Turkish soap operas started to dominate the Pakistani television landscape in 2012, and while its ratings dominance has dropped, the shows are still enormously popular in the country.

I avoid watching Pakistani entertainment channels offering run of-the mill soap operas featuring glamorised middle class lives. 

Many of my generation—which grew up on socially-engaged teleplays produced by the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV)—remain dismissive of the present crop of soap operas dominating the small screen, and nostalgically recalls the 'the golden age' of 1970s and1980s Pakistani television.

However, I had a rude awakening back in 2012 while having hair cut at a barber shop in my home town of Sargodha in the Punjabi heartland. The barber had his eyes half-glued to the TV screen while trimming my hair. Afraid that he might hurt me with his pair of scissors, I politely reprimanded him for not paying heed to his work. 

“Sorry, I missed IIshq-e-Memnu (Forbidden Love) episode last night. I do not want to miss its repeat broadcast”, he replied with a sheepish grin to justify his inattention.  

A few weeks following this conversation, I started finding the mention of Ishq-e-Mamnoon not merely in dinner table chit-chat but the play had penetrated news headlines too. 

While Pakistani production houses were demonstrating against Ishq-e-Mamnoon, television audiences had gone crazy for the play - pioneering an era of Turkish drama on Pakistani TV networks. 

Ishq-e-Mamnoon was atop the TRP charts (ratings) issued by audience measurement agencies. However, to understand the soap opera's phenomenal popularity in Pakistan, a brief curtain-raiser is required.

A brief history

The 1970s and 1980s are generally referred to as the heydays of TV drama in Pakistan. “Indians are good at film-making, we are good at TV drama,” was a common refrain during this era. To such an extent, that the word for TV serials in Pakistan became simply referred to as 'drama'.

PTV's 'dramas' spread far and wide in Asia and among PTV's clients one would find Channel 4 (UK), International Television (Canada), and Third World Broadcasting (USA). 

When commercial TV channels began to stream into Pakistani houses from 2003-04 onwards, there was a dearth of entertainment content. Moreover, commercial TV channels wanted to offer something unlike PTV. 

Meanwhile, Indian soap operas on Star Plus had won huge audiences in Pakistan. Consequently, not only did Pakistani channels start airing imported Indian soaps, Indian soap opera also became a ‘best drama practice’ worth emulating. 

This situation provided an opening for Turkish soap operas in 2012. The pioneering play, Ishq-e-Memnu (Turkish name), also introduced an economic dimension to the debate.

For the TV channels the Turkish soap opera was a cheaper option. At the time, one episode of a Turkish drama would cost a Pakistani TV station around $2,500-$4000 to broadcast while the production of a Pakistani show could run as much as, and even over, $10,000 per episode.

Today the costs have changed a bit, but it is still cheaper to buy a Turkish TV serial today.

Turkish soaps garnered good ratings in a short amount of time, thus all the major channels abruptly began to switch to foreign content. 

Turkish soaps replaced Indian soaps, a fact lamented in 2012 by the Times of India, India’s largest English language daily.

While, Turkish TV serials are cheap for Pakistani channels to buy, Pakistani media production houses could not match the huge production costs and superior production values. 

Consequently, sections of Pakistan’s entertainment industry reacted with outrage when Turkish soap operas began to dominate TV ratings. The United Producers Association, a body of Pakistani soap opera producers, staged protests, held press conferences to register their opposition and threatened legal action against ‘foreign content’.

But money makes the mare go as the old adage goes: after the success of Ishq-e-Mamnoon, Pakistani entertainment channels shelved a dozen ongoing local TV serials and purchased a number of Turkish programmes. 

Express Entertainment went to the extent of shelving an ongoing serial, Do Naina, and replaced it with an Urdu-dubbed Turkish drama. Farhan Shehzad the marketing director of Express Network, explained it as a ‘tactical move’ to counter the famous Turkish soap opera Ishq-e-Mamnoon on a rival channel, Urdu One. 

In less than a year, during 2013, seven Turkish serials were being aired on prime time on various networks.

The good news for the Pakistani industry is that the Pakistani television space has now become more competitive, and producers in Pakistan have risen to the challenge of trying to meet the superior production values of their foreign competitors.

Cultural capital

But economics alone cannot not explain the Pakistani embrace of Turkish productions since the economic factor fails to explain mass popularity among the audiences. The popularity of Turkish content on Pakistani screens is an established fact by now, even if the craze has died down to an extent today. 

The top channels don't rely on Turkish dramas for ratings the way they once used to, but smaller channels still do - and it works for them.

While Ishq-e-Mamnoon's popularity remains unsurpassed, Mera Sultan (Magnificent Century) and Fatmagul—both aired in 2013—proved to be huge successes. Likewise, Kosem Sultan, Fariha, and Kala Paisa Pyar (Black Money Love) have won huge audiences in Pakistan. 

A nuanced explanation on the popularity of Turkish plays on Pakistani channels will be hard to offer in the absence of scholarly research on the topic. However, a speculation is possible on the basis of personal observations and media reports.

Arguably, it was a combination of factors that popularised the rise of the Turkish serial in Pakistan. Firstly, it was an element of novelty: the Turkish fare was “Westernised” but not in the way Hollywood and BBC productions were, that aired for decades on PTV. 

From locations, faces and themes to the acting techniques, everything was refreshing. At the same time, owing to a predominantly Muslim audience, there was an element of cultural familiarity too. In the case of Mera Sultan, for instance, Pakistani audiences could also seek pride in a glorious Muslim past.

Secondly, unlike comparatively low-budget Pakistani soaps, the extravagant Turkish productions offer a grandeur and glamour that is often missing in Pakistani content. Hence, they offer an escape to an otherwise economically and culturally stranded urban classes whose aspirations don't often translate into reality.

Finally, Turkish soaps could breach media taboos. Fatmagul, for instance, narrates the struggle of a rape victim for justice. Or the loosely incestuous Ishq-e-Mamnoon might have been banned or heavily censored had it been a local production. 

These plays were a Turkish import, hence watched and tolerated with a geographical, and cultural, distance. True, conservatives screamed ‘vulgarity’ even in the Upper House of the Pakistani parliament. However, the Turkish ‘cultural invasion’ of Pakistan occurred at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party were feted by many as a model for Pakistan. 

Turkey continues to mystify Pakistan and Turkish TV serials have given Pakistani programming a run for its money. The cultural exchange will likely only increase if Pakistani production values can rise to meet the standards set by their Turkish counterparts. 

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