Indian media’s cultural influence on Pakistan

BY Zainab Mahmood| IN Media Practice | 06/08/2004
The reality is that cable TV does not require a visa nor does it bend under the pressure of conservative and religious lobbies.

Zainab Mahmood

Television is the first truly democratic culture, the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is, what the people want. ---Clive Barnes

The release of a star-studded Indian block-buster last year, inspired the attire and jewellery for countless Pakistani brides who enthusiastically tried to get their wedding planners to re-enact the "Devdas setting" complete with the gau takias, silk sheets and other adornments. The Indian culture, amongst others, has permeated through the television screen and people are spending oodles of time and money on spicing up wedding "rasms". Singing of Pakistani songs is now passé and instead we must have 8 elaborately choreographed dances, to the upbeat tempo of Indian tracks, including sets and props! In a few years from now the young generation will be amused by the songs we grew up hearing and will ask "what¿s lathay dee chadar?"

The release of "Kal ho Na ho" last year enthused a dance craze. We were stunned by the flawless choreography of a 12-year-old at my best friend¿s wedding last winter. The teenage crowd completely overshadowed us with their enviable knowledge of Indian songs and dance moves. One such enthusiast, 14 year-old-Faiza confessed "I enjoy Indian dramas and films especially the remixed songs. My friends and I pick up fashion trends from the hip Bollywood actresses too".

These trends are indicative of an interest that has existed for generations. The post-partition Pakistan saw its people enchanted with Indian cinema, as our film industry struggled and eventually dwindled into oblivion. At that point, we were faced with a void and sporadic lack lustre local productions that failed to impress or attract an audience. Even the banning of Indian films in the 60¿s did not stifle the interest. People continued to tune into radios to "listen" to Indian film stories and songs. Thousands flew to Lahore from all over Pakistan to watch "Pakeezah" being shown on Doordarshan (an Indian channel the Lahoris managed to catch on their antennas) back then.

Then came the state-run TV in Pakistan, and its nationalism, low-budget videos and even some note-worthy drama serials failed to hold the audience for long. The VCR phenomenon saved the day and pirate Indian films were rented in thousands. The "Satellite dish" arrived in the early 90¿s we were bedazzled by Zee, Star Plus, Sony, B4U and MTV India. With so many choices, family members gathered round their TV sets, even during meal times and sitting room discussions revolved around the Indian soaps and films. Unsuspectingly we have begun to emulate the clothes, the language and the lifestyle they project. You would be amazed at how much "Hindi" we understand and use today. Whether we like to admit it or not, the length and styles of our kurtas and pants fluctuate with what Kareena, Rani or some actress in a TV soap was seen wearing (even our tailors are familiar with Bollywood trends). The promos for Pakistani music awards that are yet to air confirm just this. The hostess is not only making a somewhat misguided effort to do a Joan River-esque red carpet  stint but she is also wearing the exact replica of an evening dress worn by a Bollywood leading lady in "Dil Chahta Hai".

The concept of family entertainment in Pakistan has undergone a radical change as a result of the Indian electronic media during the last decade. We are no longer easily offended by actresses prancing about in revealing outfits and their suggestive dialogues and dance moves. The popularity of Indian TV channels and cinema has forced Pakistani media to take stock. The new private cable channels with their serials, soaps and song videos and enticing advertisements are trying hard to catch up. Pakistani producers are now churning out a new drama serial almost every week with steamy storylines. Many of our film actresses are seen taking dance lessons and learning to speak English. (Is Reema vying for a break in Bollywood?).

Their media portrays a nation of fairly educated musicians, actors and sportsmen, forcing many of our celebrities to undergo image improvement. Encouraged by the success of Indian celebrities endorsing commercial products, our corporate sector has begun to use film and pop stars to catch the fancy of the audience. We cannot help but wonder if Shaan has been picked up by Indian producers? Or will Inzie and Shoiab be the next faces for corporate products? All in all we are taking a crack at giving our industry a facelift so it appeals to all sections of society within and outside Pakistan. It has to be said, with improved programming and presentation, our soaps and some shows are now dangerously close to appearing Indian. A change of outfit and a few added words of Hindi would leave you questioning which side of the border the programmes were produced.

