IN THE FIRST EPISODE of Aunn Zara, an egg—lobbed by a mollycoddling aunt in an attempt to ward off the evil eye—lands on Aunn’s head. As the vexed hero of the 2013 Pakistani comic drama squeals his way out of the frame, his mother admonishes the aunt for her superstition: “Ye sarhad paar ke drame mat dekha karo,” she says. “Don’t watch these serials from across the border.”
It’s an offhand comment, yet an appropriate one—not merely because the contemporary Indian soap opera has, at its core, the neat image of a woman taking preventive measures against fate, but also because the makers of Pakistani television serials are aware of their country’s superiority in the genre. This summer, when Zindagi, a new channel from Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited, began broadcasting syndicated shows from across the border, this superiority became apparent to Indian audiences as well—Indian audiences, that is, who did not grow up watching Pakistani teleplays.
In 1989, my uncle and aunt returned to Delhi from a tour of Pakistan bearing dried Kandahari apricots and almonds, “American” synthetic crepe yardage, and grainy VHS tapes of Dhoop Kinare (The Edge of Sunshine, 1987) and Tanhaiyaan (Loneliness, 1985). The owner of our local video store, from whom we routinely rented recordings of slapstick stage plays such as Bakra Qiston Pe (The Goat, in Installments, 1989) and Budhha Ghar Pe Hai (The Old Man is Home, 1989), had alerted them to these teleplays—both scripted by the legendary dramatist Haseena Moin—before their departure.
Dhoop Kinare, set in a hospital where a young Dr Zoya Ali Khan romances an older colleague, had aired two years earlier on Pakistan’s state-owned channel, PTV. I was five years old when I watched it, and understood nothing about the play’s progressive subject, its first-rate storytelling, or Nayyara Noor’s fluid ghazals, which held the narrative together. This was also around the time I was making definitive career decisions—obviously I wanted to be a doctor like Zoya. But what I actually wanted was lead actress Marina Khan’s short hair; her baggy salwar kameez suits, then in vogue; the inherent elegance of the Urdu she spoke; and, above all, the natural goofiness with which she played the recalcitrant medical student. I remained captivated until the tapes unspooled from overuse, for which I was solely responsible.
After binge-watching several of the new shows being aired on Zindagi, I recently returned to Dhoop Kinare. It still outstrips any contemporary, and several past, Indian television shows by a mile. Aided by actors who are so easy on the eyes, it has all the characteristics long-term viewers have come to associate with Pakistani teleplays. Even 27 years after it was made, its characters’ concerns feel current: Zoya’s resistance to studying medicine, or her friend Anji’s insistence, against her father’s wishes, on studying fine arts.
Unconventional family structures are the norm. Zoya is brought up by a single father and an old ayah, while Dr Ahmer Ansari, her love interest, has no one but the aged professor who adopted him. The shots are slow, the interior monologues rambling, and a little editing could have made the series crisper, but the cracking English-inflected Urdu dialogue—between Zoya and her liberal father, and between her colleagues at the hospital—makes you wish it would go on and on.
But it didn’t. Like all good Pakistani teleplays, Dhoop Kinare stuck to its intended length—13 sixty-minute episodes—and ended the same year it began. In the universe of Indian soap operas, that’s barely enough time to shop for a bride’s trousseau. For perspective, consider the fact that Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (People Will Talk, 2011), an Indian adaptation of Dhoop Kinare, required 361 episodes spread across a year and a half to tell the same story. It also had one change of lead actor and spurred persistent rumours of a second innings.
It isn’t as if we’ve always had unending, unbearable melodrama on television. The early 1980s and the advent of colour transmission gave birth to social dramas such as Hum Log (We People, 1984) and Buniyaad (Roots, 1986), both of which were set against the backdrop of a sprawling Indian family. Though they ran for over a hundred episodes each, these were pithy vehicles for government propaganda, or “social messages”—Hum Log, for instance, was encoded with dispatches on family planning, while the shorter Chunauti (Challenge, 1987) and Neev (Foundation, 1990) addressed the issues of drugs in college and the pressures of school life. We watched these because there was nothing else on Doordarshan, and nothing else but Doordarshan. But Punjabi migrant families such as mine, and families that had grown up speaking Urdu—people who were culturally or linguistically close to Pakistan—continued to ache for PTV bootlegs. In Delhi’s underground Palika Bazaar, one Sikh shopkeeper still deals almost exclusively in cross-border fare, selling the older serials to diehard fans while also doing brisk business in a slew of new ones.
