TV One CEO Seema Taher Khan has been producing content for the last 16 years and staunchly believes that in this day and age, Pakistan cannot afford entertainment for entertainment’s sake.
She joined the TV industry in 2005 with a background in visual art and graphic design and almost three decades in advertising and is now the CEO and creative head for TV One, News One and WASEB where she has strived not to make her channels strictly follow the "formula of commercialism".
While she claims there is no set alternative formula, her initial vision for her channels was to “enlighten, educate, empower and then entertain''. While she says this vision has evolved with time, she continues to generate content that tries to balance commercial success, mass appeal and social messaging.
Khan spoke to Images about what’s currently brimming at her channels and what makes her go against the grain when creating and curating content. She is currently producing an environmental drama serial titled Mor Moharaan, which she has co-scripted with Ali Moin and has been directed by Owais Khan, features actors Sonya Hussyn and Zahid Ahmed. The drama was shot in Bahawalpur and is scheduled to go on air today, December 7.
The story focuses on climate change and how it impacts the people, especially women and traditional artisans in Cholistan, a desert in southern Punjab.
Mor Moharaan is the story of the entire Southern Punjab belt and its people, according to Khan. "Sonya plays the role of an environmentalist who is concerned about how climate change is impacting the region," she explained.
"The entire Cholistan belt has been a neglected area and women need to walk 70 kilometres to get a single bucket of water. The men, mostly farmers, are quitting agriculture because there is no water available for irrigation. They are selling their land and migrating, so the story is also about the plight of the poor farmer who cannot make ends meet," Khan explained.
"Then there is the dying art, craft and indigenous cultural practices which are being exploited. Cholistan is known for the most beautiful and colourful craft, where highly skilled artisans create indigenous pieces of work which have been part of their ancestral heritage for eons." These artisans are exploited by middlemen who take their work and sell it for much higher prices, she said, adding that unfortunately, they do not get compensated for their work.
"I want to capture the beautiful architecture, including the ruins, the palaces and huts, and revive the heritage, craft and the culture on screen, while also touching upon the issues prevalent there through Mor Moharaan."
Why produce this unconventional story?
Ali Moin wrote a beautiful initial script, but there was a change of direction required so I added that much needed sense of purpose to it, Khan said. "The entire belt of Cholistan is disintegrating, and so is its cultural ethos. The region and its inhabitants have remained out of sight, so what better medium than television to revive all of it?"
For instance, she said that in rohi, a woman’s hands bleed in the process where she hand-embroiders a quilt, but the amount she is compensated by the middleman is grossly unfair and extremely exploitative. "Yet, it remains a prevalent and legally acceptable practice. On one hand, the story of Mor Moharan showcases the beauty of the belt, but it also highlights the issues prevalent in that region, along with larger environmental issues like climate change, water scarcity and trade malpractice."
I also strongly believe that today the world is a global village and the access it brings us closer to the entire world, she said, adding that we must showcase Pakistan. "And not just show our country in a formulaic, failing, oppressive and regressive light, but flaunt it with all that it can offer. There are millions of untold folk stories and thousands of intriguing real life experiences replete with rustic narratives. These stories of common people around us collectively shape and form a unique cultural context for exclusive Pakistani content," she explained.
"We have the most fabulous scenic locations, Cholistan is also one of them. If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will come and own them! Before this happens, we have to tap into our rich resources and make the most of them by channeling them through all mediums of storytelling."
Commercial viability versus critical acclaim
There are times when one has to shut their mouths and let their heart decide, said Khan. "And then there are times when one has to analyse the ground reality and I cannot impose my idealism on my team because it’s not going to work. We are constantly in a boat that rocks at times and sometimes it is smooth sailing, which means that some of my best ideas may not see the light of the day."
But you can’t give up because our screen appetite, the competition, hardships and challenges all keep growing simultaneously, she warned. "If you take everything to heart and say you’ve lost, then you cannot move forward."
Censorship and Pemra
Khan's recent drama Dil Na Ummeed Toh Nahin received a notice from the national regulator Pemra. The story highlights sex trafficking in the country.
"When the state has an organisation like Pemra which, instead of giving new licences and curbing commercial exploitation, puts a ban on any significant social issue-based drama, then how is it helping society at large? Pemra should ideally lay down mandatory rules for all channels to showcase Pakistan in a positive light," she said. "The government needs to invest more in meaningful entertainment and storytelling."
Environmental issues need to be raised on TV
When asked what environmental issues she believes need to be highlighted on TV, Khan said she wishes our state would have a vision and mission towards the country and its citizens. "We are a water stressed country, why isn’t there any state-sponsored TV show on a water crisis? Climate change is a hard-hitting reality, we need our TV plays to raise mass awareness on these issues," she said.
"Why is PTV running Turkish content instead? We cannot in this country afford entertainment for entertainment’s sake! Unless that entertainment is something that can make you forget the realities of Pakistan and the hardships of our society and take you into a world of fantasy or transport you into a world that cheers you up and brightens your mood," she said.
"When I look at a script I see what is the objective and what is the purpose driving the story. One has to see what is the larger social message driving the narrative. There is so much in the basket but it remains to be tapped because we stick to a dead-end formula. The tragedy is that commercialism has gnawed us to the core and has engulfed our raw ethnic and multicultural fibre that we used to weave our stories."
Other socially conscious dramas at TV One
We have five to six other big ideas and plays lined up for this year, Khan said. After Mor Moharan we have a play by Hashim Nadeem followed by another untitled story script by Zafar Mairaj, she explained. The producer said they also have a play based on Sufism that follows a character’s full journey.
"The fourth one is a drama serial based on a completely true story of civilians who get embroiled in unintended border crossing and their experiences. The fifth story is a very bold one based on a true picture of the incidents surrounding Chaudhry Aslam Khan and the mafias operating in his area," she said. Khan is also in talks with screenwriter Amna Mufti for another play which will again be based on a serious environmental issue.
"So I am an activist, but I consider myself a mute activist. I give my input and let the writer know the direction in which I want the story to take and then let them chart their own course while scripting."