In Pakistan, issue based TV programming ought to be used for promoting peace, advocating tolerance, resolving conflicts and encouraging gender and sexual diversity.
Throughout history theater and arts have played an important role in changing people’s lives. First, by helping them see their lives and problems clearly, then by serving as a tool for understanding the dilemmas of society they live in and lastly by helping them identify effective solutions for these problems. Recently, a documentary theater play Teesri Dhun on the struggles of Khawaja Sira community was performed at Al Hamra in Lahore. Presented by Olomopolo Media in partnership with Naz Pakistan, the play was aimed at enabling the marginalized community group to examine their issues collectively, analyze the causes behind these issues, explore avenues of potential action, and create opportunities for such actions. Theater, film and TV can help making concepts coherent and real for people. These mediums engage their audiences both intellectually and emotionally, leading to sensitization towards issues, ideas and people portrayed and engender a personal connection with events and characters unfolding in front of them. If the impact and success of Teesri Dhun is any indication, theater, film and TV in Pakistan have tremendous scope in creating acceptance for the LGBTQ community and sensitizing general public on these issues. The current trend on TV is to portray the sexual minority groups in negative light or to employ such characters for comic relief in different shows.
How does the representation of these marginalized groups on TV affect society’s attitude toward them in real life? Renowned psychologist Maqbool Babri believes that society today is literally shaped by the media. “There is ample research to prove that films, TV Programs and news Bulletins leave a certain impact on the mind and personality of their audiences”, said Mr.Babri. “In Pakistan, most people are now wary of each other and their view of the society they live in is very negative. There is a general feeling of distrust fuelled by sensational news bulletins and most people now think that everyone around them is extremely selfish”, he added.
Although media in Pakistan is dominated by the private sector at the moment, that was not the case when PTV was launched in 1962. Controlled by the state, PTV was the only TV station then. However, despite being a public sector entity, seldom did PTV programs provoke hatred or hurt sentiments of the minorities be it religious or sexual. “In our training at PTV, we were specifically told never to show disrespect towards transgender people and effeminate boys and present their image in a negative manner. That is evident from my dramas as well as all of other dramas of PTV”, said Asghar Nadeem Syed, a prominent TV writer. Such were the high standards of the trainings provided. Things have changed a lot now. Pakistan is a different country. Last year, a renowned TV celebrity and self proclaimed Islamic scholar Amir Liaqat fueled the fire against religious minorities by promoting hatred against them. Historically, various political regimes in the past have been using the power of state run media to attain political mileage. However, one thing common under all regimes has been adherence to non-violence and respect for the rights of minority groups. Much has been undone by the commercialization of media and hijacking of the agendas by the entrepreneurial interests of private media elite. “We are free to write whatever we want, as long as the content we create is attuned to the interests of the channel owners”, said Samee who is the lead writer for a popular comedy sketch show on a private channel. “When it comes to media ethics, values and responsible journalism, the programs of TV channels owned by journalists are more mature and slightly better than the shows on channels owned by politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen”, he further added.
A house wife, Saeeda, when ascertained on the issue replied with utter dissatisfaction with the quality of TV programs. “Nowadays, there is a broad spectrum of TV dramas that I can watch on my cable TV. However, the quality of the dramas has immensely deteriorated compared to the good old days of PTV. The standards have fallen drastically from the time when Ruhi Bano, Uzma Gillani and Khailda Riasat were on my screen. The dilemma is that I do not have an option. I can either watch whatever is on offer or don’t watch TV. In order to pass my time, I choose to watch this junk.” A student of Philosophy at Punjab University, Hasssan Arshad, commented that “I don’t even watch Pakistani dramas. Whenever I switch on TV, I find some woman crying, which I cannot relate to. So, I download American TV shows and watch them.” The youngsters are completely oblivious to the happenings on TV in Pakistan.
The need of the hour is to tilt the balance of Pakistani dramas in favor of issue based TV programming. In the past, several Pakistani dramas have broken away with the set traditions of the society and presented non-conforming ideas for the change of attitude toward a certain issue. For instance, in Shahzori (60’s), a woman would go out of home and work and her husband who was rather effeminate will stay home and cook. In effect, it epitomizes the role reversal which were path breaking for that era. Likewise, Janjalpura and Aangan Terha had represented transgender people in a constructive manner without trivializing their problems. Later on, with the advent of Cable TV, Moorat and Qadoosi Sahab ki Bewa have followed suit. Issue based TV plays like Marvi based on abandoning long established conservative traditions, Nijaat which was based on family planning, Zaib-un-Nisa on discouraging domestic violence, Ankahi, Tanhayan and Shazori on gender empowerment had a strong impact on our society. These TV plays were perfect vehicles to highlight important issues, raise awareness and put the society on the right path.
In short, there is a strong evidence for the productive role which media can play in shaping the attitude of the viewers. However, the decision makers and the regulators as well as the drama industry at large need to realize the responsibility which is entrusted on them to lead the society in a positive trajectory. Most of the problems our society is facing today arise from intolerance, violence and lack of acceptability. The recognition of the potential of issue based programming in Pakistan to promote tolerance, respect and safety of marginalized groups in society is a dire need. The producers, directors, writers, actors, as well as the viewers themselves should assume the responsibility for a society free of discrimination, hatred and violence.