It's not Fawad Khan! The reasons why Pak serials work for Indian audiences
The Pakistani teleserials are still holding viewers' attention and prompting a kind of following that India last saw in the Hum Log and Khandaan era. Here's why
Ever since India's Zindagi channel started broadcasting Pakistani serials, these soaps from across the border have become quite a rage and comparisons of these serials with our home grown shows have become a topic of several discussions.
Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Humsafar, Aunn Zara, Kitni Girhain Baki Hain are just a few of the more popular teleserials that are giving India's homegrown productions a run for their money. It's tempting to explain this popularity by exhibiting the handsome stars like Osman Khalid Butt and Fawad Khan (who got his Bollywood break because a fan of Zindagi Gulzar Hai recommended his name to producer Rhea Kapoor), but that wouldn't be the complete picture.
While our serials are, in many ways, more elaborate in everything from production budgets to costumes and plot lines, the Pakistani teleserials are still holding viewers' attention and prompting a kind of following that India last saw in the Hum Log and Khandaan era.
They're all family dramas that circle around a love story. The stories that the Pakistani shows tell have an old-fashioned quality to them, but in some ways they are more adventurous than their Indian counterparts. For one, they don't go on indefinitely like our soaps. Often based on existing novels, most of these shows are made up of a fixed number of episodes. For instance, Zindagi Gulzar Hai told Kasaf and Zaroon's love story in 26 episodes. Aunn Zara covered the high drama of an arranged marriage in just 19 episodes. The storytelling of Kitni Girhain Baki Hain is even more contained: each 90-minute episode tells a different story, becoming more like a telefilm than a serial. Compare this to ours that go on and on -- sometimes for years -- powered more by advertising revenue than plot twists.
You'd think that serials in which the dialogues are in Urdu would seem foreign to us, but it's a testament to both the writing and the performances that the characters in the Pakistani teleserials feel much more relatable than the leading ladies of the K-serials. They seem to talk like regular people (without a background score) and dress normally (they don't wear silk saris while cooking and have spiky mascara-ed lashes when asleep). Their homes look like real apartments, instead of radiating the plastic artificiality of Indian telly homes.
It's also interesting to look at the women in the Pakistani shows. Kasaf of Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Khirad of Humsafar are traditional, docile and faultlessly proper, much like their Indian counterparts like Iccha of Uttaran or Anandi of Balika Vadhu. And yet, they come across as much more believable and sometimes even seem more modern than our small screen heroines, despite staying well within the boundaries of Islamic propriety.
What is particularly noteworthy is that in these Pakistani soaps, the women end up coming across as much more independent and strong-willed than their Indian counterparts, despite the significantly more conservative societies in which they live.
Our telly heroines, like Sandhya of Diya Aur Baati Hum, usually needs a man: Diya needs Sooraj to stand up for her and her dreams. In contrast, Kasaf in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, fights her battles herself. She isn't afraid to tell off her father who has left her mother and doesn't fulfill his paternal responsibility towards the children from his first marriage (Kasaf and her two sisters). Later, when her husband secretly reads her messages and letters, she isn't afraid to confront him about the way he's invaded her privacy. Behadd was about Masooma, a single, working mother who figures out how to handle her daughter's insecurities when Masooma falls in love a second time.
Humsafar also has an interesting portrait of modern femininity in Zara, who is the hero Ashar's best friend and also in love with him. When he gets married to someone else, she's furious and tries to break up the marriage. While she does sound like the distant cousin of characters like Kamolika and Ramola Sikhand (the K-serial vamps), Zara is much more than just a jealous villain. We see she is a good daughter and a loyal friend. We see her struggle with depression. Likewise, in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, we meet Asmara, who seems flighty, attending concerts and constantly shopping, but eventually calls off her wedding with the man she loves because she realises he is a chauvinist and conservative.
Even the minor female characters seem like real people, rather than the cardboard cutouts that are the Indian non-star cast. We see mother-in-laws who aren't contenders for the monster-in-law title. Instead, they are independent, suave working women who aren't obsessed with meddling in their sons' lives. They don't spent their days plotting against their daughter-in-laws. Of course, there are clashes and some lashing out at them, but they're far more balanced and realistic as characters. Similarly, sisters-in-law don't behave like harridans to the new bride. In Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Sara (the hero Zaroon's sister)is a feisty young woman who is belligerent about her rights and refuses to kowtow to her fiancee and her family when they disapprove of her late nights and Western outfits. A lot of misfortune befalls Sara but at the same time, she wins the audience's hearts when supports Zaroon's decision to marry Kashaf -- his family objects because she isn't considered posh or rich enough to be his equal -- and befriends Kashaf.
These women characters introduce us to a Pakistan that is very different from the one we hear about on television or read about in newspapers. The reason may be that they target a niche audience. According to an article in Caravan, "Zindagi’s core target audience is English-speaking, smartphone-owning women between the ages of 15 and 44, who live in big metros, and cities like Bangalore, Pune and Indore. The channel’s profile pins her down as a 'quietly humble, progressive yet rooted person with a millennial, or forward-looking mindset.'"
Reportedly, the channel Zindagi has sifted through 4,000 hours of content to find the right soaps for its target audience. Yet, for all the steps forward, there's no ignoring the virulent conservatism in these shows. It's inevitably the women who compromise and adjust, while the men get away with just about anything. Although the shows are essentially love stories, there is no physicality in this romance. At best, the lead characters holding hands (next thing you know, the woman is pregnant).
In the age of Game of Thrones and Masters of Sex, will this squeaky, clean and platonic version of love hold people's attention? Zindagi hopes so.
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