The Pakistani entertainment industry needs to take a hard look at streaming services during the lockdown. There is no question that streaming services are quickly taking over entertainment across the world. Not just big names like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but local streaming services like CBS All Access and HBO Max in the US, and ZEE5 and Voot in India, are slowly pumping out original content.
Pakistan does have local alternatives like StarzPlay and Binjee, but people, in general, are scarcely aware of their existence. The former doesn’t put out any original local programming, and the latter’s offerings are limited to short films and micro-series. In comparison, India has put out multiple web series and films on both Amazon Prime and Netflix, and is slowly improving its library of local content on local platforms as well.
Only one major name in Pakistani entertainment has managed to release a web series that has gained traction. Wajahat Rauf’s ‘Enaaya’, starring Mehwish Hayat was released to praise and fanfare in 2019. However, the pilot was made available on YouTube, and the entire series was available on Eros Now, an Indian platform. Eros Entertainment is an established platform in India, so there’s nothing wrong with releasing a series there. However, the series didn’t do much to push web series production into full gear or even half gear in Pakistan. The story was neither explosive enough nor intriguing enough to do so.
There’s no question as to the potential for a web series audience in Pakistan. As of December 2019, there are 76 million 3G/4G subscribers in Pakistan, as well as 78 million broadband subscribers. All of them are consuming online content, be it on YouTube, Netflix, or any other platform. So what are the problems facing the production of web series?
A Great Story
In order to get the Pakistani TV watching audience interested in a web series, there needs to be something extremely intriguing within the plot; something they haven’t seen before, or at least for a long time. Just as Waar kick started the film industry, something just as explosive needs to do the same for web series in Pakistan.
I know that everyone has basically read 10,000 different things about ‘Ertugrul Ghazi’ by now, but it’s the most relevant example to give. Its worldwide appeal is undeniable. Either through Netflix or through the TRT/PTV YouTube channel, episodes are racking up millions of views every day. The action choreography, the historical plot, and the beautiful cinematography have pulled in audiences from around the world.
Pakistan needs something similarly appealing. That’s not to say that we should develop a show about the Mughals or the Delhi Sultanate. However, there is a wealth of unexplored literature in Pakistan to draw from. Television of the past 30 years hasn’t even scratched the surface of that world even as it lies at their feet.
Lack of Creative Freedom
Netflix and Amazon Prime are noted for giving complete freedom to their teams. Multiple actors, comedians, writers, and producers have praised both platforms for allowing them to work with autonomy. That’s something that is severely lacking in Pakistan, as evidenced by the recent ban on Zindagi Tamasha. Some would say that’s always been the case in Pakistan. Film bans and television bans are nothing new. However, the boundaries of creative expression have certainly closed in since the days of old media.
Khamosh Raho (1964) became a Golden Jubilee despite clearly having an anti-dictatorship message, and that too during the Ayub Khan regime. The PTV show Baleela was allowed to air for 8 or 9 episodes before the Zia Ul Haq regime took it off the air for cleverly satirizing their government. The same can be said for the ban on ‘Insan Aur Gadha’ (1973) by the Bhutto regime for satirizing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s speeches (though the ban was eventually lifted later).
Today, the dearth of content in Pakistani Cinema and television speaks to either the deterioration of the audience’s taste and the producers’ eye for a good script, or to the constraints placed on creativity in general.
No One Knows How to Sell a Web Series
The third and most obvious reason is the lack of experience. There has never been an overwhelmingly successful web series in Pakistan. PakistaniCinema.Net got in touch with Shamoon Abbasi, who is planning his own web series based on murderer Javed Iqbal to talk about the lack of experience concerning web platforms in Pakistan.
“Honestly no one really has a clue about web series and how to sell them.” In his opinion, many claims to be working on web shows, but they end up being limited releases on YouTube or Facebook. Furthermore, he also emphasized the lack of original, creative content.
“The problem is that we aren’t yet trained in creating an algorithm for our viewers. Our minds are still stuck in Saas Bahu dramas. Until we don’t think outside the box, we can’t make our own platforms. We might rely on foreign platforms, but the problem is they don’t like our content.”
When we brought up the point about Indian web shows doing well, he repeated the point about creative freedom. “They let all kinds of filmmakers take the lead when it comes to web series. They let people work on various ideas and believe in the process of content creation, no matter the budgets or actors.”
His point certainly rings true in light of the success of Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime. The series has received critical acclaim and extensive coverage without a single big wig from Bollywood being involved. Sure, the series has been produced by Anushka Sharma, but on screen, only niche film stars make appearance. The protagonist for instance, is played by Jaideep Ahlawat, known chiefly for his role as ‘Shahid Khan’ in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’. Another notable name in the cast is ‘Neeraj Kabi’. However, he is known most for playing roles in niche films or art films like ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, ‘Ship of Theseus’, and ‘Talvar’.
The Bottom Line
Unless Pakistani entertainment execs and producers can come up with an original concept that strikes a chord with the masses, web series won’t truly take off in the country. International competition in entertainment is much tougher than ever before. When a series like ‘Money Heist’, which is in Spanish, can top Google searches in Pakistan, there really is no boundary to good content anymore.
With the airing of ‘Ertugrul Ghazi’, the Pakistani audience has gotten a taste of how a popular show from across thousands of miles can have a huge impact. If Pakistan is to compete, it has to do the same.