A couple of weeks ago, feeling a bit numb post a mindless Riverdale binge, a much-loved Pakistani T.V serial–Zindagi Gulzaar Hai –stuck out to me on Netflix’s never-ending roster. Perhaps I’d have missed it amidst all the options had it not been so familiar. In 2014, I had watched this Pak drama for the first time on Zee TV’s landmark channel Zindagi; the first in the country to broadcast Pakistani teleplays. And the rather intelligent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, revolving around the trials and tribulations of lead pair Kashaf (Sanam Saeed) and Zaroon (Fawad Khan) had left an impression. The duo were strong-headed, stubborn, flawed, even vulnerable as they struggle to find a middle ground between their social conditioning and their own ideas of liberalism. Each passing episode (I binge-watched all 28 episodes for a second time without qualms) made me increasingly involved in the character’s lives only to realise that their hopes and despair mirrored so much of my own life. The desire for pop culture that I could connect to at both head and heart led me to watch a couple more Pakistani serials at that time-a refreshing change from the long-drawn out melodramas that have plagued Indian television since the early 2000s. Still, my tryst with Pak teleplays was short-lived. In 2016 following the Uri attacks, the telecasting of Pakistani serials was banned in India.
But even as I thoroughly immersed myself in this unlikely binge, the isolation began to set in. Was I alone in my appreciation? All my peers seemed to be largely satisfied with the latest episode of Stranger Things while here I was surfing YouTube for lesser-known Pakistani teleplays! Frankly it was getting a bit lonely being the ‘offbeat’ pop culture junkie. I needed to know if there were more people who, like me, were bewitched by the world Pakistani TV serials. Little did I know that the first of many assurances was waiting back home.
Watch the first episode of Zindagi Gulzaar Hai here.
The Popularity Of The Old Days
“I have watched 30 odd Pakistani serials since I was a teenager,” said my now 54-year-old aunt Madhu Soni when I mentioned the new Pakistani drama I had commenced. “I would rent them out on VCDs and DVDs back in the day.”
According to this report by India Today, published in 1988, Pakistani T.V serials were as “popular as the new Bacchan [Amitabh] film ” and all of Mumbai’s “3000 plus video libraries” stocked up on them. While from all parts of Delhi customers come back “two or three times” to rent the same serial at video libraries, bringing the circulation of “hindi movie cassettes down by half.” Pakistani serials were “high” in demand even in the smaller towns of “Lucknow, Jodhpur, Srinagar” while all over Punjab there was a rage of “videotaping” them.
“Which ones were your favourite?” I asked my aunt hoping to find those serials online.
“I can hardly say, they all had such interesting and different stories. Nothing on Indian television in the past or even now has kept me so committed to serials as I was to the Pakistani ones!” she said. It’s not that Indian television never had anything else to offer other than saas-bahu sagas. Serials like Hum Log (1984), Khaandan (1985) Buniyaad (1986) and Chunauti (1987) telecast on Doordarshan were both popular and progressive–veering into uncharted social message territory; pushing family planning and dealing with peer pressure as important themes. Whereas the contemporary Pak serials of the ‘80s included the likes Dhoop Kinare (1987) explored the then taboo love between the older sophisticated Dr. Ahmer and the feisty young Dr. Zoya, Tanhaiyaan (1985) questioned the essence of ‘home’ in the absence of a traditional family unit and similarly other dramas like Waris (1979) Ankahi (1984) explored the dynamics of human relationships with a depth and sensitivity Indian television rarely ventured into. But despite being on a somewhat level playing field so many decades ago, the winds of time have altered both immensely.
The Serials Of Today
While in Pakistan the television industry is akin to the popularity of Bollywood movies, presently what do the teleplays across the border have that should fascinate the Indian population? For me, it’s the sheer range of social taboos brought to the forefront of mainstream entertainment with a refreshing naturalism of performance and mise en scène. My latest obsession is with Pak serial Daastan (2010) which is based on the novel Bano by Razia Bhatt. Set in 1947, it explores the partition of the Indian Subcontinent and the human stories of pain and loss that followed it through the story of Bano, a girl from a close-knit Muslim family living in the undivided Punjab. The story is narrated from the perspective of people from both sides of the border and is absent of propagandist political narrative that usually dominates any official addressal of Partition. From domestic child sexual abuse in Udaari (2016), the discrimination against the intersex community in Khuda Mera Bhi Hai (2016) to removing the stigma attached to rape victims in Mora Piya (2013), Pakistani tele-series don’t shy away from becoming a voice of dissent. These serials also discuss issues that threaten familial unity like Jackson Heights (2014) explores the challenges faced by the Pakistani diaspora and Firaaq (2014) sheds light on the consequences of familial emotional abuse on individuals. 25 year-old Pakistani Meryam Kiyan who now lives in New York particularly enjoys watching serials from her native land because they give voice to issues that are “not openly discussed in Pakistani homes” and at the same time keep her “feeling connected to home.” This dichotomy is hardly an easy one to manoeuvre yet Pakistani serials have cracked the formulae over the years.
29 year-old Pakistani Akmal Sultan says that watching his country’s T.V serials was and has always been a “family activity”. “It’s not like Indian serials aren’t watched in Pakistan,” he explains, “but the majority of people prefer homegrown ones. It’s the realism, tight plot lines with fixed amount of episodes in Pak T.V series that keeps people engaged.”