INDIA AND PAKISTAN STARTED daily live television transmissions at roughly the same time, around 1964. Both countries have also had satellite television since the early 1990s. Yet their television industries have developed in divergent directions. Nadeem F Paracha, a Pakistani cultural critic and columnist for Dawn.com, offered one explanation. “In the late 1960s and the 1970s,” he wrote in an email to me, “PTV was largely run by progressive intellectuals with solid backgrounds in theatre, music, and other arts, whereas Doordarshan was mostly run by bureaucrats.” According to Paracha, though the level of censorship remained the same on both sides of the border, PTV was able to produce teleplays scripted by famous playwrights, with established theatre actors and actresses in them.
The disparity between the Indian and Pakistani television industries, however, runs deeper. The Pakistani audience base is smaller and less linguistically diverse than India’s, allowing shows to be more allusive and subtle. But more importantly, the genetic make-up of the two industries is different. In India, television was expressly envisaged as a medium with mass reach. “It was used in this way first by the government and now by private, corporate-driven contexts,” the filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra explained over email. “As a result, only briefly did Indian TV have work for the sake of itself, in which the artistic or entertainment quality was the main point, rather than propaganda or consumer targeting.” That, Vohra said, has deterred many strong creative voices, who already tend to converge on Bollywood, from entering the field.
Vohra also held that Pakistani television has tended to cater to a far more discerning and less variegated audience than its Indian equivalent, and therefore, “could afford to be more literary perhaps.” Vohra pointed out that on this side of the border, Hindi is spoken differently in different parts of the country, and rarely in the form heard on television. Our shows are built around this multiplicity: In a bid to reach as many people as possible, they tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator by being both explanatory and superficial. And while Indian channels are under constant pressure to retrofit storylines in response to weekly ratings, Pakistani ones can afford to go with tried-and-tested formulas and bound scripts.
For Pakistani writers and directors, there have been fewer challenges from the indigenous film industry, dubbed Lollywood for its base in Lahore. According to Bharat Ranga, until recently the chief content and creative officer at Zee, Pakistan’s lack of film theatres and support infrastructure has meant that the film industry has not struck deep roots, leaving television as the primary playground for its creative minds. (The lack of infrastructure might have worked as an advantage here; for example, there are no sets and the real locations, such as rented houses, lend television shows a veneer of lived-in authenticity.) “It is Pakistan’s private channels that have attracted its greatest talents in music, writing, and directing,” Ranga told me over the phone, shortly before leaving Zee last month.
Pakistan’s television industry rose as Lollywood spiralled downward, a decline accelerated—oddly enough—by the country’s 1962 ban on Indian films. Pakistani films no longer had any real competition from the South Asian quarter. “Over time they changed character and form in ways that lost the urban middle-class viewership,” Vohra wrote. These viewers naturally turned to television, which, in the intervening decades of the 1970s and 1980s, yielded Pakistan’s finest cultural expression onscreen.
Shama, based on a novel by AR Khatoon and dramatised by the grande dame of Pakistani plays, Fatima Surayya Bajia, inaugurated the golden era of Pakistani television in 1974. Over the following years, distinct themes and sensibilities began to emerge in the teleserials that grew out of PTV’s Lahore and Karachi centres, and echoed the socio-cultural temperaments of those cities.
Aneela Zeb Babar, a cultural critic and commentator of Pakistani origin currently living in Delhi, told me that the Lahore dramas tended to focus on Punjab’s politics and feudal systems, best illustrated by the mega-popular Waris (telecast in the early 1980s) and the work of Asghar Nadeem Syed (Chand Grahan, 1992). Karachi plays, on the other hand, were characterised by their glorification of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, or syncretic culture, reflecting the concerns of the city’s middle-class mohajir population—and these resonated best with Indians across the border.
