In a country like Pakistan, where poverty and illiteracy dominates the demographics, television is the most powerful medium for news and entertainment. TV does not cater to just a literate minority or run the risk of extinction like print; neither is it as unregulated or reckless as social media. Or is it? The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) would have you think that it is the devil let loose.
PEMRA’s primary responsibility is to regulate what’s being aired on local TV, and for years the focus has been on blocking Indian content or objectionable western content. It has issued numerous warnings to drama producers and news channels in the past, pinpointing what it considers objectionable content, but these warnings came with reprimanding raps on the knuckles. Last week PEMRA stepped into a new territory when it prohibited the re-runs of two drama serials from airing and then on Thursday evening, issued a ban on a third.
In the official notice(s), PEMRA states that it had received countless complaints (from viewers) against drama serials Pyar Ke Sadqay (PKS) and Ishqiya, citing that they offended cultural values. A second notice was issued against drama serial Jalan, after its 13th episode aired on Wednesday and it got banned from further airing. Interestingly, these three drama serials have had highest ratings (Jalan’s latest episode, with 3.5 million views, was trending on YouTube), so needless to say, people were watching. And they were obviously also complaining. (Trivia: Google has listed Pakistan as one of the world’s top porn watching countries despite the fact that pornographic sites are banned in the country. Case in point: hypocrisy runs in social behaviour.)
The complaints were apparently brought up at a recent PEMRA meeting with members of the United Producers Association (UPA), where ‘objectionable content’ was discussed.
Let’s take a look at how objectionable this content is.
Pyar Ke Sadqay, a 30-episode drama serial written by Zanjabeel Asim and directed by Farooq Rind, with Bilal Abbas Khan, Yumna Zaidi, Atiqa Odho and Omair Rana in the lead, gently pointed a finger and raised awareness around instances where sexual offenders could be family members. Omair Rana’s character Sarwar is shown to be obsessed with his extremely naive daughter in law, and constantly makes advances on her. Statistics indicate that of all sexual abuse cases reported, 34 per cent are family members. (Source: RAINN) The drama drew attention to this social evil in an inoffensive manner. Over 8 million people watched the last episode on YouTube alone and applauded the ending.
In an angry Social Media post, actress Atiqa Odho who played the character of Begum Mansoora, the perpetrator’s wife and victim’s mother in law in PKS, blasted PEMRA for its decision to not allow the drama a rerun.
“Really #Pemra?” she wrote in an expressive Instagram post. “Is this the democratic way of life? Do we muzzle voices that help reflect changes needed in our society? Television drama brings up important social problems which need correction. It helps educate people about mental health, social injustices, hypocrisy, abuse, misuse of power, etc, etc etc. If we start to brush things under the carpet and not bring them out for discussion, we will never grow as a nation towards positive change. Stop treating viewers as if they are dumb and don’t have exposure to the rest of the world! #Pemra should be making policies to create more social awareness through Pakistani drama and not reducing content to falsefied garbage. Tabdili Tabdili Tabdili !!!!!! Insaf Insaf Insaf !!!!!!!!”
Drama serial Ishqiya, spanning over 28 episodes was written by Mohsin Ali Shah and directed by Badar Mehmood, with Feroze Khan, Ramsha Khan and Hania Amir in the lead. It was a story of love, betrayal and revenge in which the character Hamza, to avenge his college sweetheart’s betrayal, marries her sister. The last episode, which aired on August 10, 2020, picked up over 9 million views on YouTube.
In a conversation with Instep, Ishqiya writer Mohsin Ali felt that every creative person has a self-censor mechanism, be it an actor, a writer or a director and no one would deliberately try to cross ethical boundaries and make the audience uncomfortable.
“No sane person who has watched my drama Ishqiya would label it as something immoral,” he said. “It was a simple revenge story where one character marries the sibling of the other to make the other person feel uncomfortable, and that’s something that actually happens in our society. Had people in PEMRA watched the drama, and not taken action on hearsay, they would have dismissed the complaints instead of banning the drama’s repeat telecast.”
Incidentally, Mohsin Ali isn’t new to censorship in Pakistan.
“This isn’t the first time that such a thing has happened to me,” he shared. “Last year when my directorial project Bhook (based on news that actually happened) was aired, many raised concerns since it showed the true face of the society. That mini-series completed its course because it educated the audience in many ways and I am sure that once the good people of PEMRA watch Ishqiya, they will remove the ban as well. My mother and sister watch the dramas I write or direct and I keep them in mind when penning a script; I don’t want to let them down and the same goes for my fans whom I consider my family.”
A few years back, people will remember that a show-cause notice was issued to HUM TV for airing Udaari, a drama that educated its audience on the social evil of child abuse. It ran its course and won countless awards for its brilliant execution and performances.
Director Mohammad Ehteshamuddin, remembering that time, thanks the audience for standing with them. Back then, public demand actually overturned PEMRA’s decision to take the drama off air.
“Story-telling has been mankind’s favorite pastime, ever since man could speak,” Ehteshamuddin says, recalling the whole episode. “To deprive people of stories is criminal, especially when they are trying to make society a better place by highlighting its issues. When Udaari was issued a show-cause notice, producers fought against it and the audience stood behind us because it broke the unspoken rule of discussing a taboo during prime time.”
