Dear PEMRA, it is our society that is ‘indecent’; our dramas are merely a portrayal of it

Published: January 12, 2019
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It is undeniable that the change witnessed in TV dramas was prompt and drastic, compounded by the rise in technology.

The performing arts are considered a tool for providing entertainment, relaxation and catharsis to society. Before the invention of the television, stage dramas, dancing and poetry were all important mediums in people’s lives, showing just how necessary entertainment is for us.

Pakistan’s first official TV channel was launched in 1964, and we soon saw the rise of our drama industry with classic plays like Ankahi, Waris and Tanhaiyaan. However, after General Ziaul Haq’s martial law and the subsequent Islamisation of society, the entertainment industry was not spared either.

As a result, the film industry gradually vanished and dramas became more religious and involved more preaching of what Zia and the right-wing deemed acceptable for society. During Zia’s era, culture was mixed with religion and a new narrative was built, suggesting that music, dance and other performing arts were part of the ‘Indian’ culture, not ours. Zia introduced new curbs on entertainment and with the passage of time, this became normalised, with content on TV seeing the rise of religious and moral policing.

Though there were exceptions, such as dramas like Andhera Ujala, the industry mostly remained one dimensional in the 90s as well. However, the more progressive era of General (R) Pervez Musharraf in the early 21st century, as well as the introduction of private TV channels, allowed room for change. General Musharraf had a moderate vision of religion and understood the difference between culture and religion, and this reflected in the content allowed to be seen on TV.

Not only did introducing private TV channels end state monopoly over the media, it also gave birth to new ideas and themes which created room for multi-dimensionality. It is undeniable that the change witnessed was prompt and drastic, compounded by the rise in technology.

However, far-right groups have had free reign since Zia’s era, and they have maintained the belief that moral policing is a necessity to somehow safeguard the cultural fabric of society created during Zia’s regime. In turn, they have constantly been critical of the new themes seen in TV dramas, with themes like honour killing, rape, drugs, alcohol abuse and even divorce being deemed unethical and harmful for society.

In the most recent development, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has directed all TV channels to stop airing ‘indecent content’ and produce material in accordance with the sociocultural norms of our society. PEMRA cited that it had received complaints from many viewers who remain unhappy with what they see on TV. They are of the view that scenes showing any degree of intimacy, extramarital affairs, rape, mentions of divorce or even ‘inappropriate dressing’ end up playing a role in spreading immodesty and vulgarity.

However, this obviously prompts the question of whether such ‘vulgarity’ already exists in our society, which is why our TV dramas show it in the first place. Does rape not occur in Pakistan? Are women not harassed or killed for honour? Do instances of extramarital affairs and divorce not come to light frequently? Do we not have a drug problem in this country? What we see on TV is meant to reflect the culture that exists, including the ongoing trends and social problems plaguing our society. Creating shows that only engage in moral policing and do not reflect the reality we all live in does not generate viewership, for it does not constitute as art and does not provide any entertainment either.

The shows we see on TV today are generating viewership, and what gathers an audience is the inherent ‘talkability’ of a drama, for which it has to be on an issue that resonates with people. Creators of these shows cannot present the social problems or issues of the 80s and 90s and pass them off as problems we face today and also expect the audience to respond to that. The same problem applies to women’s clothing; the more modest fashion from another era cannot be presented with the intention of people taking that show or character seriously.

We see a list of prevalent problems in our society. There exists an acceptance when it comes to crimes pertaining to honour, reinforced through traditions like swara, watta-satta and child marriages. Marital rape is not considered a crime, and women are always blamed for the failure of a marriage in case of a divorce. Drugs and alcohol are illegal and yet addiction to drugs and alcohol is somehow growing. This is the reality we live in, and not showing any of this on TV will not miraculously change the statistics we encounter on a regular basis.

Another dimension that is neglected here is that of the discourse of civilisation and culture. Civilisation and culture are not static; they keep developing with the passage of time, and new norms and traditions gradually become a part of them. A static civilisation cannot survive in the modern age, for change is the only constant in the universe.

If instead of showing the typical saas/bahu (mother-in-law/daughter-in-law) drama, TV shows are focusing on the very real issues of child abuse, honour and rape in our society to break the taboo, then that should be welcomed, not penalised. It is no secret that human impulses cannot be curbed or suppressed by imposing bans. Instead, these shows are presenting the audience an opportunity to connect with what’s going on across the country and relate to the problems they see on screen, making the drama not only a medium of catharsis but also one spreading awareness for social change.

Thus, the solution for the ‘vulgarity’ that exists in our society is not to ask TV channels to moderate content and refrain from showing what is a factually correct demonstration of our society. Not only does this kill creativity and restrict freedom of speech, it also takes away from the consumer their choice to see what they find entertaining or interesting. After all, if someone finds these dramas obscene or immoral, there is always the option of changing the channel.

Additionally, in the age of Netflix and YouTube, such bans are of no use anyway. The rise of the internet has proven that people do not respond positively to censorship, and such bans on TV will only compel people to watch something else on their phones.