Watch the first episode of Firaaq here.
The Stories, Characters And Music
For 22-year-old Pak serial lover Qurat Ul Ain, it has been“the intricacies of human relationships, their transience, and how to deal with them,” that has made her a lover of Pak serials. “My family and I often quote from them, they are so much more than just entertainment,” she says.
So where do these stories come from and how are they made to have captured the imagination of a nation for decades? In this report by Caravan, Nadeem F Paracha, a Pakistani cultural critic and columnist for Dawn.com, offers one explanation. “Since the late 1960s and the 1970s Pakistani Television was largely run by progressive intellectuals with solid backgrounds in theatre, music and other arts whereas Doordarshan was mostly run by bureaucrats,” he writes. Though the quality of Pakistani teleplays might not live up to the the standards it created during the golden era of the ‘70s and ‘80s, till today, most of them have a depth that is unusual for commercial media. Pak serials still follow their tradition of adapting their screenplays from literary works and the present day screenwriters of the industry are the likes of Umera Ahmad, Faiza Iftikhar and Farhat Ishtiaq that come from strong literary backgrounds.
One of the biggest appeal of Pakistani T.V. serials is the diversity of their characters. They represent a large cross-section of Pakistani society. Their trials and tribulations and their varying perspectives on the circumstances that surround them make the drama a thought-provoking engagement. Unlike Indian serials where the characters often belong to upper class society, or are set against an upper class background, hardly having time to leave the comforts of their palatial homes or escape petty familial politics. Moreover as a female viewer what I find refreshing about Pakistani TV serials is their strong female characters; a dearth Indian serials vastly suffer from. From Bibi of Talkhiyaan (2012) who transgresses societal norms to live life on her own terms, Khiram of the popular Humsafar (2011) who chooses self-respect over love or Bano from Daastan (2010) whose stoic temperament; a consequence of immense suffering will not change for the promise of marriage, these women are feisty, rebellious and even vulnerable. A pleasure to watch as opposed to the one-dimensional female characters of Indian television.
Even when these serials commence and you move on to the next one what keeps most of them alive in your memory is their lyricism; an effect of the spoken urdu and music in the dramas. The serial’s title-tracks are not just jingles from Bollywood recycled for Indian television, but solely composed for them. These music scores often re-invent the classics by borrowing their lyrics from the masters of Urdu poetry. Some in particular are songs like “Is Waqt Toh Youhn Lagta Hai” from Dhoop Kinare, Kisi Ki Khatir from Talkhiyaan and Woh Humsafar from Humsafar that I have played on loop far too many times.
Watch the first episode of Daastan here.
Romance Without Physical Intimacy
In article ‘Do Modern Pakistani TV Romances Fall Short Of Classics Like Dhoop Kinarey? published by Dawn, the author says, “Subtext is the key to how romance plays out in Pakistani dramas. In the absence of physical proximity, the hints of ideas are usually what charges the relationships and the audience interprets what was not said.” The intensity of a gaze, the untying of a lover’s hair, the confession of petty jealousy or a motif of affection are ways in which Pakistani serials achieve this effect. For 21-year-old Gargi Upadhayay the romance in Pakistani serials cuts the real deal because “they let the moments of love happen, captivate and then pass. The memories of love that manage to still linger then seep deep into the consciousness. So much like real life.”
The Compromises Of Popular Culture
Of course, not everything is rainbows and realism. According to this report by Dawn “the trend of women as victims weeping their way through 24 episodes before finding a saviour is unlikely to disappear soon” from Pakistani dramas especially with the “success of mind-numbing dramas such as Bay Qasoor (2016) and Mann Mayal (2016).” Pakistani serials of the 21st century have been repeatedly accused of a pseudo liberalism where characters often conform to their conventional gender roles. These arguments do stand a strong ground but in their defence Pak serials still manage to remain thought provoking while packaging itself as mainstream entertainment that can be watched with the family. That in itself is a formidable achievement for South Asian popular culture.
In an interview with Mid-Day Ekta Kapoor the managing and creative director of Balaji Telefilms which spearheads the melodrama and regressive content on Indian soap operas said, “Indian audiences” were “not ready for progressive shows” and that television content would change in India only if “audiences would change.” This when I think our television industry can immensely benefit by learning from their Pakistani counterparts. Committed to their craft, they have taken the responsibility of giving the masses a fine balance of progressive content along with a sense of familiarity and entertainment. It’s only a matter of initiative and risk that keeps us from raising the bar higher for television content in India while still being commercially viable.
But how can I make such a sweeping statement when Pakistan and India are globally professed enemy nations. Doesn’t that make us vastly different? Watching Pakistani serials has convinced me that we have more similarities with this nation across the border than we will with any other country in the world. Political propaganda has paved the way for both Indians and Pakistanis to harbour a baseless hostility for each other even though we share a long and complex legacy of undivided history. For me, engaging with Pakistani TV serials has been a way to humanise Pakistan and it’s people with whom we share an intimate cultural bond. Give them a chance on Netflix, Pak Dramas Online or even Youtube and I am sure you are bound to feel the same way.
If we missed mentioning any important Pakistani serials relevant to the discussion in this article you can send your thoughts and suggestions to [email protected] We’d love to hear them.
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Illustration by Karan Kumar