Musings of a Reader: What Happened to Pakistani Television?

Published in Zau magazine in August 2015

As a principle, I am against the whole “things were so much better in the olden days” line of argument. I think it’s a lazy argument to make, and that nostalgia and distance inevitably make us believe that the past was better than it actually was. I usually roll my eyes when this line is thrown around during discussions of technology (“You kids with your smartphones and your Facebook – in MY day, we used to play out in the streets”) or the state of contemporary literature (“In the past, people read TRUE literature, not the Fifty Shades junk of today”). But just like rules are made to be broken, principles are made to have exceptions, and I, too, have an exception to my general aversion to romanticizing the past: I genuinely believe that the Pakistani dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s are eons better than the crappy shows of today, with their one-note characters and their weepiness and their constant need to make a virtue out of suffering.

It’s not just me – the ‘70s and ‘80s PTV dramas are largely considered to be the golden era of Pakistani television today. Those dramas had a rich variety of different themes and forms of storytelling, quite unlike the marriage-children-adultery-divorce plots of the dramas today. There were many dramas which were adaptations of great works of Urdu literature, such as those based on the writings on Bano Qudsia, A R Khatoon and Amjad Islam Amjad. Fatima Surayya Bajjia’s adapted and original screenplays of the ‘60s and ‘70s were critically acclaimed.There were also adaptations of Russian literature, such as Qurbatain Aur Faslay (1974) which was based on the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, and adaptations of British literature, such as Perchaiyan (1976) that was based on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and even an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s controversial philosophical novel The FountainheadTeesra Kianara (1979). In the ‘80s the most popular playwright was Haseena Moin, whose light-hearted and tender stories about young, middle-class people – such as Ankahi (1982), Tanhaiyan (1985) and Dhoop Kinaray (1987) – are undoubtedly the dramas of that era that have most successfully endured until today.  Comedy shows of that era, including Fifty Fifty (1970), Angan Tehra (1981) and Half Plate (1984) remain unparalleled their witty humour and sharp satire. The trend of high-quality dramas declined in the ‘90s, with the exception of Shoaib Mansoor’s army-themed Sunehray Din (1990) and Alpha Bravo Charlie (1998).

Watching these dramas today, it is clear that they are by no means perfect. They can be slow and meandering, the editing is at times really bad and the shots and camera angles are not at all sophisticated. In fact, the technical flaws are the most obvious characteristic that make the dramas feel dated. There is also a tendency in several dramas, particularly in the Haseena Moin ones, to go overboard with the philosophizing and abstract speeches. However, these flaws are minor quibbles compared to the sheer number of things these dramas get right.

For instance, one of the many refreshing qualities of the dramas of that era is how comfortable and accepting they were of unconventional family structures, without making a big deal about them. In Ankahi the heroine, Sana, lives with her widowed mother and her unmarried uncle. Eventually, another aunt and her son come to live with them. In Tanhaiyyan, the orphaned sisters live with their unmarried older aunt, and in Nangay Paon (1993), a divorced woman is raising her teenaged daughter by herself. In Dhoop Kianary the hero is an orphan adopted by a man who then raised him single-handedly, and the heroine is raised by her widowed father. The best part about this is that there aren’t long, drawn-out discussions about how unconventional or strange all these living situations are. There isn’t a rant in every episode by the heroine talking about how damaged growing up in a single-parent household made her, or a monologue by the unmarried older aunts and uncles talking about the tragedy of their singledom. There are, to be sure, quiet moments of sadness about the people missing in their families, but the audience isn’t hammered over the head with them.

Another interesting thing about the dramas of those times is their willingness to show healthy, happy relationships of all kinds – whether it be a relationship between sisters, between a father and his son, between friends or between a couple. Relationships between women, in particular, are treated with great deftness. Unlike in today’s dramas, where the sister or friend of the heroine exists either as flat, one-dimensional sounding board for her, or as someone who would inevitably fall in love with the her love interest and try to steal him from her, dramas of the past showed fulfilling, satisfying relationships between women that had nothing to do with the men in their lives. Take Zoya and her friendship with Angie in Dhoop Kinaray, for instance. Their interactions have warmth and a comfortable, lived-in quality that made it easy to imagine their friendship spanning years before the events of the drama. The friends take an active interest in each other’s lives, look out for one another and do not hesitate to give each other a piece of their mind, when the other one is being particularly dense. They are carefree and silly with one another, but their undisputed support of one another gives depth to their light-hearted banter. In other words, their relationship is reflective of real-life friendships – there is no contrived drama, no backstabbing or pulling the rug out from each other, showing that credible, well-crafted drama doesn’t require women constantly one-upping each other or being nasty to one another. To see the dramas of today, it would seem as if women do nothing except fight over the men in their lives, but this strange trope bears little resemblance to the rewarding female friendships I experience and witness all around me.

