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Zindagi: Breathing fresh cultural air in foul cross-border ties

Written by Mahendra.Ved
The ongoing exchange of gunfire on the India-Pakistan border has failed to numb the neighbourly discourse triggered by tele serials from Pakistan telecast for the last three months by Indian TV channel Zindagi, a Zee enterprise.

Through this channel, Indians are being treated to the best of new age Pakistani TV dramas on offer. Among them, “Zindagi Gulzar Hai” and “Aun Zara” have earned much praise and appreciation in Indian mainstream and social media.

To an Indian curious about life in the country next door, Zindagi gives a different perspective from the reports, written and visual, of people being killed by explosions in Karachi streets, thanks to terrorism and sectarian violence. At another level, the pretty TV artistes help move away from Malala Yusufzai, the teenager who gathered quite a following worldwide after she was shot in the head by Islamist militants last year.

With its tagline “Jodey Dilon Ko”, Zindagi TV is fast becoming a platform radiating Pakistani art and culture, for the first time in an organized manner to a receptive Indian audience.

Anchoring it is Bollywood actress Kiron Kher, freshly lawmaker from Punjab. Her presence itself makes for ‘uniting’ the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of an uneasy border.

A visitor to India would find it impossible to comprehend why and how its TV watching middle class, particularly women, are getting so addicted to these serials. Only the knowledgeable would understand and appreciate how the contrast of fire and feel good factors underscores the uneasy co-existence between the two South Asian nations that have so much in common, yet are mired in a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship ever since they became two independent nations.

Time was when Lahore’s streets would be deserted when Indian films like “Mughal-e-Azam” and “Pakeezah” were telecast by Indian television. Pakistan’s film industry prevented resumption of import of Indian films, stopped after the 1965 conflict, claiming that the local industry would be severely damaged. But they could not prevent large-scale smuggling of Indian films as CDs and DVDs. Then populist president Ziaul Haq allowed stray Indian films or personalities only as ‘friendly’ gestures. And yet, during the 1980s, Pakistani singers, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the TV dramas were a rage in Indian homes.

That has changed. Begun during the Pervez Musharraf era, Indian films are not just exhibited in Pakistan, but actually sustain the exhibition sector, stemming the closure of hundreds of theatres and facilitating building of new ones. The natural corollary has been a spurt in film-making in Pakistan, with some of them earning critical acclaim at home and abroad.

This forms the backdrop to the advent of Zindagi. If it means ‘life’, it has given a new life to the people-to-people relations – irrespective of the thinking in New Delhi and Islamabad and the thunder on the border. The mutual co-existence has become subtly, but significantly, more bearable.

Helping the process is strong business sense on both sides – a welcome word in a globalised world. Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (Zeel), which is spending almost £10mn on the launch of the channel alone, thought of this venture and found enterprising and creative people on the other side willing to take the bet. Mercifully, the two governments silently nodded and conservative clerics and ‘nationalists’ of different hues did not object to a good thing coming.

Why are Zindagi programmes popular? For one, the language is common. It is simple Urdu – or Hindustani, a term that gets mired in political and linguistic controversy. Two, the settings urban or rural are quite similar. Three, issues like the role of a woman in Pakistan, particularly the educated woman, rings the Indian bell. Four, the portrayal of family life, be it poor, middle class or the upper class, is also similar. Five, the social milieu, like intricacies of man-woman or husband-wife relationship are similar and easily identifiable. The dress too is similar since Pakistani salwar-kameez suits have been a rage among Indian middle classes for a long while.

Some things are not similar. Indians have been used to tele serials running into hundreds of episodes. The “saas-bahu” serials, according to many critics, have run their course, and may be on their way out. Zindagi gives an alternative, of serials that end within a score of episodes – easy to follow and see them conclude.

The Zindagi artistes seem to follow a dress code that is elegant but is by far conservative when compared to the Indian revealing ones that ape the West. This gels well with the seniors among the Indian audiences.

It is hardly surprising that Sanam Saeed who stars in “Zindagi Gulzar Hai” wants more and more fellow Pakistanis to enter the Indian entertainment world, but insists that they should do so reflecting “our values.”

In an interview with IANS news agency in India, she said, “India uses Bollywood, rather cinema, to tell its stories. It is one of the largest filmmaking nations in the world and so your talents get to tell stories about politics, love and drama through films. In Pakistan, our medium is the small screen.”

“We don’t make many films, and hardly have theatres. A majority of people seek entertainment while sitting at home and TV gives it to them; so we excel on that part,” Sanam said, stressing that since the command over language and gift of the gab are “strong”, and that Pakistan has some prolific writers.Her co-star in that serial, Fawwad Khan has already made his debut in Bollywood film “Khoobsurat”. More Pakistani presence in Bollywood is in the offing. This emboldens a writer in Dawn newspaper to recommend some Pakistani theatre personalities and models to Bollywood who, he says, recently made some bad foreign choices, causing their films to bomb at the box office.Indian media has acknowledged some of the factors behind the general success of Pakistan TV shows, listing among them the number of pre-fixed episodes, their closeness to reality, nicely woven sub plots, and a brilliant supporting cast.Indian filmmaker Kunal Kohli has said that the technical side of Pakistani soaps is superior. “Must say the quality of shooting [and] writing of the shows on Zindagi is [very] refreshing.”

One wonders why Zindagi was not conceived before. But then, as South Asian philosophy goes, things happen when they are destined to.

(Mahendra Ved is president of CJA India, a New Delhi-based writer and columnist. He can be reached at southasiamonitor1@gmail.com)

photo credit: calamur via photopin cc

About the author



Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based journalist. He writes a column for The New Straits Times in Kuala Lampur. He is Senior Editor with Power Politics monthly magazine and contributes to several journals. He is a regular on All India Radio and had long stints before turning to freelance with The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. He began his career with United News of India (UNI) news agency. Ved has co-authored two books, Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (2000). He writes on political affairs and focuses on India’s neighbourhoods. He also lectures at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications and Times of India’s Times School of Journalism.

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