Thanks to fantasy-based films and epic television series, historical fiction has engaged millennials across the world, in addition to mature age groups. Multi-season telenovel series are now available for addictive binge-watching on OTT platforms.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan exhorted the Pakistani youth to watch Turkish blockbuster drama ‘Diliris: Ertugrul’ on state-run Pakistan Television he knew his target was those whose staple entertainment has been action-adventure series like ‘Game of Thrones’ and who earlier took fancy to Ottoman dramas ‘Muhtesem Yuzil’ and ‘Kosem Sultan’. The stated purpose to screen the Urdu-dubbed saga of Ertugrul Ghazi is to sensitise the younger generations to Islamic history, its ideals and philosophy.

Concern about ‘cultural invasion’ and debate on the government’s role in reviving film and television industry rise whenever foreign content makes its way into the country, despite the fact that over four decades of watching Indian telesoaps and films have neither diluted our patriotic fervour nor influenced our socio-religious identity. However, the need for institutionalised public-private partnership to promote indigenous entertainment industry merits the attention of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.

Period telenovels should be seen as entertainment without cultural or national bias. One could seek inspiration from a hero of any other country. The contention that PTV should telecast Pakistani content as it receives taxes from the viewers is not valid as they pay taxes to watch shows of high quality and interest value. As a state broadcaster, is it not PTV’s mandate to cement cultural ties with friendly countries? In the case of ‘Ertugrul’, there is also a meeting ground in Khilafat Movement launched by the Muslims of India in the early 20th century to restore the Caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate. The flame ignited by this movement was one of motivational factors behind theindependence struggle that culminated into Pakistan’s creation.

A more important question should, however, be why history fiction dramas have not been created by PTV during the past ten years or by better resourced private channels, with the exception of the big budget fantasy drama ‘Mor Mahal’ produced by Geo television in 2016? The national channel has a history of presenting popular time travel series including ‘Mohammad bin Qasim’, ‘Tipu Sultan’, ‘Taabeer’, ‘Shaheen’, ‘Aakhri Chataan’, ‘Labbaik’, ‘Nooruddin Zangi’ and ‘Babar’ mostly in the 1980s and 90s. A majority of these dramas were directed and produced by iconic Qasim Jalali whose name became synonymous with superb period dramas.

As premier Khan recommended a Turkish series, in the same breath he voiced intention to create films and dramas about our history. But does he have a plan to translate this wish into reality? Isn’t it surprising that while meteoric digital advancement and modern-day watching trends have brought history dramas to the centre stage, our content mostly revolves around drawing room stories of marriage and divorce? A few television channels have ventured to diversify and expand the scope of family dramas by adding social dimension. But largely, private channels’ priorities are set by advertisers instead of the audience, and the former are reluctant to offer other than usual comfort food to the viewers.

Production of history-based series also entails tremendous financial and technological resources. Creation of period dramas demands high production values ranging from gripping storylines, fantastic screenplay, talented actors, expensive costumes, custom sets and props, animals, audio-visual effects, dare-devil stunts, symphony soundtracks, and eloquent dialogues. Unless such ambitious projects are officially tasked and co-funded by the government, no television channel or media enterprise would be tempted to do it on its own.

When Turkish production companies spend prohibitively high resources on swashbuckling stories, they know these series, with worldwide viewership of over 700 million people in over 150 countries, would earn enormous foreign exchange. Last year, the export of Turkish ‘dizis’ (series) bagged revenue of over $500 million and in the next three years, these are estimated to spike to one billion dollars. A private media house or production company in our country may accomplish a high budget historical drama if given incentive of export of the drama to other countries. In addition to earning foreign exchange by exporting dramas, we can generate huge international interest in our history, culture and people, and can thus effectively promote tourism and softer image.

In the backdrop of extraordinary goodwill between the leaders of Pakistan and Turkey, it is a good time to enter into a collaborative arrangement to learn from best practices in Turkish drama series production. Our companies have yet to master the dizi and soap techniques. Though ‘Mor Mahal’ had glitz and glamour, it could not charm the viewers due to technical inadequacies. The teasers of upcoming Pakistani film ‘Legend of Moula Jutt’ show that if executed innovatively, our projects can stand at par with foreign epic stuff.

Our history of independence struggle is not distant enough in time where majestic fortresses, shiny armour, royal robes, horses and swords could embellish its visual dramatisation. Yet there is a long history of Muslim rule in the sub-continent which though may not give us a national dimension, could still resonate with us with regards to the religious factor.

The record-smashing popularity of ‘Ertugrul’ in Pakistan is a strong stimulus for our national broadcaster and private channels to try making high-value dramas, both historical and social. In a recent newspaper piece, Senator Faisal Javed Khan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Information & Broadcasting said that in the shape of ‘Ertugrul’, the prime minister has provided PTV “with a perfect revival and it is up to the state apparatus to work towards regaining its lost glory…to promote our historic heroes of Islamic world…and to produce work that is at par with any international production of its style and genre.” Could this be the long-awaited moment of awakening for our media entertainment industry’s resurrection? Travelling ahead in time will tell.