My Opinion

Where is the TV drama industry headed?

Written by Omair Alavi

Omair Alavi|Special Report|February 2, 2020

Pakistan Television’s relevance has diminished since the rise of private production houses and TV channels

There was a time when Pakistan Television (PTV) was the only option for television audience in Pakistan. Until the advent of the Shalimar Television Network (STN) in 1990, PTV was the only channel that aired TV dramas, feature films (both local and English), foreign TV series and half-hour long news bulletins in its nearly nine-hour transmission. It was when the private channel started airing TV dramas – Abid Ali’s Doorian being the first followed by the magnum opus Chand Grihan – that PTV was given a jolt for the first time. For PTV, drama was its superpower and private productions the kryptonite.

It was always the dramas that kept PTV ahead, be it after the launch of the Network Television Marketing (NTM) in the 1990s or during the early days of Geo TV, ARY Digital and Hum TV. Their content was much stronger than that of newer channels. Their work ethic was legendary and every actor had to keep appearing on PTV to stay relevant across the country. However, PTV was unable to use its power. Soon it lost to private productions which began offering options to screen their dramas on a digitally enhanced screen, hire A-list actors (money not being an issue), and use locations that were never seen on PTV – even going abroad for some projects.

Rehan Sheikh, the veteran TV actor who started his career with PTV in the early 1990s and featured in one such project that was shot in the United Kingdom (where he was based at that time), believes that PTV was once the torchbearer for Pakistani drama. Now, he says, it is a platform that hardly produces anything.

“Even at a time when PTV was on the decline, one thing was evident – the will to produce quality drama,” he recalls. “The makers owned the projects because they knew that drama was PTV’s identity and since they were all trained professionals, they knew how to extract the best from the actors.” Afterwards, he says PTV started selling airtime to private producers and that was the first step towards doom.

“The last 20 years have given us a lot of good plays whereas technological advancements have helped a lot of upcoming directors.” He says now there is little need to roam around with huge crews as was done during the PTV days. “Digital cameras have made life easier and convenient.” But he says that the sound department needs attention. “We need to emphasise sound as much as we do visuals because we can only enhance the production quality if the sound is taken seriously. The world over, there is a creative department that handles sound but for some reason we take it for granted,” he says.

As for PTV, he says sheer carelessness destroyed the state-owned institution. “We didn’t take care of our mother institution [PTV]; we didn’t train the future generation and made the wrong choices – neglecting drama was one of them. From producing 100 percent of its dramas at one time, the channel is now down to producing less than 20 percent. This has to do mostly with the inability to adapt with changing times than anything else.”

The Bisaat actor might have a point but then there is Faysal Quraishi, who first worked on PTV during the 1980s as a child actor and later made a comeback in the late 1990s after a foray into Lollywood. The Bashar Momin star says that with the advent of private production houses, things have moved in the right direction. “The best thing for an actor about PTV was its emphasis on rehearsals, something that we have neglected eversince private channels haven taken the lead. In those days, writers and directors had complete command over the content and that’s why PTV tackled issues in their own subtle way.”

However, he says that despite being the only channel in Pakistan for many years, PTV’s list of classics is way too short than it should be. “Their work ethic was exemplary but when times changed, they lost the race. They couldn’t compete with private channels. The reason why people chose these channels over PTV was that their screen was more attractive, they embraced technological advancements and people could feel the difference in sound and lighting.”

Quraishi says the abundance of production houses has improved things for both actors and viewers. “Nowadays TV channels commission dramas, as per their requirements, to production houses and this has improved the drama scene in Pakistan immensely and changed the way dramas are made in Pakistan,” he adds. “While I don’t agree with the rating theory, I feel that if a drama is good, people will love it. In the coming years, subscription-based channels will take over and the audience will pay for the kind of entertainment they want. This is the ideal time to start working in that direction so that when that happens, we are ready for it.”

PTV stuck to traditional sets and content till they were deemed obsolete giving viewers all the more reason to switch. PTV’s screen remained stuck in the 1980s while its competitors had entered the digital age.

