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Indian viewers wow Pakistani tele-dramas

Realistic Pakistani Themes Are A Refreshing Contrast To The Vacuous Fare Offered By Indian Soaps

SAM SUNDAY FEATURE-ENG-22-11-2020 (1)

Critics love bashing Hindi serials which rule the small screen in the sub-continent and its Diaspora across the globe. They have logic behind their castigations as the underlying (actually more overt than covert) messages of these serials are medieval in nature, discriminatory and even ridiculous. And yet the popularity of these soaps has been soaring for decades.

But things are changing.

The coronavirus outbreak has changed many things and it has brought changes in people's TV viewing choices too. The coronavirus had brought a halt to the filming of serials and so mostly re-runs are being shown. But even the most ardent Hindi serial fan could hardly be expected to watch the same mean mother-in-law, an over made-up daughter-in-law who even goes to bed in full wedding jewelry, Oedipal sons who believe anything their 'sacred' mothers say against their wives, and nouveau riche families exploiting the poor, where poverty is still considered a virtue and the rich are still evil and arrogant.

Yes, year after year these serials continued, holding housewives and house-helps alike glued to the small screen. But this was no healthy viewing. Even in Bangladesh, the impact was obvious. The traditional Bengali woman with her Tangailsaree and her hair in a ‘khopa’, or even the modern career-oriented younger generation, were getting bedazzled by the glam and glitter of the Indian soap. The shopping malls were selling sequined saris, glamorous lehengas and kameezes at skyrocketing prices, even naming these outfits after various Hindi serials or their stars, and these were selling like hotcakes.

Not long ago, when a mother confronted the headmistress in a school about the high cost of the books they were having to buy as well as the cost of the school uniform, the headmistress replied in the true manner of a headmistress: “If you don’t mind me pointing out, I couldn’t help noticing that every day you come to school in a beautiful new sari. You don’t have any problem buying those, when just one of those saris could cover the costs of all your child’s schoolbooks. Give some value to education too.” Harsh words, but not misplaced. Linking such a penchant of these women to spending liberally on costly clothes for everyday wear to the Hindi serials may seem farfetched. But is it?

Then again, it cannot be denied that India has cleverly used this tool to wield its influence all over. This influence is political, economic, cultural and even religious. While the Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) are killing innocent Bangladeshis along the border almost every other day, the people don’t waste a moment to rush to Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai to buy the latest outfit that Priyanka Chopra wore in such and such film or the stars wore in such and such serial. Such is the influence.

Pakistani cricket superstar Shahid Afridi is known to have smashed his TV at home. Why? He had reportedly asked his wife not to watch Indian serials at least in front of the kids because he found the influence to be unhealthy. Children could hardly be expected to discern the superficial values propagated by the serials. Then one day he comes home to find his daughters performing ‘aarti’, a form of Hindu worship of Gods and Goddesses. Furious, upset and concerned, he simply smashed the TV set. His actions may have been rash, but they were perhaps symbolic. Watch what you want, but don’t let it take over your lives. Don’t be so blinded that you forget your own culture, language, values and even religion. So next time in Bangladesh when a father thinks it’s cute to see how his kid speaks fluently in Hindi because of TV viewing, he should think twice. It is more than language that the child is picking up.

But things are changing as more and more people are turning to YouTube and discovering the world of Pakistani TV drama there. Interestingly, a large chunk of the viewers are not Pakistani. They are Indian!

If one reads the comments section below the dramas, one will be surprised at the number of Indian viewers and their enthusiastic response. They have found a new form of recreation out there and a healthy one at that. 

These dramas, in most part, have stripped away preconceptions of Pakistan. If they thought of Pakistan as a place of purdah, militancy, extreme conservatism and violence, they are pleasantly surprised. These dramas are not made as media missiles or propaganda. Unlike India, Pakistan does not use their dramas to propagate its values, culture or political policies. The dramas just reflect Pakistan society, the lives of the people, whether rich, poor or middle class. These are realistic stories with which anyone can relate. The writers, the directors, the producers and the actors and actresses are simply outstanding.

These dramas go deep. They enter the psyche of the people, the social problems, the cultural nuances, the socio-political scenario. They do not gloss over the social evils, not do they promote superficial glamour with no substance. It is not a matter of idealizing Pakistani drama, it is just revealing facts.

A few examples may serve to illustrate the matter. There is the drama ‘Yeh Raha Dil’. This is a superb drama by any standards, local, regional or even international. It is a psychological thriller with an intricate story line, a deep look into a disturbed human psyche. It portrays the intricacies of human relationships. Nothing is black and white here. No character is the perfect blemish-free hero or heroine. It is the flaws that make them human, and inhuman too. The acting by Ahad Raza Mir, Sajal Ali and Adnan Siddiqui is flawless. It takes a lot of talent, sensitivity and intelligence to bring out the essence of these complex characters. 

Then there is the serial on expatriate Pakistanis in New York, ‘Jackson Heights’. NoumanIjaz is the main character of the play and he is perhaps one of Pakistan’s finest actors. The drama deals with the life of Pakistanis in Jackson Heights, a New York locality populated by South Asians. The drama has an Indian character too and it does not make the Indian character a villain. In fact, one of the main characters, and empathetic complete gentleman is an Indian character. And one of the mature main female characters is played by none other than Marina Khan (a blast from the past for those who loved ‘Dhoop Kinare’). The theme song ‘Laiyalaiyameinterenaal’ is haunting. 

Marham’ is a drama that deals with a daughter’s angst and anger at her father who abandoned her and her mother at an early age. But it also delves into the complex world of the feudal landlord, his commitment to the community which often conflicts with his personal life and passions. It shows the modern face of Pakistan as well as its traditions.

The list is long. Best of all is that these dramas end in around 28 to 30 episodes mostly, unlike Hindi serials that drag on to over 100 episodes. The Pakistani serials are compact and meaningful packages of entertainment. But entertainment with substance.

Comments from Indian viewers are fun, interesting and revealing. One Indian viewer wrote: “The beautiful bride wore less make up at her wedding than an ordinary housewife wears going to sleep in an Indian serial!” Another viewer said: “Watching this series during the pandemic. Never knew Pakistan has such good TV dramas.” There are many more such positive comments from India, Bangladesh and all over, apart from those from Pakistan.

No wonder ‘democratic’ India makes sure its citizens can’t watch Pakistani serials on their television channels. They realize that competition will wipe them out. It will also unravel the negative narrative they spin against Pakistan. But the outbreak of coronavirus had taken the people to YouTube and now the doors to Pakistani dramas have opened. 

Indians may have been indoctrinated to see Pakistan as the enemy, but now the dramas have won their hearts. The title of one of the dramas may well reflect their dilemma – ‘Mera Dil Mera Dushman!’ 

Let there be no more enmity. A free flow of cultural exchange can be a balm for the wounds created by wily politicians over the years. India should realize, it is a two-way street. They can’t just air their shows and dramas all over while blocking others out. This is an age of technology. It is time to open the doors. But they must open their minds first.