Shilpa R, our correspondent in Delhi, writes about Zee Zindagi and how it has managed to bring a reimagined understanding of Pakistan to Indian homes.
The mere mention of Pakistan evokes varied emotions among Indians. A strange sense of longing, belonging and nostalgia hijacks the senses and peaceful reverie settles in. This moment is ephemeral because restricted narratives from Pakistan have resulted in constrained imagination. The window to our neighbouring nation, with whom we parted ways in 1947, opens slightly during cultural exchanges and political discourses, but these glimpses fail to offer a panoramic view of the society whose cultural heritage is as rich as India and who is fighting against the same social evils as India is.
For many Indians, the stereotypical portrayal of Pakistan (mostly in the mainstream media) as a regressive society and a staunch Islamic state has projected it as a country where women don’t go out without burqa. It was this reimagined world many had found solace in till their remote control gave them the freedom to bring Pakistan into their drawing rooms and initiate conversations about the neighbouring state with feelings of joy and jealousy. The joy for being able to look at the country through the lens of the camera and jealousy after watching their progressive soaps and dramas in whose comparison our ‘saas-bahu’ sagas paled.
Like a breath of fresh air, Zindagi channel came into the lives of Indian audiences, whose senses were assaulted by daily dose of high-voltage drama and suspense, in June, 2014. No one had expected the channel to receive an overwhelming response from viewers. But as anything and everything coming from the other side of the border generates curiosity, the channel too did – and turned a new leaf in the history of Indian television.
“Anything to do with Pakistan generates curiosity and my fascination with Lahore initiated my interest in the channel. I have been watching selective shows ever since the channel was launched. The best thing about these dramas is that they don’t drag unnecessarily like our shows do,” says Bharat Sharma, IT professional.
This is not the first time Pakistani shows have received such encouraging response from Indian audiences. In the 80s, shows like Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan were quite popular among masses. But the onset of private channels in the early 90s became the most popular medium for mass entertainment and everything in between, including our national broadcaster, was forgotten abruptly. So when Shailja Kejriwal thought of bringing Pakistani dramas to India, she was extremely apprehensive.
“In the beginning, I was wondering how we could bring these shows to India. We have been closed compared to them when it comes to understanding culture of respective nation. They have access to Bollywood and our soaps, but we had nothing. Hence, our idea of Pakistan was skewed,” says Kejriwal who is the chief creative – special projects at Zee Entertainment Enterprise Limited that has launched the channel.
It was from her personal experience that she had drawn these conclusions. Her idea of Pakistan too was limited, like many of us. But when one of her friends showed her a video of prominent ghazal singer Iqbal Bano’s video she was mesmerised by her voice. This was her introduction to Pakistan and then she undertook a journey during which she discovered films like Khuda Kay Liye and eventually, Coke Studio.
“I really wanted to understand their culture and way of life,” she says, adding that she watched over 8000-9000 hours of content before selecting shows for the Indian audience.
Stories with social messages common between India and Pakistan were picked. The relatable content struck a chord with Indian audience. The stories about women’s subjugation and empowerment, about dilemmas and struggles in marriages and struggles of marginalised society are common concerns of the two nations, but these rarely find a mention on Indian shows. And even if they do, they represent exaggerated versions of barren imagination.
“How many times would a protagonist or a lead character in Indian serials take birth? Serials like Uttaran and Balika Vadhu did provide temporary relief from saas-bahu sagas, but they soon succumbed to the pressure of popularity and dragged unnecessarily,” points out Arpana, Editor of an online portal.
The simplicity in execution and treatment was another factor that attracted the Indian audience towards these shows. The characters looked real and stories humane. There were no heavily-made up performers, scheming women and cunning mother-in-laws. There was a story with a finite end. And there were stories about social customs and prevalent practices. Show like Aunn Zara, Kitni Girhain Baaki Hain and Kaash Main Teri Beti Na Hoti’ received instant approval from Indian audience.
For Shivata Bamzai, the timing of launching the channel was god sent. While she was pregnant, she got hooked to Dhoop Chhaon because she could related to because the story talked about the challenges a girl faces after she gets married and how she seeks her mother’s suggestions to guide her in this journey.
“I could relate to many things and I think this is the biggest compliment for any show,” she says.
But the most popular amongst all has been Zindagi Gulzar Hai that even catapulted Fawad Khan to success and gave him the first big break in Bollywood opposite Sonam Kapoor in Khoobsurat. The story revolved around two headstrong, intelligent individuals, Zaroon and Kashaf and the subject delved deeper into marriage issues and human errors of judgment.
“It wasn’t only about two individuals… it was about how three sisters overcome their father’s prejudice, and establish themselves as successful individuals. The storyline represented how common themes and issues run across borders and how women and girls are still treated as burden. The story had an important message,” says Shivata.
However, Bharat feels predictable storylines have weaned away the interest of many who were initially hooked to the shows. “You know how the cycle is, a man will marry thrice but then he will come back to his first wife… things like these get predictable after sometime,” he says.
When positive discussions become starting point of conversations, they give a feeling of hope. And Zindagi is our hope to connect with people on the other side of the border.