Naomi Datta says there is much to celebrate as Pakistan exports its television to India – exactly the kind of cross border incursions we need and should celebrate

Voices Thursday, June 19, 2014 - 05:30
By Naomi Datta I have a guilty secret. I watch soaps. Oh, I know about the spectacular Game of Thrones finale and Breaking Bad, but I sneakily watch Rang Rasiya. It is tough harbouring this burden of inexplicable television tastes – especially if someone (read usually the worse half) stumbles upon my deep, dark secret but I have found a way around it. I pretend the television is playing in the background and I am much too absorbed in other lofty world matters (read updating my FB status update) to actually pay attention to what is playing. I have perfected the look as I stare at the screen in disdainful disinterest and say, ‘What is going on here? You know I was surfing but then this piece I was reading on Sunni militancy in Iraq totally distracted me – so I don’t know how this channel landed up here’. The worse half who has found Balika Vadhu and Uttaran playing on the screen in similar, suspicious circumstances agrees that our television set does seem to have appalling default channel settings.  But even a soap addict has her limits of exasperation– and when it comes to Indian television, I think I am finally done with generation leaps, stories that cease to be stories, generally hammy acting and people who look like they are dressed for dandiya 24/7. The fundamental problem with Indian soaps is that they neither work in seasons and nor do they know that there is such a thing as a logical end to a story. With the result, that even formerly well written and well produced serials like Balika Vadhu are now a sorry mess. I usually give up on an Indian soap after a year because by then the degeneration of the brain cells of the hapless writers has totally set in. But I still do feel the need to watch locally made television for well perhaps the same reason you watch Bollywood even though you have all of Hollywood to pick from. It perhaps stems from a need to watch life situations and characters that you identify with – but I will spare you the psycho babble. The bottom line is I need to watch soaps which come from a relatable cultural context. Help then came in from across the border – a friend on twitter after reading my rant about the idiocy that a recent soap had collapsed into asked me to check out Zindagi Gulzar Hai. This was a Pakistani serial that had played out on Hum TV, and was one of the big hits of the year there. I began watching on YouTube and was immediately hooked to this beautifully written and nuanced love hate story between two very different individuals. It helped that the leads ( the very dishy Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed) had a simmering intensity to their love story, but the serial also made important points on the equality of the girl child and the need for women to have a career. It was progressive, the acting was top notch, the writing restrained and the best part - it got over in 26 episodes. I watched it over a marathon viewing session on a weekend and it left me wanting for more.  ZGH became my entry into a world of television which surprised me with the maturity and subtlety of its narrative – and after a bit it stopped registering that this was a story set in Karachi. It could have been any Indian city.  Frenetic Google searches led me to more goodies and I found my next gem – a serial called Kankar on Hum TV. Written by Umera Ahmed ( who also wrote ZGH), Kankar with the talented Sanam Baloch in the lead was a layered piece of writing – it veered away from being a love story to the importance of respect in a marriage. This too ended in 26 riveting episodes. I have since been a person possessed and devoured what I could find of television across the border.  Not everything has been consistently good – I found crowd favourite Humsafar overrated and my latest soap Shukk was okish. But even in these you managed to find histrionics and writing of a quality far superior to its bigger, glitzier Indian counterpart. What struck me was the total absence of melodrama – if you do however want to carp, the insularity may strike you. None of present day Pakistan’s much reported tumult reflects in the narrative which focuses primarily on love, marriage and everything that comes with it. But that honestly is not something that bothers me. Like Jane Austen would have said, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story to be universal must often be insular’ (She would have said this if only anyone had just asked!)  In this backdrop, you would understand why the launch of Zee Zindagi this month is news that thrills me. This channel will start with airing content from across the border – and one of the first serials they air will be Zindagi Gulzar Hai. I read a few stock platitudes from the channel heads in print interviews about how they hope that this will bring the countries closer. I don’t know about that. Star Plus is apparently the most viewed channel in Pakistan. Fat good that has done in bringing us closer – so while I wouldn’t go as far as hoping it will broker lasting peace, but I do hope Zee Zindagi is a big success. Only so that Indian soaps realize that there is scope in the medium to do quality evolved storytelling and there is such a thing as bringing things to an end. And maybe they will finally shut down Balika Vadhu – one lives in hope.  (Naomi Datta watches a lot of television; she also contributes to the making of it sometimes but fortunately is not guilty of ever writing a soap. Yet. She also compulsively tweets on Follow @nowme_datta )
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