High Drama: Retrogressive fictions and Pakistani soaps

Soaps across the world survive on the echo effect of familiar stereotypes. This is not a phenomenon simply native to Pakistan – Indian soaps are wrapped in Kanjeevaram saris and family values, Brazilian telenovelas often feature women falling for richer men and facing issues relevant to “marrying up” in the world. Each culture reinforces its own set of values; and these are often evolving paradigms that diversify with socio-political circumstances, advertiser expectations and changing media proliferation.

Pakistanis across all classes are fascinated with home-grown drama serials. Though targeted primarily at middle class women, they feature female stars who are mainly from middle-upper to upper-class backgrounds, and are glamour icons for diverse audiences. Pakistani drama serials are watched at home and abroad with devout addiction. Channels such as Hum TV, GEO and ARY are featured as an opt-in in cable packages in various countries, in addition to their digital availability on platforms such as YouTube. While the buzz around the revival of Pakistani cinema is deafening, it is the Pakistani drama serial which has experienced a true renaissance over the last decade and allowed for the burgeoning of talent from actors to directors that have successfully transferred to the big screen. The industry’s resurgence from relative anonymity to a game changer in South Asian media has been phenomenal. In 2014, the industry magazine Aurora, estimated that the entertainment channels (mostly offering a daily diet of soaps) pull in about half the total advertising spend on television. With drama continuing to be the most watched format on television (TRPs are high across channels) the share could have only increased in the last three years.

This comeback by the industry is a positive development, as it means indigenous, locally created material for viewer consumption. Yet what is worrying is how deeply misogynistic many Pakistani soaps have become, and how they wilfully indoctrinate viewers with the narrowest of middle class morality in scripts now authored almost exclusively by a handful of writers. They write what they know,” explains actor Hina Bayat[1], who has played umpteen mother roles in Pakistani serials. “Most scriptwriters today are women who have never seen the inside of an office. In their real world working women don’t exist so they don’t write them into their fictional worlds either – except perhaps as negative characters or mothers who ignore their children.”

As its influence has widened over the last decade, Pakistani dramas have increasingly developed tropes and advocated social norms that form a guidebook to “correct” female behaviour. While there may be exceptions, “positive” behavioural patterns for female characters include submission to the greater good, silence above speaking out (except in sudden tirades) and a focus on marital and family life that tends to make women’s career choices appear insignificant or non-existent. The world of Pakistani soaps is now the home – and female characters rarely step out beyond it. In fact, endless scenes are framed around kitchens and bedrooms, which, as actor Zahid Ahmed points out, are now almost exclusively shot in rented houses. Whereas men leave and return, women are largely homebound. If female leads do venture out and work in public spaces – be it Sarah (Naveen Waqar) in Sarmad Khoosat’s ground-breaking magnum opus Humsafar (2011) or the mentally disturbed Jeena (Aisha Khan) in Mann Mayal (2016) – they are shown as seductresses trying to dismantle the extended family system. Meanwhile, simpering, dewy-faced heroines like Khirad (Mahira Khan in Humsafar) and Kashaf (Sana Saeed) in Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012) suffer in obstinate silence or misguided stoicism.

Tears are plentiful. In fact, producers now claim that if you don’t show women crying, the drama will never garner the desired ratings. Add in a few pleading monologues on the prayer mat and there you have it – a success story. The Pakistani media has set the parameters of acceptable womanhood, and they are stringent and disturbingly regressive. As actor Samia Mumtaz says, “they get women [who are] known to be strong in real life to play these downcast, crying roles[2].” It is almost as if they are being tempered and chastised in public view to handicap the impact of their off screen personae.

