Pakistani television producers have spoken against the airing of Indian soaps on local channels for more than a decade. The unexpected success of recent Pakistani productions, such as Humsafar is evidence that attracting audiences is not impossible. Of late there’s been debate (and ‘fraternity’ protests) over the popularity of Turkish serials aired on local channels. The Herald invited three panelists to discuss the issue: actor and director Atiqa Odho; screenwriter Farhat Ishtiaq who has won applause for successful television serials including Hamsafar and Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu; and, Sanam Saeed, who in her various avatars — as a ramp and print model, video jockey, stand-up comedian, theatre and television actor shows huge promise. They were joined by readers who posed questions.
Herald. Star Plus soaps were aired on television in the past which indicates that the recent talk about foreign serials shown on local television isn’t something new. So, why the uproar now about renewed competition?
Atiqa Odho. The issue is not about competition; it’s about regulation. There is a big difference. We have no clear-cut policies and this trend must change, considering the way the industry is growing. Media practices cannot be left to chance, because television is a powerful medium, affecting millions. Countries have their code of conduct and clear licensing policies for the content that is broadcasted. Foreign content is always considered a filler product. Our channels are trying to run foreign content on prime-time slots, which is against the regulations of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra).
Farhat Ishtiaq. At the time our television industry faced serious problems when the likes of Star Plus entered the market. Now, our industry is growing. There should be rules and regulations for the media. Locally produced serials have their unique aspects, much of what was lost a decade ago. As we try to regain that identity and are at this crucial [and early] stage, we [the industry] are being brutally murdered.
Odho. Star Plus was illegally shown on cable, and has now been shut officially.
Sanam Saeed. Star Plus wasn’t one of our own channels. I think now that our own local channels are airing foreign soaps so regularly that it’s starting to take a toll on our local productions, viewers and industry.
Odho. We are always told that quality is an issue with our product but I disagree. Humsafar is perhaps a great example of what Pakistani Urdu drama can still do for the viewer.
Herald. Did quality serials from Pakistan bring back audiences lost to Indian soaps? And if so, how?
Saeed. Of course, through content, quality acting, production, scripts and plots.
Odho. It is a matter of great pride that we produce serials in Urdu. We must protect our trade and its growth so that Pakistan is able to promote its work worldwide. It is a fabulous product that we have worked on and improved through years of hard work. Why are we selling ourselves short by bringing in short-term, cheap, dubbed content when we should be looking at taking our own voices into the global market?
Herald. Why do you think Pakistani content is not being taken to global markets?
Saeed. India refuses to buy Pakistani serials and run them on their local channels. Yet, we run theirs.
Odho. Every country protects its local industries. Be it car manufacturing or television content. We need to protect Pakistani drama to further its scale and growth. Then we need to start selling globally to bring in much-needed foreign exchange. Currently, channels are sending Pakistani money abroad by buying foreign products that take away from our growth. And this is also illegal; how do they send this money to other countries when we have no bilateral trade policy for the media with India or Turkey?
Ishtiaq. Just because foreign products are cheaper, we are destroying our talent. Has India or any other country aired Pakistani plays? Although Humsafar was a hit in India, they never showed it on their channels. Alas! We are our own Brutus.
Herald. So does the television industry not want foreign content at all? Or are they open to it, but with some kind of regulation?
Ishtiaq. Foreign content shouldn’t be allowed.
Saeed. Change is always good, and one must always be open [to it]. [Foreign content] can be allowed, but with regulations. We also need to apply some kind of moral conception to the Pakistani television industry.
Odho. We should only broadcast content from countries that buy from us as well. It must be a balanced mutual exchange. It comes down to strong government policies.
Ishtiaq. The point is, we are at an initial stage. We are growing. We are not afraid of competition, but this is what we term ‘humiliation’. As if we were not competent enough, so it has become necessary to buy a foreign product. Is Turkey showing Humsafar, Dhoop Kinaare or Tanhaaiyaan?
Odho. Other countries have clear-cut rules for broadcasting foreign content, which must follow the same censor policies as all local programming that is broadcast. They do not allow foreign content beyond a certain quantity and definitely not to be broadcast on prime time. Local trade unions in countries like India would never tolerate their money being spent on foreign content because local workers would suffer eventually.
Saeed. For instance, there’s a new play Talkhian that has begun to air. But if you go to its Facebook page or the Express Entertainment page, it hasn’t been promoted. What you do have is every link under the sun for Turkish soaps. The channel is too busy promoting foreign soaps. It is very upsetting to see our hard work – beautifully translated and adapted scripts by Pakistani actors, producers, directors – being sidelined.
Odho. The Turkish product, just like Indian soaps, is a fad. It will eventually die out, while the local industry will survive. But there will be financial damage to grapple with later, as a lot of cash would have been wasted on yet another experiment. Our channels should be strengthening indigenous products for their own long-term well-being. In the present scenario, everyone will suffer as there will be a slowdown in production, which will push talented writers, directors and actors to look for other types of work and leaving the trade at such a crucial time when we are going somewhere.
