Almost one hundred years ago, in the early 20th century, American radio began to broadcast serialised scripted drama aimed at alleviating the boredom of the American housewife. Armed with her newly revamped upright vacuum cleaner, the Hoover, named after William Henry Hoover who upgraded a machine originally invented in 1908, the American housewife now had the leisure to move from room to carpeted room while listening to ever-lasting tales of romance, intrigue, betrayal and, God forbid, defiance.
Almost immediately after the Second World War, soap operas graduated from radio and began to be aired on television in 15-minute segments. The first such drama, Faraway Hill, was launched in 1946 and ran as an evening series until it was slotted as daytime television, viewed mostly by housewives, the unemployed, the feeble or the ill. The prime sponsors of such dramas were the manufacturers of: (guess what?) soap.
The first soap opera was sponsored by Procter and Gamble, the manufacturers of a detergent, and seeing how melodramatic the content was, soap operas came to be known as “washboard weepies”. While laundry machines, now fitted into the kitchen or a specially designed laundry room, did the dirty linen, a cast of hundreds washed the dirty linen of middle-class families in small towns, plagued by emotional and social conflict, but skirting around issues such as sexual abuse, rape, drugs and HIV. It was just not prudent to speak of social evils; instead, it was the done thing to contextualise the story within notions of sin, the climax of the individual plot endeavouring to resolve all acts of a sinful nature.
Reaching a frenzied pitch of high drama marked with overacting, fake tans, broad-chested men, narrow-waisted women and convoluted plot-lines, the soap opera was at its zenith in the United States in the 1980s when I was a student at a private women’s college south of Washington DC. While most students were in class during the daytime, some chose to sneak into the dormitory lounge to catch an episode of Dallas or The Young and the Restless or The Bold and the Beautiful. These were the girls no one took seriously, for the more serious-minded amongst us were loathe to cast even a glance at the cheesy scripts, full of clichés, cardboard cut-out characters, corny dialogue and predictable plots.
Therefore, it is all the more astounding that I should be viewing what is described as Soup Operas on the plethora of local channels in Pakistan, almost 40 years after I shuddered at the thought of planting myself in front of the idiot box for hour upon hour of what has been described in America as “drivel”, “drippiness”, “inane” and “moronic” television drama. That this should come to pass is perhaps a sad commentary on my self-destructive inability to say “no” to the good people who think I may need some distraction from my otherwise quite satisfying life. That I am trying to make the best of it is perhaps an indication that there may actually be some value in viewing the stuff that is churned out day after day, aired night after night, platitude after platitude, most of it a celebration of patriarchy, poor scripting, worse directing and absolutely awful acting.
Of course there are exceptions: rare, moving and sometimes even inspiring scripts, well-produced and brilliantly performed. But those are few and far between, and serve only to remind us how far we have regressed from the heyday of Pakistani drama popularised by the presence of the late Roohi Bano in her loveable, absent-minded avatars, the evergreen Uzma Gillani lighting up the screen with her hazel eyes and mesmerising us with her husky voice, the magnetic and lovely Shehnaz Sheikh with her mischievous twinkle and cheeky grin.
What happened to Pakistani drama in the years since Kiran Kahani and Ankahi and Waris? Why did we lose sight of the mark we were making in South Asian television entertainment? What happened to the audience which would stop breathing when Khuda Ki Basti aired, once a week, always a cliffhanger, always well-performed, a scintillating script with overtures of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, inspired by the Progressive Writers’ Movement?
Based on the novel of the same name by writer Shaukat Siddiqui, the serial was produced originally in 1969, then again in 1974, at the behest of the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. I was still a young child at that time, but I remember that nothing stirred, no one spoke, time stood still as this beautiful story unfolded about the struggle of the poor in a post-Partition neighborhood. There were other hard-hitting serials which spoke out against the oppression of the feudal order, the tyranny of human trafficking, the corruption of the powerful, the manipulation of the media, the submission of women, the exploitation of children. No more, alas, no more!
Suddenly, as if by some magical sleight of hand, all these pressing issues disappeared with the advent of private television channels and the most important story to emerge was the marriage of the perpetually unoccupied heroine, the dominance of an evil mother-in-law, the sacrificial slobbering of a magnanimous mother and the general uselessness of the hero, usually bearded.
Now we see on our screens girls with burgundy hair, blow-dried straight and to perfection, boys with beards approximating a mix between a moulvi-cut and designer stubble, mothers and mothers-in-law with several spare tyres hanging off their midriffs, absent or near-dead fathers and fathers-in-law, sometimes paralysed, other times blind, deaf, and definitely dumb. We see vacuous heroines twirling painfully straightened hair, pontificating about nothing, equally vacuous heroes with their thumbs tucked into the pockets of badly-fitted jeans, pontificating about nothing.
We see clownish side heroes engaging in antics that would put to shame a Rajastani puppet crafted out of the wood of a mango tree; we hear the screeching of shrill voices issuing forth from the bulbous mouths of hysterical neighbours alarmed that the girl next door is, in fact, nothing but a minx with loose morals, “lachhan”, to put it in the words of one overbearing mother-in-law who has engaged a certain Achhan to spy on the said Lachhan.
We see high drama unfold with the pace of a centiplegic centipede, painfully long scenes in which the best friend of the heroine constantly goads the said heroine to spill the beans on her love interest, maliciously intending to cook a vile chille con carne with said beans. We see the said love interest speeding along on a motorbike or passing his fingers through his well-nurtured coif while looking into the rear-view mirror of the said bike.
We see devoted mothers slaving over a hot stove, while fathers read newspapers or sit idle in courtyards where the said heroine wades through a heap of dirty linen piled up next to the tub where the washing will take place, preferably with the very detergent which has sponsored this long-winded, unending, brain-numbing, exercise in futility, rightfully earning its place in the genre of soap opera, pronounced Soup Oprah but not to be confused with Oprah Winfrey and preferably consumed hot and steaming (the Soup, not Winfrey).
After many, many hours of watching non-narratives unfold in bedrooms, courtyards, lounges, shopping malls, empty restaurants and on top of picturesque hilltops (Faraway Hill!), listening to catchy dialogue involving at least one angrezi word (Fresh ho jao, Tension mat lo, Enjoy kar lo, Ready ho jao, Rice kha lo), I have resigned myself to trying to see the upside of this project: could there be a purpose in deciphering the hidden messages so subtly concealed in the multilayered plot lines?
Or am I just kidding myself, and, as states the copy for the detergent that sponsors the saddest tale of all, Bechaari Nadia, all that I will actually be doing is looking for the Staining Moment of the Week? So, if, a few months into this exercise, you see me climbing a telephone pole and singing at full throttle the theme song of the said soap/soup, you must only look at me with pity, for, in the words of the said theme song: Ro raha hai yeh asmaan meri haalat pe.
Stay tuned for the next episode of: Straining Moments of the Weak! I will be back.
This article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.