This article was first published in July-August 2005.
As the diabolical afternoon heat creates a sauna-like effect in my non-air-conditioned car, I wonder for the umpteenth time whether my interview with Hina Bayat will be worth the hassle of having to meet her at such a ghastly hour. My fears are quickly allayed as I arrive at her lush penthouse apartment. Standing at just 5'2", Bayat, with her immaculate appearance, flawless profile and refined speech, can be intimidating and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
As if anticipating such a reaction, she jokes lightly and laughs infectiously, quickly breaking the ice and allowing the conversation to flow freely. Before I switch my voice recorder on, she says, rather conspiratorially that her major problem is that she reveals too much on the record. I tell her she is a reporter's dream come true and more laughter ensues.
Bayat's candid nature may have served her well had she stuck to her original plan of pursuing a career in criminal law. Her father quickly dispelled such notions, as he did not approve of such a career choice for his daughter. Unwilling to settle for second best in law, Bayat decided to change paths altogether and opted for a degree in product design.
An odd choice, considering that product designers were not in great demand at the time, but one that led her to her true vocation; a career in television. In a sense, Bayat was always destined to work on television, with modeling offers coming her way at the tender age of 13. Every offer was met with a refusal from a family that she describes as "liberal, but with certain conservative values."
For a time, Bayat successfully dodged the limelight. She managed a company that focused on office décor and worked on styling and aesthetics for TV productions with Interflow Communications. It was while working on one such project that destiny finally caught up with her and Bayat found herself anchoring Andaz Apna Apna, a programme focusing on successful Pakistani women entrepreneurs. This was followed by another talk show, titled Baatein Mulaqatien, and several other projects both on and off camera.
Simultaneously, she was offered the chance to anchor a talk show for GEO that focused on social issues. When she signed up to do Uljhan Suljhan, the socially conscious Bayat was unaware that she had truly found her niche.
Speaking of her initial reluctance to take on such a responsibility, she says, "I was a little apprehensive about getting involved because this was not a play, this is reality. If I am going to talk to someone who is having a problem, it doesn't just begin and end in one session."
But she did get involved and her reluctance was quickly overcome by a conscience that refused to let her take a back seat on issues that she felt required discussion. Issues like violent marital relationships, victimisation of children, sexual harassment, rape and incest.
"People do not talk about such issues," says Bayat, "they are either scared or it's just not our culture to vent what we think and how we feel."
But more than just venting, Uljhan Suljhan is about helping people sort through their problems. Bayat feels that her non-medical background puts her at a tremendous advantage because people perceive her as a friend rather than a doctor.
"I've noticed that when people talk to me or write to me, they address me as apa, baji or beta or as a friend. It's incredible that people form that trust and association before they even write to me."
Incredible as it might be, their trust is not misplaced as Bayat takes a personal interest in the people she deals with, corresponding with them for months on end until they start trusting her and then talking to them on the phone and in person before she puts them on the show. She follows this up by counselling them even after the show is over because, "they begin to rely on me to a certain extent."
Dealing with difficult situations on a daily basis has had a toll on her personal life. She speaks of nights when sleep was impossible because she had spoken to someone in a painful personal situation.
"I noticed that I had started viewing my relationships in the light of those that I was being exposed to.”
While remaining sensitive and compassionate, Bayat quickly realised that she had to draw a clear line between work and her private life.
But more than just the emotional impact, Uljhan Suljhan has often sparked controversy among the more fundamentalist segments of the population. She remembers doing an episode on incest, after which the channel's offices were ransacked by an angry mob. Such incidents have left her sad and demoralised not so much for herself but for the people the show reaches out to.
Unable to suffer fools gladly, Bayat is wary of people who tell her not to speak out on issues that are taboo. Recalling a time when the health minister questioned her about divulging too many details on the transmission of AIDS and the usage of condoms, she says, "it is not only my job but a social responsibility as a media person, to convey clearly what I want to say, not just to hint at it."
About those who insist that a certain code of ethics needs to be followed in electronic media discussions, Bayat questions, "who is responsible for making these standards. Are they people I can respect and say yes to? Is this person worthy of making this standard? There are no guidelines and if not, then I must follow my conscience."
Bayat's refusal to toe an official line or to follow the status quo has earned her plenty of enemies. She dismisses this with an engaging grin saying rather practically, "you're only as successful as the number of enemies you have."
More than that though, she measures success as being able to talk about issues that are of growing concern, not just ignoring them or brushing them under the carpet.
"The purpose of doing the show is not to titillate anyone; I don't get any perverse pleasure from doing it. But it is more to educate people so they can prevent such things from happening."
Does all this make Bayat feel home-grown version of Oprah? She laughs saying that people are likely to make that comparison.
"In our culture, it is harder to make people open up. Also, I don't consider myself a part of the elite, even though I have been fortunate enough to be born into that segment of society. I come from a family that has always encouraged me to speak my mind and be an individual."
An individualism that Bayat feels is sorely lacking in the new generation, saying it is her mission to help open people's minds.
"We need a great deal of debate; we need to think and to get people to think for themselves."