2020 was a difficult year and just like everyone else, the Pakistani entertainment industry was caught by surprise by the Covid-19 virus.
Whether there were full lockdowns or smaller “smart” lockdowns, the stay-at-home orders for entire cities gave channels a guaranteed audience sitting in front of their screens. The search for “safer” entertainment (away from crowds and gatherings) became a priority as the hours of isolation racked up.
Combined with the current ban on Indian content, this captive audience was something of a boon for TV producers, but the limitations on filming set by the SOPs required for safe filming of projects and the sudden increase in demand created a bottleneck.
There was also the Ertugrul effect; when the Turkish Government gifted an Urdu dubbed version of Turkish Radio Television’s phenomenally popular, spiritually-oriented, action adventure serial Dirilis: Ertugrul to Pakistan, it gave a much-needed boost to long neglected state channel PTV but peeled away some viewers from commercial channels.
Meanwhile, already struggling cinema halls were shut down for fear of mass infections and most film making ended abruptly proving the dominance of the drama industry yet again as they carried on despite the constraints of the time.
While some films were eventually finished and are now looking to be released sometime in 2021, the situation remains uncertain.
Channels took a few shortcuts to handle these issues by adding lengthy recaps for each episode to extend a serial’s life cycle, repeat showings of successful dramas to fill time slots and pulling out a few serials that had never been broadcast from storage.
This could have been an opportunity to showcase quality dramas and classics , but commercial channels have their own logic, so audiences were treated to repeats of more recent hits.
As channels learned how to work safely with Covid SOPs and new dramas came online, television schedules achieved some normalcy but there were some interesting shifts, some good, some bad, that took the new normal into account.
What we loved about 2020 dramas was perhaps a little less than what we hated but working under incredibly difficult circumstances to keep the viewing schedule going seamlessly for a content hungry public deserves recognition and some understanding. (Yeh Dil Mera, Alif and Ehd-e-Wafa were fantastic dramas that were borderline 2019 to 2020 but were acknowledged in 2019.)
The kind of dramas we want to see more of in 2021
Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Pyar Kay Sadqay
Ek Jhooti Love story
Some of these shows had flaws and loopholes big enough to let a camel walk through but 2020 was hard so if a drama was like a good cake that got a little crispy round the edges, it was still inspiration to take into this year.
Of all these dramas, the very best in terms of quality Innovation and structure were Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat, Dushman-e-Jaan, Ek Jhooti Love Story, Pyar Kay Sadqay and Mushk according to their genre.
Ishqiya and Dushman-e-Jaan were the surprise packages this year, the latter of which looked dated but featured great acting, a strong story and tight direction made it an unstoppable thriller.
Ishqiya’s fresh, young cast and strong social messaging made up for a typical first half. While talking of excellence, lets also mention the “almost” and “what could have beens”.
We had high hopes for Prem Gali and fun as it was in the beginning to see Farhan Saeed melt our hearts with his never fail boy-next-door charms, the lengthy subplots reminded us a little too much of Aunn Zara.
Bandhay Ek Dour Se was a strong story, picking up on a familiar trope of spur of the moment shaadi to save the family honuor, bringing some much needed realism to this trope but stretching diluted a lot of the impact.
While Churails is on the list, it almost fell off; the first five episodes were a distinctly slow watch before it took flight into an unstoppable thriller with some fantastic performances.
It also had an overtly self-aware tone combined with a self-congratulatory attitude, both in promotions and story which suggested this was the first time anyone had dared to challenge conservative cultural norms, ignoring the history of Pakistani dramas and the many talented creatives who had tested such limits with subtlety and intellect.
The male actors who impressed in 2020
Bilal Abbas – Pyar Kay Sadqay, Ek Jhooti Love Story
Ameer Gilani – Sabaat
Mohib Mirza – Dushman-e-Jaan
Syed Jibran – Tarap
Danish Taimoor - Deewanagi
Sami Khan – Saraab
Junaid Khan - Kashf
Fahad Shaikh – Jalan
Wahaj Ali – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Ahsan Khan – Bandhay Ek Dour Se
Ali Abbas – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Pakistan has some of the most talented actors on the planet. Often underappreciated, their hard work passed over, because dramas are not associated with the glamour of movies, they work meticulously to bring nuance to each character despite delayed payments, the lack of innovative stories and the producers obsessions with ratings first.
Bilal Abbas was a study in excellence with two amazingly diverse roles, both Ek Jhooti Love Story and especially Pyar Kay Sadqay. Mohib Mirza has always been a strong performer and carried a tough role like Hatim without losing the audience while Ameer Gilani was everyone’s favorite despite some strong’ Asher for this generation’ vibes.
Tarap was another drama that could have been even better without the stereotypes but Syed Jibran was a standout that deserved a mention for his authentic portrayal. Junaid Khan gets the nod for a solid performance and bringing a lot of sincerity to a difficult roles Wajdan in Kashf.
