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PRIMETIME: GAMING RAMAZAN

Updated June 18, 2017
Game-show hosts Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar
Game-show hosts Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar

Every day in Ramazan, hundreds of people enthusiastically file into auditoriums and cheer as the sun sets, their iftar ends and the games begin. Their host for the show saunters out on to the central arena, a venue decked out in Islamic architecture-inspired arches and trellises with spurts of bling thrown in for good measure. The host smiles, waves, lets the cameras have a good long look at his fancy kurta-shalwar and bellows at the top of his lungs, “Assalamualaikum Pakistan!” The crowd roars back.

TV game shows during Ramazan transmissions are a phenomenon unique to Pakistan and it’s one that refuses to lose its allure. The format may be formulaic but in a Third World country where food and facilities are scarce for many, there is a wondrous element to shows that benevolently give away cars, motorbikes, tolas of gold and, as of this year, even BMWs and jet-planes.

All one has to do is answer a riddle or recite a tongue-twister at breakneck speed, sing a song or squash one’s face with mango, juice, cake, gol gappas, et al. There are games where the heaviest-weighing participant wins big and others where you hand-wrestle, race or have a shouting contest. The host is free to make sarcastic jibes at the contestants and apparently what makes it worth the while is a prodigious line-up of motorbikes glinting enticingly in one corner of the stage and cars queuing at another end, their hoods covered with banners of various sponsors.

Should you win big, you’ll be given a euphoric motorbike ride around the stage by the host. Also, if the host is ARY Network’s Fahad Mustafa, he could award you a car and then subsequently put the car at risk of dents by climbing on to its roof in exuberance. If the host is Sahir Lodhi and you’re female, the motorbikes may not come as easily. The misguided Mr Lodhi apparently thinks it’s great Ramazan fun to run around the set while girls try to catch him. The one who manages to do so loses her dignity but wins a grand prize.

Despite warnings and social media controversies, game shows continue to rule through the holy month

Giving an ever-so-slight nod of acknowledgement to Ramazan’s religious connotation are Umrah packages awarded quite frequently. Prizes don’t come better than this and your average game-show audience is willing to dance, sing and be humiliated for them. Self-respect be damned.

At Jeeto Pakistan on ARY, one of the highest rated game-shows being broadcast in Ramazan this year, Fahad Mustafa picked out a woman from the audience who was wearing a shiny paper-hat with ‘Happy birthday’ written on it. “Yeh aap kya pehen ke aaye hain? [What is that you have worn to come here?]” he laughed. The woman shrugged, “It’s my birthday.” This may or may not have been true but her appearance had managed to do the trick by catching Fahad’s eye and allowing her to be part of a game where she could win big.

This is nothing new. Game show attendees often come swathed in glitter, wearing bright gaudy colours or holding placards professing their love for the show. It’s a gimmick that works, gaining the host’s attention as he skims the crowds in order to select participants for the games. There are children dressed in Spider Man costumes, men in multi-colour shirts and women in wedding wear.

Fahad Mustafa awards a car and then puts it at risk of dents by climbing on to its roof
Fahad Mustafa awards a car and then puts it at risk of dents by climbing on to its roof

“People come here to enjoy themselves and we innovate with new games every year in order to keep things interesting,” says Jerjees Seja, CEO of the ARY Digital Network. “There are around 500 people in the audience everyday and everybody leaves with gifts from the sponsors if not with huge prizes. We also make changes to the prizes where necessary. In the past, we used to give out Umrah tickets and it was only later that we found out that the travel expenses were so high that many people were unable to use their tickets. So now we are giving out Umrah packages which include travel, food and stay expenses. And if we give a ticket to a woman we also make sure we give another one for the male who has to accompany her as per Umrah requirements. Our purpose with these shows is to distribute happiness throughout the month of Ramazan and it is gratifying to see how happy the audience is every day when they leave the show.”

Ratings race

This altruism is appreciable and yet, beyond the rose-tinted glass, channels with successful Ramazan transmissions are also happily hauling in huge profits. ARY Network cites Ramazan as their most lucrative month of the year. According to a source, earnings on channels during game show advertisement breaks can go up to 500,000 rupees per minute.

There’s also a very profitable purpose driving Fahad Bhai, Aamir Bhai, Wasim Bhai and the like to run and shout through the evening every day for an entire month. Popular game show hosts similarly earn big time. “I’m the highest paid game show host right now,” says Fahad Mustafa without revealing his exact salary.  Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain, who can be credited for having initiated the Ramazan game show concept back in 2012 with Inaam Ghar on Geo TV, is also slated to be high on the pay ladder.

Hussain, who has earned a repute of flitting from one network to the other, is currently hosting Ramazan Mein Bol on Bol TV where he is happily dishing out prizes that include the Mercedes car and jet-planes. It all looks very lavish on TV but one wonders how the prize-winners, many of them from struggling economic backgrounds, will be able to pay the taxes that come with owning such luxury commodities?

“Of course we know that the winners will probably not be using these luxury cars and to use a jet-plane, they’ll need to know how to fly it,” acknowledges Hussain. “Our sole purpose in giving out such handsome prizes is that people from lower economic sectors will be able to sell them and improve their lifestyles.”

