Local vs foreign dramas
The stunning and unexpected popularity of dubbed Turkish soap Ishq-e-Mamnu has led to a revolution in Pakistani television which, many local actors say, could lead to the death of homemade drama. Actors have taken to the streets to call for government protectionism and a ban on these dubbed soap operas. The claims are similar to those made when Indian dramas became such a runaway success that channels like Star Plus were banned. The argument was specious then and is no more convincing now. Firstly, a moral case could be made that viewers have the right to choose which entertainment they want to consume and it is not the place of the government to make that decision for them. The market has spoken and apparently, it wants melodrama from Turkey that is dubbed in Urdu and seemingly over-the-top.
Then we have to accept the fact that banning foreign entertainment has never served its purpose of encouraging local work. For decades, the Lollywood industry was given a free rein as Bollywood movies were banned from our cinemas and this had no discernible effect on our local productions. If anything, the quality of our movies sank even lower. Here is an indisputable fact: monopolies (and protectionism) end up only stifling creativity. Competition is the lifeblood of innovation and may be just the thing our local drama industry needs to shake off its complacency. Furthermore, it needs to be understood that a television channel is run on ad revenue, which in turn is dependent on ratings.
Protectionism of this kind does not work in any industry. Successive governments have tried it out for various industries, like the automobile industry, but these policies have always been a failure. Pakistani cars are no better now than they were a couple of decades ago, and those who can afford it still prefer foreign cars. The same dynamic is at play with our entertainment. At the cinemas, we want Indian movies and now, on our television screens, we want Turkish soap operas.
It would also be over-the-top to say that Turkish soaps will spell a death knell for local productions. There is no reason why the two can’t coexist. After all, it is not like viewers watch one, and only one, show. The way Humsafar took the nation by storm this year is proof that local dramas can be just as popular as foreign ones so long as they have a compelling story and characters. If anything, the presence of dubbed shows should spur our own industry into action and lead to an overall uptick in quality. This is the kind of win-win situation competition is meant to create. In other countries, too, both local and foreign shows are given equal airtime without it leading to protests and outrage. Even a country such has Britain, which has a long tradition of excellent television programming, has recently started giving a lot of time to US TV shows and subtitled Danish shows.
An additional wrinkle in the protests against Turkish soaps has been the way some TV anchors and religious figures have joined hands with the actors to denounce these productions as antithetical to our values. It is true that these foreign soaps can, on occasion, be risqué but the argument being made is a cynical one. Our own dramas have been getting increasingly bold themselves and the last thing we need is the spectre of religious conservatism rearing its ugly head in this debate. Certainly, there should be uniform policies governing what can and can’t be shown on television but we should always be striving to expand the boundaries of acceptability. Public morality is always shifting and so what might have been seen as inappropriate in another time can be perfectly fine today. The matter, once again, comes down to a question of choice: if such dramas are antithetical to our values, then they will be rejected by viewers. That this has not been the case just goes to show that it is the protesters who are out of step with the rest of the country.