Most millennial Pakistanis grew up on a diet of Indian saas-bahu television serials rather than Pakistani television. The prolific rise of long running Indian melodramas in the early 2000s was unaffected by political borders. Earlier generations had been far more PTV focused with social dramas like Khuda ki Basti (1969) dominating the television landscape and garnering faithful audiences for realist fare. Waris (1980), a drama serial embedded in feudal conflict was so popular that it crossed over to China. Alongside these issue-focused dramas were the great female-led love stories of the times – serials like Shehzori (early1970s) and Kiran Kahani (1973) mostly penned by Haseena Moin and inevitably featuring heroines trying to find the ground beneath their feet (and love). Even as early as Kiran Kahani (1973), the first episode of which opened with  Moeen’s slightly confused but persevering female lead (played memorably by Roohi Bano), in the throes of a job interview. Moin was a singular force in television drama, writing a multiplicity of hit serials that famously left Pakistani streets deserted during telecast. While romance remained the main theme, Moin’s girls began to show grit, ambition and dedication to their career. Zara (Shehnaz Sheikh) of Tanhaiyan (1985) or Dr. Zoya (Marina Khan) in Dhoop Kinarey (1987) both learnt about responsibility as they learnt about love.

With the easy availability of Indian cable channels like Star Plus, Sony and later Colours, Pakistani dramas dwindled and lost prestige. The hiatus hurt the development of good screenwriters though some like Nurul Huda Shah, known for choosing political themes did shine through. At this point, Pakistani dramas lost much of their individuality, becoming weak low budget copies of the Indian prototype. While individual directors like Mehreen Jabbar continued to produce serials or long plays with strong female leads in the early 2000s, it was perhaps HUM TV’s Humsafar which catapulted Pakistani drama back into the mainstream. With an attractive star pairing and a melodramatic premise culled from Farhat Ishtiaq’s novel of the same name, the serial pulled audiences back to their TV sets in a way the Haseena Moin serials of yore had done. But this time round, the feminine ideal was long suffering and immobile. Writing in Dawn, blogger Sabahat Zakariya described the change: “The sad irony is that Haseena’s heroines challenged the status quo by being their bubbly, independent, [even] if hopelessly romantic selves. In comparison, the Khirads and Sarahs of today are a firm step backward. Today’s specimens perpetually shuffle from one tearjerker to another; their whole lives one long, painful dirge on the hazards of being a woman in a patriarchal world they have no interest in challenging or shaping.[3]” Or if they do challenge the way things are going, it is normally seen as sullen and self-destructive (Mahira Khan again as Saba in Bin Roye, 2016), uncaring and ungrateful (Maya Ali in Dayaar-e-Dil, 2015) or manipulative and insidious (Atiqa Odho as the scheming mother-in-law in Humsafar). And yes, they are always reprimanded, made to apologise and ultimately look remarkably foolish. Or then, they dwindle into deep depression and kill themselves (Sarah in Humsafar).

So while these serials are ostensibly about women, they are better described as being about a certain kind of “prescribed” woman. She is a manifesto, writ large and beamed into people’s homes via television sets. Watching television is very different from other media. In Pakistani homes, it is usually done with your family or even while doing household chores. So in a sense, it insidiously creeps into the family. You are almost lulled into believing that these characters could exist outside the bounds of your television sets. Behavioural messages in television dramas are coordinated for family viewing and social norms woven into the script are witnessed as a group. A central concern then is to understand how these coded behaviours affect people’s belief systems and whether they can yield social and political outcomes. HUM TV’s Sultana Siddiqui, who directed Zindagi Gulzar Hae (2014) a drama about a couple from varying socio-economic backgrounds, tells me that “Wherever I went during the serial’s broadcast, women would approach me and tell me how much they loved the play, especially its lead female character. I want to bring my daughter up to be a Kashaf too they would tell me. Mothers wanted their daughters to emulate the character.[4] (My emphasis). Interestingly, while Kashaf impressed viewers with an outward confidence and desire to educate herself, she is essentially a headstrong character who constantly makes moral judgements that later turn out to be erroneous. The serial concludes with Kashaf sheepishly returning to her husband to admit she misjudged him and falling back in line with being a good wife by bearing twins. So if television dramas can sometimes play an aspirational part in influencing social behaviours, what kind of norms are such dramas encouraging our young girls to aspire to?

