By Omair Faizullah
In a news report published around late August 2014, Paresh Rawal, the great Indian actor seems to think that ‘Pakistani TV dramas are superior to the content being aired on Indian TV screens’.
That’s quite a compliment really. An exaggerated compliment, but a compliment nonetheless.
I’m sure the statement led to a lot of chests being filled with pride and the TV drama industry claiming that finally their art has been acknowledged by an Indian star.
Ironically, our measure for quality and success is limited to being compared with Indian media, only, and it takes a Bollywood star’s admission about what we have been saying all along to set it in stone, only(!). But let’s face it; there just may be some truth to what Mr. Rawal has said. Some truth mind you – the rest is the friendly politick of buttering. Because quite honestly, I really don’t think Mr. Rawal has the time or inclination to really watch the present crop of drama we are passively glued to via our TV screens. I’m guessing that Mr. Rawal’s exposure of Pakistani TV drama is limited to the golden age of PTV.
Let’s just pause for a moment and listen to the sounds of whales mating and sad string music for a few minutes in memory of PTV (1964 – 1996).
It is said that a sizable chunk from the early days is no longer in existence. Petty politics and the lack of any sense or need for preservation has rendered the archives into molten, rotting plastic tape. But fear not, all hope is not lost – I hear the metal spools are still intact.
So PTV and its brand of drama – the ones Paresh Rawal was really talking about – died around the mid 90’s. It got consumed by the gradual expansion of televised media, satellite dishes, Indian television and the introduction of cable. Technology and globalization essentially changed what we considered entertainment and drama serials. So instead of developing our own brand of TV drama, we fell victim to “inspiration” and started replicating the style of drama being practiced on the other side of the border. A multitude of forgettable soaps were produced and aired. Long drawn out productions, lacking the intelligence or art that we were used to, ended up severely diluting not just the content on air but also our collective wits. Large production companies were set up to produce stories that contained absolutely no reflection of either our society or culture. For some time, almost every production company who could afford, was taking trips to foreign lands and shooting inane stories that meant and led to nothing. Our popular culture was riding the gravy train from across the border. Everyone was glued to watching Indian dramas produced, written and acted in by Pakistanis.
Such is the influence of popular culture when rightly exported: It has the capacity to change an entire art form.
In this case, the Indian style of storytelling started overpowering our own indigenous style. Our popular culture shifted from telling stories of grand prison escapes (Jangloos, 1989), hilarious Monty Python inspired sketch based shows (Fifty Fifty, 1980s) and Islamic history (Akhri Chataan, 1970) to telling stories about Saas-Bahu and depressed couples desperately trying to fall in love with each other. Innumerable local pop culture icons and actors slowly and gradually disappeared – eventually, most of them resurfaced to pretend act repetitive characters in the present cra…crop of dramas.
So then, we gradually realized, ‘Hey this is not going anywhere – people are still watching Indian TV – perhaps it would be good if we did something on our own and put an end to this “inspiration” that got us to a dead end…’
As a consequence, we shifted our stance, our direction, our writing and our production. We decided that we wanted to shoot outside our country. Scripts were written, actors were hired and we flew crews out to foreign locales and started shooting there. This led to another dilemma that no one seemed to notice. Everything was the same. Everything was shot the same way. We had a very limited number of actors acting the same roles. There was no difference of characterization from one drama to another. Even the serial names were almost the same. Surely there were exceptions but those got lost in the crowd instead of standing out. And the audience, with nothing better to watch, kept on consuming what they were being fed – along with a healthy dose of Zee and Star Plus on the side.
Then came the fateful day that Humsafar was aired. The drama was a huge success; it was the game changer everyone had been waiting for. Humsafar essentially laid foundation to the present love triangle formula. But its impact fell flat. We diluted the change ourselves by everyone wanting to produce another Humsafar.
This brings us to the present state of drama serials which, honestly, is not too different from what it was some years back. Almost every local drama is based on a love triangle. The formula has been defined and is being followed to a tee. Even the comedy serials we produce have played out their shtick and become repetitive beyond measure.
Two guys, one girl. One guy, two girls. At least one of them evil or psychologically disturbed or poor with an extended cast that either supports them or wants them to lead loveless lives. All the actors play the same characters in every drama, they act the same way, they even have the same makeup and they all love the same people they love in the other drama of a different name. Got to love the love here.
High production values, great locations, excellent editing but hollow, hollow content. And let’s not overlook the names they give these serials. In case you’re not aware of it – just do a search for “metal band name generator” on the internet. It seems like someone in the drama business (after much thought) has developed code for a “Pakistani drama name generator” and that is where ALL our production houses go to when in need of a drama name.
Honestly, what I find way more interesting are those re-enactment shows being aired during the day on news channels. Sure, they have unknown horrible actors, sad production values, amateur direction but for some reason, they are all well edited. Fabricated or not, at least they have interesting stories. Murder, intrigue, mystery and more than anything, a semblance to the reality of our society. And they do it all in a single hour. They develop their characters, their story and the conclusion in less than 60 minutes, and they manage to pull off a different story with new characters in every single episode. Seriously, the serials need to take tips from these pieces of art.
Then there are the Turkish dramas. Why are they such a success? Why does the audience prefer them to our own dramas? To cut it short, the answer to both these questions is – they are better. The stories are better, the acting is way more convincing and the producers, writers and directors actually understand character development and narrative progression. Surprise, great Pakistani production companies; our people actually understand what is better and can differentiate between good content and bad. To put it simply, dubbed Turkish dramas would not have had the impact they have had if the locally produced content was actually any good.
Which brings us to…
Why must our industry keep looking at sources of inspiration that are outside our context than what is right in front of our eyes? Why is it that all we want the people to watch is sordid love triangles? Why is it that we keep feeding them stuff that they have seen over and over? Why is it that we keep conforming to set formulas instead of developing new ones? Where did all the experience-rich resources of our golden age disappear? Why did they not successfully transfer their knowledge pool? Why is there no discourse – academic or otherwise – on the state of our popular visual culture?
It is very difficult to point the finger at a single instance. The degeneration of an art form is something that is next to impossible in the rest of the world, but we as a nation, have somehow pulled it off.
I think more than anything, the blame falls on the shoulders of the producers, writers and directors. Are they beyond self-analysis? I mean really, can they not see what they have done to the legacy of drama here?
Every time I think and write about the state of popular culture in Pakistan, I’m left with more questions than answers. They say “Pakistan mein talent bohat hai, magar resources nahin hein”. I humbly disagree. The statement no longer holds true. The age of information has made everything available to us. Any resource that we want, we can have from around the world. We can import external talent if we have the money but we simply cannot generate or cultivate indigenous talent. No wonder we keep running around in circles or in this case, love triangles.
Omair Faizullah is a designer and strategic communication specialist. Omair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org