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OP-ED: 2014 - As Seen on TV

Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 5 Jan 2014

Sakina Samo is quoting from T S Eliot, Shanaz Ramzi checks off milestones, there is some talk about a new channel and disagreements over love. Pakistan’s premier entertainment channel (Hum TV) recently unveiled a fresh lineup of dramas and called journalists over for a preview of coming attractions. However, the press conference quickly devolved into an amusing standoff of sorts. Here, those who craved change kept a scoreboard of love stories while glowering at the ones cradling tired premises. Writers, producers, and actors-turned-directors were on hand to justify the recurring motifs of la amour, derivative plotlines, cases of realism deficiency and pacify the resistance.

While the new quarter offers a visual feast featuring extravagant set pieces and on-location shoots, it has to avoid being classified as a cluster of clichés that lacks imagination. Sakina Samo, who prefers directing — “acting is emotionally draining” — may be headed to films one day, and she stands by these choices. The 8-9 pm slot, in her world, is reserved for entertainment, and religion or politics do not qualify. “We cannot depress people further,” she declares, “They just want to unwind.” She then admits that their target audience comprises girls and busy housewives, and adds that giddy youngsters, when polled, favour these emotional rollercoasters.

When there is frustration all around, escapism becomes the ‘go to’ drug. The primary objection regarding storylines that appear to merge, as do the faces, does not go unnoticed. Though plotlines tend to stay buried under inescapable love triangles, Samo wants the inherent message to be visible, which is simple: unless one fights for one’s rights, no one will. ‘“We will not even get those cheques lest we ask at least six times,” she says slyly.

Her admirable efforts to keep outside influences away and promote our own culture will be lauded. The fact that politics, corruption, terrorism or rural life for that matter never makes it past the barricades and will soon become a cause for concern.

The channel’s general manager for publications and public relations, Shanaz Ramzi, pointed out that love is an age-old theme, that there was an overdose of politics etc and insisted upon the need for a healthy entertainment. She cited the highly successful 'Humsafar' as an example. Hum TV’s managing director of production will soon step forward to appease the room by announcing that the next quarter would feature politics based dramas.

The press community also looked a tad baffled by the sight of all the male actors sporting a beard after the preview of Umaira Ahmed’s new play, ‘Mohabbat Subhe Ka Sitara’. Are they afraid of the Taliban or have no time for makeup, they wondered idly. Sakina (the director) was also taken aback when both actors turned up with their new ‘do’ one fine day. Their defence was that they wanted a change given the similarity in roles and demanded to keep the look.

While some makeovers were admittedly a part of the script, many actors insist on imposing their own interpretation. In their opinion, they were the epitome of ‘cool’. Off the record, it was the power everyone wields on set that appeared to rankle. The fact that channels decide to break for commercials at the same time and enlist the same names had not gone unnoticed. That and the channel-hopping trend that now extends to news shows where one expert moonlights on multiple networks, and does not even bother to change his jacket elicited a grimace.

As each segment was introduced, the journalists cringed. “Is it another love story,” they asked feebly. A swift denial would come and jealousy, rage, disillusionment, or redemption were shown to be the driving forces. ‘Bunty I Love You’ gets labelled as a psychological thriller by Siraj-ul-Haq (director). “It is different, not a single mother, daughter-in-law standoff in sight and it caters to the youth and oldies alike,” he said while waving the core message to entice viewers.

A few, probably disconcerted by the sight of an aged man cavorting with a teen cavorting with another young fellow, felt the subject matter and that bold hussy were more suitable for film. The makers denied the charges and insisted that this was a witch’s brew of greed and love, a tale of a free spirit, and not an extramarital affair as appeared in promos. ‘Bunty..’ is the (sob) story of a 17-year-old married to a 60-year-old geezer (played by Abid Ali) who will be widowed at a young age and get a second shot at life. The people in the room were grateful that the old man in question was not present that day else a war of words would have ensued and turned to Momina Duraid’s ‘Ru baru’, which had been pegged as a murder mystery.

‘Hate story’, which starts on January 9, includes newcomers like Sharmeen (NAPA graduate) and familiar names chosen for their commercial value as well as professional standing. Those who go looking for a star usually come back with Adnan Siddiqui. He fits the bill: educated, professorial and, more importantly, bankable. Casting Adnan means Coke will follow. That corporate considerations usually drive casting decisions remains a factor. The decision makers confessed that there are not a lot of options out there and that they cannot change the tried and tested formula because the same people then take offense.

More promos appear. ‘Sila’ (under production), again described as a ‘different’ story, is about a struggling singer.

Hum Gunehgar’ had an absent director (Ali Masood); his ‘proxy’, as she was referred to, sees it as a tug of war between a father and his real and adopted children. The network of tangled relationships was sold as a family drama/soap. As before, the word ‘love’ was used sparingly and ‘revenge’ summoned as a substitute tagline. Seema Rizvi’s ‘Zindigi Tere Bina,’, a tale of feuding daughter-in-laws, rests upon a pillar of relationships — the good, the bad and the scandalous.

Their shared DNA and monochromatic palette may have looked well-worn, and, while sensitive topics were conspicuous by their absence, the network does have risk takers within the ranks, some have worked with anti-narcotics, taken on corruption and other taboos, and are not oblivious to the charged climate or the underlying riches waiting to be explored. Those present were seen raving about a play based on ninth Muharram and the bold direction some production houses were willing to go. They also hailed Hassan Zaidi’s ‘Kise Apna Kahen’, which offers a powerhouse cast including Robina Ashraf and deals with middle-class family woes, casting Shabbir Jan as the tyrannical father, and how his decisions affect his daughter’s lives and how his ‘gutka’ business affects society. It was met by appreciative nods for its efforts at social reformation.

The year 2013 will be remembered fondly for serving mega hits, making overnight stars and starting grand new ventures. ‘Hum Sitaray’, features game shows, comedies and reality shows, and by now should be on every cable provider’s list. 2014 is revving up for more fireworks with its emotionally charged plotlines.

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  1. I am still in search (Read: All Ears....As I am not an Avid Drama Channel Watcher) of a TV Channel which can bring back the magic of PTV's Old Days!!!! :/

  2. Here's hoping. the oldies had little to work with but never let that get in the way, i heard that wonderful Alif (of Alif Noon fame) was at Karachi Lit fest last year, signing copies of his book, folks passed him by had no idea who he was....


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