Despite the rise of social media in recent years, Pakistan’s dominant media continues to be television. Today, most television networks have channels particular to genres such as Geo Kahani which is entirely reserved for drama serials. The field research I commissioned during my stint as BBC Media Action’s Project Director for Pakistan (2012-2014) suggests that drama is the most popular genre for both men and women (though marginally more popular with women). This means that it is not just women who are possibly absorbing social behavioural recommendations from television drama serials. Men too, are observing what it is to be a man in Pakistani society, and of course what they can expect from the women in their lives and homes. So when a model (Saba Qamar) marries a politician (Zahid Ahmed) on the basis of a challenge thrown out on a TV talk show in Besharm (2016), it perpetuates the silliness of women in making life changing decisions despite being relatively independent and financially self-sufficient.

There are two ways that media can potentially affect beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in society. One of these is an individual or direct effect where media can introduce new norms or entrench existing notions as normative, in what Della Vigna and Gentzkow[5] (2010) call the “persuasive” model. Both Mackie (1996) and Chwe (2001) contend that the provision of public information can enhance coordination of that norm as it is perceived as public knowledge. Eric Arias (2016) speaks about how the media’s public method of delivery helps viewers form an understanding of their shared beliefs. Miller, Monin and Prentice (2000) argue that “attempts to change public behaviours by changing private attitudes will not be effective unless some effort is also made to bridge the boundary between the public and the private.[6]” Thus, when families and neighbours view television dramas together (quite common in Pakistani homes and mohallas) they may collectively absorb the moral tropes inherent in it. It is the persuasiveness of the story and its inbuilt logic mechanism that instils this shared experience into their perception of what the moral standards of behaviour are. This is why Pakistani drama serials can both be dangerous – and potentially a way to update norms. They could, potentially, get people to adapt their notions on the basis of widely shared beliefs of how people ought to behave in a given situation.

Unfortunately until Udaari (2016), the drama serials of the last ten years have largely reinforced conservative notions of female morality and extolled suffering within the family context as virtuous. In many ways, this thinking remains entrenched across the networks. Dramas continue to pursue retrogressive ideals that are constantly reinforcing the worst of what people may have a general belief in – but seeing it on your television screen validates it as a norm. So Pakistani dramas normalise women pitted against each other as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, as ‘nand’ scheming against ‘bhabi,’ as office colleague seducing a man away from his wife. Female support systems are almost written out of stories. A play in which women support women like Mehreen Jabbar’s ‘Spenta, Mary aur Zubeida’ (2000) where three older women live together and provide refuge to women escaping violent husbands, would almost certainly find no takers among channel drama heads today.

Writing recently in The Hindu, Yamuna Matheswaran talks about the “glorification of misery” in TV dramas across the border. “The South Indian television serial, which showcases storylines predominated by domestic conflict resolution, sets up and perhaps perpetuates moral binaries in a world sorely in need of nuance.[7]” Take out the ‘perhaps’ and she could be describing Pakistani drama serials. Our soap operas feature black and white interpretations of social mores which reinforce existing notions. When these recommendations feature repeatedly on the television screen regardless of which channel you switch to, they are further cemented into the social fabric. When you consistently show women suffering in 39 out of 40 episodes with a brief rejuvenating finale, it is the crying woman rather than the triumphant woman who holds your attention. Actor Aamina Sheikh bemoaned the character she played in the serial Pakeezah (2016): “The effect of the final episode is short lived. What people remember is the crying woman, the aggrieved woman, the woman who is being negated for 39 episodes. That image has the lasting impact.[8]

I am not a conspiracy theorist but it needs to be asked – why are our television channels doing this? Actor Zahid Ahmed argues that as serials are targeted towards middle-class housewives, they will be geared to their moral and value systems. “The fact is that the sponsors who fund these plays want the kind of material that will appeal to these women,[9]” he says. But as Matheswaran crucially asks: “At what point does it stop being a case of art imitating life and become life imitating art?[10]” I refuse to believe that advertisers of household products are specifically asking for conservative outlooks in dramas. What they may be asking for is relatability – but how channel drama heads and scriptwriters interpret and navigate this is key. They certainly shouldn’t be asking for violence against women, high degrees of infidelity from men that women are forced to accept, or for women to have no ambition or aspirations. In any case should a cooking oil or detergent be allowed to determine our creative output or our moral values?

