Photo: Saaya 2/Geo
Photo: Saaya 2/Geo

The anatomy of a Pakistani horror show

Western dramas make use of special effects and graphics to scare viewers. Pakistanis do it a little differently.
30 May, 2022

A Pakistani horror genre drama leans on heightened melodramatic, religious, and romantic elements to create fear and terror. This genre has managed to survive on screens over the years despite limited finances and complicated limitations on content. The anatomy of a horror drama on Pakistani television comprises of melodramatic/romantic plots and gothic settings, specific aesthetics of clothes, eerie music, and religious/cultural mythologies. The human and what I call the extra-human is clearly marked in these dramas. The extra-humans include the djinn (genie), the bhoot (ghost), the asyeib/saya (shadow), and the chalawa (errant spirit).

How it started and how it's going

The first horror drama that gained popularity in the country was the 1993 comedy horror series for children titled Ainak Wala Jinn (The Jinn Who Wore Spectacles), which aired on state television. In it, a jinn named Nastur was thrown out of the Caucasus Mountains because he was visually challenged and could not perform his assigned duties.

Adam Zaad. Photo: PTV Archives/YouTube
Adam Zaad. Photo: PTV Archives/YouTube

Between 1995 and 1997, dramas like Adam Zaad (The Human) were produced, which showed the impossibility of romantic liaisons between Mario, a jinn from medieval Naples, and Sakina, a girl from in Lahore. Sakina loves Mario, but when she starts craving “human touch,” Mario stops visiting her. The drama hinted towards Sakina’s psychological disorder, which undermined the credibility of Mario’s jinn status and decreased the horror aspect. After the emergence of many private television channels, and a considerable advancement of technology, production houses were able to experiment with the horror genre more.

A few weeks ago, Geo started the second season of its horror drama Saaya. The first season, aired in 2018, featured a woman protagonist, Saleha, who had two daughters and was consistently abused for not giving her husband a son. The plot moves forward when Saleha’s newborn baby boy is snatched from her and she starts hallucinating under the influence of drugs that her cruel mother-in-law administers to her. The horror element begins when Saleha is killed by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and her spirit stays in the house to protect her kids.

Saleha’s spirit is shown on screen either through white fog swirls or the diluted pupils of the humans she chooses to inhabit. The creation of horror depended upon the sudden murders and screams in the background music in what could have been a regular “saas-bahu drama.” The second season of Saaya has expanded the avenging mother-ghost trope into a more evolved characterisation and better use of technology to inculcate fear.

The Pakistani horror genre is created only for television and presented mostly in serialised form. Most commonly, the dramas have 30 or 32 episodes, each one lasting for approximately 40 minutes.

Jhumkey, ghararey, and evening jackets

In Pakistani horror dramas, the aesthetic aspect of horror is often highlighted. Female ghosts, spirits or jinns are seen wearing traditional ensembles, complemented by traditional pieces of jewellery like jhumkey (blingy earrings), bangles, and paazaib (anklets). Male jinns on screen tend to adopt a more formal Western dress code. In Maala Mir, a human-jinn love story broadcasted in 2019 on A-Plus Television, the male jinn wears formal suits with evening jackets when he appears before his lover in human form. His jinn self uses a stylised black hooded drape, which he used strategically for evocation of fear and terror.

Maala Mir. Photo: A-Plus/YouTube
Maala Mir. Photo: A-Plus/YouTube

The recently-ended drama on ARY, Neeli Zinda Hai, has a plot similar to Saaya season 1 wherein Neeli was burnt alive with her newborn daughter by her mother-in-law. Her ghost then killed all her young brothers-in-law and continued to haunt the house and its inhabitants. Neeli’s ghost wears red shalwar kameez with gota embroidery, bangles, and jhumkey. The sound of her jingling jewellery and her lowered gaze are used to accentuate the extra-human factor in the drama.

Neeli Zinda Hai. Photo: ARY/YouTube
Neeli Zinda Hai. Photo: ARY/YouTube

Similarly, in Saaya season 2, when the heroine is possessed by the spirit/ghost, she first takes out a paazaib from her drawer and wears a red bridal outfit, and then walks around the house in a trance. The aesthetics of trinkets and traditional costumery have worked well for horror drama producers in lieu of advanced technical cinematic facilities.

In the play Dil Nawaz, the female jinn of the same name appears in the traditional formal outfit of gharara, a style associated with elite and upper middle-class urban Pakistani women. She appears before her master, the peerni (magician), in a black dress and uses bright shades everywhere else. The extra-human of her character is dramatised through the changing colour of her eyes when she experiences extreme emotions. Her jinn status allows her the kind of proximity with the male lead on screen that would have been considered objectionable in any regular heterosexual love story on national television.

