Halal Cuts

How Indian soap operas are made palatable for an Afghan audience

When the original episodes first arrive in dubbing studios, Afghan video editors must blur out all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments. massoud hossaini / afp / getty images
01 May, 2016

In April 2015, when the Indian soap opera Banoo Main Teri Dulhann—“I Will Be Your Bride”—appeared on Ariana TV, a channel in Afghanistan, something was amiss. As the title song rang out, women in bright salwar kameezes danced onscreen, and the lead character, dressed in shiny, red bridal wear, ran into the arms of her lover. The characters spoke Pashto, and “Ram” had been changed to “khuda.” The actresses’ uncovered shoulders and midriffs appeared blurry and pixelated. In another scene, a man held a plate full of candles in front of something, but it was not quite clear what. The Hindu idol he was worshipping had been censored from the episode.

Banoo Main Teri Dulhannis not the only programme to receive such treatment. Indian soap operas, often criticised in their own country for being too regressive, are considered not just too liberal, but even transgressive in Afghanistan. Thus, when the original episodes first arrive in dubbing studios, Afghan video editors must blur all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments. Hindu idols are a big no-no, as idol worship is considered one of the gravest sins in Islam. The editors rarely ever cut entire scenes, and usually, blurring does the trick.

After the visual clean-up, the dialogue goes to the translators, who replace all references to Hindu culture with terms and concepts that would be acceptable to Islamists. Agle janam mein—in the next life—becomes Dar duniya-ye baid, or in the afterlife, and Hai Ram becomes Ya Allah. This censorship is a pre-emptive measure taken by production firms to avoid trouble from the government and religious hardliners, who have constantly panned the shows for being “un-Islamic” over the last 15 years.

Before the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the country was ruled by the Taliban, a radical Islamist group. The Taliban had imposed a strict ban on television, but when they were deposed by the US, private television channels started popping up all over Kabul. Satellite dishes appeared on almost every roof. In the early years after the Taliban, there was a great deal to get used to: women read the news on television; cable channels showed Western actresses in revealing clothes; and Hindu idols were worshipped in prime time. Not everyone was pleased by these changes.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan briefly banned cable television in the country, citing moral grounds. Five years later, the government, under pressure from religious organisations, tried to ban Indian soap operas, which were increasingly gaining viewers at the time. Tolo TV, one of the most popular channels, defied the ban and went to court. According to an Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture spokesperson, the ban was not enforced and Tolo TV kept broadcasting the shows. But to avoid further controversy, the companies began to censor the shows increasingly. The censorship became even stricter after 2008, owing to protests by the National Ulema Council and other religious groups, including the Taliban.

On 20 January, a bus carrying employees of the television production company Kaboora Production was attacked by a suicide bomber in Kabul. Seven people were killed and 20 injured. Three of those killed dubbed Indian soap operas into Dari and Pashto for Tolo TV, a sister entity of Kaboora. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and accused Tolo TV of ridiculing cultural and religious norms; encouraging obscenity and lewdness; and injecting “the minds of youth with dangerous substances, such as irreligiousness, immorality, violence, gambling, intermixing and profanity.”

On 31 January, I met Ahmad Naweed Asghari, a manager at Pixel Productions, a dubbing studio in Kabul, at his office. He told me that the attack may have been motivated by the kind of television serials Kaboora was dubbing. Asghari himself has received verbal threats from former co-workers, who were unhappy with the type of work he was doing. Intermingling of boys and girls is not seen positively by these people, he explained.

Mujtaba Noori, a dubbing artist at Pixel, worked in the Dari production of the hugely popular Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi whichstarted airing in Afghanistan in 2006. He first watches the episodes in Hindi and sometimes advises the translators if he feels something doesn't quite convey the meaning, or doesn't sound right in Dari or Pashto. “The dubbing artists are not allowed to see the uncensored versions of the episodes,” he told me. “This is because men and women are working together in the studio, and the scenes might affect them in an unwanted way.”

An employee of Kaboora Production, who requested not to be named, said that the Taliban wants to attack the freedom of the press, and Kaboora was just an easy target. While the Indian dramas may have been a factor, they were not necessarily the reason why the company was targeted, he told me.

“We are showing the real life of people; how women and men are interacting with each other in other countries,” the Kaboora employee said. “But because this is Afghanistan, some people have a problem with it.”

A few days later, I met Enayatullah Baligh, a member of the National Ulema Council, the largest religious body in the country, in his office, located in the centre of Kabul. He has been a vocal opponent of the broadcasting of Indian dramas on Afghan television. In 2008, while delivering a Friday sermon, he vowed to gather his supporters and blow up all the television antennae in Kabul, if these serials were not banned.

When I asked him if he thinks Kaboora was attacked because of the dramas they were dubbing, he became agitated. “How would I know why they were attacked? These people even attack mosques. You should go ask them why they did this.” His rhetoric seemed to have mellowed down somewhat since 2008, and he said it was solely the government's responsibility to stop these dramas from being aired. The debate about these shows in Afghanistan focuses not on whether they should be censored, but whether their censored versions should be aired at all. Even their fans largely agree with the censorship. One theme present in the shows that appeals to an Afghan audience is the dynamic of a woman's relationship with her in-laws. Shaima Hamadzai, a fan of Indian soap operas, told me that Afghans can easily relate to saas-bahu dramas, which focus on the relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law.

Afghan women can also face a great deal of pressure from their husband’s family, she told me. Indian clothing, however, she said, would not be acceptable in Afghanistan. “Afghan society has not reached that level yet,” Hamid, Shaima’s husband, chimes in. Sajda, Hamid's mother, said that uneducated people might not always understand why certain things are shown in the dramas. Therefore, she said, it is better to censor these parts.

But these days, the popularity of Indian dramas is waning and they are increasingly being replaced by Turkish serials. All the foreign dramas being shown on Tolo TV are Turkish. Asghari, too, had said that Afghans no longer like the overacting and unrealistic plots in the Indian soaps. Religion also seems to play a role. Many viewers find Hinduism hard to relate to, while Turkish dramas at least take place in a Muslim environment. Turkish serials are also seen as being more action-packed, which appeals to the younger generation of Afghans, but they too are subject to the same kind of censorship as the Indian shows. Alcohol or unwanted bare skin will be blurred out.

Still, Indian dramas have their devoted followers in Afghanistan, and the fans intend to keep watching their favourite soaps, come what may. “It is only the narrow-minded people who want to ban these serials. We should appreciate the good things in them and ignore the bad,” Sajda told me.

Afghans seem to be yearning for entertainment, and the dramas help them take their minds off the daily violence that still plagues the country. The stakes have gotten higher, however, with the recent attack on Kaboora. While the country debates the appropriateness of the content, at Kaboora, there are now seven empty chairs where their employees used to sit.