Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite the strife between India and Pakistan, elements of each country’s culture sometimes cross the political divide between the two, finding fans on the other side of the border.
The latest of these is Star Plus, an Indian entertainment channel, which has emerged as one of the most popular in Pakistan. Its success has been driven by middle class housewives, drawn to a programming schedule dominated by glossy soap operas.
Pakistan’s leading public opinion polls firm, Gallup Surveys, recently released a report ranking the most popular entertainment channels in the country. The report was compiled on the basis of the Gallup TV Ratings Services, the only national TV ratings data available for Pakistan.
“Star Plus had an average reach of around 7 million Cable and Satellite Viewers in the month of May. Second in line was state-owned PTV Home with approximately 4 million viewers. Urdu 1 continues make great inroads in the Pakistani Entertainment channels market. However, its growth has been recently arrested with the launch of other channels showing similar foreign content,” says the report.
Hassan Zaidi, a leading arts critic and organizer of many international film festivals in Pakistan, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Star Plu’;s popularity is not a recent phenomenon. “For the past many years, Star Plus has been the most popular channel in Pakistani society,” he said.
An official from Gallup told Asharq Al-Awsat that Gallup Pakistan’s TV Ratings service is based on a panel of over 5,000 households spread across both urban and rural areas of Pakistan.
“The Gallup Ratings are currently the only barometer measuring audience size in terms of population size. It also allows data mining (with statistical validity) for analysis at the demographic level. Gallup TV Ratings also provides unique insights due to its 20 years of trends data available for all the major and minor TV channels in Pakistan,” the official said.
As well as its success in Pakistan, Star Plus is one of the most popular channels in its homeland, India, and its stylish Indian soap operas are one of the main draws of its largely middle-class audience in Pakistan. Even though much of Pakistan is relatively socially conservative, the themes of these popular soap operas are mostly related to family and domestic conflict, often placing daughter-in-law against mother-in-law, wives against their husbands’ sisters, and extra-marital relations at the heart of their storylines.
Pakistani television critics say that the popularity of Star Plus in Pakistan is primarily because these soap operas find a devoted audience among Pakistan’s middle class housewives: “Indian soaps seem to target a particular niche in Pakistani society. . . . This is basically a question who watches TV in Pakistani society? TV is being watched by middle-class house wives and lower-middle-class people,” Hassan Zaidi told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Indian soap basically shows domestic strife in their drama, which is attractive for this class of people, especially the housewives,” he added.
Other critics said that canny program scheduling has boosted the soap operas’ popularity. The soaps are telecast twice during the day—once during primetime at 8 pm, and again in the morning. Most of Pakistan’s housewives are busy with household chores in the evening, so they have to skip the drama serial in the evening. But they can always catch up with the latest developments in the soap operas in the morning, when they have more free time.
Hassan Zaidi told Asharq Al-Awsat that during the past five years, Pakistani television viewers have also been particularly attracted to foreign content. “This foreign content in particular included the soap operas on Indian channels including Star Plus,” he says. “Secondly, the second most popular channel in Pakistan . . . is an Urdu channel which is broadcasting dubbed versions of Turkish soap operas.”
Interestingly, in the Indian soap operas that have found favor with Pakistani audiences, the storylines, characters, names and habits are largely alien to Pakistani culture. For instance, most of the characters in Indian soap operas have Hindu names, and the cities which are shown in these soaps are Indian cities.
Pakistani critics say that this is understandable: “People were very fed up of watching the same people over and over again. . . . Same actors, same stories, and same themes. . . . So that started shifting toward foreign content five years back,” said Hassan Zaidi.
In addition, the production values in the imported soaps are also often higher than those of drama serials produced within Pakistan: “Turkish and Indian dramas’ production value is high and they are presenting something new,” said Aurangzeb Laghari, one of leading actors on Pakistan television, told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Laghari told Asharq Al-Awsat that Pakistani television viewers are attracted to the new and innovative production techniques used by Indian soap operas, while in contrast “Pakistan is a suppressed society and when people here watch India drama, in which there is a lot of fashion and exposing of the body, people are attracted t it.”
He also complained that in Pakistan art and culture has deteriorated to a large extent, and “here we are facing a situation where people dub a drama from a foreign language and translate it into Urdu just because in this drama there are fashionable ladies.”
Hassan Zaidi, on the other hand, said Indian soap operas have gained popularity in Pakistan because they strike a universal chord by making family and domestic strife their basic themes, “and this theme is particularly attracting Pakistani housewives,” he says.