Extra-human love stories

Pakistani television dramas are a primary form of entertainment for women, especially those who belong to the middle and lower socio-economic households. While religious and patriarchal constraints restrict the avenues of entertainment for women, they also limit the topics of these dramas. The audience enjoys the sensual and sensational narratives, but the codes of censorship demand that the sexual aspect is underemphasised. The sensual appeal in dramas is created through deep conversations on the topic of love and meaningful exchanges of looks between characters. The hybrid genre of horror-romance has more potential for representation of sensuality as the extra-human element works as a face-saving strategy for censorship.

In the drama Dil Nawaz (2017), the jinn heroine Dil Nawaz is in service of a female peer who has given her the task of taking care of an isolated house and making sure that the owners cannot rent the property to anyone. The hero, Fawad, is a doctor, and his family owns the house occupied by Dil Nawaz.

Dil Nawaz. Photo: A-Plus/YouTube
Dil Nawaz. Photo: A-Plus/YouTube

The human-jinn love story starts when Fawad moves into the house. Dil Nawaz tries various tricks to frighten him like eating his food, misplacing his car keys, switching his sports channel to a horror movie, and showing him his own funeral. He is not frightened, and she starts enjoying the teasing, eventually falling in love with him.

But the love stories of humans and the extra-humans do not get any happy endings — Dil Nawaz turns into ashes, Mir walks towards his death in water, and Mario just vanishes like a figment of Sakina's imagination.

Eerie music and themed lyrics

All dramas have original soundtracks with meaningful lyrics complementing the horror plot. Dhund starts with a female dancer performing in a darkened room and lyrics that state: “Windows of dreams are opened when the moon tells a story/Listen to it quietly as someone is calling you closer/ Some thirst-filled soul is stirring the rope in the darkened well/Lost moments are baffled in the fog/Life is drenched in fear.” Unlike other dramas, Dhund was a series in which the heroine could see ghosts who are forced to live on Earth and helped a local police officer solve crimes with their extra-human powers. The song synchronises the various stories under the broad header of fear.

The currently on air drama Saaya 2 has two soundtracks. The lyrics of one of the songs, with its eerie music, comment on the survival of a soul outside the constraints of the human body, while a happy family song is played when the extra-human is not visible. Sounds of metal scraping, a clock ticking, and a surprise drumbeat are purposefully used in these televised horror narratives.

The good maulvi and the wise man

Religion plays a significant role in our horror narratives. A common scene in most horror dramas is the recitation of verses from the Holy Quran. The basic idea here is that a good pious religious person, usually a man, with institutional and spiritual knowledge of Islam, can provide protection from an evil jinn and the ramifications of black magic. Traditionally, two types of religious characters appear in these shows — one with wayward approaches who fails to protect people from the evil and the other with more learned and Islamic ideology.

Neeli Zinda Hai. Photo: ARY/YouTube
Neeli Zinda Hai. Photo: ARY/YouTube

The role of the wise man who provides commentary on jinn, ghosts, and other extra-humans, has undergone changes over the years. A maulvi coming straight from the mosque has been replaced by a clean shaved man with a knowledge of ‘spirits.’ Previously, in dramas like Bandish, the kindhearted maulvi took care of all jinns. But in Chalawa and Neeli Zinda Hai, a professor appears on screen to solve the mystery and control the extra-human.

Horror, but make it Pakistani

There are many similarities between popular Western horror narratives and the ones in Pakistan. The foremost among them is their television show format, which, to quote Lisa Schmidt, is the “original home” of horror. They make attempts to create a mood of dread, focus more on the representations of the extra-human, and include haunted houses and possessed or troubled families. The difference between Western and Pakistani horror shows is most visible in the use of special effects. Even with the better technology provided by private television channels, our horror dramas have a much lower budget than any Western show. There is also a limitation in the ways in which the uncanny or the extra-human is presented in scripts and on screen. The horror must be shown as a forced controlled by transcendental Islamic powers.

To make most of the financial and content constraints, Pakistani horror dramas spotlight family relationships and topics that are usually associated with women and intertwine them with different formats of horror. The image of popular female actors like Neelam Munir and Urwa Hocane, playing the role of jinns and ghosts dressed up in traditional costumes, evokes a mixture of fear and desire on screen. By focusing more on the jhumka jingling female jinns and less on the gruelling walking dead, our dramas have established their distinctive national brand of horror that instils fear in the everyday. Pakistani horror dramas are worth exploring as an emerging complicated genre, which has managed to survive against financial, societal, and religious limitations.