Can Dramas be agents of change ?
The phenomenal success of drama serial Udaari should give producers a moment of pause, as it has managed to win at the ratings game despite dealing with the incredibly disturbing topic of child abuse and avoided the usual mazloom aurat tropes. Now we have serials like Sange Mar Mar which describes the restrictive and conservative culture of some (not all) levels of society in Swat. Another drama which has made a splash is Khuda Mera Bhi hai which tells the story of a family whose child is born a transgender while the drama Nazo dealt with the difficulties faced by families with special needs children. Recently Domestic violence has been explored in dramas like Pakeeza and the obsession with Pirs in some sections of society in Dumpkht .Honour killings and the way honour is used to control women has been explored in serials like Ab kar Meri Rafugiri and Kathputli.
So what is the magic formula for success and what can it mean for an industry ready to experiment with challenging subjects?
- Although Udaari was laser focused on a tough subject like child abuse, it fulfilled the first requirement of any TV program by being entertaining. It doesn’t matter how good your message is, if nobody is watching. Writer Farhat Ishtiaq used a lot of light humour, a little romance and a lot of positivity in the relationships surrounding the victim to make the story more palatable without diluting the horror of the crime.
- For any story to touch our hearts and minds, authenticity is essential. Ishtiaq is known for her beautiful romances like Humsafar and Dayar e Dil but a serious story like this required active research from original sources. Just like her previous serial Rehaii, Ishtiaq worked in collaboration with the well-known NGO, the Kashf foundation and gleaned a lot of information from by analyzing the stories of actual victims. Similarly when famous writer Faiza Iftikhar wrote the award winning Roag she contacted Sahil, an NGO in Islamabad and spoke to doctors at an Army hospital about real cases of abuse. Too often writers, directors and producers fail to do the most basic ground work and allow their imaginations to fill the gaps, which gives us ridiculous serials like Sangat that rely on one sensationally ambiguous twist after another to keep audiences hooked and actively misinform people.
- A strong, “hands on” director who can translate the horror of a scene without diminishing its impact but has the sensitivity to avoid making it lurid, is a must. The director of Udaari, Ehtashamuddin, has walked down this fine aesthetic line with great skill and caution, keeping audiences shocked but never crossing the limits of good taste. It really isn’t impossible: Director Mehreen Jabbar managed an equally balanced approach in her serial Rehaii and who can forget the perfect subtlety Director Haissem Hussain used to handle Bano’s torment in Dastan?
- The harsh truth that recovery takes time. The characters in Udaari do not have convenient, quick fixes for their problems. Just like real people they have to live through their ordeals and wait till they can find some way to heal their damaged psyches. In Roag we did not see the problem fixed at all, which is sadly more often the case . This was amply illustrated in stories like Kankar and Pakeeza, where the heroiens journey to a safer place was not an easy road.
Pakistani dramas have never hesitated to touch on urgent societal problems. While female empowerment and sexual assault have become popular issues of late, many dramas have dealt with political corruption and nepotism, the perils of feudalism and domestic violence to name just a few other topics. Udaari and serials like it are not unique or a novelty but more of a welcome return to the high quality dramas of the past.
Serials hold a unique place in our culture, with a still fledgling film industry; they are the entertainment of choice for the vast majority in and out of the country. Incredibly diverse sections of the public, who may ordinarily have nothing in common, unite in watching their favourite serial with surprisingly zealous fervor. With that comes responsibility to deal with these important subjects with the kind respect and scope they require. How fascinating it would be if the concept of Halala was actually explored in a responsible manner rather than as a source of titillating and lurid plot twists. Back in the day when money was not king, stories like Doraha used the topic of halala in context unlike the recent Dua and Hatheli which depict women as matresses to be shunted to one room after another as required .The recent Mujhay kuch kehna Hai was awonderful example that bucked this nauseating trend . Sabreen Hasban’s character refuses to go through with a Halala to bring things “back to normal” despite wanting to go back to her husband.
Channels need to put effective guidelines and quality control measures into place in order to ensure such subjects are presented with the maturity and understanding they require . So many dramas are being produced these days that many content heads only realise what has actually been written and filmed once it is on air. As with any process there is a learning curve, and hopefully we will see Pakistani channels catching up on the required lines of control and evaluation that other TV industries all over the world have already put in place .