Sami Khan is an amazing talent and with Saraab, he raised the bar yet again, literally playing against his own character’s image in a schizophrenics’s imagination; two chilling, similar but perfectly defined, personalities.
Wahaj Ali performance in Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat is flawless, capturing the zeitgeist of a younger generation too often ignored by our storytellers. Ali Abbas gave us a fun but masterful perspective on today’s digital generation in the same drama.
Fahad Shaikh who managed to rise above the pulp fiction genre of Jalan, and giving us a strong but emotionally vulnerable performance despite the limitations of the story.
Ahsan Khan may not be a young man in his early twenties but he perfectly captured the essence of indecision, naïve assumptions and lack of self-awareness that made Umer of Banday Ek Dour Se less of a hero than the character could have been.
Deewanagi was not the deepest of dramas but Danish Taimoor had audiences enthralled with the obsessed tycoon while playing the hapless Shah Jehan at the other end of the spectrum of middleclass dysfunction with equal credibility.
Standout performances by female actors
Ramsha Khan – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Mawra Hocane – Sabaat
Urwa Hocane – Mushk
Sarah Khan – Sabaat
Yumna Zaidi – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Nimra Bucha – Churails
Tooba Siddiqui – Dushman-e-Jaan
Atiqa Odho – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Hania Amir – Ishqiya
Despite the claims that the drama industry is dominated by female-oriented scripts, the truth is most of the characters, be they good or bad, are one trick ponies; either they are self-effacing, saints who sacrifice everything including common sense or are bad to the point of caricature.
A nuanced character in a lead role is hard to find yet our incredibly talented actresses manage to spin gold out of straw every time. Just as 2019 was a defining moment for Imran Ashraf, 2020 brought Ramsha Khan into the limelight with a bang.
From a typical bad girl in Khudparast to a typical good girl in Kaisa Hai Naseeba, Ramsha Khan nailed it again with a morally weak character in Ishqiya then cementing her place with an iconic character that captures the journey of the unlucky but always determined Samiya in Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat.
Mawra Hocane gave us what might be called one of her best performances so far in Sabaat , with Sarah Khan reaching cold-blooded perfection as bad girl Miral in the same drama.
Yumna Zaidi is an amazing talent and her portrayal of the victim of harassment in Pyar Kay Sadqay had us enraged and enthralled in equal measure. Nimra Bucha is a brilliant actress who can make a character both frightening and completely empathetic .
Atiqa Odho’s portrayal of a weak older woman whose vanity and insecurities push her children and consequently her daughter-in-law into the power of an abusive man was layered with arrogance and compassion.
Rounding out this category is Hania Amir, who often relies on her strong screen presence rather than melding with the actual character she is playing but sometimes the glove just fits beautifully as with Daneen in Anaa and then Rumi of Ishqiya.
Standout supporting roles
Saba Hamid – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Zara Tareen – Mushk
Omair Rana – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Gul-e-Rana – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Sania Saeed – Meher Posh
Waseem Abbas – Kashf
Shahood Alvi – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Saba Hamid short but striking role as the ignorant but confident Aziza Sultan was a treat for fans of Pakistani dramas to savour. Similarly Zara Tareen’s hard as nails portrayal of the cunning chachi Zuleykha added some deliciously wicked flavour to this supporting character.
Gul-e-Rana and Omair Rana scenes were among the highlights of Pyar Kay Sadqay, the give and take of unfulfilled hopes and desires, the cruelty interspersed with cold unforgiving humour was as the mother and son tried to micromanage their fate were a delight to watch.
Omair Rana gave a Shakespearian quality to the villainous stepfather making him seem almost vulnerable in his desire for Mahjabeen before making us recoil from his character’s monstrous behaviour.
Sania Saeed as the wise, practical mother in Meher Posh was a rare and welcome, authentic character amongst the usual hysterical, blackmailing, manipulating mothers on our screen.
Waseem Abbas is an absolute treasure and can surely make any role his own but he excels at interesting villains as Kashf’s self-centered father, who can twist almost any situation to his advantage.
Suave, sophisticated and blinded by arrogance, Khalil of Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat was played to sleek perfection by Shahood Alvi.
The writers who won our hearts
Faseeh Bari Khan – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Zanjabeel Asim Shah – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Umera Ahmed – Ek Jhooti Love Story
Imran Nazir – Kashf
Imran Ashraf – Mushk
Edison Idris Masih – Saraab, Bhikray Moti
Sarwat Nazir – Dushman-e-Jaan
While all of these scripts were are well above average, Faseeh Bari Khan’s satire is a timeless classic, multilayered challenge to our stubbornly held notions of love and the ideals of womanhood while taking sly potshots at the romantic myths fostered by our drama serials.
Zanjabeel Asim is a master at writing nuanced, true to life personalities, that we can all understand and recognise as we saw once again in Pyar Kay Sadqay.