Theatre, film, and TV actor Omair Rana who played Sarwar, the evil step-father-in-law in Pyar Ke Sadqay also feels that maybe it’s time that the drama industry explored new storylines and genres. Speaking to Instep, he said that TV needed to explore fresh content.
“Just like we are through with the saas-bahu sagas, I think it’s time we move away from ‘tired’ and tested plots and explore new horizons. In order to graduate to the next level, we would need PEMRA’s guidance but that would only work if they sit down and discuss rather than shut themselves up and ban everything they don’t deem fit. There is a need for a ‘Censor Board’ style committee that should have creative people with an impeccable reputation, a set standard for censorship and above all, a group that encourages out of the box ideas instead of discouraging people from deviating from the norm.”
Omair Rana defended Pyar Ke Sadqay, terming it as one of the best plays in recent years that tackled not one but multiple issues.
“In PKS, I played the bad guy who met an unhappy end; not once did the drama preach that whatever Sarwar was doing should be followed. He married an older woman for money, bullied her son to make him lose confidence in himself, tried to ruin his marriage and family life, and in the end was on the verge of winning on all fronts, but lost every battle. The impact that character left on the minds of the audience was huge only because his evilness touched the audience’s heart; they hated him every time he came onscreen and in order to achieve that, the makers have to provoke to the extent that it evokes the desired emotion. Otherwise, the issue the play highlighted would have fizzled out without making an impact!”
Pyar Ke Sadqay may have had an underlining social cause to raise awareness on an important issue, but then drama serial Jalan came across as a basic story of love and lust and became too much for people to handle, hence the complaints. The drama, after the successful telecast of its 13th episode on Wednesday, was issued a ban by PEMRA. For those not watching, Jalan is written by Sidra Sehar Imran, directed by Aabis Raza and has Emmad Irfani, Minal Khan and Areeba Habib in the lead. It’s the story of two sisters, with Nisha successfully preying on her brother in law, thus wrecking her sister Misha’s life. Immoral: yes. Unheard of: no.
“I don’t know much about the legalities of the review and/or PEMRA’s ability to ban a drama that is currently on air, but I am hopeful that people in that review committee will find nothing objectionable when they watch Jalan,” Aabis Raza spoke to Instep before the notice to ban was issued. “We have tried to highlight a genuine social issue which has always been our priority. As a director, I feel we have made a socially correct drama where no boundaries have been crossed. It might just be a simple case of our making a meaningful drama and the audience deducing some other meaning and blaming the makers instead.”
Ehteshamuddin feels that the best way to avoid the banning culture is by tackling the issue on hand in an intelligent manner.
“If PEMRA feels that some drama is not being civil in its execution, they can ask the producers to shift it to a more reasonable time (later than 9 PM for a mature audience) instead of banning it altogether. Whenever such a step (ban) is taken, it pushes the creative process behind by five to ten years. PEMRA shouldn’t take action against any drama because it gets four to five letters from noncreative people; they should watch the dramas and then decide for themselves. Thankfully, every channel has a self-censor mechanism that allows them to highlight social evils through plays, and we must encourage drama makers if we are to move ahead in the right direction.”
Omair Rana echoes Ehteshamuddin’s views, emphasizing that a lot can be achieved by introducing mandatory ratings and schedule broadcast timings as per eligible content. He adds that sometimes it is inappropriate for youngsters to watch a certain drama, but that doesn’t necessarily merit a ban on it.
“Dramas like Udaari, Chup Raho, Darr Si Jaati Hai Sila and others highlighted the many social evils that exist and although some of us will not allow our children to watch all dramas, allowing them to watch a few would do them good. If we push dramas that revolve around extramarital affairs, divorces, and similar stuff after 9 pm, and dramas not venturing into the same territory before 9 pm, then I guess it would be a win-win situation for both the makers and the audience, and PEMRA wouldn’t have to worry much about banning or unbanning of plays at all!
“How difficult would it be for PEMRA to contact the production house, talk to them and get their points of view, rather than putting an end to a creative process that went through many levels to reach that place,” he concluded. “And if nothing works, educate the audience in such a manner that they realize which content is good to watch and which isn’t. We have bid farewell to the saas-bahu saga and I am sure that if the audience gets mature, they will automatically stop following content that is not ethical, religiously incorrect and above all, immoral.”
At the end of the day, if PEMRA is going to interfere in creative processes (which is problematic to begin with), then it should at least issue clear directives on what is permissible and what isn’t. It’s quite inexplicable how a drama like Mere Pass Tum Ho, for example, passed the PEMRA censor but Pyar Ke Sadqay hasn’t. Public opinion, to be fair, should not determine the fate of a drama serial’s permission to air. As far as one is concerned, there should be no ban beyond blasphemous and anti-national content. There is a clear self-censor policy on sex, nudity and explicit content, which writers, directors and producers are already aware of. If there is (tragically) more content that PEMRA is concerned about, then it should issue a manual clearly listing the dos and don’ts of drama making so that it’s clear that liberal arts are swimming against the current and are not allowed freedom of expression. To act on a whim is both unfair and unjust and one would urge PEMRA to reconsider.