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The Bitter Soap Soup

Sitting still through a tele production today is nothing short of pure torture for someone who grew up watching small screen superlatives like Tanhaiyan, Ankahi and Dhoop Kinaray. Not only did these masterpieces ring true even in the most bizarre scenarios, they actually left a lifelong impression on the hearts of their audience and all those who were fortunate enough to have worked on the legendary sets, taking them along for a ride that’s still underway some twenty years after the productions were first aired on national television.

Why? One would ask. What was so great about a makeup-less lead who talked so much like the girl next door you could swear you knew her inside out? What made her so appealing even though she revealed nothing but diffidence and modesty in its sincerest form? Why did the sets feel like home and family a cocoon of human sentiments instead of a vicious dais for conniving bahus and scheming saasain who have subtly plagued the once endearing small screen with a vengeance?

The answer might be simple, but the realization that we; the Pakistani people, stand at a point where we derive perverse pleasure from such simulation is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

For years Indian television had been imperative to a Pakistani woman’s daily schedule. A couple of half baked soaps that successfully managed to supersede what in any other case might have been intrinsic responsibilities like teaching your prepubescent daughter that it’s not right for girls her age to spend an hour every day ho-downing in front of the looking glass; that plastic male protagonists are not to be idolized and crafty relatives are to be put up with, not plotted against.

Who watches these ludicrous reproductions of Indian obsession is beyond me, because every time I talk to anyone about them, I’m met with quick eye rolls and nippy chuckles that state otherwise.

The world of Indian TV is a perverse parody of life itself. What we see on our screens today has nothing to do with reality, and sadly, that’s exactly what Pakistani TV has blatantly been transformed into. In what world do housewives dress themselves up in party garb before hitting the breakfast table and write checks worth millions without so much as a blink of an eye? The younger women think delineating a despondent prostitute is the pinnacle of excellence in performing arts. For men it’s a transvestite.

The whole setup is usually funny in a way; full of cheesy clichés and flush backdrops that render middle class a thing of the past.

What’s more upsetting is the fact that over the last few months, this embarrassing type of television has crafted a very respectable niche in the local industry, selling for millions of Rupees to local channels that apparently have no scruples about the adverse side effects caused by them.

Commercialism and an attitude that emphasizes tangible profits is what drives the executives at these channels, sure, but it’s the public itself that asks to be played for a fool—just like in any other corporate venture.

 

Gone are the good days when the script was so powerful it could move people to tears or uncontrollable fits of laughter—whatever the story-line called for. Today’s drama is a frustrating mix of broken dialogues, unconvincing facial expressions and annoying background music to go with headache stirring camera shots. The fresh brigade of writers is money driven youth that clearly lacks ingenuity and originality; both of which are the basic fundamentals of a well written drama. And because these young writers have probably penned more screenplays in the last two years than Pakistan’s literary giants like Fatima Surraiya Bajia, Haseena Moin and Anwar Maqsood did in their decades old careers, there’s no way you can expect the same level of creativity and novelty in their work.

Another problem might be the daily-episode trend which has taken away the charm of having to wait another seven days before finding out what happened next. There are time slots to be filled in and there’s only so much you can replay; the rest is money-spinning history!

It’s a sad thing; this, when art and entertainment are conveniently distorted into profitable business ventures by corporate giants like ARY Digital and Geo Network to name a couple. And the ones that can’t meet the expense of producing their own series of Indianized replicas begin rerunning stale episodes ever hopeful to win place in the notorious rat race. What a crime! And that too in a country like Pakistan, which even its most insipid state is brimming with culture and creativity to last a lifetime.

Pakistani people have immense talent that has shone brilliantly in the past, so it’s rather disappointing to see actors like Sadia Imam, Saima Qureshi and Naila Jaffrey who on the one hand exhibit great potential, but on the other are found mocking societal shortcomings on cable television.

