

Aamir Liaquat. PHOTO: TWITTER

Who in a multiverse would have thought that Aamir Liaquat’s death would expose more fissures in our society than his incredibly remarkable yet tainted life as a showman. While some educated and somewhat influential segments on social media celebrated his passing like a royal farewell, others mourned him as a national hero or even a martyr. Imagine the skill and precision of a person who lived with his contradictions and then died holding a mirror to ours?
 
Pakistan’s most famous televangelist was a remarkably dangerous ringmaster who knew when to whip the animals and when to tame them like his own prized possessions to stage the perfect circus. We the audience clapped, hooted, laughed and booed him off stage and yet he kept coming back with new snakes and ladders. When he couldn’t tame the animals or when the acrobats refused to cave in, he’d turn himself into a circus and once again, grasped your attention. And then out of nowhere, you would see a kid turn up on his show wishing the doctor was his father.
 
Perhaps the animals or acrobats were a mere distraction and all the audience ever wanted from him was for the circus to never end. Perhaps the doctor knew his patients too well. Liaquat’s gradual but crazy evolution as a showman represented everything good, bad and ugly about our society; wit, knowledge, social awareness, taste, eloquence, abhorrence, narcissism, perversion, bullying, chauvinism and bigotry all combined in a tsunami of everyman good looks. 

PHOTO: Aamir Liaquat Husain

PHOTO: Aamir Liaquat Husaain

His personality was so unique yet accessible – the sum-total of all the archetypes present at a Karachi dhabba and Arts Council combined – that you could see mothers turn up to him at a restaurant to offer their daughter in marriage and students of devotion reach out to him for serious questions regarding sects in Islam. All this while circles close to him would know which female celebrity was he courting and deciding to marry. The best part was that none of this was a secret. He had nothing to hide, nothing you could hold up against his contradictions because he literally lived with them, and was somewhat accepted and lauded for doing so.

This also goes for the hate he spread and the criminal actions his programmes triggered. In particular, the show where a cleric’s venomous comments against the Ahmaddiya community led to the murder of an Ahmadi individual in Gujranwala. After the murder and the hue and cry that followed, the network in question issued a detailed apology. Liaquat too apologised to the community claiming he intended no harm and what was said on the show was misconstrued. 

But this wasn’t the first time he was responsible for something inflammatory on TV and it wouldn’t be the last. He would continue to get away with it nonetheless, though apologies couched in a pristine choice of words, irking many on Twitter but that would be about it.

In an ideal world, such a televangelist would be jailed and banned from any form of public appearance but Liaquat went on to host game shows and Ramazan transmissions and ended up earning hundreds of millions in revenue for private channels in mere 30 days. Not once, but again and again, till the likes of Waseem Badami and Iqrarul Hassan borrowed his formula and fashioned it in their own style.

Despite being a politician and fashioning himself the poster boy of the Kharadar constituency, Liaquat had no political backing. No royal lineage to stand behind his hate speech and chauvinism, just the plain old ability to play around with words and relevant knowledge to find a permanent place in our imagination, and at times, the highest corridors of our political establishment. He was the queen on the chessboard he had mastered and there was a time that he could defeat any king if he wasn’t willing to play.  You can call this power, I’ll call this sheer talent and will let the readers pick sides from now on because guess what? You’ve probably already chosen one.

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I overheard about Aamir Liaquat’s death in Istanbul. One Pakistani couple waiting in the premises of the Sultan Ahmed district was murmuring something about him till another passed by saying, “did you check the ticker screenshot about Aamir Liaquat’s death?” The news became an icebreaker between Pakistanis in the vicinity and my immediate response was, “I’m pretty sure it’s staged.” Without checking my phone for updates, I continued to believe my contention knowing the sort of attention seeker the doctor was, both throughout his career and in our few but in-depth personal interactions. About thirty minutes later or so, I heard the bulletins blasting out from random phones, and that’s when it dawned upon me: Pakistan’s greatest showman of the new millennium died a year short of his golden jubilee. My vacation ended then and there as I spent the remaining day and a half wondering how it was even possible?
 
The skeptic in me wasn’t concerned about not believing the news initially. Anyone remotely associated with showbiz and aware of how mega stars behave when cornered would have done the same. Aamir Liaquat was no less of a diva. I remember when I ran into him at a Karachi café early last year. He was sitting next to our table with his then-wife Tuba. He looked laser-sharp in a suit and had shed a few kilos, clearly the healthiest I had seen him in ages. We had met once before and spoke a couple of times over the phone but he was quick to recognise me. He joked in Urdu that the “English press doesn’t like my guts and the Urdu press won’t survive without them.” We had a good laugh as he lauded my command of Urdu despite working for an English publication. 