Other networks with less glamorous giveaways have a different viewpoint on the matter. “In our game show, we would rather give away 10 cars or 60 motorbikes than a single luxury car to just one winner,” observes Seja. “This is a choice that we have made. Sponsors also made offers of luxury cars to us because our show has the highest ratings but we decided otherwise.”

Also professing to be leading the ratings race is Bol TV, elaborating that they have raked in more than 50 percent viewership in all genres of their Ramazan transmission, going on to say that this is ‘more than TV viewership during Pakistan vs India’s cricket match.’ The channel is, however, known to make outlandish claims about viewership. The channel’s Game Show Aisay Chalay Ga with Aamir Liaquat airs only on weekends and delivers on humour that is typical to the host. “Laugh like a churail (witch),” he’ll ask or make a wisecrack about obesity — across all networks, the local game show arena gives a free reign to snide comments on people’s appearances.

But are games shows really worth getting the ‘hang’ of? Is it applaudable that most successful hosts have simply mastered the art of smiling slickly while passing comments that are often downright rude?

Taking on-air insults further this year has been Sahir Lodhi in his Ishq-e-Ramazan show on TV One where he chose to berate a debater giving a speech on feminism. Unfairly accusing the woman of being unpatriotic, Lodhi rudely launched into a tirade that characteristically led to him being attacked on social media.

In fact, Lodhi spoke so fluently that one suspected that he may have planned out the episode as a marketing gimmick for his show. If so, it worked. In the clustered milieu of Ramazan transmissions, his show immediately got noticed. Word has it that the woman he had accused, Saba Rizwan, is on the verge of signing on as host for her own show to be aired after Ramazan. All publicity is good publicity apparently.

Aamir Liaquat Hussain dishes out prizes that include luxury cars and jet-planes
Aamir Liaquat Hussain dishes out prizes that include luxury cars and jet-planes

And then there are ace cricketers Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar who have erroneously decided to try out game-show hosting with Geo Khelo Pakistan on Geo TV. From the promotional teasers which included them enacting Maula Jutt and Noori Nath, to the actual show where they holler, play ridiculous games and — in a particularly disturbing episode — tease bearded men wearing pink saris, it is obvious that Wasim and Shoaib are trying very hard but aren’t succeeding. The type of humour needed for hosting our Ramazan shows doesn’t come naturally to everybody and it is particularly sad to see two of the country’s most iconic cricketers struggling and fumbling at it.

Usman Ghafoor, Project Head for Ramazan 2017 at Geo, begs to differ. “Waseem and Shoaib have been a source of happiness for millions of Pakistanis throughout their cricketing careers. We were confident that they will do the same with the game show. For us, they are all-round entertainers, not just cricketers, and have settled well into their new roles. The show has been received very well.”

Wasim Akram further comments, “I don’t understand why people can’t see us enjoying ourselves. I’m human, I need to make a living and hosting this show was a decision I made after contemplating it completely. I wanted to try something new and I think, with time, Shoaib and I are getting the hang of it.”

The cost of the game

But are games shows really worth getting the ‘hang’ of? Is it applaudable that most successful hosts have simply mastered the art of smiling slickly while passing comments that are often downright rude? “We are very careful that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings,” says Seja. “Even while making jokes, Fahad remains respectful. In the game where the heaviest-weighing contestant wins, we keep putting it across that obesity isn’t a good thing.”

Fahad Mustafa further adds: “It’s all in good fun. I am not there to preach or pass judgments. People enjoy themselves at my show because I am enjoying myself too.”

In a similar vein, Aamir Liaquat Hussain feels that he is sometimes misconstrued to be derogatory when his aim is merely to be ‘one’ with his audience. “Recently I was on air with a little boy wearing a Spider Man costume and I jokingly put on his mask. I was immediately attacked on social media for it. Don’t we all act childishly when we are with children? I just wanted the boy to feel that Aamir Uncle is just like me. When I am with religious scholars in my show, I become a student. In the charitable segments I listen to people’s woes and seriously sympathise with them and when I am with my game show audience, I become one of them. I’ll poke fun and crack jokes but it will not be disrespectful.

“I once made the mistake of stuffing mangoes into people’s faces in a game at my show and was immediately accused of being derogatory. In my defense, don’t we all eat mangoes like this in Pakistan? Mangoes, nihari and paya just aren’t eaten in a sophisticated manner. Even then I was merely having fun with the contestants.”

However, there is a very fine line that games shows perpetually cross, where the fun and bonhomie trundles down to distasteful remarks. “Lines can sometimes get crossed but after all, the host is also human. A fast bowler isn’t always going to deliver fast balls. Similarly, I can’t always deliver on the humour. But I try and I laugh with my audience, not at them,” says Hussain.

Sadly, despite warnings from the regulator Pemra and the occasional social media controversies, game shows continue to rule through Ramazan. “Throughout my career I have felt that when we air something out on a mass-medium such as TV, it is our duty to produce content that somehow stimulates the country intellectually,” observes veteran scriptwriter Anwar Maqsood. “Instead, the Ramazan transmission sinks to new lows every year. Roza rakhnay ka dil hee nahin karta. [One doesn’t even want to fast.]”

He further quips, “Every day, at the time of sunset when I open my fast, I pray that the power would go off in my house.”

Sadly, for most of Pakistan, it is the time when TV sets blare on and viewership ratings spiral high. This is what local audiences want to see and the channels willingly deliver it to them while earning huge profits. Who is to blame?

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 18th, 2017