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Show and tell

July 14, 2013
Charitable organizations are willing to spend on advertising. — File Photo
Charitable organizations are willing to spend on advertising. — File Photo

Are we turning charity into a media circus? debates Shahrezad Samiuddin

’Tis the season to be good, ’tis the season to reflect, ’tis the season to give, ’tis the season to forgive and ’tis the season to be mesmerised by the Ramazan transmissions on various channels. Dr Amir Liaquat Hussain, arguably Pakistan’s most popular televangelist, hosts what used to be called a ‘variety show’ but has been updated and repackaged complete with a religious bent and is now raking in Television Rating Points (TRPs) under the guise of the Ramazan transmission. This show, like others on other channels, include a religious discussion, a cooking segment, a quiz and giveaways and a charity segment. The charity segment is what Dr Liaquat once called the core of the entire Ramazan transmission. The dark, dark core of what is otherwise a relatively cheerful attempt at mixing religion and entertainment.

Of course, Dr Liaquat is not the only one hosting Ramazan charity shows, every channel has its own version, but by and large they all follow a similar script. Here is a blow-by-blow of one such show. The segment opens with ominous ‘wailing-singing’ which will form the background score for a short, but effective recreation of scenes from a day in the life of poverty-stricken Shabana and her family. Her disempowering tale begins with her walking around a ramshackle hut, wringing wet clothes and kneading dough, as the voiceover narrates her (lopsided) tale, loaded with words calculated to trigger the tears in anyone feeling a little emotional. The next scene is shot from behind a fan that is creaking slowly as she labours in the kitchen.

Subsequently Shabana narrates her tragic story, strategically placed behind her paralysed mother. At one point the camera zooms in on the old woman’s almost toothless mouth just as the saliva drips from it and the montage of shots that follows next show Shabana and her mom wailing and the audience is fed yet more loaded sentences, such as “the paralysis attack happened after many other attacks that life threw the family’s way”. In the next frame, Shabana is explaining what the audience has already guessed, that she is getting too old to get married. The interviewer is clearly in a sadistic mood and is asking her the ‘right’ questions, for soon after Shabana explains that she will marry after her mom recovers, upon hearing which the paralysed old woman breaks down again.

Loaded words again, as the audience is told that, “The shadow of poverty continues to alight at Shabana’s house.” As Shabana explains that she receives Rs150 for food everyday from her father the voiceover stresses that those who were responsible for Shabana’s family have run away… which is the cue for the rapt audience to dive headfirst into the pool of guilt, step up and send cash to the charity’s bank account.

There is something unsettling about the shameless display of poverty in these shows. They are designed to show a level of degradation and victimisation that you have never seen before. And they are competitive. A few days after Shabana’s show the audience is privy to the disheartening tale of Parvez, the gravedigger who lives in a graveyard, has a mentally challenged child and whose family is sitting in the audience of a special live Ramazan transmission.

Parvez’s wife starts with a lament on how the family almost never has enough food and that they sometimes eat donated rotten food. However, like a party magician she’s saved her best trick for last when she reveals that sick of the scourge of poverty she once tried to kill her entire family by poisoning their food and how the sound of the azaan stopped her in her tracks. Her 10-year-old son is watching the whole drama and not quite ready for what his mother has revealed on live TV, he breaks down. It is reality TV at its best or worst, depending which side of the camera you are on and who is profiting from this tasteless display of misery.

After Parvez’s wife and son have peddled their woes, the fun begins. A tear trickles down the face of a member of the audience. A woman calls in immediately and donates Rs100,000 to the family. Then another Rs5,000 trickles in and finally a caller from the UK pledges £500. The host grins and promises his ‘sister’ that she will not leave crying, but laughing. And onto the next charity case, a man who has a wound that has rendered his arm useless and fit only for amputation. The man (proudly?) displays the ineffective arm and the money pours in, or so we think.

Considerable money is spent in producing these charity segments, so it is worth asking how effective the entire effort is. Jarjees Seja, CEO of the ARY network explains “It is very common for several people who are watching TV at that point to experience an emotional surge upon hearing the victim’s story. They will call in and vow to help the family by pledging money, but it is also very common that soon after, their excitement dies down.” According to Seja only a small percentage of the money that is pledged on air — some 20pc — eventually materialises.

Hafsah Habib, a coordinator at the Mahmooda Sultana Foundation, a charity founded by Liaquat seconds Seja, “Right after the TV show, we follow up with the people who make generous announcements on air. And honestly speaking most of these people back out. We have had cases where we have actually sent someone to pick up the money and the only person in that house was an old woman who had no clue what was going on.”

Seja says the charity mechanism is impeded by the lack of wide usage of tools for immediate payment, such as credit cards. “In any case the Islamic concept of charity does not gel in with the use of credit cards. You cannot give charity on borrowed money, so in view of the fact that we don’t have mechanisms for immediate payments it is quite common for the jazba (emotions) of a random caller to die down.” However, the management hastens to assure us that the channel does recieve a huge amount of charity, mostly from people who prefer not to announce their good deeds on live TV and send in their contributions without fanfare. This money is then disbursed among the needy.

Effective or not, there is no doubt, given the skyrocketing TRPs of these shows, that shameless displays of poverty, disease and martyrdom make for some riveting TV. The charity segment of the Ramazan transmissions is emotionally manipulative TV at its best. It feeds the audience a heady cocktail of religion, guilt and misery, not too different from the survival strategy of a spoilt child who makes you feel guilty for not speaking up, or not being sensitive and caring enough. It blatantly plays with most people’s conditioning to do whatever — in this case give away money — to reduce their feeling of guilt.

The only qualifier for getting airtime is the victim’s and the production team’s ability to turn the volume up on poverty and disease and ‘better’ the last sorry tale. Good taste and decency be damned. And given the low ‘recovery’ rate of the pledged charity, it seems the charity formula is in place and seems to be working only to spellbind the audience and fill up airtime. The victims are merely the actors in a well-scripted drama penned by the channel. And at its dark, dark core is the race for TRPs.