As Nihal prepared to marry Behlul, not everything was going to plan. Wielding a gun, the bride’s stepmother declared undying love for the groom and said she couldn’t live without him.
Illicit liaisons were at the heart of “Ishq-e-Memnu” or “Forbidden Love,” the Turkish series that was the biggest hit on Pakistani television last winter. At its peak, the show on the Urdu 1 channel was watched by a third of the country’s cable and satellite audience. Still, the racy plotlines proved too much for conservative politicians, and a parliamentary committee found the “onslaught of foreign dramas” so harmful to the nation’s culture it suggested a ban.
Undaunted, Pakistani networks have ordered more shows from studios such as Ay Yapim Productions, the Istanbul-based maker of “Forbidden Love,” while advertisers are paying 15 percent more for commercials. As viewers seek relief from 24-hour news reports of sectarian violence and a war with Taliban insurgents, the success of foreign programs has also sparked a revival in locally made dramas almost 30 years after an army-sponsored censorship drive that sought to create a stricter Islamic state.
“A major shift is taking place in Pakistan’s entertainment scene,” Salman Danish, chief executive officer at Lahore-based MediaLogic Pakistan Ltd., which assigns channel audience ratings, said. “The intense competition is forcing production houses to come up with creative ideas and bold topics. But the biggest surprise is that society is accepting and enjoying this freedom.”
Women’s rights, domestic violence and gay couples have featured in dramas broadcast by Hum TV, Geo TV, ARY Digital and other channels. Shows have dissected a mullah’s relationship with his wife and daughters, and featured a poor girl struggling to survive in an elite school.
“Some social taboos are slowly breaking. But this freedom is also creating tension between conservative and liberal mindsets,” Samina Ahmed, an actress and producer who’s playing roles unthinkable earlier in her four-decade career, said Feb. 14 in Lahore. “The success of these dramas shows that a large number of Pakistanis consume entertainment in a manner no different than that of any other society.”
Ahmed’s more recent characters have included a mother of call girls in the 2011 Hum serial “Akhri Barish,” or “Last Rain,” and a grandmother who runs away from her family to get married.
For many of Pakistan’s 196 million people, the soap operas are an escape from the news networks’ diet of violence and political intrigue. While Pakistan has been fighting Taliban guerrillas since 2004, sectarian groups targeting the Shiite minority have stepped up bombings.
“I’m sick of news,” said Zermeena Shah, 35, an Islamabad housewife who spends six hours a day watching drama and cooking channels. “Television is the only viable entertainment option for the majority of women. We’re getting more variety and the quality of production and acting has improved.”
Tightly controlled state TV and radio channels had a monopoly before then military ruler Pervez Musharraf opened broadcasting to private investors in 2002. A decade on, Pakistanis have 84 satellite television and 120 FM radio choices.
From zero access to private channels five years ago, 4.8 million households with an average of seven people now watch the networks in Pakistan’s villages, MediaLogic’s Danish said. In cities, four-fifths of households tune in.
Satellite networks accounted for 80 percent of total TV advertising spending of $200 million in the financial year that ended in June, according to Gallup Pakistan. Revenues from adverts rose just 0.15 percent in the period, Gallup data show, as Pakistan’s $210 billion economy expanded 3.7 percent. Slots in Turkish dramas command a premium from Pakistani advertisers, according to Faraz Ansari, CEO of Urdu 1.
The 1980s censorship laws of military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq forced female news presenters to cover their heads and banned women singers from dancing during a performance, in the pursuit of an explicitly Islamic state. While Pakistan produced drama that even found an audience in neighboring India, it focused its fire on issues like feudal power and class divisions, and abided by Zia’s diktats.
While draconian restrictions ended with Zia’s death in an airplane crash in 1988, the national regulator still aims to prohibit programs that might offend “cultural values, morality and good manners.”
In the small towns and villages where two-thirds of people live, TV remains the primary source of entertainment. Women predominantly working in the home or farm are a key target audience for networks. Only 24 percent of the working-age female population is formally employed, according to the government’s Bureau of Statistics.
Mohammad Ahmed, a dramatist behind a string of successes from the 1990s, said the industry may be moving too fast in a country unable to curb intolerance and violence against religious minorities and liberal politicians.
“It’s like a sea retreating before a big tsunami,” he said Feb. 18 by phone from Karachi. “When you and your kids start watching shows with dialogues like ‘Sarfaraz’s wife is very beautiful but actually she’s a prostitute,’ then it’s not freedom. You’re actually playing with illiterate minds.”
Violent protests over the distribution of music or films have largely been restricted to the war-wracked northwest, or been triggered by what are seen as attacks on Islam. Mobs urged on by religious groups attacked cinemas last year after Google Inc.’s YouTube hosted an amateur U.S. movie that characterized the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer.
Some politicians share Ahmed’s concerns and have also swung behind a campaign by the country’s United Producers Association, which fears networks will eventually dump locally produced drama for more popular foreign imports.
“There is consensus among the political parties that we shouldn’t air foreign content during prime time,” said Belum Hasnain, chairwoman of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting, in a Feb. 16 interview. “Indian and Turkish plays are destroying our values and the local industry. You’re risking 800,000 jobs.”
Still, Hasnain admitted the foreign dramas can be “really catchy,” and said they offer a respite from Pakistani news. “Your mind feels fresh when you shift from news channels’ reporting on bloodshed, crime and political games,” she said.
Anila Shaikh, 43, and her teenage daughter Mariam watched each of the 165 episodes of “Forbidden Love” at home in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital, Islamabad.
They were so taken by the show that Shaikh promised her daughter a bridal dress to match the one Nihal picked for her wedding, nuptials that never happened after the spurned and brokenhearted stepmother Bihter shot herself dead.
“I don’t really care who will object to that strapless wedding gown in my family,” Shaikh said at her home in a middle-class neighborhood last month. “I want to see my daughter as beautiful as Nihal looked that day.”