It’s a scene you don’t forget once you see it. Two doctors make their way through a field of overgrown grass. He — actor Rahat Kazmi — epitomises the tall, dark, handsome hero. She — actress Marina Khan — has delicate features, intelligent eyes and neat, short hair.

They reach a ditch and he crosses it easily. He then turns towards her and offers her his hand. She hesitates and he assures her that he won’t let her fall. She then takes his hand. There is music, some shared smiles and Nayyara Noor’s timeless voice filters in, singing poetry by Faiz:

“Raat yun dil mein teri khoyee hui yaad aayi

Jaisay veeranay mein chupkay se bahaar aa jaaye …”

[Last night your long-forgotten memory entered my heart

Like spring quietly advances in the wilderness…]

That instance, with that music and, then, the story that follows — it’s poetic, the stuff of the best Mills & Boon stories, and a prime example of the feel-good, swoony feeling one expected from the late Hasina Moin, the drama’s scriptwriter.

This scene, from the drama Dhoop Kinaray, has since become iconic, watched and rewatched over the years. It is likely that, should one revisit the drama today, the scene will have the same impact that it had in the late ‘80s, when it first aired. It’s the power of a story well-told, particularly a romantic story.

Does mushy love really make the world of Pakistani TV dramas go round? Even when the main theme deviates away from lovelorn couples to focus more on life’s other trials and tribulations? Industry stalwarts weigh in on what they think it is about romantic love on screen that makes dramas more popular with audiences

Fast-forwarding to the present day, a very different kind of romantic scene has had audiences heave collective wistful sighs.

A man and a woman sit across from each other, sharing an intimate candlelight dinner. He is in a suit, she is wearing a glittering sari. They begin to dance. The drama zooms in and out; he is clutching her waist, they are locking eyes, they spin and he dips her down and the title track plays out, right on cue. It isn’t poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz; rather, it’s Shani Arshad singing, ‘Ra ra re ra ra ra ra re’ in a tune that has now become famous.

Cliched? Sure. Cheesy? Absolutely. But it does the trick. The man and woman on-screen are Murtasim and Meerub — actors Wahaj Ali and Yumna Zaidi — the drama’s protagonists, a husband and wife who are perpetually embroiled in a clash of wills and, yet, are inevitably falling in love with each other. There’s an evil other woman and plenty of family politics consistently trying to nip this love story in the bud but here they are, surrounded by roses and candlelight, waltzing, smiling and making Twitter — now known as ‘X’ — scream out #Meerasim, until it takes over the number one top trending spot in Pakistan for days and days.

Yet another hashtag, #YumHaj — dedicated to the drama’s two lead actors — also trended simultaneously. The YouTube views of the drama, Tere Bin, set new records in Pakistan and even, quite often, in India as well. At one point, the drama’s views in India were, in fact, running neck to neck with the trailer of an upcoming Shah Rukh Khan movie!

It was eye-opening. Tere Bin may have ended more than a year ago but, till now, you see its name pop up in discussions on social media and #Meerasim and #Yumhaj have fan followings of their own. And there’s a huge audience eager to lap up more details on the drama’s sequel, which is in the works and will also star actors Wahaj Ali and Yumna Zaidi.

The romantic element is there in almost every drama that you will see on TV, but what drama makers count on is the chemistry between two actors,” observes producer Abdullah Seja of iDream Entertainment, whose Radd is currently hauling in high viewership ratings.

“Yes, romance is usually a hit formula in our TV dramas but it needs to be projected the right way, in the right story,” says Abdullah Kadwani, who produced Tere Bin along with Asad Qureshi under the 7th Sky Entertainment banner.

Ishq Jalebi
Ishq Jalebi

“When the candlelight dinner scene was shot, Asad and I had a feeling that it would define the title track in a certain way. That scene forms the essence of the romance in Tere Bin — how they both love each other but are denying it. It all fits into the drama’s plot and it wouldn’t have been as impactful without the attention to detail, the production values and the overall performances throughout.

“In Tere Bin, we could sense that this scene, as well as quite a few others, would strike a chord with the audience. It is important to have an understanding of what your audiences want to see and, yes, while they enjoy romance, we can’t always deliver what they want.