Thinking that I finally caught the lion outside his den, I went on and asked about his tweets and social media posts becoming increasingly vile, especially the ones concerning Maryam Nawaz, regardless of the language. “You see sometimes I just tweet to piss liberals off because they are so easy to piss off. I am telling this to you because you’re trying to have a conversation with me and not just hating on Aamir Liaquat as these English-speaking liberals do.”
 
Before I could get my head around what he meant by ‘English-speaking liberals’ I realised that this conversation was being extended not only to convince me but perhaps also to woo Tuba who continuously seemed in awe of him. She interjected every now and then to laud the argument that while he has been mean and unfair his heart was in the right place. I actually felt good for the two of them and saw no trouble hitting the paradise.

Soon the conversation steered towards ‘Maulvis’ and how much Dr sahib despised the typical ones and how then PM Imran Khan had been after his life for his Senate vote and that he was giving it a long and hard thought. “I can tell you my vote will be the deciding factor,” he said while stabbing the steak with the confidence of a person who owns the seas and skies.

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Some other guests were quick to interrupt and say that had it not been for Aalim Online, the so-called Maulvis wouldn’t be such TV and box office stars today. So if you think they are a burden on society then you are a part of the problem. “I know what it looks like, but you know my intention with Aalim Online was to bring clerics from various schools of thoughts on the talking table so this issue can be settled peacefully, and I did bring them together. Now if this ended up giving a new rating formula to the TV industry and limelight to the maulvis and religious scholars then that’s not my problem.”
 
There was radio silence on the table and all you could see was Dr sahib basking in his glory and Tuba seemingly smitten by that. Knowing I write about arts and culture, he shifted his focus to me and said that he knew the maulvis so well that had they approached him he would have even sorted out the Zindagi Tamasha ban. “There’s a way of going about things, I know how to deal with artists and right-wingers and honestly this would have been a no-brainer,” he exclaimed. “Didn’t you see what I did with Khalilur Rehman Qamar, the guy deserved to be schooled that way,” Liaquat was referring to his TV interview where he had said that Qamar is a mental patient who deserves to be in an asylum.
 
That was the point where I realised that while Liaquat was shedding kilos and looking good, for the first time in his span as a public figure, he was also losing relevance. The guy who was famously known for not moving an inch from his lunch table till a promised Land Cruiser was delivered to his doorstep, was having the urge to explain himself to an English press journalist.

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Maybe social media politics is so fast-paced and heavily jargonised that he couldn’t keep pace with it, or that it was hard to get back the exalted status of a young, handsome religious scholar when you have been reduced to a meme, and for obvious reasons. Dr Sahib was clearly going through an existential crisis and it seemed like he was looking for a solution in his then marriage, which was dissolved exactly a year after our meeting.
 
Tuba had by now jumped into her acting career and Dr sahib was quite vested in discussing that as well. On top of it, we were joined by a veteran performer who also happened to be Tuba’s co-star in their upcoming project. While the actor praised her for being quite professional and neat as a newcomer to acting, Liaquat was all praises for the veteran and had his entire catalogue at his fingertips. That also included how he performed in a certain project and how a bunch of others keep on mimicking his style but in vain because there could be only one like him. 

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Those who were not present there might confuse it for flattery but what Doctor sahib was doing was anything but that. He was sharp, precise and nuanced, and not a single observation he shared was inaccurate. To my bewilderment, it was only their second or third interaction and the longest so far. By explaining to the veteran his significance to the culture industries, he was not only praising him but also stealing the limelight like any TV host who is way more agile and well-versed on the issue under discussion. A genius showman doesn’t give the impression that he is driving the conversation. 

Essentially, this was all a performance, a snippet of what Dr sahib could achieve in a fraction of a second purely out of muscle memory. In case you’re wondering what would happen if it was not a respectable figure on the other end, who may have zero roles to play in his wife’s future, that guy would be sliced to pieces for his mediocre existence, as reflected in several of his viral videos, and that shaming and trolling too would sadly and unfortunately add to his swag. 

