Local television has long been criticized for poor quality of content and lack of diversity when it comes to telling stories. Most narratives these days revolve around family dramas, love triangles, extramarital affairs, domestic violence, second marriages, so on and so forth. It’s like dramas are playing an endless innings on deceit and negativity, as the PM would describe it in cricket lingo. Drama serials Ishqiya, Jalan, Mohabbat Tujhe Alvida, Zebaish and Deewangi that are currently on air are also based on similar themes that wholeheartedly portray the crumbling moral fabric of society without projecting anything motivational. The PM perhaps missed drama serial Alif, which was extremely inspiring, but he can catch up on it on YouTube.
Back to the problem at hand.
Writers complain that they no longer have the liberty to create the kind of content they wish to write while channels insist that they are only producing what the viewer demands. It’s a vicious demand and supply cycle. With a few exceptions, there is so much regression on local TV that the urban youth – the demographic that government appears to be focusing on - prefers watching diverse and contemporary content on streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon.
One drama serial that has taken the country by storm, and has the PM’s approval, is Turkish historical fiction, Dirilis Ertugrul that has broken viewership record in Pakistan. The 2014 series, based on five seasons and almost 200 episodes, made way to Netflix with English subtitles, before PTV dubbed it in Urdu to the delight of the masses. Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the nation to watch Ertugrul and learn about Islamic culture and values, reiterating that Hollywood and Bollywood have had a bad influence on today’s youth.
Hoping to encourage similar productions in Pakistan, the PM recently held a conference call with established scriptwriters from the TV industry. He addressed the group from the PM House in Islamabad while Lieutenant General (R) Asim Saleem Bajwa, who is serving as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, took charge of the proceedings. Writers from Karachi and Lahore invited for the call included Haseena Moin, Zafar Mairaj, Bee Gul, Amjad Islam Amjad, Saima Akram Chaudhry, Farooq Qaiser, Iftikhar Arif, Saji Gul, Amna Mufti, Zanjabeel Asim Shah, Faseeh Bari Khan and Jahanzeb Qamar.
Imran Khan emphasized the need for creating content that would keep the youth connected to their roots while creating awareness around our culture and history. This included period dramas as well as dramas in regional languages that would promote various cultures as was done in the past. He stressed that private channels also needed to play their part, while writers should contribute to the cause too. He expressed disappointment at stories evidently taking inspiration from the west, through the portrayal of divorce and extra marital affairs.
“Dramas that aired on PTV in the past had a purpose, as opposed to what we see on TV today; the standards have lowered so much that they cannot even be shown on the same channel,” veteran playwright Haseena Moin told Instep, agreeing with the PM’s propositions. “During the 40 years that I actively wrote for local TV, I was encouraged to do what I did but nobody calls me anymore. It has now become the domain of marketing where everybody is concerned about making money and not developing the art form. Todays’ dramas are promoting vulgarity without realizing the harm they are causing to society and the upcoming generation.”
Unhappy with the plight of TV at present, Haseena Moin added that if heads of private channels as well as PTV made an effort to remake old, iconic dramas, the new generation would have a lot to learn from them.
Saima Akram Chaudhry of Suno Chanda fame agreed that a variety of stories should be explored on TV instead of limiting ideas around similar topics. “PTV had room for diverse content that catered to various age groups but today’s writers do not have enough freedom,” she shared, adding that they are bound to abide by channel policies.
“If we refuse to write those scripts, they will hire someone else,” she continued, noting that there have been times she turned down an offer that she didn’t align with. “I believe channel owners should have been invited instead of writers because it is in the hands of marketeers who take decisions governed by ratings.”
The scriptwriter also maintained that though the government cannot do much about private channels, they should at least allow PTV and writers to collaborate to bring about a change.
The brains behind Dar Si Jati Hai Sila, Bee Gul emphasized on the need to work on a contemporary way of storytelling. “We should make shows for our young audience that has access and exposure to online content, Netflix, etc. We need shows that are relevant and interesting enough to pull the younger audience. And we must work on removing the social stigmas prevailing in the society which are harming our social structure and are creating problems for the already oppressed gender, that is, women,” she explained.
Not quite agreeing with the PM’s stance, Bee Gul felt that there was a genuine need to highlight divorce and other taboo topics on TV in order to create awareness and remove stigmas attached to these issues.
