Instead of just romantic escapade, Pakistani dramas are talking about hard-hitting social issues
During a discussion with someone over how the evolution of Pakistani dramas has taken place compared to the rest of the entertainment avenues available to the local audiences, someone made an interesting comment.
They said that Pakistani dramas have a ‘strong foundation’ – and that the language, diction, storytelling, characterization, depth and complexity of plots and subplots in Pakistani dramas are far more enhanced than other countries producing relevant content. This struck a chord with me. This made me think of the many years of Pakistani dramas that have been termed as ‘golden’ or ‘classic’.
Somewhere between the 80s and the late 90s, Pakistani cinema faced a steep decline and the prevalent disinterest with respect to Pakistani content spread to dramas as well. For a while, thus, dramas became preoccupied with attracting the lowest common denominator, focusing on ‘massy’ content and competing with the typically plebeian packages (the over-dramatized soaps, being one close example). This resulted in a lot of “urban” viewers avoiding watching local television or looking down upon the content by Pakistan, regardless of the one or two odd good plays that were produced, even though, ironically, Pakistani soaps were in high demand in India for their pace and storytelling.
‘Something about us was different – and there was the proverbial and massive potential that Pakistani writers and artists and directors have always had. Something about our drama sphere could give even the big Bollywood movies competition. Our small screen stars could gather just as much clout as the big-bucks-earning, paparazzi-swarmed, super mega movie stars.’
So naturally, Pakistani content found space to venture and evolve from the standard tropes to attract audiences. Sure, there are the cutesy love stories such as Zindagi Gulzar Hai and the intense romantic dramas like Humsafar and recent dramas that developed a cult following like Mann Mayal. But what was heartening to see in the past seven to eight years is how the Pakistani drama is shifting from typical to extraordinary. Dramas are now evolving and emerging as stories with more than just a boy-girl dimension. They are talking about complex social issues and creating profound dialogs about various social concerns.
It all started in 2010, When Hum Television Network aired Dastaan. The story of partition, based on Razia Butt’s novel, “Bano”. Dastaan followed the story of Bano (Sanam Baloch) and Hassan (Fawad Khan), two star-cross’d lovers struggling to start their lives together amidst political, religious and social tensions when Pakistan and India were at the brink of formation. Adapted by Samira Fazal and directed by Haissam Hussain, it received both critical and commercial acclaim. Sanam’s powerful performance and her chemistry with Pakistan’s favorite heartthrob, Fawad Khan, left the audiences mesmerized. But that wasn’t all that the audience took from play. Dastaan was also about the everlasting trauma that was faced by many women who became collateral damage in the journey to migration. It shed light on the use of sexual crimes as a horrendous side-effect of war and chaos that destroys lives and changes the shape of many individuals and families.
Umera Ahmed’s story “Shehr e Zaat” was another step on the ladder, starring Mahira Khan, Mikaal Zulfiqaar and Mohib Mirza. The play delves into an individual’s journey towards spiritualism. It wasn’t a regular romance at all. Falak (Mahira Khan) rediscovers herself and the world around her by virtue of loss and heartbreak. There is a scene where Falak is throwing away her clothes and calling it madness that she has so much while the world outside her has so little – many people often recall that scene, claiming that it spoke to them more than any other scene that they have witnessed. Pakistani dramas were still making waves and were loved by audiences for their romance and fluff – but the impact was changing, evolving, maturing.
In Kankar, produced by Hum TV in 2013, Sanam Baloch plays a girl named Kiran who is relatively lower-middle class compared to her husband, Sikander, who is much more affluent than she is. Their marriage soon falls into chaos when Kiran is physically abused by Sikander. Written by Umera Ahmed, there is a skillful exposition into the mind of an abuser in an intimate relationship. We see that it was Sikander’s father who had always beaten his wife and Sikander had stood by and watched. He had little to no idea that hitting your spouse is something that he should not be doing – hence when he hits Kiran, he feels bad for a moment or two but soon moves on. What is great about a story like that is how Kiran decides to walk out of this marriage – and refuses to stay in it even though Sikander is financially sound and provides her with material luxuries.
Aseerzaadi aired in 2014, written by Mustafa Afridi, talked about the various harmful myths and toxic practices that surround a woman’s fertility in a feudal landscape. Starring Sania Saeed, Ainy Jafri, Sakina Sammo and Salman Shahid, Aseerzaadi’s compelling screenplay and skillful performances turned it into an instant hit and classic. Mustafa Afridi wrote Sang e Mar Mar in 2016 which also became a hit with the audiences. Sang e Mar Mar also lay bare the ugly face of deadly patriarchy within our society. Afridi wrote about the inner workings of a strictly patriarchal family (headed by “Daaji”, played wonderfully by Noman Ijaz) and the many disastrous results of toxic masculinity and the potentially harmful concept of ‘honor’. Starring Sania Saeed, Mikaal Zulfiqaar, Kubra Khan, Paras Masroor and Uzma Hassan, Sang e Mar Mar raked in extremely high ratings and positive reviews globally. This also meant that the audiences appreciate quality content – and would always be receptive to it.
Hum TV’s biggest hit of 2016 was Udaari. The play revolved around a child abuser, Imtiaz (a critically acclaimed performance by Ahsan Khan) and his victim, a young girl who grows up to testify against him in court. The play highlighted a major taboo of child abuse that is thoroughly rampant in our society. It started a genuine conversation about the rehabilitation of victims of child abuse and the process of justice that children and parents have to go through in Pakistan.
The play was lauded and became a turning point for scripts, dramas and even performances. Ahsan Khan’s “Imtiaz” became the benchmark for all villains and it was a testament to his versatility and talent.
Overlooking Sammi will be a big blunder. As it was another story that targeted an issue that had no or little spotlight, “Blood marriage” or “Vanni”. Written by Noor ul Huda Shah and directed by Udaari’s director, Saif e Hasan, Sammi starred Mawra Hocane, Haris Waheed, Adnan Siddiqi, Ahad Raza Mir, Bilal Khan, Madiha Riaz and Rehan Sheikh. It was a heart-rending story of a girl who was ‘sold’ in marriage by a jirga to settle a murder case. Many of these practices happen in Pakistan and even though they are considered unlawful and illegal, they continue because of exploitation and lack of awareness.
Airing now is Daldal, starring Zahid Ahmed, Armeena Khan and Muneeb Butt. Though it’s only a few episodes in, the subject matter of the play is also depicted as a strong social issue. Zahid Ahmed (Shuja) is seen trying to scour the Pakistan-Iran border for a ‘better’ life. Daldal shall explore the themes of human trafficking and how it impacts families and loved ones – even though it is for their benefit that individuals take these near-fatal risks.
The structure for content in Pakistani entertainment industry is changing for the better. There are more ideas flowing that have substance and the good news is, they are being received just as well. With production houses taking a keen interest in social concern stories, instead of just romantic escapades, Pakistani dramas and their impact is increasing multi-fold.
Now there are not only audiences hooked to the screen who want to see their favorite couple but also there is a credible audience that is watching to understand more about Pakistani society, about awareness and about change.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of HUM Network.