Of plays and ‘players’
By our plays, I refer to our television plays. Once, the radio used to air plays, but not anymore. The foundations of television plays were laid by the same people who performed on the radio. They continue to keep the plays alive and thriving, despite getting on quite considerably in years. Now, the radio has become a medium of meaningless chatter. Should the RJ feel the need to sneeze or take a breath while s/he is speaking, a few minutes of a noisy song will hit the airwaves. However, the poor TV plays are constantly fighting all sorts of problems.
When resources were few, talent, dedication and passion came to the rescue, propelling our plays to the top. Today, we are proud of the TV plays produced during those times. There was a consistency, the desire to learn and teach. There were people who recognised true talent. Despite the limited resources, great plays were produced in Pakistan. These plays not only gave the world of literature and art some eminent names but also left indelible impressions upon the people. If we were to follow in the footsteps of our senior artistes, our TV plays wouldn’t have to worry about the problems faced by the industry today.
General Mujib, known as the army’s expert in psychological warfare during General Zia’s regime, was the first one to interfere with our plays. He held extensive meetings with the greatest playwrights of that time and convinced them to write about a certain ideology. Today, we are still cultivating the fruits of that time. Then, General Musharraf came and meddled with our plays for a second time. He beat drums of enlightenment while simultaneously strengthening fundamentalism in the country.
Countless channels were launched and they continue to run. One channel gives birth to another and so on. One channel shows every breaking news that comes up, another channel shows TV plays, while a third has assumed the responsibility of breaking music’s limbs. A fourth channel is all about food and recipes, while a fifth is out to solve all problems related to deen and duniya.
When we just had PTV, there was a single play aired on television instead of 35 different ones. That one play was watched by people who gave it their full attention. The audience was vocal about their views on every play that was aired. Newspapers and magazines published reviews that criticised and praised those plays. But nowadays, every channel owns a newspaper which starts publicising every major play it airs, praising it to the highest degree. There is no room left for critical reviews anymore.
Very few newspapers continue to follow the old tradition of critical reviews but getting published in these is a feat in itself. The recognition that the artistes used to get is hardly to be seen.
More production houses sprouted to complement the growth of these channels. All the big business people started investing in the industry. Actors, directors and producers began to flourish. Actors film about four projects simultaneously. They play a businessman in one project and a young lover in another. Then they host a morning show on another channel. Writers write with both hands according to the wishes of the director, producer and investor. So the people who weren’t actually related to this field became an integral part of it.
All the producers and investors began to cut their spending on TV plays. When someone gains some ‘market value’, a common term used by them, s/he begins to prosper financially. The rest, however, remain lost in the maze that is our TV industry. Their work is done on credit, except for a handful of channels and production houses. The producers and directors of PTV received training before entering the industry. But now, anyone can join the industry to apply their luck, regardless of credentials or talent.
Paltry are the conditions under which our TV industry mass-produces and sells TV plays. The basic story remains the same, they just tweak it a bit to produce a ‘twist’. The playwrights are paid to write 13 episodes but when that play goes on air, it has 23 instead. The actual play is aired for about four minutes and advertisements take up to eight minutes of the total duration.
If a play is a huge success, then everyone will regurgitate that particular storyline and present it to the viewers under a new name, sometimes, with the same actors! Some channel surfing will help you realise that the same actors in at least three different plays on different channels portraying the same character they always portray.
Who needs a script editor when the producers and directors have no habit of reading? They barely have time for listening to the synopsis of plays, so the playwright just writes the script with the help of his/her memory of the discussion s/he had with them.
On one hand, there are the Indian soaps that continue to influence the viewers. On the other hand, our talk shows, cooking shows and even TV plays are now being dominated by religion. The Army too has begun to produce TV plays through which they attempt to keep the patriotism alive. In such a situation, the people who come home in the evening after a tiring day would like to watch something entertaining.
Advertising companies prefer to invest in those shows that have the highest ratings. So they have shut down most cable TV channels and show the same Indian soaps on their channels now. Whatever can be obtained at the cheapest rate and yields the most revenue is what everyone in this industry desires now.
One channel decided to conduct a new experiment by buying the rights to a Turkish TV play, dubbed it in Urdu and started airing it. The viewers, sick of the same old stuff, became quite engrossed.
We could have worked harder. We could have rectified our mistakes instead of blaming others. Our TV industry is filled with talent. People used to enter the industry to try their luck in acting or directing but now we have a new generation of actors and directors entering the industry, fully equipped with training, creativity and talent. However, those who are already established in this industry are used to multiplying their money without doing much. They are also stuck in the quagmire of marketing and ratings. Showing Turkish plays to the public has become the easy way out for them.
In all fairness, our public gets bored very quickly. After sending someone to the Assembly one day, it is prepared to kick them out the next day. The same thing is in store for Turkish plays. So if your brain is fully functional, then kindly offer something original to the viewers. Use the huge amount of talent that is available within the TV industry. You will look different from the rest, as well as look good. Spend some more instead of blindingly accumulating more money. Use your resources to train your employees instead of just squeezing every last drop out of them and then throwing away all the remains.
To be honest with you, our plays are not threatened by external factors. The real threat is internal. Rallies and protests won’t produce any results. Look at yourself, as well as around you. There is a lot of talent but we need someone to respect, recognise and nurture it. You will be gone one day so leave someone who will keep your name and our plays alive after you have gone.
The author has dabbled in every form of the visual arts. An activist to the core, Abro’s work deals with social themes and issues ranging from human rights to dictatorial regimes. He is currently working for DAWN as an illustrator.