As the movie makers in Pakistan struggle to transform film-creation into a recognized industry, television drama is fast undergoing a second renaissance. With current affairs talk shows and late night political satire programmes losing interest value, TV plays have emerged as the sole and sure mode of entertainment for around sixty five percent of the country’s population.

The definite success came for TV soaps when these lured the viewers and made them abandon addiction of foreign TV dramas. This was achieved after appearance of our TV plays on bold and shocking social themes during the past four to five years, despite intermittent cautions by regulator.

TV drama series written by Hasina Moeen, Fatima Surayya Bajia, Asghar Nadeem Sayed, Amjad Islam Amjad, and Ashfaq Ahmed aired on the state-run PTV were competing with Bollywood films even in the golden age of what we called our own Lollywood’s great days in late 1970s, 80s and most of 1990s. Veteran Indian movie legends like Dilip Kumar acknowledged that PTV dramas were far better in quality than movies churned out by India’s filmwalas.

The martial law of 1979 served a deadly blow to films largely produced in Lahore. With the nosedive of both Urdu and Punjabi movies, TV dramas rose into yet more prominence, but at the same time indigenous plays started to be influenced by sensational Indian commercial movies and TV soaps. In a cut-throat race with high volume musical-action thrillers of their country, Indian saas-bahu evening shows paid more attention to audio-visual glamour than the reality-based storyline.

As melodramatic outlook of Indian TV soaps grabbed viewership of most audiences in Pakistan, our dramas began to ape their Hindi counterparts. The emergence and mushrooming of private TV channels in Pakistan provided infinite space for wide ranging experimentation with content and plot of dramas, by also incorporating some techniques of soaps. Presently, there are fifteen dedicated entertainment channels airing 24/7 family and social dramas produced by close to 20 key production companies in addition to many others in the field.

While our drama producers tried their hand at creating soaps, they were not well-conversant with the actual ingredients and treatment of TV soaps. Turkish TV soaps made their spectacular entry into our private entertainment channels. These high-budget soaps boasting captivating storylines and high standard of acting and direction presented a tough challenge to our dramas. But side by side Turkish soaps educated our drama producers.

Our dramas resumed upward trajectory by gradually relinquishing emulation of Indian soaps and combining elements of PTV classics and ingredients from contemporary quality soaps produced in Turkey and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the so-called rejuvenation of Lollywood is still lagging behind TV soaps as film producers continue to follow templates of Indian commercial cinema. There is hope that Pakistani films would regain its lost glory if, like our TV drama industry, it blends elements of golden hits of yesteryears with ingredients of social films with equal proportion of thought-provoking messages and entertainment.

Our TV drama has come of age as it now deals with a larger social canvas beyond love triangles and marital affairs. Udaari, Baaghi, Sammi, Meri Guriya and Ranjha Ranjha Kardi are a few instances of the new TV drama on social themes. Ishq Zahe Naseeb currently on air on Hum TV has boldly ventured to lay bare the multiple personality disorder of its protagonist. The dramas on social taboos and other intense themes have sparked lively debates among younger generations on social media. By entering into hitherto forbidden grounds, these dramas have ignited interest of multiple age viewers, especially millennials. Thanks to some high value soaps, the entertainment channels have started reaping handsome profits as compared to their current affairs counterparts which continue to run in losses.

The emerging drama industry has brought out amazing breed of writers, script-writers, directors, actors and music producers.  During the past couple of years, our struggling films have not been able to produce a single hit song, while original-sound-tracks (OSTs) of soaps have catapulted a few singers and music directors into stardom. Shuja Haider and Naveed Noshad, the music-directors-turned-singers, are household names owing to superb title songs. Nabeel Shaukat and Aima Baig were able to make their mark in OSTs alongside Asim Azhar.

The TV drama industry is also feeding the film industry in terms of good directors, screenplay writers, actors, and music producers though in some respects the requirements of the two screens are different. Just look at the contributions made by TV writers Shoaib Mansoor and now Sarmad Khoosat to revival of cinema. The movie legends including Nadeem Baig, Jawed Sheikh, and Madam Sangeeta are investing resources into TV drama industry. The Hum TV Awards, now organized abroad, stand at par with International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFA) in all manners. Under the stewardship of Sultana Siddiqui, the TV soaps aired on Hum Entertainment are leading in quality and insightful content on empowerment of vulnerable segments of the society. Other channels including ARY Digital and Geo Entertainment are trying to catch up. The current craze Mere Paas Tum Ho is being telecast on ARY Digital.

Our TV drama has yet to learn more in terms of diversity of social subjects, their impact on psychology of people as well as their presentation on the screen. Similarly, the next frontier is the export of our TV dramas to countries in the region and beyond. In the past, we were exported to the Middle East plays like Humsafar, Malaal and Zindagi Gulzar Hai which were dubbed in Arabic and aired on MBC.

In the backdrop of excellent relations with Turkey, Pakistan can learn a lot from the best practices pursued by Turkish drama production companies. Turkey is only second to the U.S. in worldwide dissemination of entertainment content. Turkish TV soaps are exported to over 90 countries around the world earning revenue of around $ 370 million in addition to boosting inbound tourism. As developing tourism is at the top of government’s agenda, we can use our superbly produced TV dramas to enhance international interest in visiting Pakistan by presenting our softer profile. This could be made possible through a public private partnership between the production companies and media houses on one side and Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Foreign Office on the other.

In collaboration with private entertainment media, our government should showcase our soaps in global events like MIPCOM. This entertainment content festival is held annually in October at Cannes, France. Being the largest global display of studios and distributors, this conclave is the best occasion to promote entertainment content, strike distribution and co-production deals, and to network with key stakeholders in the international creative market.

Our drama production companies should also engage well-qualified personnel to create plays that fulfill technical requirements of over-the-top (OTT) platforms. This would multiply these dramas’ presence on video-on-demand applications around the world. In this regard, media houses will have to include in their panel, companies that fully meet audio-visual requirements of digital streaming services.

Organizing of successive TV Awards Shows abroad by Hum TV has introduced our quality TV soaps in Middle East, Europe, Canada, and the United States. The international awards winning visual stories by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy have created a niche on the global scene for films on gripping social subjects. The conditions both at home and abroad are conducive for taking our TV soap industry to greater heights. It is now for the government and relevant players in private sector to seize the moment.