Pakistani Showbiz

Cry us a river

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In 1975 when I was just 9 years old, one of my cousins who was many years older than me vetoed my desire to watch a Steve McQueen thriller. Instead, he dragged me to watch a film ‘Mera naam hai mohabbat’ (My name is love), starring his favorite actress Babra Sharif.

Watching that film turned out to be a rather traumatic experience for a 9-year-old me. I just remember Babra crying in the most animated manner, suffering from cancer and coughing blood all over the place, and the hero, Ghulam Mohiyuddin, shedding tons of tears with a constantly trembling lower lip.

The other thing I remember about the experience was a host of women in the audience quietly sobbing. It was like a collective catharsis of sorts for the audiences in the cinema hall, watching a young woman dying from cancer. The film was a super hit.

 Traumatic experience: A video still from 1975 tearjerker, Mera naam hai mohabbat.
Traumatic experience: A video still from 1975 tearjerker, Mera naam hai mohabbat.

Even though the Pakistan film industry began to cave-in from the 1980s onwards, by then the whole jazbat (emotion) bits in local films had already begun to look and sound like unintentional self-parodies.

Nevertheless, the industry might have collapsed and the once adored Shehensha-e-Jazbat(Kings/Queens of Emotions) relegated to the dustbin of silver screen history overflowing with cheap glycerin, today, even in one of the most cynical and jaded eras of our existence as a nation, most Pakistanis still claim their people to be quite ‘jazbati’ (emotional).

The claim has become a catch-all excuse to explain away the many embarrassing moments that continue to keep us under the critical eye of other nations.

It may be horrid episodes of ‘honour killings,’ or events in which mobs beat and burn to death perceived ‘blasphemers,’ or people foaming at the mouth and calling anyone they disagree with a ‘traitor,’ ‘kafir,’ or ‘foreign agent’.

Apparently, all this happens not because we have gradually turned into blobs of intolerance, hypocrisy or a nation on the verge of some kind of a psychosomatic meltdown, but ‘because we are a very emotional nation.’

The film industry and its kings and queens of jazbat have become a thing of the past, but recently the mushrooming of privately-owned TV channels have proven that there is still a huge market out there for it.

For example, though most vapid but animated conspiracy theorists may now have become unintentional self-parodies, as well on our TV screens drawing more laughs than awe, many of them actually shot to prominence by playing the crying game.

I remember in 2007 during a ‘special lecture’ that one such character delivered on a local TV channel on Pakistan’s day of independence (August 14), he regularly punctuated his usual spiel against Jews, Hindus, the US and politicians with sobs and tears.

Of course, since we are an oh-so-emotional nation, most urban middle-class audiences concluded that he must be right; not because they dispassionately investigated his runaway theories, but because his sobbing seemed rather … erm … ‘genuine.’

For a number of years now many privately owned TV channels have begun to draw up humongous budgets for ‘special Ramazan transmissions.’

Gone are the days when one simply expected the usual clerics talking about the benefits of fasting on TV in the evenings during Ramazan. They are fast being replaced by actors, actresses, cricketers, pop singers, talk-show and morning show hosts who suddenly (and for a hefty price) go all ‘Islamic’, as if they had suddenly been bestowed with the ability to walk on water.

They, along with the channels that hire them, know that ever since the 1980s, faith has rapidly mutated into becoming a lucrative industry in Pakistan.

Apart from promising heaven in the hereafter, it also has the potential of turning in huge monetary profits in the here-and-now.

But putting on the screen a pretty and known face with a sudden dupatta or hijab over her head, or a sporting hunk who suddenly discovers the health benefits of Arabian dates and camel milk during Ramazan is not enough.

All these are expected to attract maximum pious attention during the Ramazan transmission by bolstering their devout talks targeted at the urban bourgeois who are an important target market for food, drink and cooking oil brands in Ramazan — who in turn demand well-known and smartly (but ‘religiously’) dressed men and women on TV during Ramazan evenings to watch religious soap operas with lots of cosmetic dialogue washed by rivers of tears.

 Tears on demand during Ramazan.
Tears on demand during Ramazan.

Does it matter that the Ramazan circus on TV includes a televangelist who some years ago was accused of instigating violence against a ‘heretical’ community; or a cricketer who was caught biting a cricket ball during a match (though I’m still a huge fan of his); or a woman who hired extras to impersonate ‘immoral couples’ in Karachi’s parks so she could chase them down with a mic, camera and all; or a pop-star-turned-preacher who refuses to show faces of women in ads for his line of designer clothes but is quite okay to show his own face on TV?

It just doesn’t matter because theirs would be tears of joy; about the fruits awaiting them in the afterlife, and, of course, the joy of receiving a hefty pay cheque from their piously pleased employers.

But the crying bits, that one usually come across in most morning shows were first introduced by American TV shows in the 1980s that largely catered to an audience of women between the ages of 30 and beyond. Guests were encouraged to share their most emotional experiences and the ratings of such shows usually shot up when the guests (from celebrities, to common folk to those suffering from psychological or physical traumas), would eventually begin to shed tears.

Many European TV channels too began to follow the trend so much so that in 2003, a group of famous Belgian satirists parodied the ‘emotional TV show format’ during a sketch they did for their weekly show, Boomerang.

The sketch features a presenter of a serious talk show breaking into fits of giggles after hearing the voice of one of his guests, who spoke in a squeaky manner due to a failed tonsillectomy.

The sketch was done so realistically, that some TV channels in the US and India thought it was the real thing and exhibited their disgust at a TV show host laughing at his suffering guests!

The sketch that also became an instant YouTube phenomenon, used satire to laugh at and mock the cynical practice of using choreographed tragedy and crying to attract audiences and most importantly, ratings:


By Nadeem F. Paracha

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

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