The rise and rise of tragedy TV

February 2, 2020

Why is Pakistan obsessed with sob-stories?

The plots are grossly familiar. Our female protagonist hates her husband for marrying a younger colleague of his, the colleague in question generally being the one who ‘coerced’ him into marrying her. As the poor first wife narrates her misery to her mother, everyone gathers around – her sister, her driver, her cat – to cry. This scene is often accentuated by devastating background music. In another drama on another channel, the eternally pitiful first wife is again seen crying as her husband brings the new spouse over to meet his parents. This time she’s in the kitchen, her tears mixing with the lavish meal she is preparing for the newlyweds.

It seems that the world of Pakistani drama is turning into a full-blown sob-fest. The industry is emphatically tilting towards tragedy, and lighthearted shows such as Fifty Fifty and Aangan Terha are a thing of the past.

Something somewhere must have gone terribly wrong.

“Nowadays, the emphasis is on social issues. It is easier to portray social issues through tragedy,” says Umera Ahmed, one of the most widely-read Urdu fiction novelists and screenplay writers in Pakistan. “It is not every writer’s cup of tea to highlight social issues through comedy like Fifty Fifty. Not everyone is skilled like that,” says Ahmed, whose best-selling novels were behind blockbuster TV serials like Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan and Durr-e-Shehwar.

“In Pakistan, it is easier to produce and sell tragedy than something that’d make people laugh,” says Rizwan Safdar, a multimedia producer at Urdu News. “The subject matter of these dramas is more of an ‘overly exaggerated version’ of social issues, and not the real thing as often claimed by producers,” says Safdar, who is also a sociology scholar. “According to drama producers, these stories are about every household. But to be honest, it remains to be seen if this is happening because of these dramas or despite them,” he continues. Safdar says that the tragedy portrayed is of a specific kind and relatable only to a specific class. “Most of the families shown in these dramas belong to the upper-middle class,” says Safdar.

Ahmed says that tragedy is popular in Pakistani drama mainly because it is cathartic. “Catharsis cannot be comic, it needs to be serious and tragic,” she says. “All over the world, comedy is like dessert. It can’t be the main course,” says the award-winning writer. “It can’t possibly be expected of channels to produce lighthearted shows for prime-time slots. They are bound to show what the audience wants and they want tragedy.”

“People romanticise women crushed by societal pressures, smiling under all conditions. That is our criteria for successful drama,” says Bushra Ansari, comedian, actor and playwright.

“Women are seeing a lot of stuff on prime-time TV which is a high-level dramatisation of issues that they have faced in their lives,” says Ayesha Mirza, who is an educationist and describes herself as a feminist. Mirza teaches high school sociology and politics. “Considers a homemaker who is paranoid about her husband’s ‘wandering eye’ and is scared that any woman can ‘entrap’ him. Let’s also imagine for a moment that this woman’s sustenance is dependent upon her marriage remaining intact. She gets to live out her frustrations and feelings through a controlled experience of viewing it on the telly. Hence, TV serves as a cathartic model.”

Mirza has an interesting theory about why more Pakistani men are now getting addicted to these dramas. “In urban communities, the ultimate symbol of economic status/success for any man is the wife that he can afford to have. However, given the sort of economic frustrations that most men will experience due to opportunity shrinkage at the top, most of them are now experiencing something called status frustration. So what they’re essentially doing through these dramas is living out these fantasies.”

Hinting at the much-debated popular TV series Mere Paas Tum Ho, Mirza adds, “seeing these ‘bad girls’ who have left ‘good men’ for richer men, meeting a disastrous end, must also serve as a cathartic experience for men who have gone through similar things in life due to status frustration.”

Ahmed says that things can only change for the better if channel owners have the patience to run comedy drama in primetime slots, regardless of their ratings, so that the audience gets used to it. However, she adds that “the economy is in doldrums, the advertisement and main slot rates have gone down and no one is willing to take such a chance right now.”

The world is now gradually warming up to the concept of ‘dramedy’, which is a dark comedy or drama with an underlined comedic slant. Dramedies tackle serious subjects but do so with a much-needed humorous twist. Shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Ricky Gervais’ After Life are successfully showing how important and meaningful messages can be conveyed in a manner that is not entirely in your face.

It seems that Pakistani drama will take some time to follow the suit.

“As a nation, we are attuned to tragedy and pathetic situations,” says veteran actor, comedian, singer and playwright Bushra Ansari. “People romanticise women crushed by societal pressures, smiling under all conditions. That is our criteria for successful drama. We don’t allow ourselves to have fun and enjoy life.”

Hinting at the success of MPTH, Ansari says that tragedy will continue to outsell comedy in a society where dialogues like “women who make mistakes are not fit to be called women, and hence cannot be forgiven,” continue to be appreciated by the general audience.

The writer is a staff member

The rise and rise of tragedy TV: Why are Pakistanis obsessed with sob-stories?