Here’s a fairytale, with a happy ending.

A little more than a year ago, a young actor called Hamza Sohail received the script of a drama called Fairytale. It was a confusing time for him. He had made his debut two years ago and worked in four projects, but felt that the audience still hadn’t registered his presence.

Fairytale was scheduled to air daily during Ramazan and could be an ideal way to connect with the masses. But Hamza was apprehensive. According to his rudimentary knowledge of the Ramazan-sitcom genre, all the characters in the story should ideally be funny, and he felt that his character lacked comic elements.

“I was told that the fact that my character was more serious was what would make him memorable,” says Hamza, “and eventually, that’s how it turned out to be.”

Similarly, Sehar Khan — who played the female lead in Fairytale — rejected the drama eight times before agreeing.

Despite some notable success stories in previous years, a certain weariness seems to have already set in among television audiences about the Ramazan drama fare being offered to them from the channels this year. Will the Ramazan family entertainers last the long haul?

The actors didn’t have too many expectations. The Ramazan drama rat race is a clustered one, with channels producing multiple dramas and promoting them relentlessly. There was no guarantee that Fairytale — slotted at 7pm on the Hum TV Network rather than the ‘prime’ 9pm slot — would manage to draw in an audience that was spoilt for choice.

But the drama did. It quickly became the Ramazan favourite last year. The ratings built up and the popularity of the cast skyrocketed. The director, Ali Hassan, received critical acclaim (and hopefully a pay raise!). And they’ve all been living happily ever after, ever since.

“We were still filming episodes of the drama when it started airing,” recalls Hamza, “and I was very overwhelmed by the audience’s reaction to it. There were times when I would get so emotional that I would start to cry. My director even once caught me getting teary-eyed.”

Fairytale, in fact, became such a hit that the network quickly rolled out a second season, which aired after Ramazan. X (formerly Twitter) is still rife with memes and references to the ‘Farjad-Umeed’ on-screen chemistry seen in the drama, and both Sehar Khan’s and Hamza Sohail’s careers are on a high.

It’s testament to the power of the Ramazan drama. The competition is tough and the shooting is exhausting but, if the audience gets hooked, it can become a major career boost.

Make or break

Writer Saima Akram Chaudhry’s main claim to fame are her Ramazan hits. Similarly, director Danish Nawaz’s Ramazan projects can be counted as some of his most famous works.

Countless actors’ careers have been jump-started with successful Ramazan plays, including Farhan Saeed, Iqra Aziz, Nadia Afghan, Arsalan Naseer and child actors Aina Asif, Sami Khan and Aadi Khan.

Actress Ayeza Khan’s career took an about-turn when, after playing a philandering married woman in Mere Paas Tum Ho, she became the beguiling ‘Meenu’ in the Ramazan hit Chupke Chupke.

Wahaj Ali became an all-time favourite chocolate hero with the Ramazan rom-com Ishq Jalebi. Ahad Raza Mir and Ramsha Khan demonstrated their comic-acting chops with the hit Hum Tum. There are many more cases in point.

On the flipside, though, not every Ramazan drama is a hit. Having realised the potential of snaring an audience watching TV in an iftar-induced coma, channels are now intent on churning out feel-good family entertainers.

At present, both the Hum TV Network and Har Pal Geo are airing two Ramazan dramas every day. The Bol Entertainment and Green Entertainment channels have also joined the fray. There is an entire bonanza of dramas available to viewers every evening but, unfortunately, in the rush to create content, storylines have become run-of-the-mill.

The main leads don’t want to get married until at some point, around mid-Ramazan, they realise that they do. They are surrounded by a motley crew of eccentric characters who are all trying to be cute.

There will be a sweet-tempered dadi (grandmother) or a dada (grandfather), or both, a few naughty, smart-mouthed younger siblings, possibly a nosy neighbour, a cousin who is a tomboy, two secondary leads whose romance will take centre-stage in order to stretch the plot out, and a character whose comic prowess will lie in his or her ability make caustic commentaries in thick Punjabi.

A popular YouTuber or TikTok-er will ideally be included in the cast in a bid to attract in the social media-savvy Gen Z audience. It is all so predictable that, unless a drama truly has some unique elements to offer, narrated by an expert director, viewership plummets very quickly. Not every Ramazan drama becomes an all-time sensational hit.

“There is a lot of pressure on the whole team because the drama starts airing while we’re still shooting it,” says director Danish Nawaz, who has hit dramas such as Chupke Chupke and Hum Tum to his credit, but who’s last Ramazan project, Chand Tara, wasn’t as well-received.

“Morale on set does start to go low when the ratings don’t come in,” he admits. “Scripts have actually become very repetitive and, as a director, I can make the effort to execute the story differently, but there is only so much that I can do.

“I have enjoyed it because I have always connected with the comedy genre easily, but it is also exhausting. The shoot ends up extending all through Ramazan, to the point that we are filming episodes that air two days later. This is why I took a break this year.”

He adds: “I feel that channels now need to develop special teams dedicated to creating content for Ramazan, so that more unique storylines come up.”

This year, many other Ramazan ‘regulars’ have chosen to step away, including writer Saima Akram Chaudhry and actress Ayeza Khan. Also, while established mainstream actors would be cast in Ramazan dramas in past years, not many have signed on to the current spate of dramas.

Instead, most Ramazan dramas this year feature newer up-and-coming names. Is the popularity of the Ramazan drama waning? A quick scan of YouTube and X reveals that the hype certainly isn’t what it used to be.

“There’s just a lot of pressure,” actress Komal Meer had observed, a few months after wrapping up her Ramazan drama for Har Pal Geo last year, Tere Aanay Se. “As much as I enjoyed shooting the drama, we were also constantly stressing over the comparisons being struck between our project and the others.

