- By Mythili SampathkumarMythili Sampathkumar is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers the United Nations, international development, climate change, business, and culture.
Sixty-seven years of independence was celebrated last month, but after all that time and four wars, tensions have only marginally decreased between India and Pakistan. Sure neither side is actively threatening the other with the use of nuclear weapons, but the South Asian neighbors are hardly state friends as Pakistan recently violated the Line of Control (LoC) near Jammu and Kashmir. The LoC is supposed to be just a military boundary for the state. It was not established to hold back culture, language, or personal interactions for the entirety of the two countries. And yet over the years, it has done just that with a few exceptions: the unstoppable popularity of Bollywood films and cricket. There may be one more cultural frontier to break through the LoC though, as unlikely as it sounds: television soap operas. As the potential medium to mediate, this could offer a more personal understanding between the people of India and Pakistan, rather than the Parliaments.
Sanjeev Miglani, a specialist editor for Reuters in New Delhi, says the neighbors “have rather strange ideas about the other.” The perception of Pakistan being a nation full of jihadis and burka-wearing women is perpetuated by establishment politicians in the Indian Parliament and furthered by a basic lack of interaction even among families with ties to both sides, he says. Meanwhile, Pakistani propaganda does not do much in the way of improving the image of bigoted Hindus who lord over a Muslim minority in India.
It is a strange dichotomy given that even a Supreme Court ban reinstated last December on screening Bollywood films has not stopped Pakistani audiences from falling head over heels for Bollywood actors and actresses — many of whom are part of India’s Muslim minority — thanks to rampant piracy. Miglani says that Pakistani audiences have somehow divorced the larger-than-life films from the reality of India.
Indian audiences have not been so lucky in gaining any of that exposure to Pakistani cultural phenomena though. The 1980s saw a brief period of bootleg VHS tapes of Pakistani movies and TV shows being sold to long lines of people in India. There was also the historic 2004 series of cricket matches between the two, held in Pakistan. Team India’s travel around the country was met with cheering crowds and was a sign of perhaps warmer receptions after the nuclear threats of 1998. Though by 2008, Lakshar-e-Taiba’s attacks on Mumbai had once again put a dent in any progress. An uncomfortable vacillation continues in Prime Minster Modi’s term. Clearly winning an election despite foreign policy concerns over his past role in the 2002 Gujarat riots — which left nearly a thousand Muslims dead — his inauguration resulted in an unprecedented bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The pendulum, as it goes, thus swings between friends and enemies.
Politics may never be the answer to their problem, but Shailja Kejriwal, a senior executive of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (Zeel), says television might be able to do something Parliament has not: beam “positive images from Pakistan into millions of homes” for the first time.
Zeel is also the parent company of Zindagi TV, which airs homegrown Pakistani soap operas across the border in India. Kejriwal calls it “entertainment with a purpose.” With a roughly $13 million USD investment, Zee TV is hoping audiences and advertisers alike share their purpose.
Ratings are not available yet as the channel was just launched on June 23 in most major metro areas with plans to expand further, but Kejriwal’s and Zee TV’s gambles seem to be paying off according to thousands of young men and women flocking to Facebook and Twitter to express a cross-border, shared love of these Pakistani television actors. Kejriwal is excited as the channel’s offices have gotten nearly 5.5 million phone calls, she says, from viewers wanting to see more. Though there was a natural apprehension to bring anything Pakistan-related into Indian homes, Kejriwal says, “Everyone has been really mature about [it].”
Kejriwal jokes that Indians seem “to know more about the US and UK even though the distance between Amritsar and Lahore is just 30 km.” Pakistani dramas and comedies alike seem to break the formulaic Indian dramas, which often mirror American soap operas in their outlandish behavior and conflict. Audiences were hungry for more relatable content, and Zindagi TV just happened to have Pakistani shows that fit the bill.
The current slate of shows are aired in their original Urdu language, which approximately 50 million people speak in India. Miglani notes though that when watching them, you might think the shows were set in Delhi if it were not for the more ‘cultured’ tongue. Hindi speakers, especially in the Delhi market, have not had a major issue in understanding the dialogue, but Kejriwal and her team are about to launch on online dictionary on their site to explain the subtle differences.
Without dubbing into more regional languages, the shows may lose their potential mass appeal, especially in the rapidly growing Bangalore and Chennai markets. Southern India was not completely unaffected by the 1947 Partition, especially Hyderabad, but its growing Muslim population and status of global cities attracting foreigners will certainly bring them more into the fold of Indian foreign policy. There may be an opportunity to reshape misconceptions held for a generation.
If this is the only obstacle the channel encounters, it could be a big success in “maybe somewhere subliminally, [making] us a more tolerant nation at some point,” Kejriwal says. Draw the LoC as thick as you want, art will always have trouble staying within it. The glitz and glamour of Bollywood will make their way into Pakistan regardless of laws and the national cricket teams will continue to meet all over the world. Musicians will hold concerts where their fans beckon. Television has a special intimacy unmatched by other mediums. There are no theaters or stadiums needed. Yes, internet access continues to improve for the 300 million-middle class in India, but television is accessible to even more within, and importantly, outside that demographic. Indians seeing Pakistani versions of themselves, in their homes, could be the start of something positive in the sub-continent.
Mythili Sampathkumar is a freelance journalist with an extensive background in international trade. Currently based in New York, she writes about international business, climate change, and development news.