As a post-iftar feast, Pakistan’s primetime television now serves up at least one entertainment-filled (well, that’s the promise) daily soap in Ramadan which runs throughout the holy month. Its final episodes are cleverly timed with the sighting of the Shawwal Moon, or Chand Raat, which may fall on the 29th or 30th of Ramadan, leading up to the concluding mega episode on Eid day itself.
This Ramadan is no different, except that we’re now seeing a growing number of these soaps. Hum TV alone has churned out two — ‘Hum Tum’, starring Ahad Raza Mir, Ramsha Khan, Junaid Khan and Sara Khan; and ‘Paristan’, which features popular vlogger Taimoor Salahuddin aka Mooroo and content creator Arsalan Naseer alongside Aymen Saleem, Mira Sethi, Naveen Waqar, and Ali Safina; while Geo has produced Chaudhry & Sons, led by Ayeza Khan and Imran Ashraf.
In many ways, the trend of Ramadan soaps was started by Hum TV’s Suno ‘Chanda’ (2018), a breezy rom-com, headlined by Farhan Saeed and Iqra Aziz as the boisterous, bickering cousins living under one roof in a typical Pakistani, urban based, upper-middle-class household. It’s a household that’s teeming with grandparents, uncles and aunts, and nephews and nieces of all ages. When the serial opens, Saeed and Aziz’s characters, Arsal and Ajiya, are getting hitched. Soon it transpires that the match was made against their will. From then on, while everyone around them is shown planning a grand wedding reception, Arsal and Ajiya are ‘conspiring’ to call it off.
‘Suno Chanda’ went on to become the most successful drama serial of the year, catapulting screenwriter Saima Akram Chaudhry into the limelight. The show’s success was attributed especially to the variety of its supporting characters and the peculiar mannerisms and punch lines each of them is given. Be it Shahana’s humorous Punjabi catchphrase, “Nawa katta khul gya!” (we’ve got a whole new problem); or the monster of a kid, DJ (played by Sami Khan), with a wry smile and savage sense of humour, who is ever ready to video ‘family secrets’ on his mobile phone and then barter those (videos) for personal favours.
As Chaudhry puts it, “[Suno Chanda] was enjoyed by people of all age groups.”
‘Suno Chanda’ not only introduced ‘Ramadan soap’ as a sort of a sub-genre of TV comedy, it also proved to be a franchise starter. Come Ramadan 2019 and the makers, including the production house (MD Productions), were tempted to see a repeat of the magic.
The easiest way to achieve that would be to have a sequel. The next we knew, Hum TV had readied ‘Suno Chanda 2’, with recurring characters and introducing an even more hyper and colourful bunch such as the lovebirds Mithu (played by Raza Talish) and Maina (Sabeen Farooq), the loud Bebe (Arjumand Rahim), and the coquettish Nagina Chachi (Fariha Jabeen). It turned out to be a faithful reboot of the original, and nearly as successful. Chaudhry claims that the audiences have since been demanding a threequel.
There was a gap of one year, as production had slowed down in 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, before Hum TV came roaring back with an ensemble Ramadan soap, ‘Chupke Chupke’ (2021), penned by Chaudhry, again. With a stellar cast that includes Ayeza Khan, Osman Khalid Butt, Arsalan Naseer, and Aymen Saleem, the serial not only trounced the writer’s other Ramadan show in the same year — the Madiha-Imam-fronted Ishq Jalebi, on Geo TV — it also eclipsed Hum TV’s own, ‘Taana Baana’, which was broadcast in a different time-slot.
Taana Baana was scripted by Hassaan Imam, a relative newcomer, who seemed to work on Chaudhry’s ‘template’ of comedy, albeit somewhat loosely. Here we have a family of fewer uncles and aunts, and the lead pair — Zain and Zoya —get married early on in the play.
Taana Baana marked the acting debut of singer Danyal Zafar opposite Alizeh Shah. Its USP were its youthful freshness and a lilting OST, but it lost the race of Ramadan shows, precisely because its plot was a tad predictable and lacked dramatic twists and turns.
