Through a screen, darkly

Pakistani cable operators, following the cyclical escalation of imagined hatreds, discontinued the transmission of Indian satellite channels in 2002. The absence of Indian TV soaps, fodder for an entertainment hungry populace, was widely mourned. Once, not long ago, the axiomatic edge of Pakistan’s TV serials was widely acknowledged both in Pakistan and in India. No longer. This is the age of the market, of selling dreams and drama, of converting the stereotype into a saleable commodity and citing it on the cultural stock exchange.

The popularity of Hindi language soaps is not limited to Pakistan. I have seen squatters in Dhaka’s decrepit Bihari camp, Bangladesh’s largest no man’s land, glued to their colour TV sets. Here, Biharis lack citizenship; they are technically Pakistani, having opted for the Land of the Pure at the cessation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Pakistan doesn’t want them and so they continue to live in limbo. Yet, Star Plus is still beamed 24/7 into their tiny, cramped, leaking shacks. Indian soaps have made inroads even into Afghanistan, that newly liberated project of global corporate interests. They were wildly popular until the Afghan government banned them as inimical to Afghani values.

The soaring audience of Star Plus and Zee TV serials, with their in-your-face parivar mantras, is known all too well. The hype is also a constructed story of success and market acquisition. On the face of it, the commodification of entertainment is a global phenomenon. So what’s the problem, one might ask, given that most of us post-colonial wannabes in South Asia want to integrate into the global economy and its uniform cultural variants? Junk food, designer brands, pop music and the corporate media ethos are all “signs of progress.” […]