Why do Indians like Pakistani soap operas so much?

An Indian television channel is airing syndicated content from Pakistan for the first time. Several of the shows have become surprise hits.

Anupam Nath/AP/File
A family gathers to watch television in their home in Gauhati, India, Friday, May 16, 2014. A new television station, Zindagi TV, (not pictured), recently became the first Indian station to broadcast syndicated content from longtime rival Pakistan.

The girl is a strong-minded introvert. Unlike her sisters, she's not interested in pursuing romance. The boy is wealthy and flirtatious. In college they clash, until the boy gets close enough to fall in love with her.

It's a typical Pakistani drama, but with a twist – Indian audiences are tuning in. For the first time, an Indian TV channel is broadcasting syndicated programs from Pakistan, a country that India has gone to war against four times in 67 years. The serials are giving Indian viewers a peek into the daily lives of Pakistanis and also shattering some stereotypes about the neighboring country.

“It was the best drama serial I have ever watched,” says Priyanka Kapoor, a Delhi-based software professional. “It felt like a Jane Austen story. It was good to portray a heroine who wasn’t just caught up in her looks and make-up.”

When plans for the channel, Zindagi TV, were announced, there was speculation that it would be rejected by Indian viewers. Instead, it has become a hit among many national TV critics and urbanites who are tuning in and buzzing about it on social media since its debut in June. The industry site IndianTelevision.com called it "a bet that worked."

Ratings are up, too. According to India's Television Audience Measurement, a private ratings company, the channel exceeded expectations for early viewership, beating several other Indian entertainment channels. It still lags far behind the most popular shows. 

What sets Pakistani dramas apart, according to Indian TV critics, is their fast pace (Pakistani dramas are over in three months, compared to years for Indian shows), more realistic settings (middle-class houses instead of mansions), and, unlike Bollywood-inspired dramas, a lack of singing. 

The warm reception is "prompting Indian producers to do a rethink on the content they churn out," a columnist for the Indian newssite DNA wrote recently.

Zindagi TV dramas include one centered on a poor orphaned girl who goes through turbulent times, a family drama that revolves around the lives of sisters, and one that shows the extreme divide between Pakistan’s rich and the poor. 

Cross-border fans

While Bollywood has a huge fan following across the border in Pakistan, Indian love for Pakistan’s drama serial is also no secret. In the late 1980s, Indian audiences were queuing up outside video shops to get their hands on Pakistani TV shows – Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan. Many were installing TV antennas to access Pakistani TV channels.

Now about three decades later, when Zindagi was created to show nothing but Pakistani TV shows, the Indian audience has connected again with the shows. And this time the soap operas are more widely available across the country. The channel is available with a basic cable package, costing about $6 per month. (India is estimated to have more than 100 million homes with cable and satellite television, out of a population of 1.2 billion.)

Parveen Kaur, a housewife in Delhi, grew up listening to her father's stories about his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore, which he had to leave during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

“I have never been to Pakistan," says Ms. Kaur. “The channel fills a vacuum. It gives us a sense about the land which our parents left behind. Their stories are so similar to ours.”

The channel attempts to draw upon cultural similarities and the vast numbers of people on both sides of the border speak essentially the same language – Urdu, Pakistan's national tongue, have strong similarities to Hindi. Although TV shows from Turkey and Egypt will be added to the lineup, the channel will initially only offer Pakistani serials. 

Pakistan media has also praised the success of Pakistani serials in India. The headline of Pakistan's newspaper Dawn read "Pakistani drama serials win hearts in India." But Fawad Khan, one of the most popular Pakistani actors who played a leading role in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, one of the most popular Zindagi shows, has drawn flak back home in Pakistan for his decision to enter Bollywood. He is unperturbed, though, and says art is something that travels across all borders.

"There will be people who will criticize. They are entitled to their opinion,” Mr. Fawad told reporters in Mumbai. “Even if someone from India goes to work there, someone or the other will make noise."

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