10 Nov, 2021
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

A considerable chunk of scenes in Pakistani dramas are shot in bedrooms.

A married couple sits on the bed together. Often, the wife is rocking back and forth while the husband is raking his fingers through his hair agitatedly. Sometimes they fight, often they hash out the domestic tensions raging outside the privacy of their bedroom.

The devices of an evil mother-in-law are laid out, as are prospective marriage proposals, inheritance issues, scheming relatives and financial troubles — the bedroom tends to be the metaphorical heart of the volcano where emotions stir and stew before erupting, like molten lava, on to the world outside.

A bedroom scene like this one is a regular feature of almost every desi drama.

Pemra’s new morality directive strictly prohibits ‘objectionable’ content in television dramas. In short, thou shalt not hug or caress — but thou can still slap!

So when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) recently passed a directive which prohibited “objectionable” content that includes “bed scenes … of married couples”, one wondered if these were the scenes that were being referred to.

Romance, after all, hardly ever makes an appearance in the distraught lives of Pakistani couples in dramas. They are too busy fending off the machinations of malevolent relatives to think of romance. The ‘bed scenes’ are mostly terse, teary-eyed, mind-numbingly torturous recaps of the lives of these resilient characters.

The blanket warning, released in an official directive on October 21, also cited other content that was “being glamorized [sic] in utter disregard to Islamic teachings and culture of Pakistani society”, including “hugs/ caress scenes/ extramarital relations, vulgar/ bold dressing …[and] intimacy of married couple [sic].”

The conservative brigade cheered — but the avid drama watcher wondered if Pemra were at all acquainted with local drama fare.

Local dramas may sometimes be melodramatic, dragged out and subjected to untidy editing. The aesthetic value may not always be up to par. But even though love may certainly be one of the pegs holding together drama storylines, the narration extends well beyond the “hugs” and “caress scenes” that seem to have appalled the electronic media regulator.

“Where’s the logic?” — Bushra Ansari

Echoing these sentiments, veteran actress Bushra Ansari observes, “I just don’t know which dramas they are talking about. There is no logic to these directives, because they haven’t cited any examples. Let us know which dramas have digressed towards obscene content and we’ll understand Pemra’s point-of-view. In my experience, I haven’t been part of or seen a drama where there has been any vulgarity.”

There is a self-censorship prevalent in the Pakistani TV industry, says director Nadeem Baig, because directors and producers know that the drama has to air at prime time and needs to be suitable for watching with the family. “They can’t place these impositions on a creative art and besides, we know what we can show on TV and what we can’t. Rulings like these are embarrassing for us because they seem to imply that we don’t know what we are doing. A husband and wife holding hands appalls Pemra but the domestic violence shown at large in so many dramas is evidently acceptable.”

Reiterating Bushra Ansari’s words, he adds, “Usually when Pemra has an issue with certain subject-matter or scenes, that one project is singled out. They have to pay fines and sometimes even make a public apology. In this case, though, this all-encompassing, vague statement has been made with no details that add sense to it.”

“I suppose Pemra wants us to be dishonest in our narratives and storytelling,” says director Wajahat Rauf. “If we show a story where a married couple have a fight and then make up, do we not show them holding hands once they are amicable? Also, this restriction on stories that involve extramarital affairs puts a halt to so many narratives where such affairs are part of the main plot or sub-plot.

“My problem is that they issued these directives without even once consulting directors and producers who have been part of the industry for years, and maybe could add some sense to them. At this point, we may have to chop off entire scenes from scripts and leave our stories disjointed.”

“Do we want our dramas to get destroyed?” — Sultana Siddiqui

The elimination of scenes is of particular concern to the producers and directors who helm dramas. “If you’re hampering entire moments that were essential to the story, you’re hampering our creativity,” says producer Abdullah Seja. “We will probably have to edit out entire scenes from drama episodes that we have shot but are yet to go on air. It will make the content jumpy but we don’t have a choice.”

Rulings like these are embarrassing for us because they seem to imply that we don’t know what we are doing. A husband and wife holding hands appalls Pemra but the domestic violence shown at large in so many dramas is evidently acceptable,” says director Nadeem Baig

“Does Pemra want Pakistan’s drama industry to fall into decline just like film has?” frets Sultana Siddiqui, President of the Hum Network. “Physical gestures in our dramas are usually situational. More often than not, a mother and son or a father and daughter are hugging. The Pakistani drama has never been vulgar and these directives are confusing. Have the people who have placed these impositions ever seen a Pakistani drama?

