Warm reception to Zindagi prompts Indian producers to change content

New Delhi, 20 July-2014,Yogesh Pawar(DNA): Tired of saas-bahu sagas, Indian viewers are lapping up realistic Pakistani serials backed by strong writing on the new channel Zindagi, prompting Indian producers to do a rethink on the content they churn out, says Yogesh Pawar

Warm reception to Zindagi prompts Indian producers to change content

Warm reception to Zindagi prompts Indian producers to change content

A still from Pakistani TV serial Maat, soon to be aired on Zee Zindagi

A rain break prompts Pratima Prabhune, 63, a resident of Vile Parle in Mumbai to take her granddaughter Juhi to the garden to play. The retired Marathi lecturer seems as pleased as Juhi to meet her friends. Talk soon veers to TV serials. “Did you watch Zindagi Gulzar Hai (ZGH) yesterday? What happened?” her friend Neela Prabhudesai asks her.

After the details of the episode are shared, talk on the show continues. “Kashyap is a strange name for a girl. It’s more like a surname,” says Prabhune, who also wonders why the characters keep talking about “missiles”.
In ZGH — based on a novel of the same name by Umera Ahmad — the female lead is called Kashaf and not Kashyap, while the “missiles” Prabhune refers to are actually massail, which means hardship in Urdu.

While ratings are yet to be made public, the interaction above underlines how critics and audiences across India have been swept off their feet by Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited’s (ZEEL) new channel Zindagi, launched less than a month ago. Though most of the exclusively Pakistani content is in chaste Urdu, it is not only popular across north India where many understand the language, but also in other parts of India where it is not.
Cultural historian Mukul Joshi says he is not surprised this is happening. “We share a common historical legacy, social norms and values, food, sartorial sense and most importantly, culture. We suffer from the same problems on both sides of the border like poverty, abuse and exploitation of women. So content which resonates with such concerns obviously does well.”

Joshi, a self-confessed fan of another Zindagi show, Kitni Girhain Baqi Hain, adds, “The way the shows on Zindagi have cut across community and language barriers should be a lesson to our production houses still caught in the saas-bahu warp. The simple uncluttered plots and realistic aesthetics really appeal.”
India’s love for Pakistani content on TV is not new. An entire generation grew up watching shows from across the border on pirated tapes in the late ’80s. Dhoop Kinare (scripted by Haseena Moin) and its central character Zoya, a feisty doctor with a mean bob in a relationship with a man twice her age, had struck an unforgettable chord with audiences.

It took almost 25 years for the doctor romance to be adapted. Sony bought the rights for Dhoop Kinare and made Kuch Toh Log Kahenge. Moin’s Tanhaiyyan, about two sisters’ battle to reclaim their family home following their parents’ death, inspired filmmaker Imtiaz Ali’s TV series for Star Plus, Imtihaan. There were others such as Ankahi, Angan Tehra and Waris, which found an audience in India.

“From the launch of Pakistan TV in 1964 till the 1980s was the golden period,” remembers veteran Pakistani actor Salman Shahid. “Powerful writing and drama bringing alive stories from across Pakistan saw a lull thereafter. I’m glad it is making a comeback.”

A comeback that obviously leaves those associated with current shows pleased as punch. Like the multi-faceted Sanam Saeed, known to Indian audiences as Kashaf Murtaza of ZGH. The 29-year-old who many feel both resembles and sounds like a young version of the critically acclaimed Tabu is ecstatic to hear how well ZGH is doing in India. “I’m glad that our show has been able to cut the ice across borders and reach out to so many,” she says.

“This is our own sweet revenge. What Bollywood does to us on the big screen, we are doing on the small screen,” she laughs.

Saeed remembers growing up at a time when “loud content” from India was the rage in Pakistan. “I remember finding it all very strange and unreal even at a very young age. In a way the lull from the late ’80s when Indians took over our TV screens till now was good. It seemed to tell us exactly what not to do.”

Her not-far-from-the-mark observation is already hitting home in production houses in suburban Mumbai who have found audiences moving away from their weep-a-bucket-a-minute heroines wearing heavy makeup, jewellery and lehenga-cholis even in bed. A senior scriptwriter with one such well-known production house spoke of the firing the entire team received from the joint managing director, known for her K-obsession. “Yes, she pioneered and made a runaway success of the saas-bahu format, but it has been milked to death. Earlier, when we suggested anything realistic even in existing soaps she would begin screaming at us. And now she wants us to do exactly that.”

Writing is something Fatima Effendi, who acts in Kaash Mai Teri Beti Na Hoti, also credits Pakistani TV shows with. “There is really good prolific, powerful writing in Pakistan. We make very few films, and the theatres often pull out the Pakistani films in favour of Bollywood blockbusters. The average Pakistani audience seeks entertainment sitting at home and TV gives it to them. I believe this must have made us specialise in this medium.”
Agreeing that shows from Pakistan are high on content and quality, Bharat Kumar Ranga, chief content and creative officer, ZEEL, says, “Extensive research across Indian cities for Zindagi revealed audiences are ready for alternative content. This has already been demonstrated in film viewing. We aim to bring this fresh alternative to our viewers on television.”

Ranga feels the launch of Zindagi will help expand the ZEEL network both in India and overseas. “Zindagi offers alternative fiction content suitable for Indian sensibilities and produced by content creators from around the world,” he says and adds, “We believe culture and talent should not be bound by any barriers.”
p_yogesh@dnaindia.net, @powerofyogesh

Q&A with Sanam Saeed

Your co-star Fawad Afzal Khan who played the male lead Zaroon Junaid in ZGH is being cast opposite Bollywood stars like Sonam Kapoor (in the Khoobsurat remake) and Kareena Kapoor (in a yet untitled YRF project)…
Good for him. He has the right kind of network and contacts. One can only wish him well.

Do you have plans to come to Bollywood?
I’m afraid not. I don’t think I will be comfortable with the kind of item numbers or skin show involved in the films there. I like progressive independent characters that can be role models for young girls. Whether it is the tormented wife in Mera Naseeb, a Pakistani-British woman in Mata-e-Jaan Hai Tu or a Syrian Christian single mother in Talkhiyan, roles like these can help change people’s perspective on women.

As a well-known Pakistan actor how do you react to radical groups denouncing the entertainment industry?
The rabid right is not unique to Pakistan. I don’t think the mainstream society takes them seriously as we get on with our lives.