What’s the drama all about?
By: Hina Khwaja Bayat
KARACHI: “Do not let foreign culture infiltrate your society, unless as a nation you have a clear vision regarding what to accept and what to reject that is being fed to you through foreign culture.” — Mao Zedong to Ashfaq Ahmed.
This was the vision for a great China — shutting its doors to the world, compelling its own people to build their industries, guarding its cultural heritage and yet, keeping its windows open to reach out to the world with its own products. India does the same; protects its own with a state ban on Pakistani channels and content, yet manages to utilise Pakistani talent and showcases its own content in Pakistan!
Vision, strategy, foresight, planning — these things builds nations. Pakistan’s tragedy has been that we have neither built nor consolidated institutions as we do not view them as ‘national’ issues. We fail to unite our strengths and continue to become weaker individually. Today, our nascent television drama industry is facing circumstances that may stunt its growth, if not wipe it out completely. But sadly, the stakeholders themselves are at war with each other… allowing an outsider to ‘divide and rule’.
Channels, Pemra, United Producers Association (UPA) — the three main stakeholders seem to be at war with each other over imported content from India and Turkey. Channels accuse drama professionals of being insecure, who in turn accuse the channels of being unfair and unethical. Collectively, they accuse Pemra of ambiguities and irregularities in its policies.
The channels’ argument
They have a business to run and if one entity (a foreign channel called Urdu1) is taking away their ratings and revenue through the foreign content Pemra allows it to show (with no percentage restriction), they have the legal right to fight for their market share according to the 10% foreign content per day Pemra allows them. They will sell what the viewer wants even if that means showing Turkish content dubbed in Urdu during primetime — because the 10% allowance does not leave them room for repeat telecasts and by law, 90% of their programming still has to be Pakistani.
The UPA’s argument
They too have a business to run, but reruns of inexpensive foreign content dubbed in Urdu, aired on primetime results in loss of revenue for their fresh and hence, more expensive content. This ultimately would make it financially unviable for them to produce dramas, leading to a sharp reduction in local productions. Eventually, less work for everyone connected with the drama industry — from spot boys to senior and junior actors, producers, directors, writers, singers, musicians, DoPs, technicians, editors, audio engineers, light men, transporters, vendors, caterers, advertisers, marketing personnel, media students…the list is endless!
So far nothing! Policies have been made which are ambiguous, with no input from the stakeholders themselves — almost like a doctor prescribing medicine to a patient without asking him where it hurts. Censor policies too, concerning content, dress code or even the visuals of alchohol, are completely different for local channels and “foreign” ones.
So what’s the drama about? Who is the actual beneficiary here? Ah, the “foreigner”! With no presence anywhere else in the world, it has acquired landing rights in Pakistan, beaming its content in Urdu, enjoying the perks of showing what it wants, unrestricted by percentage, in fresh and repeat slots, on the basis of being “foreign”. Some channels protested this in court, realising the potential dangers of this contradiction. But UPA abstained; for them, Urdu1 was a new client for their software. Now the same client is buying cheaper material from other countries and their local clients (the Pakistani channels) are also heading the same way. A bit like importing plastic goods from China and selling them in Pakistan — great for the importers’ profit margin but a killer for the local industry!
This is a wake-up call for local channels and production houses. The Pakistani viewer wants quality and variety in content, storylines, cinematography and technical expertise. Churning out sub-standard plays like a factory that dictates shooting 22 scenes per day, is not the way forward. Neither is the repetition of clichéd characters and girl meets boy/saas bahu stories by mediocre writers, going to hold viewers’ interest. A recent example of this is the appreciation being lauded on the locally produced Talkhiyan on Express, despite the fact that it was up against massive promotional campaigns of plays on channels perceived as “drama channels”.
Nudity, morality or cultural invasion is not the issue here (though the confused identity of our young performers touching the stage, asking for the “ashirwad” of judges and gyrating to item numbers is rather disturbing). Talkhiyan, Cinderella, Shehr-e-Zaat, Dur-e-Shehwar, Maat, Mata-e-Jaan and the phenomenon called Humsafar are a few examples of what the audience wants. Pakistani drama is an exportable commodity in a global market wherever Urdu is understood, by Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike. It is a product that is studied in the curriculum of film and drama schools, along with Farsi cinema, and has kept Urdu literature alive. It is an industry providing livelihood to our burgeoning youth with degrees in media and film-making, to those who come simply with skill and talent and learn on the job. Yesterday’s spot boy can be today’s production associate and tomorrow’s line producer — unless we compel him to resort to crime and terrorism because he is unemployed.
Conspiracy theories we may not subscribe to, but let our viewers subscribe to “foreign” channels, instead of replacing our drama with foreign content. CNN, ABC, ITV, BBC and others beam freely into every home in their respective countries but viewing of Geo, ARY, Express, Hum even Sony and Zee have to be bought at a separate fee per channel. While India has a state ban on Pakistani channels and content, Pakistan’s drama industry has held its ground in the face of competition. But what it needs is a level playing field, with a united Team Pakistan comprising all its stakeholders.
“It is only with united effort and faith in our destiny that we shall be able to translate the Pakistan of our dreams into reality.” Will we follow our Quaid’s advice as the Chinese followed their great leader? Will the four pillars of the state please unite to protect our own?
The writer is an actor, anchor and columnist with 17 years of experience in the media industry. Human development and social issues are her area of expertise and she is actively involved in related causes.