“Why haven’t they highlighted exactly which dramas have transgressed so that we can refrain from doing similar scenes? And how do they not find anything wrong with domestic violence being sensationalised on TV? These decisions needed to have been taken with consultation with seniors from the drama industry.”

Veteran Sahira Kazmi similarly points out that the submissive, ‘good’ housewives celebrated on TV and ubiquitous domestic violence is a much bigger problem in need of restrictions.

Senior actor Khaled Anum is equally riled. “How do we portray normal society with so many restrictions imposed upon us? It’s very obvious that this notice has been issued without any proper knowledge of our dramas and there’s a political vendetta at play. It’s just a way of creating self-propaganda, with TV becoming the unfortunate scapegoat.

“Violence on TV is fine but a simple, happy moment between a man and his wife is not? At this rate, I’m afraid that Pakistani TV will be returning to Zia’s era!” he thunders.

The era that was Zia’s

The PTV era during Gen Zia’s regime (1977-88) was one that many within Pakistan’s TV industry recall with an eye roll. Even though some very interesting dramas surfaced during the time — Sahira Kazmi reveals that the general himself was quite a TV fan — there were still certain definite restrictions, such as the need for women on TV, particularly newscasters, to have their heads covered at all times.

This led to a number of absurd results, including women characters waking up in bed with their dupattas firmly in place on their heads.

The penchant for imposing censorship on TV dramas continued during Nawaz Sharif’s regime in the early ’90s. A very young Mishi Khan, in her debut role in the drama Uroosa, waded in water — head covered — and woke up from sleep — head fully covered!

Bushra Ansari recalls how anchor Mehtab Rashdi nee Channa had quit the show that she was part of when she was asked to cover her head. “She did it on principle,” says Bushra. “She said that if I want to cover my head, I want to choose to do it myself, I shouldn’t be forced to do so.”

Looking at the bright side, playwright Anwar Maqsood recalls the many times he scripted romantic TV dramas without introducing any physicality.

“When a boy and a girl are filmed together, face to face, it is important to maintain a certain sense of decorum. My drama Sitara aur Mehrunnissa was a romance, but there was nothing untoward in the scenes. We live in a country dominated by illiteracy and it is very important to be careful with the way we tell our stories on TV.”

Director Danish Nawaz optimistically declares that art thrives amid restrictions. “In my drama Kashf, there was a romantic scene between Hira Mani and Junaid Khan, where I placed them on opposite pillars and asked them to emote with their eyes!” he laughs.

“That’s what’s unique about the Pakistani drama. Some of the dramas from what we consider to be PTV’s golden era aired in times of extreme censorship. And yet, they are some of our most iconic classics. Our drama represents our culture and distance is part of our culture.”

However, it would be beneficial to know exactly what sort of distance is being demanded by Pemra.

“Do we also restrict scenes where a son is hugging his mother?” questions CEO of ARY Digital Jerjees Seja. “Drama stories revolve around the good and the bad but if we can’t show the bad or focus on romance, we will probably run out of stories to tell. The religious heroism portrayed in a single Dirilis: Ertugrul is set before us as a benchmark but the remaining chunk of Turkish dramas and the content that they follow is ignored.”

Director Sarmad Khoosat makes a valid point when he says that he’d like to read through Pemra’s censor code. “This code has always had a phantom existence, looming over us even though we haven’t seen it. Perhaps Pemra could just let us read it so that we know exactly what is considered wrong and, then, we’ll be able to work around it.”

At this particular juncture, knowing that any drama can be taken off-air, midway, should Pemra deem it inappropriate, what is the way forward for drama-makers and channels?

Jerjees Seja states: “We have always been careful in the making of our dramas. Now, I guess we’ll be even more careful.”

That sounds morose. Will creativity thrive in the throes of restrictions or will it slowly ebb away? Or will it simply sidle along, slink in the shadows, doing what it pleases, hoping that the powers-that-be in Pemra don’t notice?

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, November 7th, 2021