That is not to say those dramas had no conflict, or that they didn’t reflect the various problematic aspects of the society of that time. Amjad Islam Amjad’s popular drama Waris (early 1980s) reflected the dirty feudal politics of Punjab, the carefully constructed hierarchy of zamindars and their employees, and the various dynamics of those relationships. There are blood feuds and revenge and betrayal.  Even in the more light-hearted dramas like Alpha Bravo Charlie, there is plenty of conflict arising organically from the characters’ relationships. Love and romance is also not all smooth sailing. There are love triangles and misunderstandings galore. In Tahnaiyan, the main romance is impeded by the heroine’s inability to see beyond her career aspirations. In Dhoop Kinaray, arguably the most delightful romance in Pakistani television history, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome without resorting to flinging accusations of infidelity or the evil machinations of a conniving third party. In contrast, the dramas of today are joyless and filled with horrible people doing horrible things to each other – husbands leaving their wives because they can’t produce sons, mother-in-laws breaking up their sons’ marriages, women being raped by their brother-in-laws and then being called crazy. It is lazy writing (not to mention emotionally manipulative) to throw characters into awful situations to get a reaction from the audience, instead of developing stories in organic and refreshing ways.

The older dramas all had nuanced and well-rounded characters, especially the women. Whereas today’s heroes and heroines can be described in a few, succinct clichés (the Rich Playboy with Chauvinistic Tendencies, the Bitter Woman with Daddy Issues, the Bechari Passive Woman, the Abusive Gangster Who Needs a Pure Woman’s Love to Redeem Himself, the Conniving Woman Who Wears Jeans), those characters are fully-realized human beings. Haseena Moin had a penchant for making her heroines a bit klutzy and immature, but she made sure that that’s not all they were. Heroines like Sana (Ankahi) and Zoya (Dhoop Kinaray) are initially shown to be careless and irresponsible at work, but they are also warm and loving with their families, and have their own concerns and pursuits. They are hard-working and intelligent, and make their own decisions. They make mistakes and face the consequences. And again, the best part is that we aren’t hit over the head with how strong and independent these women were – they aren’t shown to be rebellious or bent on breaking convention, or making a statement. They were just regular women, living their lives. They have careers and drive cars and go out to lunch with their male friends without the people around them going batshit crazy about their actions. In contrast, there is Zindagi Gulzar Hai’s Kashaf, who is so obviously meant to be a strong, independent woman that she becomes only a caricature. Her strong convictions and determination to follow through on them are admirable qualities, to be sure, but she remains rather one-note when all she does is talk about how hard her struggle is and how she perseveres despite it all. (The decision to make her so bitter and unlikeable also seems to give the dubious message that strength of character and a profound bitterness are somehow inextricably linked, making a cautionary tale out of her – “look ladies, if you go to university and have strong opinions, you too might one day become like this monster.”). The biggest difference between the older dramas and those of today is that the former weren’t afraid to show people in all their complexity and contradictions whereas today’s dramas deal in extremes – if the heroine is meant to be subdued and passive or the hero is meant to be a misogynistic jerk, their every action and thought is going to reinforce that, lest the audience get confused. Take Bashar Momin’s eponymous hero. To underline just how horrifying he is, he is going to constantly be screaming at his wife or slapping her around, in case the audience for one second forgets the extent of his depravity.

Let’s also talk about the romance. The people close to me know the extent of my love for Dhoop Kinaray. It might just be my most favourite on-screen romance ever (and that’s saying something, considering how frequently I tend to geek out over well-done romances). The show’s couple, when we first meet them, seem unlikely to ever fall in love – he’s much older than her, she’s bubbly and vivacious where he’s angsty and stern. But then you watch it happen in the best, most  well-done way ever, where these people grow and develop because of their feelings for each other and become better people in the process. I also love how it’s so subtle, and so much is unsaid but still clearly understood by the audience and by the characters themselves. Since falling in love involves the two people becoming extremely attuned to each other’s tiny gestures, a romance that effectively mines these small moments for maximum emotional impact are the best ones, and Dhoop Kinaray definitely falls into this category. Gestures as small as him handing over her earrings to her, or her making him laugh for the first time are given as much weight as the more overt declarations of love, and by the end, you are guaranteed to have become a puddle of goo. And the best part is, the romance does not diminish either character’s own interior complexity or agency – they remain their own people and all their actions remain consistent with who they are.

There are, of course, factors that encouraged the production of high-quality dramas in the PTV era. Being the only channel at that time, PTV did not have to care about commercial success or worry about competition, and so it was more willing to take risks by exploring philosophical, intellectual and social issues in a variety of artistic forms. It had great Urdu writers working for them, from Anwar Maqsood to Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia. Today’s television landscape is completely different, from its plethora of channels and its focus on advertising revenue, leaving producers and writers little leeway in terms of creative innovation. Still, it would be an insult to the audience’s intelligence to suggest that the types of subtly-written and nuanced dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s wouldn’t sell today – why wouldn’t they? The “We’re just giving the audience what they want” is a lazy and unconvincing excuse for the crap getting airtime today, not to mention it is super condescending towards the audience. There is great room for improvement in today’s dramas, and the first step towards this improvement should surely be looking at the older dramas for pointers on storytelling and characterization.

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