Before Haseena Moin’s Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan acquired a cult following during the late 1980s, she had collaborated with director Shoaib Mansoor on Ankahi (Unspoken, 1982), which featured another irreverent, spunky heroine in love with her married boss. Mansoor, who later directed the award-winning hit films Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God, 2007) and Bol (Speak, 2011), is well known for two miniseries that put the spotlight on Pakistan’s defence forces: Sunehray Din (Golden Days, 1990), and the massively successful Alpha Bravo Charlie (1998), both of which gestured—fleetingly—at the martial law imposed during Zia-ul-Haq’s reign between 1977 and 1988. The Zia years also brought the advent of the Muslim historical play, a genre that included Shaheen and Akhri Chattan (The Last Rock), both of which were based on books by the historian Naseem Hijazi.
Even with this bounty at home, there was a longing to peek into life across the border. Babar recalled that during the 1980s, when television relied on terrestrial broadcasts, her family would turn their pliable antenna to attempt to catch Indian films being broadcast on Doordarshan on weekends—just as the family of an acquaintance, who grew up in Amritsar, would attempt to catch the signal from Pakistan to tune into PTV teleplays. By the early 1990s, however, the Pakistani teleserial had fallen into a rut: storylines were being recycled, and production values began to decline. The situation wouldn’t improve until after the proliferation of Pakistan’s private channels in the early and mid 2000s. Besides, there was new competition. By 1994, satellite television began broadcasting Zee TV into Pakistani homes, and viewers of teleplays slowly gravitated towards Indian soap operas. Twenty years later, the current has been reversed.
THE CURRENT CROP OF PAKISTANI DRAMAS to make their way across the border, via Zindagi, were all created over the last four or five years, in the image of the old PTV plays. They were originally telecast on private Urdu channels—such as Hum TV, Geo TV and ARY Zindagi—that launched around the time General Pervez Musharraf seized power after a coup d’etat in 1999. The influx of private money into the media and entertainment sectors during the early and mid 2000s helped revive teleserials. Before the decade ended, the industry had found a name it could bank on: Umera Ahmad.
The 37-year-old writer’s romantic novels and screenplays centre around female protagonists, and mirror middle- and upper-class anxieties about love, weddings and social mobility. Her milieus are contemporary, and her heroines, somewhat like Haseena Moin’s, appear progressive, if ultimately acquiescent. Doraha (Crossroads, 2008), an adaptation of her novel directed by Mehreen Jabbar and featuring a soundtrack by the pop sensation Jal, catapulted her to renown, paving the way for future teleplays, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan (My Existence is Meaningless, 2009) and Shehr-e-Zaat (City Unto Self, 2012).
Zee Zindagi started broadcasting on 23 June, with the flagship show Zindagi Gulzar Hai (Life is a Bed of Roses, 2012), based on Ahmad’s novel of the same name. Starring Sanam Saeed and Fawad Khan in the lead roles of Kashaf Murtaza and Zaroon Junaid, Zindagi Gulzar Hai is an intelligent update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; its main preoccupations, through its 26 episodes, are ideas of class and upbringing—ideas that mainstream Indian serials have often picked up, but usually subjected to notoriously melodramatic treatment.
The two lead characters’ diverging worldviews, which the narrative uses as a framing device, are a function of their respective classes. Kashaf has been moulded into a fiercely independent and strong-willed young woman by her economic and familial circumstances. Money is tight, and she frequently clashes with her father, who left her mother and two sisters to marry another woman and father a son. Kashaf meets the dreamy, upper-class chauvinist Zaroon at university. Their perspectives are so irreconcilable that you might doubt the potential for any romance between the two, even though the opening credits sequence makes clear that their love is inevitable.