Drama serials like Udaari and Khuda Mera Bhi Hai (2017) are proof that when Pakistani television dramas introduce fresh themes persuasively or try to suggest new possible behaviours to Pakistani audiences, they are able to respond with empathy. The interaction may result in modified behaviour or even a shift of norms among viewers compared to those who may not have viewed the serial. Baaghi (2017), based on Qandeel Baloch’s meteoric rise to fame and subsequent murder, is portrayed more as a cautionary tale for young women than a relatable story of a woman who had both strengths and weaknesses and was above all her own immaculate conception. Speaking to the Express Tribune, its writer Shazia Khan[11] said “It is about the men who slammed all doors of dignified living to her. Men, who forced her to exist on her charms alone. Men, who feverishly slammed her after having finished watching her latest video on Instagram.” Baloch, perhaps the most unapologetic, fierce presence in social media in recent times is reduced to a man-made creation and stripped of all agency. “As responsible citizens, we need to learn from her tale, accept her as a part of our fabric and not try to jostle her away from our collective conscience because who knows… next time it could be someone closer to you, or you,” Khan goes on. This kind of thinking sounds persuasive, but is actually apologist. It is smug at taking on a contentious topic, but would even make Madonna’s life story into a morality fable. A self-made maverick who ingeniously reinvented herself is defined in one dimensional terms, a girl gone wrong. Well-meaning yes, but in final analysis, watch out or your girls might be inspired.

Clearly if drama for development works, it can be used to create awareness and to encourage tolerance and open-mindedness. But when drama is used to restrict women’s ambitions beyond the home and hearth, when it glorifies misery and martyrdom consistently and when it pitches women against women rather than showing examples of female community building, it becomes a platform for retrogressive behaviour normalised for mass audiences. It is media validating retrogressive belief systems; the echo chamber effect across channels cementing female stereotypes. So why do female actors on television accept these roles? “When roles disagree with my own Feminist principles I turn them down,” reveals Samia Mumtaz[12], “but not everyone can do that and we can’t afford to do it every time. Acting is a livelihood and these are the parts that are on offer.”

Speaking at the Karachi Literary Festival Hina Bayat asked a leading question of two media leaders also on the same panel (Sultana Siddiqui of Hum TV and Seema Tahir of TV One): “When will it be that Hina Bayat will be asked to play a strong career woman like Sultana Siddiqui or Seema Tahir on TV?” When, indeed.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 08-10-2017.

[1] Fifi Haroon interviews Hina Bayat for BBC Urdu (19 March 2017), Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/media-39322506

[2] Fifi Haroon interviews Samia Mumtaz for BBC Urdu (30 October 2016), Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/entertainment-37817887

[3] Sabahat Zakariya, Drama Seriels: Golden Age?  Dawn Blogs (3 March 2012) Available at https://www.dawn.com/news/699862

[4] Fifi Haroon interviews Sultana Siddiqui for BBC Urdu (26 January 2015), Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/multimedia/2015/01/150125_sultana_siddiqui_oak_drama_india_zs

[5] DellaVigna, S. and Gentzkow, M. (2010). Persuasion: Empirical Evidence. Annual Review of Economic. Vol 2 p.643-669.

[6] Miller, D. T., Monin, B., & Prentice, D. A. (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. Applied Social Research. p. 95-113. Mahwah, NJ.

[7] Mattheswaran, Yamuna. Soap Operas and the Glorification of Misery. The Hindu (5 May 2017) Available at http://www.thehindu.com/thread/arts-culture-society/soap-operas-and-the-glorification-of-misery/article18377821.ece

[8] Fifi Haroon interviews Aamina Sheikh for BBC Urdu (24 April 2016). Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/multimedia/2016/04/160424_aamina_sheikh_int_sq

[9] Fifi Haroon interviews Zahid Ahmed for BBC Urdu (29 January 2017). Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/entertainment-38789018

[10] Mattheswaran, Y. (2017)

[11] Khan, Shazia. Baaghi: why did I write Qandeel Baloch’s story? Express Tribune (24 June 2017) Available at https://tribune.com.pk/story/1443991/baaghi-write-qandeel-balochs-story/

[12] Fifi Haroon interviews Samia Mumtaz for BBC Urdu (30 October 2016), Available at http://www.bbc.com/urdu/entertainment-37817887