A group of rights activists, writers, researchers, educationists, journalists and politicians met online recently under the umbrella of Hopscotch, an initiative of the Uks Research, Resource and Publication Centre on Women and Media that examines drama content, to ponder over what is happening in Pakistani television dramas and whether there is a world beyond romance and love stories in the alternate universe of producers and production houses.
Whether love stories are simply a popular theme for Pakistani TV dramas or are they an opioid and a ploy aimed at distracting viewers from real life issues and why falling in love is surmised as a central focus of our lives to the exclusion of every kind of constructive thought and action relating to the development of a human being.
Speaking about Hopscotch, the director of Uks, Tasneem Ahmar, said it is a platform created by Uks to discuss TV plays and the messages coming out of them. They are making viewers feel like they were playing hopscotch over what is laid out before them in the name of content.
"The hopping, skipping, turning, bending, jumping while trying to maintain balance is also like a reflection of a woman's life, and the steps that she takes in life. But in our plays women are depicted as very unreal. They are wicked, they are plotters and they all are in love with their cousins. If not that then they are meek and helpless. Yet, in real life, there are other women who are fighters, who struggle and emerge victorious," she pointed out.
In their earlier meeting, Hopscotch met to unpack the serial Dunk, which showed a bad woman in all its episodes to punish her right in the end. It didn't give any positive message. In fact, it opposed the 'Me Too' movement.
This time, Hopscotch focused on the concept of love, the kind of superficial love being shown in our plays. And are our plays only about this kind of love now? "Well, okay, love is important. But there are so many things other than love on which people can make plays," Ahmar pointed out.
Gul Jaffri, an educationist, said that she was watching a play on TV with her 19-year-old house help. "There were the husband and wife being shown in a scene in which the wife is pressing her husband's legs with him asking her if she obeyed his wishes of not sending their daughters to college. And the girl thought it was strange. She asked me where this happened. Now this is a girl who lives in a one-room flat. Today, we are informed by production houses that this is what people want to watch. But that the audience wants to watch this is so wrong a narrative," she pointed out.
Ahmar then said that many of the good writers who want to work on different and inspiring content are also told that they need to cater to what the audience wants to see. "Many are so disheartened by this that they have even stopped writing," she added.
"I would also like to say here that viewers have a huge power and a huge responsibility. But they are silent. They watch, they see the faults but say nothing. But they should air their concerns and feelings about what is being shown. They need to form a pressure group, which can also boycott plays," said Ahmar.
"Look at Bollywood. The entire narrative of Indian cinema has changed now. Earlier, they used to have art movies that were dark but now they take up every issue in their movies. These issues provide hope too," she said.
Rights activist and journalist Mahnaz Rahman said that the majority of people don't even watch television plays anymore. "But we do need to raise our voice against the stereotypes and misogynistic and damaging content and narratives. Why do our female characters only focus on getting married? We should at least question this," she said.
Writer and poet Neelum Ahmad Basheer pointed out that Pakistani plays are all commercial. "All the content in our plays is geared towards marketing. Then whether a play is successful or not depends on its getting commercials. The more advertisements it gets, the more successful it is," she said.
"So you are to keep in mind that our plays are no longer written or designed for mental satisfaction or art," she said.
"If you talk of India, there even people doing menial work happen to be MA or PhD. They think and they reject what does not match their thinking. Out here, these dramas are watched [mainly] by the uneducated. And the makers of these dramas want us to remain at that level," she said.
Shaista Yasmeen from Uks wondered why the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said anything about our dramas. Ahmar also said that many viewers too are concerned but are silent like Pemra perhaps. "There are so few topics or subjects left in our dramas. These plays don't do anything for mental health, they don't take up children's issues too. And that's why I feel more and more that there is a need for a pressure group," she said.
Journalist Lubna Jerar said that the Barbra Cartland type of content is liked by sponsors. "Like Stockholm Syndrome, here the female character just has to fall in love with what she has got. But viewers also like the dramas based on real life characters such as Lieutenant General Nigar Johar Khan, a doctor and three-star general in the Pakistan Army. And that's why they loved the telefilm Aik Hai Nigar that also talks about breaking the glass ceiling. Here women do it all the time, which also needs to be acknowledged and shown," she said.
Writer Rukhsana Shah said that producers don't even understand what looking out of the window or a breath of fresh air means. "Why are they not replacing writers who are dishing out more of the same. There is this serial running these days called Hum Kahan Kay Sachay Thay in which the girl takes her own life just to get back at her cousin. What nonsense? What about the instinct of survival? It should be questioned because no one in their right mind will take their own life just to be nasty or to get back," she said.
Writer Sufia Shahid said that she wished that the dramas would spread awareness about issues instead of closing up minds. "There are many issues here but our plays don't talk about the solutions," she said.
Journalist Afia Salam said Television Rating Points or TRPs are only there in the big cities. "They are not giving you the full picture," she said. She also added that instead of talking to the production houses, maybe they needed to speak to the sponsors. Because production houses will not make poor content "if they don't get sponsorship". "So why not broaden the dialogue with them?"