As an audience, we thrive on a cult of personality, and any person who is able to extract the most money, style and status while not belonging to an elite background is a hero of sorts; an icon who has achieved what could be called the Pakistani dream. Despite all his flaws and shortcomings, Aamir Liaquat explored and then exploited the audience’s potential and patience to allow and appreciate the liberties he took as a showman, he played with them, and their aspirations because they all saw parts of themselves in his wit, spontaneity, expression and most importantly his understanding of the divine and those side-parted hair.
 
That dinner conversation was reflective of a lot more than what has now become Dr sahib in his final years. I am still not sure what that conversation was about. Was he trying to win over a journalist? Was he trying to impress his wife? Was it just another conversation in his mercurial life and career that rushed by at snail’s speed? Was he looking for reaffirmations? Was it repentance? My guess is as good as yours but one thing I can say with certainty is that he was a complicated character, so much so that everything he shared with us could turn out to be a complete lie. An act of deception, another illusion he created to ensure that we keep thinking about him, or maybe he was so used to improvising and saying things that suited him and that moment in time, that he himself had come to a point where we couldn’t tell fun from fact.   
 
His colleagues and friends who saw him as an anchor and radio guy in the early 2000s tell me what I witnessed were just remnants of the Dr sahib they saw rise like a wildfire. He had a following that no TV personality in his prime enjoyed, and most importantly his fandom spread across strata, study circles, gender and madrasas and even the artists and literati. What he was bringing to television was not just religious education but a statement that a clean-shaven person can host a religious show and trigger in-depth conversation about related issues. 

In fact, one can easily argue that the likes of Waseem Badami, who also grew from a news presenter to anchor, to a soft authority on religion and a permanent fixture of Ramazan, adopted the formula invented by our mad scientist. The same applies to Iqrarul Hasan to an extent but the Doctor was never big on being morally upright, so the likes of Badami and Hassan took what they could from Liaquat and excelled in a more enterprising fashion. None could ever amass the following Doctor had because none were as good performers or knew religion and society, as well as Dr sahib, did. At the same time, they set a limit for themselves; they knew when to branch out into selling perfumes and buying food franchises and when to step back, neither is their fame extraordinary nor is their charisma so enchanting. The doctor ended up giving a formula to our TV industry that demanded you have a depth understanding of religion and politics apart from being an exceptional orator, a tasteful thinker, and most importantly an incredibly self-aware risk-taker. He only took risks that would create controversy and raise the bar of his fame even higher.  
 

But slowly and gradually as social media caught pace and the formula that Liaquat introduced became popular, you saw the façade break. He had already become notorious for spewing hate on minorities when a video featuring him hurling abuses and discussing the Ghalib film and Rishi Kapoor Qawwali went viral. The doctor was quick to rubbish it as tempered but the memes that followed perhaps gave him the confidence to remove the mask and break the façade completely. He was now an out-and-out entertainer giving the famous ‘religious touch’ to different genres of programs including the famous Ramazan transmission where he once also featured as a soldier dying for his country in the promo.
 
What was meant to be a tribute to the armed forces went viral for Liaquat’s over-the-top acting and expressions. Again, memes were made and they gave Liaquat an even bigger chance to shine as a solo entertainer, this time divorced of any religiosity, on just good old game shows featuring excessive trolling. By now he had become a crude, often ill-mannered burly man out there to be meme material; in fact, if you listen to his earlier videos and compare it to his recent interviews you’ll also find him to be less focused, eloquent and rowdier than before. 

The Aamir Liaquat of the early 2000s wouldn’t diverge from his scholarly role but that one Ghalib video allowed him to be who he really was on live television and no one was really prepared for it; his edition of Bol Champions was just Liaquat searching for memes and in turn, looking for relevance in a time everything was being made and shattered on the internet.

He had no brakes, but ratings the ultimate god of TV programming require a lot more than an unleashed bull. They need a formula, a narrative, a pattern, none of which would fit this new and shameless version of our favourite doctor. 

So he was tamed and sent to the stable. Sidelined to an extent that he famously called up every private channel last Ramazan to host their transmission but they all refused with mocking remarks. His last resort of making a comeback as a newly married man on TikTok couldn’t also wash away his sins, and eventually worked to his own harm, as some believe. The audience was anticipating yet another comeback from Aamir Liaquat and so was I but that never happened. Those tickers about Liaquat’s death turned out to be true and for the first time in his career, he gave his audience something they didn’t expect.  Pakistan lost its first true star of its private media age. May God be kind to Dr sahib and may no one get to play god like he did. Amen. 

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