Television is a force of nature in Pakistan, of a quality that ebbs and flows with the tumultuous times; but unlike our stuttering film industry, has an often surprising resilience and ability to adapt to circumstances.
Today, the industry is facing a resurgence of the marriage plot, which has developed strong roots in South Asian culture, a system that still grapples with the pressures of social strictures and young romantic ideals.
Back in the early 1970s, a group of elderly men and women gathered on television to lament the growth of “love marriages” and the end of “shame and modesty”.
While discussing relationships between young men and women, one lady — her hand carefully clasping her head scarf and eyes wide behind oversized glasses — praises the couple sitting across from her:
“Look at these two, married 40 years, and he still refers to his wife as ‘Sister dear!’”
The aforementioned gathering took place on the sketch comedy show Taal Matol, a satire of Pakistani society and politics. A show modelled on short-form sketches that poked fun at the upper middle class, its performers were later branded “communists” and banned from television in 1979 by Zia’s military government.
This humourous take on love and morality was but one nuanced argument about our treatment of marital (and non-marital) relations. Marriage has always been a popular subject in a culture fed with the potent but paradoxical mix of romance with a fervent adherence to morality, steadily growing as Bhutto’s era came to a close and Ziaul Haq began his process of “Islamisation”.
But our shaadi obsession did not die with Zia’s ascent. Rather, the varied and intelligent narrative we could have has steadily declined.
We love shaadi stories more than ever it seems, and with good reason, but we are reduced to recycling; emphasising caricatures over characters, melodrama over human interaction, shortcuts over storytelling.
Our output of drama productions each year has steadily increased since Taal Matol, bolstered by the growth of private networks, reduced censorship and consequently, greater competition for viewer attention. We have many more female writers and producers now vying for space on the airwaves, resulting in more stories with female protagonists.
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Our version of the marriage plot has also evolved.
As I have pointed out before, strong female characters have become a mainstay of our industry. Issues within families and marriages, that once simmered beneath the surface are now openly presented for our analysis.
Shanakht, a 2014 series presented a refreshing look at a Muslim woman’s religious identity, and the pressures she faced after opting to cover her head. Chup Raho, another late 2014 production addressed the under-reported issue of sexual assault and harassment within one’s own family. Rehaai (2013), directed by Mehreen Jabbar, stepped outside the upper class setting and addressed domestic abuse in a poor family.
But somewhere along the way, we seem to have supplanted the rich stories of Tanhaiyaan (1985) and Dhoop Kinaray (1987), with plots pulled from India’s formidable soaps.
Now, the scheming mother-in-law is stronger than ever, jealousies abound over the hapless male protagonist — it seems television women are primarily occupied with pulling the rug out from beneath each others’ feet.
The wide-eyed, good-natured, long-and-dark-haired female protagonist of Humsafar, Bashar Momin, and Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan amongst other shows has to inevitably contend with the machinations of other evil women.
Herein lies the complication, or lack thereof: our stories barely brush the surface of the myriad issues presented to viewers.
Characters’ interior conflicts are drowned under a cacophony of hysteria, poor quality dialogue and moral teachings. In lieu of well-developed relationships, we are faced with a new set of “lessons” to be taken away from a story. The pious girl will succeed in life; the man must fight for the honour of his [insert female relation here]; mothers-in-law are inherently evil characters; never trust a man who blindly trusts his mother and so on.
Television in Pakistan carries cultural importance. Its resilience I ultimately chalk down, to its historical popularity. The army and intelligence agencies effectively mobilised public sympathy pre-Kargil with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, a production that valorised military campaigns in Bosnia and Siachen.
The airwaves have always held sway over our consciousness and television dramas, while big money makers, have been used by various groups as important public relations tools.
These days, we have the luxury of flipping through a plethora of channels. We can draw our own conclusions, but we do not need stories that draw them for us.
Remember that the marriage plots of Victorian-era novels — the high romance, the themes of marital bliss and notions of individuality — successfully triggered reevaluations of typical relationships in 18th and 19th century Britain. It complicated the readers’ notions of romance, family, loyalty and success. As a matter of fact, considering that a burgeoning portion of the middle class was devouring novels around the time of the Industrial Revolution, it seems fair to assume that the marriage plot certainly played a part in the reconfiguration of British society, then.
Are we facing a cultural revolution of our own? I cannot say, because our version of the marriage plot is at times regressive and banal, and other times remarkably open to diverse stories. It is impossible to compare two vastly different societies and say we are following a similar trajectory. But marriages, in real life and in fiction, take place for the same reasons, regardless of where they are located.
In any case, let's not deny the importance of the marriage plot for the Pakistani audience.
If history is any indication, it is here to stay. Let’s look at what we can do with it, expand it to include under-reported stories, deepen it to make room for meaningful connections and present it to the viewer as a richly packaged novel, ready for us to open, interpret and enjoy.