Nothing is safe from another person’s criticism in this brave new digital world. One flick of the remote and you are bound to see something offensive that your neighbor may find totally acceptable.
PEMRA has just issued a notice to Hum TV asking for an explanation of a couple of scenes in the May 8 episode of Udaari. The drama serial, based on child sexual abuse, features the character of a man Imtiaz (Ahsan Khan) with evil intentions for both his orphan niece Meeran (Urwa Hocane) and young step-daughter Zebo. Imtiaz looks upon his Meeran with lust, and tries to lure her into an illicit relationship with him. After she narrowly escapes his evil clutches, Imtiaz next directs his attention to Zebo.
Contrast this with other hard-to-digest scenes we've seen on TV in Pakistan recently. Depictions of rape are increasingly common, as are suicides and murders - by family members, no less. (More on this later.)
So why has PEMRA suddenly woken up to 'objectionable' content on TV now, and why has it started its crackdown with a drama created to tackle a social evil like child abuse? Whatever happened to context?
Whoever the eyes and ears of PEMRA are they seem strangely selective in their outrage.
Either the authority is completely unaware of what passes for entertainment on Pakistani TV screens these days or this is their version of the random security screenings used at airports to reassure the public that the government is taking care of business.
What you need to know about Udaari
Udaari is a rare bird in the highly commercial and competitive world of Pakistani drama serials. Funded by an NGO, with a grant from the Canadian government, this serial’s first directive isn’t to make money but to raise awareness about the very serious issue of sexual abuse.
Such a daunting subject could hardly be a viable commercial project and could only be taken up by a writer with great sensitivity and moral courage like Farhat Ishtiaq. Her credits include not only the landmark Humsafar and Diyar e Dil but also Rehaii, a serial that dealt with the equally difficult topic of child marriages.
Taken out of context, any scene or any story may look as if it is taking a sensational ploy to gain ratings but this serial has been written after much research and with considerable input from the Kashf Foundation, which strives for the empowerment of Pakistani women.
Tackling tricky subjects
The question remains, how can difficult topics be addressed while maintaining standards of decency? For many, Udaari had managed just that balance. Actor Ahsan Khan has explained that he knew he was taking a risk with his reputation as a romantic hero by playing such a villain. However, he felt raising awareness of an issue to protect children was much more important.
Director Ehtashamuddin has handled these scenes simply and directly without a hint of voyeurism. Yes, the scenes are shocking. They should be. Such acts must never be romanticized or dulled to the point that they lose their impact or ability to disgust. However, when watched in the context of the entire episode, they are no way suggestive or vulgar.
The key word here is context. The scenes from Udaari are unfortunately tame when compared to what makes for prime time viewing these days. The recent TV drama Sangat had a rape scene choreographed like an art project, while the rest of the drama was spent on belittling the victim and glorifying the rapist as a misunderstood “bad boy”.
In another recent hit Gul e Rana, the “hero” is shown attempting to rape a female acquaintance who seeks refuge in his house, telling her that “she asked for it”.
In both cases, the rapists are presented to the public in the form of romantic heroes with 'heart-breaker' attitudes rather than villains to be reviled.
Another drama winning the ratings battle is Bay Qasoor, in which a girl is openly shown hanging from a ceiling fan, a mother poisoning her own daughter to prevent a marriage, a woman and her daughter getting married to the same man. Not satisfied with this level of lurid titillation, a recent episode added a murder and attempted rape fully illustrated by an leering policeman advancing towards a cowering young girl.
If sex sells, violence is just as popular in Pakistan. Anyone watching Sada Sukhi Raho might wonder why Pemra did not object to the kind of sadistic abuse shown in that soap or why no one objected to the heroine being violently strangled in Ab Kar Meri Rafugiri.
Suffice to say gratuitous violence and suggestive rape scenes are part of the scenery in today’s dramas - but PEMRA hasn't taken notice of that. Why?
While certain sections of society long for simpler times and may be horrified by anything more than a bee hovering over a flower, the younger generation has been number, perhaps after downloading sexually explicit serials like Game of Thrones for several years now.
It is common for Pakistanis to restrict and wound their own arts and culture in fits of puritanical rage, leaving the vacuum to be filled from across the border or in this day and age, the internet. A broad spectrum of information is always useful but, if indigenous creative outlets are constantly stunted and delegitimized we will continue to see our own heritage as alien and resolve societal problems with external solutions that don’t always fit our norms.
Child abuse is an important subject that needs to be addressed. Hard truths must sometimes be faced in order to protect and inform. We cannot ignore a problem because it is ugly or distasteful.
It isn’t that Hum TV or any of the other TV channels do not deserve scrutiny. They do, and lots of it.
But, if PEMRA does not maintain uniform standards or understand the environment it is supposed to regulate, it will lose all credibility and damage healthy debate and awareness to boot.