The cult of Pakistani TV soaps: Forget the hype, most of them are crap

Hasan Suroor

April 20, 2015 12:17:17 IST

They have got an almost cult-like following across India, they revived the flagging fortunes of a national television channel and are credited with having done more to break down cultural barriers between India and Pakistan than their political leaders and diplomats.

Even habitual Pakphobes who believe that the only thing that country does well is terrorism have developed a secret taste for them, and grudgingly acknowledge that Pakistanis are better at making TV drama than us.

But is it only me? Or has anyone else noticed how bad most of the the famed Pak TV serials ( watched  by a legion of Indians courtesy Zee-Zindagi channel) are? Some as bad as the 1960s Hindi melodramatic films with mother-in-laws from hell, misogynistic husbands/boyfriends, and miserable Dickensian child characters lost in the big bad world.

All appear to have rolled off the same assembly line and made according to the same generic formula with local variations. By now everyone should be familiar with the slightly eccentric grandma constantly lamenting the loss of old values; garrulous mom-in-laws; submissive daughters; good-for-nothing sons and genial dads etc.

khel-qismat-ka-serial-zindagi-channel-wallpapers-full-details-images

Pak Tv show Khel Qismat Ka. Image from Facebook,

Many are as incredibly contrived as our own desi stuff . Plays such as Khel Kismet Ka, Thakan, Kaash Main Teri Beti Na Hoti, Aunn Zara and Shikkan--shot through with bizarre plot twists and coincidences-- are simply too painful to watch. In Kabhi Aashna Kabhi Ajnabi, for example, a woman who can’t bear a child is so desperate for her husband to have an heir that she personally arranges for her reluctant husband to marry a woman—half his age—who could give him a child!

Then there is Shikkan, the story of sibling rivalry, so over-the-top that after a few episodes it becomes a struggle to see the point of this convoluted concoction. By the way, it was shown in Pakistan under the title Silvatein, but intriguingly renamed for Indian audiences. Was it something to do with the mixed reception it got in Pakistan with one critic, Zahira Mirza suggesting it should have been called Uljhanein “based on how much confusions are surrounding each & every character”?

One more example, and I will be done. Ranjish--- advertised as a “mystery drama’’ with one of Pakistan’s top stars Sanam Saeed in the lead and originally screened in Pakistan as Kadoorat-- is so breathtakingly absurd that even Sanam Saeed finds it a hard slog.

“Seven episodes in and Kadoorat remains unable to rise above its mediocre script, filled as it is with logic defying scenarios and loopholes galore. Were it not for Sanam Saeed’s outstanding performance I would have absolutely no problems bypassing this serial,’’ was the verdict of one Pakistani reviewer SZ.

If Pakistani plays are still such a huge draw in India it is more a measure of how intolerable  our own soaps are (loud, over-acted, garish to the point of vulgarity) than how great the Pakistani stuff is.

Pakistanis themselves are slightly intrigued and mystified by the runaway success of their dramas in India. Indeed, it is a topic of some interesting debate on Pakistani social media sites.

Posing the question, “What has made these dramas so popular?”, one blogger writes,  “Well the answer according to Indians themselves is simplicity, no over-acting, no loud makeup and strong female protagonists. Our shows don’t prolong themselves through ridiculous plot twists like Reincarnations, changelings and dead spouses. Also unlike Indian dramas there isn’t an overemphasis on religion which  one Indian critic mocked as ‘A puja every 3 episodes’!”

Well, here it is straight from the horses’ mouth via Indiatimes which lists following among the “15 Reasons why Pakistani serials are better than Indian ones”.

They have a start and then they have a definite end. Yes!; They don't have a makeup overload covering 90% of the screen; And their actors don't wake up in make- up either;  Their weddings or festivals don't stretch over for months and months; They sleep in nightwear! They don't have a single case of plastic surgery or coming back from the dead!’’

Forget Indiatimes. Some of India’s most respected film connoisseurs have praised Pakistani plays for their “gritty realism’’ and “natural’’ acting. Writing on Rediff.com, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, documentary film-maker and wife of late director Basu Bhattacharya, was effusive in her praise describing them as “non-conformist and meaningful television’’.

And, in a piece headed, “Why Do Indians Like Pakistani Soap Operas So Much?”, The Christian Science Monitor  (July 30, 2014) wrote that “the warm reception is prompting Indian producers to do a rethink on the content they churn out’’.

“What sets Pakistani dramas apart, according to Indian TV critics, is their fast pace …, more realistic settings (middle-class houses instead of mansions), and, unlike Bollywood--inspired dramas, a lack of singing.”

 At this point I must confess that once I was also a huge admirer. Like most other Indians I was converted to them after watching Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinare in the 1980s. And even now there is an occasional play that is almost as good as those early classics. But the general run of fare is disappointingly pedestrian and what often saves them is their production qualities, realistic acting and on-location shooting.

So, what happened?

My Pakistani friends blame the commercialisation of Pak television industry in recent years. In a country where the film industry never really took off, TV emerged as the main source of entertainment under the aegis of PTV. It became the hub of creative talent--hiring and nurturing best directors, writers and actors.

But with the advent of commercial TV channels private production companies mushroomed; and in the ensuing scramble for competition   quality became a casualty. Mass production led to hastily commissioned and poorly executed programmes flooding the market. And it is these that we're seeing now.

Even earlier there was some pretty awful stuff around but as Indian audiences got to see only the best—and because their own productions were so bad—they started to believe in their own hype about Pakistani shows.

When Zindagi was launched last June, some Pakistani critics had warned that ultimately Indians might see through the hype.

“So far, the Indians are being treated to the best of our dramas. What if they see some of our recent ‘masterpieces’. What if Indians see Asmanon pe likha? A tale of two star-crossed idiots!? LOL,’’ wrote one woman critic on Pakistani entertainment website, Reviewit.PK .

For all that, I will still bat for anything that might help break barriers between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis. Even if it means watching bad TV plays.

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2015 12:17 PM