In one of my favourite scenes from the show, Kashaf launches into a direct, unrepentant lecture-hall examination of Zaroon’s class privilege—though some of her fire is extinguished in translation: “Zaroon called the entire nation debased,” she says, in Urdu. “In reality, if anyone is substandard it’s Pakistan’s upper classes. For sixty years, they’ve been exploiting the people of this country. And Zaroon can tell you best about this class, because he is a part of it. A section of society becomes selfish, refuses to pay its taxes, and misuses its power, but this doesn’t give anyone the license to belittle the whole country.”
“Don’t get personal with me,” Zaroon replies, in English.
“I’m not getting personal,” she shoots back. “Main bas facts state kar rahin hoon”—I am only stating the facts.
Later, in the show’s “library scene” (famous within its fandom) she condemns his caddish behaviour, loudly cutting him and his obnoxious friends to size. In both cases, Kashaf remains defiant about her censure—of Zaroon, and also of Allah, for failing to mitigate her condition.
Yet the show’s narrative gloss wears off almost as soon as its motivations become clear. While class mobility is encouraged, gender roles remain circumscribed. Defiance is cast as arrogance when employed by someone on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, namely Ghazala, Zaroon’s mother and a businesswoman. A strain of low-grade passive-aggression between Ghazala and her husband—who thinks she doesn’t pay enough attention to the family because she doesn’t hang his business suits in the wardrobe—suffuses their household. A woman’s autonomy and ambition is validated only so long as the goal is financial security or transcending one’s class, as in Kashaf’s case. Take that out of the equation, as with Ghazala, and a woman’s telos remains the hearth.
Zaroon takes his father’s mildly conservative traits and runs with them, often displaying a shockingly regressive outlook. His female ideal is Rafia, Kashaf’s genteel schoolteacher mother who balances back-breaking paid work with domesticity, and keeps her head covered. He tries to control his sister Sara’s independence, leaves his fiancée because she has male friends, and slyly checks his wife’s letters and text messages. Each of these women protest, convincingly and sometimes movingly, against his chauvinism. The serial’s ultimately conservative takeaway can feel like a betrayal, perhaps because its characters’ capitulations hew closer to reality than we’re willing to admit.
By the final episode, every female character tilts towards a traditional, domestic role. Ghazala realises the emptiness of privileging her profession over her partner. Sara, chastened by a divorce and a bout of clinical depression, wants to marry an even more conventional man. Once Rafia’s daughters are out of the home, she forgives and accepts her husband, despite his abandonment of the family. The only major character who seems always on the verge of making a compromise, but who remains ultimately unchanged, is Zaroon. The teleplay’s final silence on his undiminished male privilege is particularly jarring, partly because many characters, including Zaroon, have voiced an awareness of it throughout.
Some of Zindagi Gulzar Hai’s sophistication and nuance is missing from another of Ahmad’s plays, Maat (Defeat, 2011), an unambiguous tale of two chalk-and-cheese sisters. The elder, Aiman, stays on the straight and narrow, her personality visually cued by pulled-back hair, lowered eyes and soft speech. She dotes on the greedy and manipulative Saman, whose only interest is in “marrying up,” even if it means thwarting her own sister’s wedding. As in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, paternal figures are either absent or unsupportive.
There is no room for grey in the pat presentation of Aiman and Saman as polar opposites. But the dissimilarities between the two sisters are not half as interesting as the parallels between Saman and Kashaf. Both assertive lower-middle-class heroines have the same aspiration: upward social mobility. Their only difference lies in the means they choose to propel themselves up the ladder. While Kashaf depends on her academic merit and professional ambitions, Saman relies on the effect her beauty has on men, and has zero misgivings about using it to her advantage. Eventually, Zindagi Gulzar Hai is the more likeable, but also the more predictable, of the two teleplays; Maat is far too conventional, but has more fascinating, if seamier, characters.
Over the decades, the female protagonists of Pakistani teleplays have reflected shifts in the country’s socio-political conditions. “In the 1970s,” Paracha noted, the Pakistani heroine “was portrayed as independent and outspoken. In the next decade, during the conservative military regime of Zia-ul-Haq, women in TV plays began to be portrayed as subdued. Even when the heroine was shown to be independent, she was made to see the pitfalls that such an attitude can create. This image carried over into the 1990s as well, and it is only now that women’s roles are once again being given an unapologetic independent streak.” (Of course Haseena Moin’s munhphatt leads, shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, were an exception.)