This year’s lot — Chaudhry & Sons, Hum Tum, and Paristan — arrive with a certain baggage: They all are modelled on Suno Chanda, with a few modifications here and there. There is considerable spice in the form of marriage-mongering and husband-hunting, and the screen is usually filled up by characters who are comic fools, and they utter dialogues that are often a weird concoction of Punjabi, English and Urdu, in funny accents.
Hum Tum and Chaudhry & Sons are both Chaudhry’s scripts, but Paristan is written by Samra Bukhari. Chaudhry says that she “was very conscious of the fact that [Hum Tum and Chaudhry & Sons] shouldn’t come out looking similar.” While Hum Tum is set in an educated, upper-middle-class household, Chaudhry & Sons is about a desi family from Punjab.
The good part is that these plays are unlike the ‘day soap,’ as we know it. For one thing, they don’t deal in saas-bahu conflicts; hence, there are no evil mothers-in-law or scheming daughters-in-law, no grieving women, no toxic men, and no victimisation. The women generally wear the pants in the house, and the men are docile and submissive. They may be flirtatious but they aren’t harassers. In fact, they can be quite charming. Similarly, the women may be sharp-tongued or foul-mouthed but they aren’t capable of causing serious harm to anyone.
“That’s the fun of comedy, isn’t it?” asks Chaudhry. “It keeps the negativity out.”
Interestingly, Chaudhry too may not be the originator of this type of comedy. She seems to borrow from the light-hearted plays of Pakistan’s iconic playwright, (the late) Haseena Moin, and combine signature Moin elements with the Punjabi humour of commercial theatre, minus the latter’s coarseness, of course.
Moin’s plays were built around an urban middle-class fantasy, where money or survival isn’t the issue but unrequited love is. Her stories were typically set in a household that is populated by doting parents and siblings, caring uncles and aunts, sincere friends, and loyal hangers-on. Even the house help is like family. Remember ‘Fazeelat Bi’ (played by Azra Sherwani) in ‘Dhoop Kinaray?’ Or, Bibi (Durdana Butt) in Tanhaiyyan?
At the heart of a Moin drama is a young, spontaneous and inexplicably clumsy female protagonist who endears herself to the audience by virtue of her innocent good looks and the kind of funny situations she lands herself in. Comic relief is additionally provided by the interactions between the Qabachas and Saniyas (from Tanhaiyyan), and Timmi Bhais and Mariams (Ankahi). However, unlike today’s comedies, Moin never needed to caricature the Punjabis or Pathans or people of any race, for that matter, in order to create humour. Her comedy is pure and delectable.
Though Moin too was guilty of repeating herself, she influenced an entire generation of scriptwriters. Her influence is showing to this day, especially in the way the characters and situations are built. Consider, for instance, Paristan’s Pari (Aymen Saleem) who is reminiscent of both Ankahi’s Sana Murad (Shahnaz Sheikh) and Tanhaiyyan’s Saniya (Marina Khan). Similarly, Arsam (Arslan Naseer) has shades of Dhoop Kinaray’s Dr Ahmer (Rahat Kazmi).
Chaudhry admits that Moin’s style of comedy has been “a great inspiration.” She also reveals that she had written Faazi’s character (in Chupke Chupke) keeping Dr Ahmer in mind. That Osman Khalid Butt gave it a different identity is another story altogether.
The inclusion of child prodigies is another Moin trope. Both Chupke Chupke’s bespectacled Muniba (Areesha Shah) and Taana Baana’s quick-witted Bilal (Yashraj) have a clear predecessor in Jibran, the wizkid in Moin’s Ankahi (1982). Though, their characters aren’t half as nuanced as Jibran’s.
Jibran is a wonder child whose physical disability has barred him from participating in outdoor activities and even school, unlike other boys his age. He is fully conscious of the fact, but we never see him whine or complain. His favourite pastime isn’t a game of cricket but a book of history or classical poetry. It’s not surprising then that he can quote, off the top of his head, a Shakespeare or Kahlil Gibran (who his family often jokingly equates him with, for being his namesake).
Add to it the fact that Jibran has been raised among adults, and the audience is convinced why he’s matured beyond his physical years. Fun ensues from the audience realisation that Jibran may be the wisest guy around, and it is he who is seen ‘adulting’ when most elders in the house are just kidding or clowning around.