With so many foreign dramas, are we still watching local ones?*
*The above question was posed to readers online after the discussion
Herald. Have any one of you here approached the concerned channels to discuss the issue?
Odho. We, who form part of the United Producers Association of Pakistan (UPA), are joining the petition against foreign soaps in the Supreme Court and have taken up the matter officially with Pemra and the Federal Board of Revenue. This has to be dealt with on many levels, as we are going through a process of correction. I am of firm belief that we will strengthen our regulations by default.
Saeed. This is why I am glad to be here today, and why I wanted to join the petition with fellow actors. I think there was a press conference held today [December 17, 2012] by the UPA.
Herald. Sanam mentioned something about the moral conception of television in Pakistan. Any thoughts?
Odho. Turkish soaps are not compelled to follow the same censor policies as Pakistani serials. Why is this so when the viewer is the same? This is unfair on the part of Pemra. Just because a channel claims to be a foreign broadcaster doesn’t mean it can get away with showing more than the local channels.
Ishtiaq. Viewers are watching what’s imposed on them. Did you know about Turkish plays earlier? And believe me, they are a hit because of their boldness and the overall look of the actors.
Anushey. There is nothing wrong with Turkish culture. If someone thinks their children will be affected, they should teach their kids otherwise. Maybe the skirts are shorter in Turkish dramas, but so what? Is our faith so weak that a few short skirts will make us renounce our culture?
Ishtiaq. Television is a medium we watch with family. Yes, short skirts are a problem.
Odho. Conceptions of vulgarity is a very personal matter. What I may find offensive, you may not. This subject is a non-starter, I feel. Yes, foreign plays are bold and that is why Pemra should just make one set of rules, and allow everyone a level playing ground. Why two sets of rules?
Herald. Why wasn’t the industry up in arms when Indian content came in years ago with Zee TV and Star Plus?
Saeed. Zee TV and Star Plus were not local channels. It is more upsetting to see local channels bombarding us with foreign content.
Ishtiaq. Indian channels were illegally shown in Pakistan at that time.
Odho. Because after the demise of Pakistani cinema, we have realised that if we don’t protect our own industry, jobs are lost. Television currently employs 40,000 people who will all go home if we keep bringing in canned, dubbed products.
Saeed. With the death of local cinema, Pakistan has the drama industry to bank on. We have come a long way and are doing a wonderful job churning out quality productions.
Odho. Every Pakistani should be supportive of [the] industry so that our product sells. The scale and outreach for Pakistani content is large if we look at the international scope of the language.
Ishtiaq. But again, I’ll say we have to look at our mistakes as well. We are repeating the same themes on television. We have to work on our stories, as well as the technical aspects of production.
Usman Ahmad. Why are Pakistani dramas ‘non-political’ in content? Why is there no discussion of larger issues like terrorism or identity in Pakistan?
Ishtiaq. We should tackle terrorism and political issue. But will such serials get TV ratings? Will viewers watch serials with intense thematic focus?
Saeed. Do we really want more political discussions floating about every dining table conversation? Does the news industry not dramatise the state of affairs of this country enough?
Ishtiaq. We can improve Pakistan’s image through our dramas. Pakistan is not the Taliban, it is Malala.
Odho. Drama is a reflection of society. All subjects must be addressed within the social values of a larger audience. Broadcast is not a private space, and hence we must keep content and overall packaging within the norms of our own values, to a large extent. This does not mean we stop telling stories.
Bilal Afzal. Is the viewer at fault if he has the option of viewing better content, even if it is foreign?
Odho. Bilal, you are making a generic reference. All countries have successful products and some low-quality productions. Everything cannot be A-class and every play cannot be successful. Much depends on the channels’ demands. Sometimes, they give the producer a criterion to follow. There was a time when we went the Indian soap route. Some are still stuck there, but most of drama producers have reverted to their original Urdu drama format because our audiences demanded such.
Anushey. I’m a huge fan of Pakistani dramas. But recently I was hooked to Ishq-e-Mamnu. It has to be accepted that the Turkish drama is simply amazing. You need to compete with them, not ban them.
Odho. All stories have been told before; it is the packaging and style [of direction] that changes. I shall refer you to Humsafar here. As an actor, I felt the drama had a typical mother-in-law, daughter-in-law storyline, but it was the way in which the director shot this serial that made the different. The Turkish are showing exactly what Dallas or Dynasty did many years ago.
OldisGold. Why is there an excessive moralistic tone to Pakistani dramas? They seem forced and unable to reflect the reality of society.
Ishtiaq. In-your-face sermons never really work.
Odho. Dramas need to change their content as there is too much women-bashing on television these days. This is a terrible reflection of a society which has so much more to offer than just depression.
Saeed. We do need to change our content. Give us time, and a chance, and we will.
Herald’s top TV shows for 2012
Ishq-e-Mamnu (Aired between 2008 and 2012 in Turkey)
Quddoosi Sahab Ki Bewah
Sabz Pari Aur Lal Kabooter
Babar Javed-Fasih Bari Khan
Wasu Aur Mein
Steven Moffat-Mark Gattis