Dekhti Aankhon, Sunte kaano'n
Aap ko Tariq Aziz ka Salaam pohanchay
(To all the eyes that see, the ears that listen,
May greetings from Tariq Aziz reach you)
These were the famous opening lines of a game show — Neelam Ghar (Auction House) — that Tariq Aziz made all his own when he began hosting it in 1974 and, which ran for four decades. It remains one of the longest game shows in history and certainly, the longest in Asia — later christened the Tariq Aziz Show and Bazm-e-Tariq Aziz.
It is unlikely that the 84-year-old veteran compere, actor, poet and a politician, who walked into the sunset yesterday after protracted illness in Lahore — fittingly, Pakistan’s cultural capital — would ever be forgotten. Just like you never forget your firstborn!
There’s no dearth of game show hosts who have made a name for themselves in television history, but Aziz was unique for several reasons, not in the least for eye-catching milestones. He was the first man to appear on state-run Pakistan Television when it began broadcasting in 1964 and also its maiden broadcaster, who made that epoch-making opening announcement.
But what made Aziz stand out was the incredible popularity he enjoyed for decades in a country where fame however fickle was largely associated with sport and film stars, and a few demagogues like the irrepressible Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first popularly elected prime minister, whose party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Aziz later joined in his first foray into politics. No matter what caste, creed, colour or hearth you belonged to, you were drawn to Aziz taking the stage and delivering the goods in his trademark deep-set voice.
Long after he put the mike down — and reluctantly, picked up again in later years but with little heart — many game show hosts have made the mare go. Some — like the belligerent Aamir Liaquat — have created records that have ensured gravitas for their ilk. But, none, could hold a torch to the grandeur of the original one.
While Aziz had a solo flight in his time — helped in part by the fact that there was only one TV channel — he captured the hearts of Pakistanis like no-one else did. His show was aired through the decades in which the country endured long spells of authoritarian rule with little of entertainment value for the teeming millions. And so, the streets would empty in anticipation of yet another episode of Neelam Ghar.
It is a measure of his celebrityhood that in those barren times even the prize of a “water cooler” for a question put to the audience attained the kind of fame — becoming a virtual adage — that even fancied cars and millions in prize money have not been able to muster decades later.
Aziz also featured in a clutch of films, mostly playing character roles, including Insaniyat (Humanity), Haar Gaya Insan (Humanity has lost), Qasam Us Waqt Ki (That Time be My Witness), Katari (Knife) and the 1969-made Saalgira (Birthday) which incidentally became more famous for the debut of child star Asif Zardari, who later became president and is currently, the co-chairman of PPP — and son-in-law of Bhutto, whom Aziz had joined in the Sixties as a firebrand socialist.
Aziz parted ways with the PPP and much later joined former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N on whose ticket he won his sole seat of the National Assembly — lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature — in 1997. And the rival he got the better of was none other than Imran Khan — the current prime minister. Khan Wednesday condoled Aziz’s demise and termed him “an icon in his time and a pioneer of our TV game shows”.
The one major blot on his erratic political career was his involvement in the attack on the Supreme Court building in 1997 during a hearing where his party feared an adverse decision.
Aziz also compromised with military ruler General Ziaul Haq after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution on a disputed conviction for abetment to murder of a political opponent by realigning the show to include religious content, which is why Benazir, Bhutto’s daughter and the Muslim world’s first head of government, took the show off air when she assumed power in 1988 following Zia’s death in a plane crash.
The veteran last tried his luck with the PML-Q, the king’s party during General Parvez Musharraf’s rule but was eventually sidelined, putting an end to an unspectacular political career. He made a last ditch effort to regain old glory in the entertainment arena where he first made a name for himself by returning to the PTV but the bid fizzled out.
In 1992, he received the coveted Pride of Performance award — that the president confers in recognition of people who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the field of literature, arts, sports, medicine and science.
Aziz also indulged poetry and authored a collection entitled Hamzaad da Dukh ( Pain of Alter Ego) and had a massive collection of books at his home. He once famously said that a house with no books “was the worst place to live”.
He married late and had no children. Declaring that to be Allah’s Will, he had directed in his will to have all his assets deposited with the national treasury.
Pakistanis in Qatar, like compatriots back home and fellow expats elsewhere in the world, reacted with sadness over the demise of the legend.
Talking to Community, Muhammad Atiq, Chairman of the Majlis-e-Farogh-e-Urdu Adab Qatar, paid rich tributes to the icon, saying the loss was colossal. “Tariq Aziz was a multidimensional artiste with few peers. He had his own unique style. But more than a giant of his trade, he was a great human being. He was highly respected and admired in the whole country. He will be missed by all for all times to come.’’
Riyaz Bakali, Director of The Next Generation schools, said Aziz was always the benchmark. “The naturally flamboyant Tariq Aziz with his gravel voice and tons of confidence set the gold standard for the rest to follow. And then, one can only imagine living the life he lived!”
Bakali also noted that apart from his legendary status, Aziz had bequeathed a sartorial elegance that even political leaders followed. “Even in his death, he has left behind a fan base that would be the envy of those who followed him.”
Mohsin Mujtaba, Director Product and Market Development at Qatar Stock Exchange, and a culture and arts aficionado, was no less melancholic.
“Growing up as an expat back in the 80s and 90s there were very few things that meant Pakistan to me. Tariq Aziz and his Neelam Ghar was an integral part of the PTV and Pakistan where I spent my summer vacations every year. When I go down memory lane, there are many houses that have a special place in my heart. Neelam Ghar and its inhabitant Tariq Aziz stand out,” he averred.
“Today, he is no more and the many memories that were stored in that house will become antique, but even more valuable. I pray that I hold them dear for the rest of my life and never mistakenly auction them for anything ordinary. For, we as a nation, are forever indebted for his services on television,” he concluded.
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