Umera Ahmad beautifully written story of romance in the time of social media reminded us of old Hollywood (The Shop Around The Corner to be specific) but in unique Pakistani style.
Imran Nazir wrote a wonderfully different story on the business of spirituality and gave us an ending that disappointed some but stayed true to the essence of this subtley layered work: death is the only true escape from the materialism of this world.
Imran Ashraf gives us a well-structured action adventure drama , with some fascinating characters which reveal a new perspective with every episode , quite an achievement for a second script !
Edison Idrees Masih can never escape the confines of middleclass kitchen politics but full marks for working within those limits but bringing something innovative and empowering with each story.
Sarwat Nazir is no stranger to excellence and this well structured mystery is yet another example of how she can humanise a “what if ?” situation that seems sadly similar to many news headlines.
The outstanding directors we haven't gotten enough of
Farooq Rind – Pyar Kay Sadqay
Mehreen Jabbar – Ek Jhooti Love Story
Asim Abbasi – Churails
Ahsan Talish – Mushk
Shehzad Kashmiri – Sabaat
Amin Iqbal – Dushman-e-Jaan
Ahmad Bhatti – Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat
Despite a strange use of flood lights at points , the theatrical style chosen by Farooq rind worked really well for the intimate story of Pyar Kay Sadqay and his direction made this memorable viewing.
Mehreen Jabbar is an expert at everyday stories and everyday personalities to life , connecting us with their dreams and fears without over dramatizing or underplaying, in short entertainment combined with a good dose of reality.
Switching form the broad canvas of cinema to the more intimate realm of Television can be hard but Asim Abbasi gave us gripping ride which kept us glued to our screen , while balancing a wide ranging story and a constellation of stars.
Putting aside the odd hiccup Ahsan Talish was on the ball with this rollercoaster ride of a project marshalling a tory that gave us a surprise every episode without sacrificing the intimacy of relationships.
Sabaat was a favourite with the general public and a lot of the credit lies with Shehzad Kashmiri who kept the tension growing with each episode while giving each character their due.
Amin Iqbal excellent direction gave us an intimate, truly gripping, edge of our seats thriller.
Ahmad Bhatti hold and understanding of both Sammiya’s journey and the significance of every supporting character captured the whimsy and brilliance of this script like a dream, carefully using the commentary embedded in the writing as a foil for the reality of the heroine’s circumstances.
Trends we're predicting for this year
While some projects could not fulfil the hopes raised by their promotions others consistently met our lowest expectations. Zebaaish was one of those dramas that was so bad it actually became entertaining to poke holes in.
The much maligned Jalan was a mass entertainer using a spicy story on adultery to make money. However, the maker’s insistence in giving it some moral justification by claiming this was take on the effects of “sibling rivalry syndrome” muddied the waters.
Not to mention, Jalan had a lot of structural issues such as a nikkah and groom that materialised in a 24 hours without question for Nisha to run away from an adulterous, abusive husband and much, much more which confused and irked thinking audiences.
Luckily for the producers most people were not thinking too much and it gained a lot of TRPs, even more after PEMRA sent it a notice. PEMRA notices had a positive effect for a few other dramas like Pyar Kay Sadqay too, bringing in curious viewers wanting to see what the fuss was about, which begs the question: is report PEMRA now more of a marketing tool than the last hold of civilisation before society sinks into a commercial free for all as some people like to think?
Perhaps more refined checks and balances are required for serious control that allows for license for creativity while maintaining certain limits.
The trends for next year look obvious if we see what succeeded in 2020. After the back to back popularity of Jalan and Mere Pass Tum Ho, we will see more dramas about adultery and affairs because this looks like a ratings winner for channels.
Geo’s drama Muqaddar took this trend to the next level by making a sacrificial hero out of a feudal who kidnaps a girl, he forces into marriage and rapes at will while routinely humiliating his first wife. We can only guess at what content heads will give us to keep up with these high standards of misogyny and barbarism.
Among the more positive trends is that a few male characters actually paid the price for their behavior.
When Amanullah didn’t immediately get the girl in Yeh Dil Mera and Hamza was punished for his abusive behavior social media was in uproar forgetting the choices the protagonists made and focusing on the appeal of the actors.
No such hullabaloo happened when two lecherous men in Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat met their just deserts without blaming anyone for being “tempted” proving the point.
On the plus side, the trend for touching on difficult social issue without trivialising them continues in our dramas.
Quality dramas like Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat ,Mushk and Pyar Kay Sadqay also made ratings disproving the producers excuses that the public likes easily digested soapy dramas alone. Dramas on mental health and family dysfunction continue to hit the right notes (as well as few wrong ones) and working women are no longer considered an anomaly but often a positive part of the story.
The stigma too often attached to divorce and especially divorced women was tackled with sensitivity by dramas like Umeed, Meher Posh and Prem Gali showing us that if there are a couple of steps backwards, there are some steps forward too that are keeping us excited for the dramas of 2021.