Subverting Expectations – Then and Now
Our dramas have a long and proud tradition of challenging conventions and subverting viewers’ expectations. In the seventies, eighties and nineties, when there was only one channel and playwrights consisted of intellectuals, drama was an art form one witnessed on a weekly basis; be it the high-concept plays by Ashfaq Ahmed, showing two women switching souls, Bano Qudsia depicting murder as kindness, Hasina Moin presenting strong female heroes before it was cool, or Amjad Islam Amjad weaving epic tales of the rural-urban divide, politics and dirty business, these they always found a way to surprise and delight audiences, despite the stringent restrictions placed by the powers that be.
In those days even the most popular serials (the kind which caused the streets to be deserted) were strictly quality controlled; they had a definite plot and ended within 13 episodes. A Waris, or an Ankahi, no matter how good, were not allowed to overstay their welcome.
Then came the 90s and with them, the private channels. Initially, the sole privately owned alternative channel felt comfortable presenting mega-serials with star studded casts, written by the same writers who wrote for PTV and produced by the same producers, albeit moonlighting in this instance. No expense was spared and this gave rise to the commercial blockbuster - a serial with a star studded cast, high production values, designed to attract ad revenue and stretched out much as was possible. Today, 99% of our dramas are blockbuster wannabes.
Thankfully, after decades of predictable glitz and insipid but hollow story beats, times are changing. Once in a while a serial comes along that defies convention and dares to veer away from the trodden path. Ironically (or perhaps logically), often these serials are aired on one of the less successful channels, or, sometimes, relegated to non-prime time slots. However, thanks to streaming and social media, they do make their mark.
One of those serials is Dil Na Umeed toh Nahi, airing on TV One as well as PTV. The drama features an ensemble cast, and has the distinction for daring to wind up within a (relatively) svelte 24 episodes, but that’s not why it stands out.
The reason it does is because it covers a smorgasbord of the evils that plague our society, specifically human trafficking. It also touches upon other subjects, including women’s education, PTSD, dowry and the physical and psychological impact of trauma on children. The serial was not without controversies (as one can guess from the range of its subject matter), however it garnered rave reviews from viewers and critics alike and managed to convey its message effectively.
Dil Na Umeed toh Nahi is not alone. One can now watch a number of unconventional drama serials on various channels. Raqeeb Se wove a hypnotic tale that, while often too slow for today’s audiences, kept up the suspense until the very end. Dunk, another serial that has been mired in controversies (it was accused of rape victim shaming) is still going strong. Any fears about its lack of political correctness are laid to rest once one actually watches it and deciphers the story. A few years ago, Zindagi Gulzar Hai also spun a highly unconventional tale, albeit wrapped in familiar comforts.
Make no mistake though; this is 2021 and one cannot go back in time. Whereas in the seventies and the eighties, the old dramas were subtle, balanced and kept sensationalism to the minimum, today it is all about glitz, glamour, shock and sadism. The drama producers want to ramp up every tragic beat to get maximum views and keep audiences hooked. Today there are screams, abuse, slaps, vulgar dialogue, blaring soundtracks, menacing villains, graphic depictions of human exploitation, and more often than not, deaths and suicides. As a result, one can’t help but feel that our dramas, like everything else, have been dumbed down for audiences who are not used to dealing with anything more complex than a touchscreen. Therefore, any message has to be shouted from the rooftops and shoved down their throats, interspersed with disturbing scenes and blaring music.
Perhaps it is my age talking; nothing can remain the same forever. Times change and so does art. I believe that it is time to be grateful that we are finally discovering our long-forgotten knack to surprise audiences (if not delight them), and if it has to be loud, brash and brazen to make commercial sense, perhaps that’s not such a high price to pay.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. firstname.lastname@example.org
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