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Pakistan: From a television viewers perspective
Vandana K Mittal | 12 Mar 2008

As someone who grew up watching Pakistan TV I can not help but notice how television has mirrored the changes in the country through the decades.

As I watch the news of bomb blasts, in Pakistan, day after day, I get a strong sense of déjà vu. And no I am not one of those who harbor the notion that somehow our neighbor is a country perpetually teetering on the brink of disaster. That view of Pakistan is more a media generated one and has been around for a long time now.
Let me tell you why I have not shared that disastrous view of Pakistan that the world media has and why I talk now of a sense of déjà vu. I grew up very close to the Indo-Pak border at Wagah. As a child living there my view of Pakistan was shaped by what I saw on their state TV.
 
 I moved from the national capital, where the stodgy Doordarshan was busy putting its audiences to sleep, to the border area in January 1972. Post the hostilities of 1971 when the border areas again started receiving broadcasts of Pakistan TV (PTV) I was blown away by the quality of their programming and the sheer variety their channel offered.
 
 At a time when Amritsar had yet to get any television broadcasts at all, here was our neighbor beaming in TV serials, movies, the latest American detective and space series. They had delightful children’s programs coupled with studio performances by such artists as Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali. For those of us who grew up watching PTV these artistes were household names before the rest of India discovered them in the eighties. Star Trek, Lost in Space, The Adventurers, Starsky and Hutch were our favorite shows. 
And while we had our dignified but expressionless Salma Sultana and Pratima Puri the PTV had a host of pretty, young girls with beautiful hair styles reading news with enthusiasm and expression.
 
Things went on happily. We learnt Urdu from the TV classes that one ‘ustad ji ‘held for the adult population of Pakistan. We admired how a Muslim nation got the message of birth control and small families through a hilarious serial called House Full. No preaching, no overt messages that could anger the clerics, just good old humor pressed into the service of the nation. This was when we in India had simply plastered our walls with the slogan, ‘Hum Do, Hamare Do’. From addressing the problems generated by the feudal mentality in Sindh and Punjab to highlighting the importance of woman’s emancipation, Pakistan did it all through serials based on good stories and acting.
 
Then with the political trouble in Pakistan, in 1977, things changed dramatically on TV. The pretty young newsreaders started covering their hair, the clerics started coming more often on TV and the number of programs with religious themes went on increasing in direct proportion to the decrease in the number of western programs. As children we did not understand  the implications or reasons for this but as adults we came to understand that this was a direct result of the good general (Zia ul Haq) making a pact with the religious front to bring legitimacy to his military regime that in 1979 created history of sorts by hanging the nation’s elected prime minister.
 
Over the 1980’s we watched as the great story based serials begin to fade away from the screens, there was less humor and more footage of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Around this time India’s TV industry began to show some signs of growing up and I shifted allegiance to Buniyaad and Ramayan on my telly
 
I revisited PTV off and on in the nineties but only to rue the disappearance of the gifted writers and actors from the screens. As Pakistan worked on its policy of gaining ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and  slowly bleeding India by fomenting unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, the state TV looked more and more like the mouth piece of the successive governments. I could not help but compare the new strident tone with the charmingly honest and fresh one I had heard in childhood. An adult by now I could not get rid of the feeling that the apparent loss of independent and divergent views would somehow bring woe to the nation.
 
Now another decade,another military coup and one more 'Bhutto assassination' later, I can not help the feeling that this was bound to happen, that I saw it coming The apparent ease with which the Taliban and Al- Qaeda  inspired suicide bombers seem able to breach the Pakistani security is an indication that the ‘madrasas’ that mushroomed to serve  the Afghan and Kashmir causes’ have done their job a bit too well. The footage on TV looks eerily similar to that emanating from the bloody streets of Baghdad. Which way will Pakistan go now? The people have spoken through the recent elections and it is up to the elected leaders to grab the opportunity and stem the tide of violence.
 
As a long term viewer of Pakistan’s television I will know this has happened when good programs return to the screen, when their serials stop looking like clones of Ekta Kapoor’s serials and when the amazing script writers of yore return to cast their spell.