“Let me ask you this,” ARY Network’s CEO Muhammad Jerjees Seja asks on the phone: “…have you seen Ishqiya and Jalan?”

I say yes.

“Did they have anything worth banning?”

I don’t think so, but the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), the government appointed disciplinarian on these issues, disagrees.

By now, the news is no longer new of Pemra’s abrupt ban on Jalan, Ishqiya and Pyar Ke Sadqay — three dramas that covered a broad-spectrum of themes such as vengeance, betrayal, heartbreak and sexual and emotional harassment. Little could be written on the subject that’s eye-opening.

Here’s a small recap nonetheless: on September 10, Pemra struck a ban on ARY Digital’s three-month-old drama serial Jalan because of an alleged public uproar. The serial, with broader themes of love and lust, about an insecure woman who disrupts a family, offended cultural and religious values, their letter states.

Continuing its assertion, the letter singles out the script as the source of the problem (the script showed no signs of change, the letter reads), and further states that the channel in question had been notified beforehand, and that it needs to re-evaluate and change the script so that it conforms with Pakistani broadcast laws.

With no one from Pemra available for comment, there doesn’t seem to be any logic other than double standards when it comes to the recent bans on the hugely popular drama serials Jalan, Ishqiya and Pyar Ke Sadqay

The law in question is found in Section 27(a) of the Pemra Ordinance of 2002, (2007 Amendment) — and for arguments’ sake, it needs a closer look:

Pemra, the ordinance reads, has the power to prohibit broadcasting or re-broadcasting of content that, in its opinion, goes “against the ideology of Pakistan or is likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility or endangers national security or is pornographic, obscene or vulgar or is offensive to the commonly accepted standards of decency.”

Under this enormous umbrella, Pemra effectively has the power to pull any content off the air, based on its assumptions of accepted standards of moral, ethical and cultural decency.

Three days prior to Jalan’s ban, Pemra, citing the same rules, had ordered ARY Zindagi and Hum Sitaray to stop re-broadcasts of two recent serials, Pyar Ke Sadqay (PKS) and Ishqiya. The shows, popular as they were during their first broadcast runs, have hits in the millions on YouTube. PKS’s last episode, at the time of writing, had over 8.1 million views; Ishqiya’s climax was viewed over 9.5 million times. (Jalan’s last aired episode has 5.1 million views till date).

This revelation leads to three specific questions:

1) Who exactly is campaigning against the serials?

2) What exactly prompted the uproar?

3) In particular to the PKS and Ishqiya, why stop re-broadcasts of shows — wouldn’t it make sense to review and stop a series when it is first aired, like Jalan?

In a bid to understand the review process, Icon reached out to Pemra’s Media and PR department.

Like our previous efforts, we hit a brick wall. Their phone lines are down, and emails bounce back because the department’s inbox is full. The email to the Regional General Manager, Karachi, remains unanswered; no one picks up the phone there either.

Shows with vengeful people ruining their loved ones’ lives out of lust, greed or ill-intentions are dime-a-dozen on TV these days. It’s a safe trend to follow. Perhaps — and this is just an assumption — the three shows may have been scapegoats, whose banning may influence producers to pursue other stories.

Wild as this theory is, it doesn’t change the fact that Pemra has put up a weak case — especially when it chose to cancel shows that had already completed their initial runs.

Details of the Pemra review and decision-making process remain a mystery for this writer, and the producers of the show as well.

“We, ourselves, are stunned,” says Moomal Shunaid, the producer of PKS, on Pemra banning the re-broadcast of the serial.

If the material were objectionable, action should have been taken when it was originally aired, she says.

But how could it? The immoral behaviour, which led to public’s supposed hullabaloo, was not even the main track of the story, she explains.

“PKS is a simple love story of Abdullah and Mahjabeen — two cute little misfits of society. It’s a refreshing change during these Covid-19 times. A romantic story with a lighter mode that is meant to entertain the audience.

“The antagonist of the show (the stepfather played by Omair Rana) is Atiqa Odho’s second husband who is not even [Bilal Abbas’s] father. The character has been harassing Bilal from the first episode,” she says.

The character would eventually start to sexually harass his daughter-in-law, played by Yumna Zaidi, and meets a bad end by the climax. There is no two-sided illicit affair between Rana and Zaidi’s characters. In fact, the girl is the victim.

Pemra would not have put a ban on the show if they had seen it in its entirety, Moomal opines.

She, unfortunately, has no idea of Pemra’s internal reviewing process.

According to both Moomal and Seja, a social media campaign against such themes picked up steam a few months ago.

“Ninety percent of the people [including those at Pemra] have either not seen Jalan and Ishqiya, or they have just seen it as part of the social media campaign, and created a ruckus out of it,” says Seja during our phone conversation.

Most of it is just hearsay, he states.

“Nothing [immoral] has ever been part of our content, nor will it ever be. As for Pemra’s advisories, they’re so vague that I don’t know how one can make a drama out of it. Making a drama on what they deem socially respectable will be difficult [given the confines of the ordinance],” he says.

“What exactly is socially responsible is hard to define. We’re not allowed to talk about religion, we do not have the budgets to make a good action drama, if we raise social issues it rubs people the wrong way, if we make a drama on saas-bahus we’re spoiling society, if we tackle stories of rape victims or extramarital affairs, we are banned.

“As a channel, and as producers, ARY has always been very careful of the censor policies. We don’t show anything which goes against our societal norms. We don’t even show women wearing sleeveless clothes because it may not be agreeable to a part of the audience,” he explains.

It’s a pity that no one talks about the other stories they tell on television, Seja says, citing two examples: Log Kya Kahenge, an ongoing drama starring Faysal Quraishi and Aijazz Aslam on the economic meltdown, joblessness and suicides; and Bikhray Moti, which stars Neelam Muneer and Yasir Nawaz, and looks at the life of a young woman who sacrifices her future to care for her dead sister’s children.

“Jealousy, for example, is a common thing that happens all over the world. It’s a major issue in society. If one sister marries into a better family, then the other sister would want her husband, or a family of the same stature, for herself. When she doesn’t get that, then that creates conflict. It’s not a new concept.”

Jalan stems from that same concept; it’s a story about a woman’s self-doubts, he says. The series, about a malicious woman out to ruin her sister’s married life, is not a new concept in television.

“What people don’t understand is that you can’t make any narrative without manifestly good and bad people.” To show good, you have to create the bad, he says. “It’s only wrong when you glamorise the bad aspects,” he adds.

Surprisingly, dramas such as Mere Paas Tum Ho (MPTH), which broke ratings records in Pakistan, featured a storyline based on an illicit affair between two married individuals. MPTH didn’t raise Pemra’s eyebrows because no one seemed to have complained. So why the double standard?

The answer may never come. With lines of communication down, one can only guess, complain and give the regulatory authority reasons to think things over.

STOP PRESS: After this piece was written, Icon learnt that ARY had managed to obtain a stay order from the Sindh High Court against the Pemra injunction against Jalan and the serial was put back on air, at least for the time being.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 20th, 2020