“In the drama Khaani, for instance, they wanted a happy ending for the two leads despite the fact that the male protagonist was a murderer,” continues Kadwani. “In Khaie, the audience started romantically linking the female lead with her husband, who had murdered her entire family in the initial episodes, but had seemed to soften later. Romance is an integral part of most dramas, but a happy ending will only be there if it makes sense in the characters’ journeys.”

One of this year’s biggest hit dramas — Ishq Murshid — is another example of the power of classic, well-narrated mush. In countless scenes, the main leads — Bilal Abbas Khan and Durefishan Saleem — would simply smile, lock eyes and director Farooq Rind would expertly plug in the very melodious OST.

Jaan-i-Jahan
Jaan-i-Jahan

“The drama’s main premise was romance, the chemistry between the two leads,” says Sultana Siddiqui, president of the Hum TV Network, on which the drama aired. “Audiences like the message of love because it is true to reality. A drama doesn’t need to be entirely romantic, some of our best dramas, such as Parizaad or Udaari, were not through and through love stories, but without a slight touch of romance, the story becomes dry.”

Ishq Murshid notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that the desi drama audience has some very particular notions about romance.

“The romantic element is there in almost every drama that you will see on TV, but what drama makers count on is the chemistry between two actors,” observes producer Abdullah Seja of iDream Entertainment, whose Radd is currently hauling in high viewership ratings. “Also, the story needs to connect with the audience, which means that usually romance after marriage is more acceptable.

“In Pakistan, arranged marriages are still a norm and the audience is able to relate more easily to an on-screen couple navigating their relationship after marriage. In Radd, for example, the main leads tie the knot after, perhaps, the seventh episode and now the audience is anticipating what will happen next.

He adds: “I was once part of a focus group where one commentator declared that in desi dramas, ‘real life begins after marriage.’ That’s the usual perception!” he laughs.

Another popular trope that drama makers will not admit to on-record is the unconsummated marriage. How does the audience remain intrigued once the hero and heroine are husband and wife? If they quickly slipped into their desultory happily-ever-after, with her making breakfast and him rushing off to work, the fireworks would fizzle out quickly enough.

Instead, in Radd, as I write this, Sheheryar Munawar’s Salaar is sleeping on the floor while his wife Imaan — Hiba Bukhari — takes over the entire bed. In Tere Bin, the long-suffering Murtasim whiled away countless nights on a very uncomfortable looking divan to please the tempestuous Meerub. The hero and heroine are together, but not really. They can indulge in as many candlelight dinners and waltzes and as much cheesy hand-holding as they like, without hurting the sensitivities of a largely traditional, conservative TV audience. And they can still keep them guessing.

Director Danish Nawaz gives an example: “Sometimes, chemistry is built through simple gestures. The hero and heroine could be out for a walk and he would buy her a jalebi [sweetmeat]. And she would break the jalebi in two and give him one-half. And there you go, you’re building chemistry, you’re showing romance, without hurting the audience’s sensitivity.

“It’s strange; our audience definitely enjoys romance, but they don’t like the usage of the words ‘romance’ or ‘love’. They want it to be shown to them as part of the story. Usually, romantic scenes are shot with a bit more focus because, as a director, I know that there is a chance that the audience will particularly enjoy them.”

The title track is another essential. Director Syed Wajahat Hussain reveals that he insists that a large chunk of his drama have been shot before the music composer finalises the title track.

“The music, the dialogues, they all need to fit with the chemistry of the two actors on screen. I feel that the title track has more impact when the composer knows the emotions that will be played out on-screen. Also, stories need to be modulated according to the personalities of the actors enacting them. As a director, I consider it essential that the actors fit into the roles that they are playing.”

Wajahat’s recent repertoire of dramas extend beyond romances to other genres as well — the Ramazan family-oriented romantic comedy Ishq Jalebi and the violent thriller Khaie come to mind. Have the romances particularly been bigger hits?

“There is no set formula,” he says. “Yes, the audience may find romance most relatable but, if a drama isn’t an entirely romantic one, it is my job to make the other emotions in the story so strong that the audience connects to them. It is a challenge, but it is one that I enjoy. In Khaie, the feeling of revenge and loss perhaps superseded the romantic subplots.”

