While the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was engaged in negotiations with the BJP over government formation through the winter, its leader and present Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was busy watching Zee Zindagi channel which broadcasts Pakistani soaps. According to party sources, Mufti likes Zindagi and in his free time, catches up on his favourite serials on the channel.
Mufti, however, is not alone in his fascination for Pakistani soaps. A significant section of the population in Kashmir, having grown up on elaborate and endlessly stretched melodramas on Star Plus, are now hooked to Zindagi since its launch in June 2014. Some of them such as Kitni Girhain Abhi Baqi Hain, Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Khel Qismat Ka, Waqt Ne Kiya Haseen Sitam, Laraib and Hamsafar became a rage with their stories becoming a part of family conversations — much like the soaps on Star Plus, which are now struggling to maintain their appeal.
One major factor for this change is the taut and gripping storylines, which are much closer to reality compared to those on Indian tv. “We have grown up watching serials on Star Plus and Zee Channels right from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi but this is something entirely different,” says Bilal A Jan, a television producer and documentary filmmaker.
These serials are not about contrived petty domestic feuds blown out of proportion. They are largely about real issues of life treated realistically with an element of drama that flows from the wists in the story than artificially created by sound tracks and camera angles.
The most visible shift has taken place in the women’s segment for the prime time fare on the soap-driven Star and Zee channels. Fatima Bano, who spent her nights watching Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Tere Shahar Mein is now glued to programs like Shukriya, Meri Talaash and Aaja Sajna Miliye Juliye. “Indian serials are about expensive dresses and jewellery worn by the actors and saas-bahu-damaad fights but Pakistani soaps raise some issues that I easily connect with,” says Bano, a housewife.
Though the overwhelming response to Pakistani serials in Kashmir echoes the one witnessed in the rest of India, the context in the Valley is different. The ongoing conflict in the state has made Pakistan a clear factor in the political discourse of the state, which often runs parallel to the state’s mainstream national discourse and sometimes sensationally clashes with it. Assortments of Pakistani news channels which are being broadcast in the state through cable television are a part of this daily debate. Thus prime time news discussions often see families switching between Indian and Pakistani shows, more so when a violent or a political event in the state becomes a subject of furious media attention.
Even before satellite television came on the scene, Pakistan Radio broadcasts served as a counterpoint to the local and the national radio stations, the Doordarshan and BBC. And all their messages blended, overongolapped and conflicted in the forever bubbling cauldron of Kashmir’s conflict politics.
In the 1950s, the state government had imposed a ban on listening to Pakistan Radio and those found doing so were either arrested or their radio sets confiscated. Joseph Korbel, a former member of the UN Commission on India and Pakistan, has also mentioned it in his book Danger in Kashmir (1954).
In the early 1990s, Pakistan’s radio station Sada-e- Kashmir (Voice of Kashmir) broadcast songs and speeches on jihad. The station also aired information abou deaths of miltants.
But before Zee Zindagi went on air in June last year very few Kashmiris had watched Pakistani serials. In the early 1970s and 1980s, some families slanted or swerved their television antennas in different directions to unsuccessfully catch PTV signals — the lure was to watch the then famous Pakistani classics like Ankahi (1982), Tanhaiyaan (1985) and Dhoop Kinare (1985).
Pakistan was physically understood through airwaves of Radio Pakistan. So, the round the clock serials and their growing popularity is a development of some subtle significance. Though violence on news channels nuanced the idea of Pakistan being a forbidden El Dorado, the soaps are adding more layers to the understanding and helping bridge the psychological distance with the country. Perhaps all for the good in a place split between the contradictory political narratives and competing nationhoods.