It’s not so much about individual denigration than it is about the message they give off when depicting a 21st century woman who’s full of confidence and practicality, and yet she has to flaunt exorbitant jewels, trashy clothes and offensive makeup to stand up and make a point which, again, usually borders on domestic transgression.

It was weird enough when Indian actresses started sporting impeccable Banarsi’s in the kitchen, but having to watch a Pakistani actress don a sari in the living room just because she wants to look like her Indian counterpart doesn’t feel right. In fact, it’s wrong on so many different levels. I mean, come on!

The biggest disappointment of all was Samina Peerzada playing one of those snippy bahu’s in ARY’s latest opus Ghar Gharonda. One does not expect an actress of her stature to give in to such spineless roles, let alone hit the set looking like an ageing Barbie doll because it just doesn’t cut it! Whatever happened to the good old Samina we all fell in love with because of her cool bohemian flair and genuineness?

Then there’s Jaharan Hai—who’s probably one of the most graceful actresses of our time, playing an ultra rich widow all set for a second marriage to settle outlandish property disputes when her fans would be far more comfortable watching her play a doting granny who knows better.

Why has the role of an affectionate grandmother been replaced by that of a cagey businesswoman? Is it simply because the character of Tulsi played by Simriti Irani in Kiyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi turned out to be bigger than Ekta Kapoor could have ever imagined?

Surely the learned producers know better than to invest blindly in projects that are more laughable than likeable?

The new stories—if they can be called that—are so socially and morally tainted that they leave you anxious and fidgety instead of inspiring a sense of love and warmth. The characters are so unreal they’re downright unpleasant, and the situations so monotonous one can easily catch up even after taking a three week break.

 

The big question remains: why is it so that the Pakistanis have stopped believing in the end result of quality over quantity?

It’s a publicly known fact that while old school directors like late Shehzad Khalil, Kazim Pasha, Saira Kazmi and Shoaib Mansoor made it a point to rehearse several times before turning on the camera because they wouldn’t dare compromise on the quality of their work. It’s not unusual, however, for the new, often more ‘educated’ directors to shoot as many as two episodes in a day. Rehearsals are out of the question and actors are mere puppets with no mind of their own—robotically doing whatever they’re told with bland expressions diligently in place. Hardly any attention is paid to the authenticity of the environment a scene is to be shot in and small details are conveniently ignored in attempts to save as much time and money possible. As a result, of course, the actors seldom deliver what the script requires and the audience is once again left hanging in mid air, reminiscing the good old yesteryears when our small but profound television industry was a source of immense pride and fulfillment for Pakistanis all over the globe.

Isn’t the tarty truth that television giants like Bushra Ansari, Badar Khalil, Zaheen Tahira, Marina Khan, Atiqa Odho and Zeba Bakhtyar have all shied away from something they were all exceptionally good at enough to make us understand? To make us learn and possibly even return to what made us stand out?

All is not grim though. While the quality of Pakistani drama has obviously gone from bad to worse over the last few years, there have been a few occasional diamonds that still shine through the rough. Anwar Maqsood’s Colony 52, ARY’s Moorat, Star studded Shiddat and Yasir Nawaz’s Dil Diya Dehleez which are currently showing on Hum TV, Mehreen Jabbar’s 2004’s Harjaee along with high-flying extravaganza Mehndi have all quite competently managed to defy the modern trend of Indian personification. They have all been, and still are, stunning successes in the hearts and minds of people who will not settle for anything less than quality TV. And achieving that once again might be hard work considering how deep into the bog we’ve sunk, but it’s certainly not impossible. If we can do it once, we can most definitely do it again; and what better compliment to use as a springboard than Bollywood royalty admitting how they still marvel at some of our classic television productions like Afshan, Shama, Tanhaiyan, Ankahi, Dhoop Kinaray, Kiran Kahani, Sunehray Din, Marvi, Uroosa, Waris and Aangan Tera; some of which are still used as teaching material at their leading acting schools!