One can argue that the Indian media overwhelmed the audience and now our new TV channels are just trying to give the viewers what they have always wanted. On the flip side, perhaps by emulating the Indian media we convey to the audience that our cultures are identical and that we have to follow the Indian lifestyle and trends to move with the times. Satellite TV tantalised the audience in the 90¿s and paved the way for the cable network which flooded thousands of homes and fascinated all kinds of people across cities and villages in Pakistan. From the classic films of Amitabh, Rekha and Rafi to the contemporary age of Shahrukh, Kareena and Sonu, Indian cinema has something which will appeal to all generations.

Mrs Zia, a housewife from Karachi confesses "The saas-bahu and family politics storylines of Star Plus plays are so fast-paced. I watch them quite often as they offer a good break from the monotony of domestic life". Even the youngsters are not too far behind. 16-year-old Daud from Pindi finds himself hooked to the Indian dramas and films during vacations and Ayesha, a 6-year-old living in a small town near Lahore religiously watches Aishwariya Rai films and knows the lyrics of all her famous songs. On the other hand Zakia, a young mother from Faisalabad bemoans, "Indian films are vulgar and send the wrong message. I don¿t want my children to grow up thinking that this is the norm, and learning to be devious and manipulative from the dramas." That  represents the view of a handful of mothers today.

 In Pakistan today the popularity of Indian media and music far exceeds the interest in our local productions. In fact adding anything Indian ensures that your product sells, which is evident from Indian celebrities featured in our music videos, fashion shows and exhibitions. The production of low-budget popular spoofs of hit Indian films and our versions of their popular song and dance sequences drive this point home. Amna, a 25-year-old artist from Karachi insists "Indian media is basically good value for money. You can tell they make an effort to attract the viewer. Their entire package is better than the run of the mill entertainment we get here. I¿ve noticed they are really nationalistic in their films and serials too, which we haven¿t been able to do successfully".

 Bilal, a Pakistani-British 21-year-old graduate shares the view of young Pakistanis living abroad, "Indians offer a corny brand of escapism that we can relate to because they look and talk like us. It¿s a good laugh to watch Indian songs with our white friends who enjoy it too".  Many of the affluent young "desis" living here and abroad depict the subtle influences. The "kurta" and "chapal" trend, the hairstyles and to some extent even the language, in young people today is influenced by the fashion vibes from Bollywood stars.

Anglo-Indian cinema has recently come in vogue, especially abroad. The likes of "Monsoon wedding" and "Bend it like Beckham" have provided "desis" everywhere, a chance to watch something they can relate to. The popularity of independent Indian ventures such as "Leela" and "Everybody says I¿m fine" and their success at film festivals abroad proves that even such films can find an audience. Therefore young Pakistani film-makers have been encouraged to walk the same path as can be seen form the success of the Kara and Mateela film festivals across Pakistan.

We cannot credit the entire change in our society or our entertainment industry to Indian influence. Natural evolution, social and political changes have also exerted their power. But as cable TV has percolated into the cities and even small towns, its dominance is cannot be denied. The reality is, cable TV does not require a visa nor does it bend under the pressure of conservative and religious lobbies. Such groups are indeed helpless now. Even the Indian celebrities (from Urmila to Arundhati Roy) that have visited us were overwhelmed by the multitude of fans that were eager to meet them. Now that the Indians have realized that a big market exists here, we will see more collaborative ventures. Indian drama serials on our channels, sharing of playback singers (Strings, Fuzon and Aaroh spearheading the trend) and joint hosting of programmes (the Indian comperes are extremely professional whilst the Pakistani counterpart leaves a lot to be desired.) Up till now we have passionately idolized and revered Indian celebrities and their world of glamour. Only recently has the healthy exchange of talent and productions begun and now the Indians will have a chance to see what we have to offer (we hope our current stars meet a better fate than Somy Ali and Zeba Bakhtiar).

The fact remains that the Indian entertainment industry has been flourishing for years and is now a global player. With a home market of over a billion people it can afford to invest heavily in local media and attract foreign interest. Today our people are responding positively to this new brand of Pakistani entertainment. As Anoushey, a popular VJ for a local channel comments "Indian media has served as a tutorial for us, helping us extract the good and learn from the bad, thus improving the quality of our music and TV shows. But I personally feel we remain unique in terms of our sound, style and expression".  

What remains to be seen is how tomorrow¿s young adults will show the effects of growing up in a time of computers, Britney Spears and supremacy of Indian media. We may just end up paying a higher price than we bargained for. In the race to "Indianise" our media, are we evolving with the times or burying our own heritage? Will we be successful in carving our own niche eventually, or will the technologically savvy Indian industry usurp our culture and society? After all there might be something to "if you can¿t beat ¿em join ¿em" philosophy.

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