There are certainly other genres in dramas that occasionally rear their heads and prove that the Pakistani TV audience doesn’t just have mush on its mind — a healthy dose of blood and gore in Khaie, a commentary on life and its struggles in Parizaad and crazy family politics in countless dramas. It is undeniable, though, that love particularly uplifts most stories.

Director Saife Hassan remembers Waaris from back in the late ‘70s, a drama that revolved around rural politics and which his father watched with such fervour that he developed high blood pressure after the last episode! “But, generally, nowadays, romance is a dream that particularly entrances the TV drama audience, and what sells most often are false dreams — the poor girl gets the rich boy, the poor man becomes rich overnight, love at first sight!”

He laughs. “Other dramas may also be successful, but the romances, often the toxic romances, have TRPs [Television Rating Points] that shoot above 20!”

He adds, “The ratings for my dramas don’t, and I know it, and I am very content about it. I’d rather sell real dreams, stories that may have romance but there is more to them.”

Saife’s current on-air drama, Zard Patton Ka Bunn, is a case in point. Created in collaboration with the Kashf Foundation, the script by Mustafa Afridi is extremely well-written. There are countless morals knitted into the plot that never overwhelm, simply getting absorbed into the story of Meenu, a village girl enacted by actress Sajal Aly.

It has a colourful, riveting canvas all of its own. But the drama’s teasers also promise a trip down the circuitous path of love, courtesy Meenu and Nofil, the city doctor installed in the village, and played by Hamza Sohail. At a recent press event celebrating the drama, Sajal had observed to me, “What sells most in dramas is romance. So, all we can do is package our story and the lessons that it has to give in the form of romance.”

Similarly, the 7th Sky Entertainment production Jannat Se Aagay shed light on the machinations of TV morning shows. Actress Kubra Khan played Jannat, a morning show host capable of lying, scheming and pulling off stunts in order to ensure that her show retained its top slot on TV. In one episode, she wound a snake around her neck. In another, she invited a fake Baba (spiritual leader) to her show and pretended that the set had become possessed by a supernatural entity.

Over time, she realises her mistakes as her marriage fell into ruin, her children became distanced from her and the housemaid went about stealing from her home with abandon. Directed by Haseeb Hassan and written by Umera Ahmed, the drama was a finely-hewn commentary on the intricacies of the human psyche and on the fake web woven by media and false friendships. Plenty of fodder for the brain cells to muse over.

But lo and behold, two of Jannat Se Aagay’s most popular episodes were the romantic ones, between Kubra and actor Gohar Rasheed. “The YouTube views just multiplied!” reveals actor Kubra Khan. “These two episodes were flashbacks of Jannat’s early married life, how she and her husband had once been happy. I guess our audience really just enjoys romance.”

But just pairing two good-looking actors together and getting them to make moon-eyes at each other does not do the trick. Not every romance is a hit. Humayun Saeed — producer and Pakistan’s longest-standing romantic hero — points out, “The story needs to be written well and, even if the drama doesn’t have too many romantic scenes, the feeling of romance needs to be there.

“My drama Mere Paas Tum Ho didn’t have that many romantic scenes, but it was still a love story and the audience were drawn to the character of a husband who could love his wife with such intensity.” He adds, “A large chunk of the TV drama audience is female and they enjoy romances as well as a few other genres, such as family politics.”

As director Qasim Ali Mureed — who has recently helmed two hit romantic dramas, Mere Humsafar and Jaan-i-Jahan — poetically describes it, “It’s how you tell the story. Even in music, there are just seven raags and the magic lies in how the musician blends them together. Similarly, in dramas, it all depends on how the characters, the dialogues, locations, scenes and title track are all blended together.”

Give the audience roses and candlelight, give ’em waltzes and cheesy dialogues, give ’em a chaste hug that wouldn’t have the censor board frowning. Add a few thrills, if you may, courtesy a manipulative mother-in-law, a psychotic ‘other woman’, maybe a sneaky best friend. Better yet, get the protagonists married and have him risk cervical neck pain by sleeping on the floor. But blend it just right — that’s the key — and you may just have churned out a massive TV hit!

Love really does make the world go round, particularly in the case of Pakistani TV.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 7th, 2024

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