The makers of Aunn Zara didn’t get that memo. The show is shorn of the attributes that make Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Maat engaging. On the surface, the hilarious plot focuses on an unsuitable marriage between a cosseted hero with ostensibly feminine personality traits—haplessness, petulance—and a liberated heroine imbued with seemingly masculine ones, such as impatience with make-up and the ability to repair a bike. Yet, the show fails to challenge prevailing perceptions of gender in any meaningful way. Aunn is constantly pestered about his inability to control his wife, while Zara’s handiness with the toolbox is ultimately useless in the kitchen, where she is expected to wait on Aunn. Both the protagonists are impelled towards assuming pre-ordained gender roles by the time the show concludes. The quirky families and cackling dialogue that feel so fresh at first remain just a cute set-up for a deeply orthodox drama.
In a panel discussion on prevalent themes in Pakistani dramas, held at Lahore’s Khayaal Festival last year, Moin complained: “All the men are shown as zaalim”—ruthless—“and all the women depicted as mazloom”—helpless. Moin’s yearning for stronger heroines goes back to an era when the television industry fomented new ideas and battled censorship and propaganda through satire. But perhaps it is unfair to lay the charge of conservatism squarely at the doors of today’s writers and directors.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” explained Mira Sethi, a former assistant books editor with the Wall Street Journal who is now a Lahore-based actor in teleserials like Silvatein (2013). In a phone conversation, Sethi recalled watching a drama recently, in which a mother advises her daughter, “Shauher ke saath behas nahi karni chahiye. Uska dil behlao bachche ki tarah”—It’s inappropriate to argue with your husband. Indulge him, the mother says, treat him like a child. “Indian and Pakistani middle-classes identify with this conservatism,” said Sethi. The depiction of “educated but also equally domesticated women on the screen,” tallies with the realistic expectations of the subcontinent’s women. Female characters can be role models of independent thought, but tend to stop short of truly breaking the mould.
IN THE DAYS BEFORE Zindagi’s launch, hoardings at several busy junctions in the major metros screamed: “Sarhad paar ki behtareen kahaniyan naye channel Zindagi par”—The best stories from across the border on the new channel Zindagi. The channel’s tagline, Jodey Dilon Ko—Bringing Hearts Closer—is not just a reference to the romantic dramas it airs, but a sentimental nod to the cultural links between the two countries. Soft diplomacy blossomed into a full-fledged love affair when Zindagi Gulzar Hai was re-run barely a month after it had first ended, its popularity fuelled at least in part by the frenzy surrounding its heavy-lidded hero Fawad Khan, a crossover heart-throb who recently appeared in a Bollywood film, Khoobsurat.
The tone of Zindagi’s marketing campaign, and of its launch in general, betrayed an implicit awareness of what actually constitutes the common ground between India and Pakistan. Its shows tread a contemporary yet traditional path, sticking to the domestic domain and demonstrating a conditional sort of liberalism that is permissible only in certain situations. According to Ranga, Zindagi’s core target audience is English-speaking, smartphone-owning women between the ages of 15 and 44, who live in big metros, and cities like Bangalore, Pune and Indore. The channel’s profile pins her down as a “quietly humble, progressive yet rooted person with a millennial, or forward-looking mindset.” Although Zindagi’s method of wooing such viewers—via Pakistani serials—is novel, the channel’s vision of who it seeks to serve actually signals a return to cable television’s original brief.
When Zee launched 22 years ago, it sought to “capture,” as Ranga put it, “progressive audiences concentrated around south Mumbai and south Delhi.” The top socio-economic category of consumers—“SEC A+” in marketing lingo—were the first consumers of cable television, and of Zee’s earliest soaps, such as Tara (1993–1997) and Hasratein (Yearnings, 1996–1999). They were educated, lived in the metros, were exposed to international media and had high disposable incomes.