“We would be on set, shooting, while the earlier episodes were on air and we’d spend too much time worrying over which drama was better, which was being watched more.”

Writer Saima Akram Chaudhry recounts how writing consecutive Ramazan dramas drained her. “My asthma would get aggravated because I would be so stressed out,” she says. “I wrote constantly for four years and, ultimately, one ends up getting repetitive.

“Ramazan dramas need to be family entertainers, with a light romance, some comic elements — a specific format has to be followed and it got very difficult to come up with new characters who were unlike those that I have written before.

“People would criticise that I was building stories around cousin romances, not understanding how difficult it was to come up with a family comedy where the girl and boy and their families were interacting often. I later did come up with other angles — a neighbourhood romance, for instance. It’s still tough.”

She continues: “And then there’s the constant strain of delivering more scenes. The drama needs to get stretched out over more than 30 episodes and, because the pace is so fast, ultimately more scenes and situations are getting written at the last minute.

“I remember when Chupke Chupke was getting filmed, I was adding in scenes till chand raat [the evening before Eid]! I visit my ancestral home in Rahim Yar Khan for Eid and there have been many times when I have been writing down scenes while I am on the road, heading there.

“And ultimately, my name is on the line. There is an audience who associate some of their favourite Ramazan dramas with me, and they have faith in a production that has my name in the credentials. I can’t disappoint them with a storyline that they have seen before, or that has been stretched out too much. It’s why I decided to take a break this year, so that I could recover my health and write my next drama with a fresh mind.”

Sarah Majeed, writer of Fairytale, also emphasises the importance of taking breaks.

“I wrote Fairytale and then I wrote the sequel. If I had gone on to write yet another drama for this year, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a new story, new characters.”

The lure of a mass audience

The increasingly generic storylines of Ramazan entertainers has perhaps resulted in viewers leaning towards more serious fare. Producers Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi of 7th Sky Entertainment, for instance, helm daily dramas during Ramazan that emphasise Islamic teachings and values.

The daily series Makafat and Dikhawa are in their sixth and fifth seasons, respectively. Ramazan specials such as Umm-i-Ayesha this year and Abdullah last year are, similarly, series with short daily episodes based on ethics and morals. Other channels — Express Entertainment comes to mind — have followed suit.

As far as the post-Iftar entertainers are concerned, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that new stories need to be developed for Ramazan. It’s evident that the audience doesn’t gravitate towards repetitive scripts or characters that are cute to the point of being cringey.

The critique being levelled towards this year’s Ramazan drama entourage is testament to this. What attracts producers, directors and actors towards Ramazan content, even when it’s right off a cookie-cutter?

“Shooting a Ramazan drama is the most difficult thing in the world. There were times when we were on such a tight schedule that we would start shooting at 9am on one day, and wrap up at 8am the next morning,” says Imran Ashraf Awan, who has acted in two Ramazan dramas to date.

“However, these dramas give me the chance to diversify from the intense roles that I usually enact in regular dramas and to try my hand at comedy. The audience watching these dramas is extensive and we get to make people laugh.”

Actress Amar Khan, who has also written the scripts of two Ramazan dramas so far, agrees, adding, “As a writer, it gets difficult to stretch a story to at least 33 episodes, since the drama has to air all through Ramazan, with the finale scheduled for Eid. But, from an actor’s perspective, what could be better than being seen on TV every day for a whole month?”

Ayeza Khan — a veritable Ramazan drama stalwart — observes: “What I particularly enjoy is the fact that the shooting will wrap up in three months at most. Regular dramas require at least six to seven months for completion. Also, these dramas are watched by entire families and they get to see me in lighthearted roles rather than the more serious ones.”

Sabeena Farooq, high on the success of the much-acclaimed Kabuli Pulao, opted for the Ramazan drama Tere Mere Sapne as her next project. “It’s a completely different role from my last one. Also, actors are able to show their versatility in Ramazan dramas, and their careers can really benefit from the mileage.”

Producer Babar Javed, who has sporadically dabbled with Ramazan content all through his career, points out, “Ramazan allows you to access a different audience, who want to watch content that is festive.

“For me as an individual producer, not aligned with any one channel, it has been important to invest all that I could into my productions for Ramazan. I believe that good content will always stand out.”

But isn’t the Ramazan drama playing field far too crowded? “There are always plenty of dramas that the audience can choose from, even when it isn’t Ramazan,” says Babar. “The field is always crowded.”

In this smorgasbord of cute cousins and eccentric dadis, director Wajahat Hussain observes that stories where the comedy isn’t forced seem to work better.

“Ishq Jalebi had some serious messages within it and Chaudhry and Sons was comical but it was also an emotional family drama,” he says referring to the two Ramazan dramas he has directed so far.

In a similar vein, Fairytale and Chupke Chupke hadn’t been written for Ramazan at all and, therefore, had scripts which were more balanced. Saima Akram Chaudhry’s most successful dramas — Chupke Chupke and Suno Chanda, for instance — rely on situational comedy rather than a perpetual deluge of slapstick.

This year, so far, no such example can be cited. The various Ramazan dramas, still in their initial runs, are less cute, more cringe-inducing and rely on tropes that have been seen a zillion times before on TV.

Just because the TV audience has more free time in the evenings during Ramazan doesn’t mean that they can be drawn in easily. Perpetual innovation and intelligent scriptwriting is required for a drama to be watched regularly, for a 30-day-long stretch.

This analysis may have started off with a fairytale but not every story has a happy ending. And Ramazan dramas, if they continue to rely on generic content, are unlikely to have a happily ever after.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 24th, 2024

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