PTV’s biggest strength was also its biggest weakness – being a state-owned institution. At a time when the audience was demanding more colour on their screens than quality content, PTV was disappointing the audience by not adapting to changing times. They stuck to traditional sets and content till they were deemed obsolete giving viewers more reason to switch. PTV’s screen remained stuck in the 1980s while its competitors had entered the digital age.

“During the golden days of PTV, every drama was planned in advance. The aim was to educate the viewers. But now we run after ratings and blindly follow whatever is the latest hit,” says Mohsin Talat, a television director who started his career with the boom in private productions. “Those at the helm need to understand that whenever a play with a new direction is aired, it captures the audience’s imagination. There were plays like Mehndi, Humsafar, Udaari and the recent success, Mere Paas Tum Ho, which became trendsetters. All over the world, people experiment and educate through TV whereas we remain stuck in the saas-bahu model.” He says that dramas that inspire are always better than their inspired versions and the sooner the industry realises that original work stays forever, the better for it. “There is a market out there that doesn’t watch the saas-bahu plays, and we need to capture their attention before they are lost to Netflix and other digital platforms.”

The Daasi director says that over the last 20 years the media has matured a lot. Drama producers now prefer digital over analogue, non-linear editing over old-school editing and top-notch production quality so that the audience doesn’t switch channels, he elaborates.

“One must adapt and update with time because that’s both helpful and motivating. Had there been no Zee TV, we might never have moved away from PTV’s storytelling; had there been no Sony TV, our award shows would have stayed in the 1980s; had there been no Star Plus, we would not have graduated to soap operas and then returned to our roots after realising that following their style wasn’t helping us. Even the Turkish plays dubbed in Urdu had a bigger market than local dramas and that made us realise that we had to work extra hard to bring the audience back to our traditional dramas. It was a tough job at first but after a number of hits, the audience reverted back to local dramas and started appreciating local content. Had we not faced these challenges, we might have been stuck in the PTV model. But thankfully, we evolved. From analogue, we shifted to digital and now our screens have a distinct flavour that the audience can relate to anywhere in the world. Thanks to YouTube, our plays are once again seen and appreciated around the world and the only thing that remains to be done is improving our content and highlighting real issues.”

And then there’s the important aspect of background score, something which PTV dramas lack big time. If you watch Waris or the Nishan-e-Haider series today, you will be surprised to hear John Williams’ scores from Star Wars as well as from the James Bond theme in the background. Ankahi featured Beethoven’s music as if it was created for the drama. The list goes on. The first person to come up with an original background score was Arshad Mahmud who composed the memorable music for Shehzad Khalil’s Tanhaiyaan and carried on his impressive work with Dhoop Kinare and other dramas. Javed Allah Ditta carried on the legacy in the 1990s with his background score of popular PTV dramas. But the man who changed the scene altogether was Wajid Ali Nashad. Teaming up with producer Abid Ali and later with Faisal Bukhari, he used film-like songs in Dasht, and was the first one to compose an original sound track (OST), first in Dasht and later in Doosra Aasman. He followed it up with memorable soundtracks for Lunda Bazaar, Hawa Pe Raqs and Mehndi Walay Haath before his sudden demise in 2008.

Naveed Nashad followed in his father’s footsteps and is now the composer behind most popular OSTs that have mesmerised audiences over the last two years. His latest works include the OST of the highly popular drama Mere Paas Tum Ho as well as Aangan, Suno Chanda, Do Bol, and Ishq Zahay Naseeb. However, Nashad says that the situation hasn’t changed much since the days when he assisted his father.

“People who composed background scores in the 1990s were more experienced individuals. We are still in the process of learning,” he says. “I had assisted my father in the later part of his career and his decision to stick to original instruments impressed me a lot. I try to follow the same pattern. But now with technological advancements we have to go for less expensive options.”

What TV dramas have achieved today would not have been possible without PTV. The world has moved ahead, embraced technological advancements and is eyeing international platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. To make up for lost time is a Herculean task for PTV but perhaps there’s a lesson for it in this: for it to make a place for itself once again, it would do well to follow in the steps of private channels.

About the author

Omair Alavi