However, in the early 2000s, when cable penetrated smaller towns and rural areas, television’s potential audience grew beyond this original upper-class demographic. As broadcasters and advertisers attempted to reach this new base of consumers, content began to tilt towards long-running soap operas with conformist themes. This, in Ranga’s view, left the early adopters dissatisfied. Zee executives now define that segment of viewers as the “premium mass”—people who may have abandoned general entertainment channels, which broadcast everything from comedy shows to soap operas, in favour of news or knowledge channels; or who may now have migrated online.
For the last two years, Zee has been observing trends in Hindi entertainment, hoping to attract this “premium mass.” “The response to many Bollywood films, like Anurag Kashyap’s movies, has indicated that these premium audiences are open to good Hindi content,” Ranga said. “How else could a movie like Queen have made 100 crores?” By his estimate, these viewers could already account for anywhere between 10 and 15 percent of the market, and those numbers will only grow as people from less advantaged backgrounds make their way up the socio-economic ladder.
If Zee’s evaluations are to be believed, this means advertisers now have an opportunity to connect with a band of consumers that, though relatively small, has immense purchasing power. In other words, someone who is ready to buy new things, but only, as Ranga said, “after careful deliberation and understanding … not just on the basis of what is in fashion.” For anyone who has witnessed an advertising meeting, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking brief. In the mind’s eye of most marketers, the ideal buyer is always young, always progressive yet rooted, and always discerning—in favour of their brand.
To attract “premium mass” viewers in India, Zee turned to what had worked across the border with Pakistan’s equivalent viewership segment. Shows like Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Maat, Kitni Girhain Baqi Hain (Many Knots Remain, 2011), Mere Qatil Mere Dildar (My Killer, My Lover, 2011), Aunn Zara, the mega popular Humsafar (Soulmate, 2011) and the telefilm Behadd (Boundless, 2013), all feature a certain sophistication in storytelling and dialogue; and also of production, employing camera trolleys, varied angles, and macro close-ups with shallow depths of field. Their combination of technical finesse and expert narration caught the eye of Zee’s executives.
Priyanka Datta, Zindagi’s head of business, told me that Zee syndicated the Pakistani dramas after sifting through nearly “4,000 hours of content to zero down on the right mix of shows that was culturally suitable to Indian sentiments.” Zee also decided against airing these shows as a block on one of its existing general entertainment channels, such as Zee TV, Anmol or Smile. Ranga said this wouldn’t have helped the company win the confidence of disaffected viewers. “We realised that the audiences we were looking for came to GECs only intermittently,” he said. “Even if we had a programming block, viewers couldn’t be sure whether we would be consistent. In the past, when we have aired slightly unconventional shows like Tumhari Antara [Yours, Antara] or Connected Hum Tum [You and I, Connected] on Zee TV, there was a disconnect with mass shows like Jodha Akbar and Kasamh Se [I Promise]. We had to give the channel a new identity.”
This “new identity” may not be bound by sarhad-paar dramas from Pakistan alone. In addition to syndicating Pakistani telefilms and thrillers, Datta told me that Zindagi “will showcase content from various countries which have cultural affinity with India, such as Turkey, Egypt and Latin America.” Well-written shows from around the world may, in turn, end up raising the bar for content produced at home as well, and Zindagi has already commissioned original shows and made-for-television films to be created in India. Ranga mentioned that the channel was working with established Indian directors and writers, but wouldn’t disclose any names pending a formal announcement. These shows “are nearly in the category of feature films,” he said. “I can’t tell you the specifics, but we will stick to the promise of progressive, quality content with great drama and music.”
An Indian parallel to the recent renaissance—spurred in part by Netflix—of American television after the dark years of reality programming, may be too much to hope for. And some changes—truly feminist themes and unconventional characters who still feel true to life—will be slow to emerge from either side of the border. But if the shows are as good as Ranga’s enthusiasm suggests they will be, Zindagi might become a game-changer in Indian television, and, in the process, confer new meaning to the term “cross-border cooperation.”