As the beautiful Nihal prepares to marry Behlul, there’s a glitch: Her gun-wielding stepmother declares undying love for the groom. Dangerous liaisons are at the heart of Ishq-e-Memnu, or Forbidden Love, a Turkish drama that was the biggest hit on Pakistani television this past winter. At its peak, the steamy story of a Turkish tycoon and his family was watched by a third of the country’s cable and satellite TV audience.
The success of the imports is spurring Pakistani producers to explore new themes. Samina Ahmed, a TV actress and producer, is playing roles that earlier in her career would have been unthinkable, including a mother of call girls and a grandmother who flees her family to get married. “The success of these dramas shows that a number of Pakistanis consume entertainment in a manner no different than that of any other society,” she says. Women’s rights, domestic violence, and gay couples have been featured in dramas made and broadcast in Pakistan. Serials have dissected a mullah’s relationship with his wife and daughters, and depicted a poor girl fighting to survive in an elite school.
A parliamentary committee in January found the “onslaught of foreign dramas” so poisonous it suggested a ban. Undaunted, local networks have ordered more series from Turkey’s studios. “A major shift is taking place,” says Salman Danish, chief executive officer at MediaLogic Pakistan, which assigns ratings to nonstate TV channels. “The intense competition is forcing production houses to come up with bold topics. But the biggest surprise is that society is accepting and enjoying this freedom.”
For many, the imported soap operas are an escape from the 24-hour news networks’ diet of violence and political intrigue. “I’m sick of news,” says 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 in Pakistan. We are getting more variety, and the quality has improved.”
Tightly controlled state TV and radio channels monopolized the airwaves until 2002. That’s when military ruler Pervez Musharraf opened broadcasting to private investors. A decade later, Pakistanis can choose among 84 satellite TV channels and 120 FM radio stations.
One thing everyone in Pakistan can agree on is that more locally produced content is needed. Some politicians have backed a campaign by the Pakistan Film Producers Association against the foreign serials. Although Pakistan’s TV production business is reviving, the producers fear the networks will eventually drop locally made shows for more popular imports. “There is consensus among the political parties that we shouldn’t air foreign content during prime time,” says Belum Hasnain, chairwoman of the National Assembly Standing Committee for Information and Broadcasting. “Indian and Turkish plays are destroying our values and the local industry. You’re risking 800,000 jobs.” Still, Hasnain admits that the themes of these imported soaps can be “really catchy.”