Saji Gul, who penned the script of Sajal Aly and Bilal Abbas starrer O’Rangreza, could not join the call due to some technical reasons but he shared issues he wanted to raise had he gotten a chance.
“Period plays are generally discouraged here; when I was working on Badshah Begum, we were told that they are very expensive projects,” he shared, adding that he has read the history of period plays made in Turkey. “I learnt that no private channel was willing to invest in Dirilis Ertugrul so a government channel invested the money.”
“Speaking of Pakistan, I believe that if we want to set a standard for our dramas, there has to be at least one channel to do so. And that can only be a government channel,” he continued. “We keep talking about how good dramas in the past used to be but that time is gone and we need to focus on what we are offering in the present. If we look at it, it is PTV that is making the least amount of investment in dramas right now. If the government can do anything about it then it may work because private channels have their policies under which they want to spend as less as they can. We cannot do much about it.”
Moreover, he felt that it was not about the stories but the way they are told in Pakistan. “The storytelling technique has changed worldwide. If you execute a great story in a poor manner, it fails to serve its purpose. It doesn’t click with the audience. Likewise, if you are promoting a wrong propaganda in a convincing manner, it reaches out,” he explained.
Insisting on upgrading the technicalities with reference to style, timeline, arc of the story and production, the writer stressed on having proper training in the field. He has forwarded his appeal to the PM and they are planning to make a writers’ guild too that will work to make trainings both locally and internationally possible. “Writers need to learn the techniques and diversifying content is not the only way out,” he asserted.
Faseeh Bari Khan of Quddusi Sahab Ki Bewa found the conversation during the conference call disappointing since it suggested that TV would be taken over by those who do not belong to the industry. “When ISPR got involved in films, the quality was affected and the same will happen to TV if it is governed by the agencies,” he expressed. “It would be better if those, who have been associated with the industry for long, come together and bring about some change.”
He also felt that Pakistan should take inspiration from Iranian cinema instead of Turkey. “We are closer to Iran in that matter, given that they have been creating powerful content in limited resources,” he elaborated, adding, “Their storytelling is very strong; low-budget Iranian films have won Oscar awards.”
Veteran storyteller Zafar Mairaj, with over 50 scripts to his credit, had a rather unique and interesting take on the subject in question. He emphasized that local television definitely needed a revival in order to promote indigenous content. However, he did not agree with the criticism one generally comes across with reference to content on TV.
“The criticism is pointless; it makes no sense to teach morality to those who are here for business,” he asserted, adding that TV used to connect cultures and languages in the past, which is not the case anymore.
He expressed gratitude that the government called them and paid attention to content related issues but he did not second the PM in his stance.
He felt what was discussed during the call was not as important as other things. “We always blame the west and I am amazed that Khan sahib did the same as what a maulvi would. That divorce, rape, domestic abuse and other social evils are increasing because our dramas are influenced by western culture,” he elaborated. “It is about law and order instead, not just in Pakistan but all over the world and he should have known that.”
He furthered, “The government has purposely turned television into a box that promotes suppression of women, character assassination and other domestic themes to distract masses from bigger issues. There is a disconnect between cities and the tribal areas, which is why there is no awareness in those places. Local artists, languages and music are dying because television does not promote them.”
Reflecting on the PM’s suggestions to make dramas committed to Islamic values, Zafar Mairaj shared that it could have a negative impact too. The situation our country is in right now, there is a lot of religious extremism and that could accelerate. “It will highlight warriors and may promote power play, which will eventually brainwash a lot of people and lead to exploitation by certain sectors,” he opined.
The writer admitted that he had not faced any limitations in his work; the small screen had its limitations instead, he claimed. “Creative liberty has always been a concern and that will continue to be but we will have to work as a team instead of hiding inefficiency under excuses,” he concluded.
There is no two opinions on the fact that television needs a revival of sorts; there is a vacuum when it comes to exploration and experimentation of new ideas. In order to promote local content among the younger generation, new standards have to be set and worked upon. Writers who were a part of the conference call may or may not agree with the PM completely but all of them are of the view that change is essential. They have proposed different solutions that can help achieve the purpose and one hopes to see some of them being implemented in the near future.