Soaps across the world survive on the echo effect of familiar stereotypes. This is not a phenomenon that is simply native to Pakistan. Indian soaps are wrapped in Kanjeevaram saris and family values and Brazilian telenovelas often feature women falling for a richer man and facing issues around ‘marrying up’ in the world. Each culture reinforces its own set of values and these are often evolving paradigms that diversify with socio-political circumstances, advertiser expectations and changing media proliferation.
While the buzz around the revival of Pakistani cinema is deafening, it is the Pakistani drama serial that has experienced a true renaissance over the last decade and created a stable of talent. The industry’s resurgence as a game-changer has been phenomenal. In 2014, Aurora magazine estimated that entertainment channels (mostly offering a daily diet of soaps) pull in about half the total advertising spend on television.
BBC Media Action’s field research in Pakistan suggests that drama (53 percent of all respondents in a large representative sample say it is the format they like to watch) is the most popular genre for both men and women (though marginally more popular with women). Hence, it is not just women who are possibly absorbing social behavioural recommendations from television drama serials. Men too are observing what it takes to be a man in Pakistani society and. of course, what they can expect from the women in their lives and homes. So when a model (Saba Qamar) marries a politician (Zahid Ahmed) on the basis of a challenge thrown out on a TV talk show in Besharam (2016), it perpetuates the silliness of women in making life-changing decisions despite being relatively independent-minded and financially self-sufficient.
There are two ways that the media can potentially affect beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in society. One of these is an individual or direct effect where the media can introduce new norms or entrench existing notions as normative in what Della Vigna and Gentzkow (2010) call the persuasive model. Both Mackie (1996) and Chwe (2001) contend that the provision of public information can enhance the coordination of that norm as it is perceived as “public knowledge”. Arias (2016) speaks about how when the media’s method of delivery is a public one, it helps people form an understanding of their shared beliefs.
Miller, Monin and Prentice (2000) argue that “attempts to change public behaviours by changing private attitudes will not be effective unless some effort is also made to bridge the boundary between the public and the private”. When families and neighbours view television drama together (quite common in Pakistani homes and mohallas), they may collectively absorb the moral tropes inherent in it. They come to believe together and the story’s inbuilt logic mechanism instils this shared experience into their perception of the moral standards of behaviour. This is why Pakistani drama serials can both be dangerous and potentially a way to update norms and get people to adapt their notions on the basis of widely shared beliefs of how people ought to behave in a given situation.
As its influence has widened, the Pakistani television drama has increasingly developed tropes and advocated social norms that form a guidebook to ‘correct’ female behaviour. While there may be exceptions, ‘positive’ behavioural patterns for female characters include submission to the greater good, silence above speaking out (except in sudden tirades) and a focus on marital and family life that tends to make women’s career choices appear insignificant or non-existent.
The world of Pakistani soaps is now the home – and female characters rarely step out. Endless scenes are framed around kitchens and bedrooms as drama serials are now almost exclusively shot in rented houses. But whereas men leave and return, women are largely home-bound. Women who do venture out and work in the public space – be it Sarah (Naveen Waqar) in Humsafar (2011) or the mentally disturbed Jeena (Aisha Khan) in Mann Mayal (2016) – are shown as seductresses trying to dismantle the extended family system. Pakistani dramas normalise women pitted against each other as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, as a nand scheming against her bhabi.
Female support systems are almost written out of stories. A play in which women support women – like Mehreen Jabbar’s Spenta, Mary aur Zubeida (2000) where the characters provide refuge to women escaping violent husbands – would almost certainly find no takers among channel drama heads today.
Meanwhile, simpering, dewy-faced heroines like Khirad (Humsafar) suffer in obstinate silence or misguided stoicism like Kashaf (Zindagi Gulzar Hai, 2012). Tears are plentiful. Producers now claim that if you don’t show women crying, the drama won’t garner ratings. The Pakistani media has set the parameters of acceptable womanhood and they are stringent and disturbingly regressive. As actor Samiya Mumtaz says: “They get actors known to be strong in real life to play these downcast, crying roles”. Are they are being chastised in the public view to handicap the impact of their off-screen personae?
While these serials are ostensibly about women (male stars from Fahad Mustafa to Ahsan Khan complain Pakistani dramas are female-driven), they are better described as being about a “prescribed” woman. She is a manifesto writ large and beamed into people’s homes daily.
Television-watching is very different from other forms of media. In Pakistani homes, it is usually done together with your family or even while doing household chores. So, in a sense, it insidiously creeps into the family and you are almost lulled into believing that these characters could exist outside television bounds and share a cup of tea with you. Behavioural messages in television dramas are coordinated for family viewing and witnessed as a group. A central concern then is to understand how these coded behaviours affect people’s belief systems and can yield social outcomes.
As in Udaari (2016), social drama can equally be used to create awareness and encourage tolerance and open-mindedness. But when drama is used to restrict women’s ambitions beyond the home and hearth, when it glorifies misery and martyrdom consistently and when it holds back from showing examples of female community-building, it becomes a platform for retrogressive behaviour normalised for mass audiences.
So why do female actors on television accept these roles? “When roles disagree with my own feminist principles, I turn them down,” reveals Samiya Mumtaz. “But not everyone can do that and we can’t afford to do it every time. Acting is a livelihood and these are the parts that are on offer.”
This column has been adapted from a special report on Pakistani television drama written by the writer for the Jinnah Institute’s Women and media series.
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon
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