There’s more to Pakistani dramas than meets the eye

By Anamika Chatterjee

Slice-of-life entertainment complementing social commentary. Pakistani dramas have had a fascinating journey through the years

In 1969, the nascent Pakistani television industry had a defining moment that came in the form of Khuda Ki Basti. Adapted from Shaukat Siddiqui’s eponymous Urdu classic, the plot revolved around a family striving to make ends meet in Pakistan shortly after independence. To ensure its rich social message remained uncompromised in the televised version, a special committee was formed comprising poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jamiluddin Aali and Shaukat himself. Expectedly, as the show aired, it was lauded unanimously for its powerful narrative and storytelling. Such was its impact that it is said, five years later in 1974, the then prime minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto demanded the show be telecast again.

Entertainment is often seen as a quick fix to divorce oneself, albeit momenta-
rily from reality to seek refuge in make-believe. When this fictional haven begins to mirror aspects of real life, entertainment achieves a higher purpose — it becomes enlightenment. Pakistani dramas have traditionally, belonged to this genre of entertainment, duly complementing compelling stories with hard-hitting messages. When exactly did dramas become an integral part of Pakistan’s entertainment industry? How has their language  changed over the years? Here are some perspectives!


Traditionally, dramas have always had a mass appeal in Pakistan. However, their popularity soared further when cinema became a casualty of the political changes that were happening in the late ’70s! In a 2013 article in Dawn, journalist Nadeem F. Paracha notes, “Till about the late 1970s, the Pakistani film industry was regularly releasing an average of 80 films a year. In fact there were also periods when the industry put out over a hundred films in a single year. And then, it all stopped… After Bhutto’s toppling and hanging, the era of populist extroversion came to a close, giving way to social introversion that had little to do with self-reflection, but more with the need to hide one’s political and social self in an era of open religious propagation and reactive legislation that was directly opposed to the 1970s populist bearings. One cultural symptom of this social and cultural rollback was the abrupt collapse of the Pakistani film industry. As if all of a sudden, Urdu films that till 1979 had been doing good business rapidly started to lose its main middle-class audiences…”

As a result, television — and Pakistani dramas in
particular — became all the more popular. Shows like Waris (1979), Ankahi (1982), Tanhaiyaan (1985) and Dhoop Kinare (1987) among others, commanded a legion of fans. Daily activities would come to a halt when these shows would be aired. In a 2011 article in The Tribune, writer Hani Taha notes, “My mother tells me they had to reprint her cousin’s wedding cards to include the message that television screens would be put up at the marriage hall. The last episode of the epic drama, Waris, was to be aired that night and who, in their right minds, would want to miss it?”


Social messages have always been at the heart of these dramas. As Aamna Haider Isani, editor of Instep at The News, points out, Pakistani dramas have often portrayed the complete warps and wefts of society, with more realism and very little indulgence in fantasy. “They have taken it upon themselves to become social commentators and through that, a medium to educate the masses. While it is a responsible position to take, one does miss the carefree tone and treatment of classic Hasina Moin (who has written some of the iconic dramas such as
Tanhaiyaan, Ankahi, Dhoop Kinare among others) plays from the ’80s and ’90s.”

The sweet nostalgia about these shows means that they keep making a comeback on the small screen from time to time. However, with an increase in the number of popular channels, the production quality has improved substantially. Maliha Rehman, a lifestyle writer at Dawn, nods in agreement but adds, “Back in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, hit dramas had distinctive storylines. Multidimensional characters were developed, socially significant plots were written and comedy was original and entertaining. There are more channels now and thereby, a greater variety of dramas are available to the audiences. Unfortunately, they tend to be formulaic, repetitive and uninspiring.” Maliha adds that when a single drama becomes a hit, many others follow suit, spinning the same story in different ways. “A case in point is Humsafar, which I believe succeeded because of its stellar direction, production and exceptional cast. Humsafar’s story was a typical sob-fest, which was then replicated by many others. I know for a fact that the ‘crying, tortured woman’ is a huge hit amongst our audiences, which is why she features constantly in our dramas. In fact, I’m told that every time a woman gets slapped in a drama, the ratings hike up.”

The content in the contemporary dramas is largely women-centric. This, naturally, begs a question — what sort of opportunities do they afford to male characters? “A popular drama hero recently told me that in dramas, ‘men are mere accessories while the women have the meaty roles’. I do remember a time when men, women and even children would be glued to the screen, watching a Tanhaiyaan or an Alif Noon. We no longer have content like that available to us,” says Maliha!


A robust legacy of television dramas is coming in handy as the once-dormant Pakistani film industry comes into its own once again. Helming most of these projects are artistes who have already made a mark on the small screen, reflecting a brand new dynamic that is taking shape — the presence of television stars adding heft to a film’s prospects. As UAE-based entertainment writer from Pakistan Sadiq Saleem, observes, “Today, films are successful because the faces that are featured in them are credible and relatable. For instance, people have been watching Mahira Khan and Humayun Saeed (the lead actors of Bin Roye, the third most commercially successful Lollywood film, which was originally conceived as a drama) much before they graced the big screen. If you exclude Shan, television stars in Pakistan are much bigger than film stars. Their footprint also grows stronger if they venture into both, which is a natural transition.” Choosing television stars was also a natural choice, according to former television actress and CEO of the celebrity management company Catwalk Productions, Frieha Altaf, because “that’s where the young people were. Rest of Lollywood was ageing and new cinema demanded freshness”.

As a new chapter opens for the Pakistani film industry, it will be interesting to see how the dramas mould themselves. But given the widespread popularity they already enjoy, the question is — do they need to?

Anamika is keenly interested in observing and recording thought and action

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