Thus, PEMRA’s decision can only be labelled as misguided, suggesting how out of touch the body is with the audience it is meant to regulate. People want to see the kind of content PEMRA wishes to ban, which is why this moral policing we have been stuck with since Zia’s regime needs to be put an end to, not propagated further. Like every civilised society, people should be allowed to express themselves and their views. If someone finds these dramas vulgar, they need to be reminded of the wise words of Saadat Hasan Manto:

“If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.”

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

The writer is a columnist and writes for various English and Urdu publications. He tweets at @rjimad (twitter.com/rjimad)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rizwizz711

    The society was never decent . The clean mind was never subjected to this filth as clinically as being done by the mediaRecommend

  • Asad Khan

    Two wrongs don’t make a right… If our society is indecent, should our dramas be as well…Recommend

  • Striver

    I disagree with the arguments put forward by the writer, Imad Zafar, with ALL DUE RESPECT, of course. Neflix and internet is a separate issue all together therefore no comment on that.
    Firstly, when are we going to stop blaming Zia-era for the ills in our society? Is religion a bad thing? Should we blame the practitioner of the religion or the religion itself? Critics, writers and TV anchors take the easy way out by pointing the finger at Zia.
    Look at Iran’s film industry. They are making far better films then we are within the bounds of their religious interpretations. Yet, who do we copy, item songs and all? Pakistani film-makers are not thinking. The investors in Pakistan film industry are not thinking. The government is not thinking; PEMRA in not thinking. Is there anyone in Pakistan who is thinking? No wonder the country has no directions. It is flowing with the wind.
    Somebody has to give directions to the film industry. People in the industry should sit together and come up with a formula.
    Secondly, who should give directions, the state, the society, or captains of industry, religious leaders? The answer is all of these groups. That’s how a society moves forward. So Imad Zafar’s point:

    “it is our society that is ‘indecent’; our dramas are merely a portrayal of it”

    is incorrect. Dramas are not a reflection of society. Society is a reflections of dramas. When the west wanted to bring change in society it used the power of the media including films, sitcoms, magazines and newspapers. Dramas and films influence societies. What you show in films and dramas are copied by individuals.

    Problem is, our writers, producers and directors do not have a direction. Unless they are involved along with other groups in deciding what direction a society should take and then formulate a policy that everyone can follow, our films and dramas will be directionless and will mess up the society.Recommend

  • Engr Wasim Riaz

    Well dear Imad Zafar, you have said that putting up a ban on TV channels is not the solution to eradicate vulagrity from the society. But you have not given an alternative solution for the problem. Dont you think its your moral duty to give a better solution when speaking against the current solution.Recommend

  • Muhammad Adeel

    Spot on.
    Mini zia like Marshal law on media by gughair brigade pemra.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Agree …. and nicely argued.Recommend

  • http://www.LaoJee.com/ Dr. Saleem Siddiqi

    Beside vulgar Dramas, Objectionable Ads of Pakistan Movies and above all Advertisements made in INDIA is rubbing salt to injuries. Is PEMRA Sleeping. When Supreme Court has order to ban Indian contents from telecasting, then why Advertisement made in India by Indian actors are allowed to be telecasted by PEMRA. PEMRA needs to be more vigilant and alert refining this area. Notwithstanding, I appeal to Chief Justice through this forum to please immediately ban Indian Movies from being screened from Pakistani Cinema Halls. They [Indian Movies] are doing speedy action to spoil moral and family / Islamic values of our families in this Country.Recommend

  • Jeddy Khan

    People who have permanently left Pakistan, do not face things like PEMRA,CENSOR BOARD and PTA. The countries they have settled in do not have any specific dress code and none is enforced. This is not to say those countries are crime free they do, but do not hold the media responsible. Media has the function to inform, educate and entertain. Our leadership has this misconception if the media controlled, regulated and censored, things will improve. Regulating the media only helps in hiding incompetence, blunders, corruption in the establishment on the whole. The more censorship there is only indicates the level of corruption and how many corrupt are being allowed to escape justice, that is all. All these censorship organisations serve protect the criminal eliteRecommend

  • Faiq

    We have “news channels” to report that societal indecency, in fact plenty of them, show so inspiration in your dramas instead of admonition.Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    Whenever the government of the day finds itself under attack for inefficiency or corruption and knows that its days are numbered, it is usual to blame women. As happened many times in the past (under Zia and also under the Sharifs), the rulers think that by forcing women to cover themselves, their party has a better chance of being re-elected. Imran Khan has only done what past beleaguered governments used to do. He has already restricted the number of women ministers in his cabinet (only four out of forty two). Apparently he’s also convinced that miracles will happen if women are coerced into submission and his government will survive.Recommend

  • Abdul moiz

    If the dramas were indecent i’d be binge watching them
    They aren’t
    There is no foul language, no cleavage, no bashing of saints and no dramatic murders happening
    It’s the same old shaadi mangni sautan bewafai humsafar crap with a few pedos and rapists tossed in the mix to portray the illusion of freedomRecommend

  • Rizwizz711

    The first ever murder took place due to a woman. What do you say about thatRecommend