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(L-R) Cast of Turkish drama "Ishq-e-Mamnoon" and Pakistan’s television drama industry press conference against foreign content.–Photo courtesy Dawn Images

Panic. Pandemonium. Press conferences. Pakistan’s television drama industry has ‘united’ and ‘unanimously’ demanded a ban on foreign content (namely Indian and Turkish) on local television during the prime time slot. The call has been raised to save and rescue the local industry from total collapse within a year, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs not to mention the years it would take for local TV drama to recover from the setback. It has also been claimed that hundreds of students enrolled in media sciences will have lost their jobs even before they graduate!

Can this be real? It’s an industry, not a house of cards. To allow sanity to prevail we must concentrate on the ‘crisis’. First off, many in the industry believe that what faces us is a boon, not bane. What we need is positivity, not panic. What’s really at stake is something else and not drama.

It was in July 2012 that the satellite channel Urdu1 started airing the Turkish play, Ishq-e-Memnu, after getting it dubbed in Urdu by Imran Momina aka Emmu of Fuzon the band. Things seemed to be going well until alarms went off when it reached the TRP (target rating points) of 10 when many local plays allegedly struggle at four or below (TRPs are the industry standard through which channels and advertisers assess popularity of a show and decide whether to extend or axe it). Overnight, phones began ringing in Turkey and eager agents were scouting for the next big thing to beat and compete with its popularity. But the FPCs (fixed point chart) of channels are prepared weeks, if not months, in advance so how do you replace a future deal with an existing one? By cancelling contracts. But that’s not easy so what’s the next best alternative? You reschedule programming. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

To accommodate the next best thing, channels had to make space in their FPCs on certain days by moving local shows up: from 8pm to 9pm and from 9pm to 9:30pm and so on. Since shows are paid according to time slots (8pm being the most lucrative one), this means that local shows will be paid less since they won’t be aired at 8pm.

So far, the ‘united’ TV drama industry has taken several stances. For instance, there are fears that people will stop watching local plays. Why would that happen? Have our stories become monotonous or is it because the content of some of our plays has become obnoxious? Do the same faces appear in different mix across all channels or is it that we attach more value to production than content?

There are also concerns that we are being confronted with an alien culture. So have we been depicting our culture in plays with crass language, objectionable plots and offensive characters? There are voices that claim foreign plays feature sparsely-clad women and we don’t have a level playing field. It is a direct insult to the viewers’ collective intelligence as it implies they neither have the sense nor sensibility to choose what to watch — show them a little skin and they’ll drool, and keep on doing so for the next 200 episodes. And not just local but international audience, too? If this argument had any substance, why did Ishq-e-Memnu become such a major hit in its country of origin as they must be used to such ‘exposure’?

Secondly, it entails that our viewers have no sense of story and they only want to watch beautiful people driving around in expensive cars while living in luxury villas.

How can we forget that at the heart of every popular show is a conflict so engaging that people can’t help but root for the good guy and wish ill upon the vile ones?

Humans have an innate need for an emotional journey that they can relate to at the very basic level such as characters they can like, conflicts they may have craved and issues they want addressed.

The videos that went viral on social media stated that characters in such plays drink, wear skimpy clothes and act immorally and we don’t have the permission to show that. Subtext: what we can show is an amorous 50-year old chasing his daughter’s best friend? Or a husband pursuing his sister-in-law? Or a mother forbidding her son from sharing a bed with his wife, thereby causing tension of the sort that’ll make Lolita appear safer in comparison? Rumour has it that local channels are now scouring the Iranian market for dramas. What will we have to say when people get hooked to hijab-clad women living in smaller houses than ours and discussing issues that plague the world, and not just them?

Some believe it’s just a passing fad but the recent popularity of Fatima Gul and Minahil Aur Khalil has proven otherwise. They have revealed a major flaw, a void in our system that has long existed and grown over time: we’ve turned this business into fast food. Writers are expected to write at jet speed, talent and technicians are required to shoot 25-30 scenes a day, serials that take 18 weeks to air are shot in two weeks. Investors have replaced the +, – and ÷ buttons on their calculators with X. It’s all about profits, economies of scale and possible collusion. Well, mostly anyway.

Private producers such as Abdullah Kadwani, Abid Ali, Asif Reza Mir, Humayun Saeed, writers like Anwar Maqsood, Faiza Iftikhar, Umera Ahmed, Zafar Mairaj and freelance directors like Kamran Khan, Mehreen Jabbar, Shahid Shafa’at, Usman-Zulfiqar and countless others have given us such remarkable shows that we all feel proud and sure about the secure future of our drama industry.

So where is the silver lining to this dark cloud?

Essentially the same situation existed from the year 2000 to 2006 when most viewers were hopelessly hooked on to Indian soaps. Then came Hum TV and some others like it with the novelty and might of its dramas, reinventing the landscape of local television. Consequently, the industry grew so big that hundreds of new actors, technicians, writers and directors found innumerable opportunities to work and grow. Actors became millionaires and producers became production houses. This was possible not because of semi-clad women, shiny cars, lavish bungalows but superior, intelligent content.

There is also an outcry for protection of Pakistan’s television drama industry. Protection for an industry that has had time to grow for almost 50 years? Protection for an industry that has the most creative, most passionate, most dedicated people who are being painted as scared, anxious and uncompetitive? Protection is for the weak, the helpless and for six-month-old babies. The industry and its people have a lot of self respect and pride. It doesn’t need protection, it just needs focus. And unity.

All that is needed is to stop panicking, admit mistakes and flaws, and scale down on the number of productions. Focusing on content and reviving such industries in Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta and Peshawar is another must. Their local talent and technicians must be employed by channels and producers in order to offer ingenious indigenous assorted tales instead of rehashing urban Karachi stories. This is the only way our television drama industry can unite and restore local drama to its former glory. Otherwise, the only ‘saving’ the industry would need would be from us.