Pakistani audiences seem unwilling to discard the supposedly "vulgar" stuff they are addicted to, given the common socio-cultural ethos of the subcontinent, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor
While uncensored content on OTT (0ver the Top or web-based platforms) has been found to be objectionable in some countries, including conservative groups in India, many governments across Asia are also trying to regulate them, even as the new medium has caused major problems in Pakistan, which usually bans Indian films whenever bilateral relations sour.
Such bans have been a staple of India-Pakistan relations. But now, Pakistan seems to be fighting a losing battle as most OTTs, including some global ones, happen to be based in or operate from India.
Pakistan stops subscription payments for Zee5
An India-specific order by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has stopped its citizens from subscribing to Indian venture Zee5, effective from November 13. The first ‘casualty’ is viewing in Pakistan of ‘Churrails’, a series made in Pakistan with local talent, but with Indian finance.
The SBP acted on a letter from the government’s Cabinet Division that “instructed [them] to stop different modes of payments including credit cards for subscribing Indian content in Pakistan, including Zee5 video-on-demand service.”
Why Zee5 with a limited reach of a few thousand was singled out remains unexplained, unless someone wanted to hurt ‘Churrails’ makers. Mohammed Kamran Khan writes in Dawn newspaper (November 22, 2020): “Anyone believing that this Zee5 ban comes from a place of genuine interest to preserve cultural integrity …is a naïve chump.”
The action, besides tense India-Pakistan relations, follows Prime Minister Imran Khan’s well-known disdain for the “vulgar Hollywood-Bollywood stuff” and his desire to replace it with programmes reflecting Islamic values. This summer he blessed the import of the Turkish series Diriliş: Ertuğrul. Following its Urdu version’s roaring success on PTV, the official TV channel is readying for "Yunus Emre (the Dervish), another Turkish series about a Sufi saint, made by Mehmet Bozdag who wrote the earlier venture.
However, Pakistani audiences seem unwilling to discard the supposedly "vulgar" stuff they are addicted to, given the common socio-cultural ethos of the subcontinent. The OTTs’ advent has made it easier for Pakistani viewers to tap into Indian entertainment content but has complicated things for the government.
Some years ago, it was India’s turn. Pakistani artists were stopped from working in Bollywood films. Zee group’s Zee Zindagi ran several Pakistani serials and dramas became highly popular till they ran into trouble with the Indian authorities. Incidentally, they were also replaced by Turkish programmes.
Popularity of OTT platforms
OTT’s advent has revolutionized the entertainment scene globally. But in Pakistan, Kamran Khan writes, it has “content, business practice, law, cultural impact, fears et al, have all amalgamated into one.”
Taking in a larger picture, this technology-driven entertainment that recognises no geographical or territorial borders has defied governments from Saudi Arabia to China to Singapore and India, forcing them to contemplate ways to regulate their content. In Pakistan’s case, successive governments want to guard national identity and cultural values and protect local enterprises from the outside onslaught.
Not all markets are homogeneous – they cannot be, particularly in large countries. The majority viewers are happy with local programmes, but their demands and tastes are changing with the OTT platforms coming in.
Local Pakistani web platforms have their own audiences. But Kamran Khan points out: “This is the very audience that still downloads Bollywood movies and series from their local cable’s home-made media servers or torrents. The demand has always been high for good-looking time-filler fluff - but only if it’s of Hollywood or Bollywood origin.”
Bollywood still the preferred choice
But the elite among the urban viewers and diasporas do not view the local productions and prefer the India-based platforms, besides Netflix, the US-based media services provider. They, however, have Indian films at the top. Netflix has a massive and steadily growing content library for children, teens, young adults, and mature people. And it gives audiences ample Bollywood content that tops Netflix’s top 10 Pakistani charts.
Kamran Khan writes, “anyone denying Pakistani audiences’ desire for Bollywood content - or their tenacity to watch it no matter what - is likely having the time of their life…in la-la land.”
A Pakistani version of Netflix
Unsurprisingly, to counter and regulate this, Pakistan’s Minister for Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhary, told Arab News (October 26, 2020) that his ministry will launch “a local version of Netflix within six months, where the content would be subject to Pakistan Electronic and Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) guidelines.”
Viewed from foreign OTTs’ standpoint, Pakistan’s is a small market and stopping them because they carry Indian or other stuff would hardly impair it. Pakistan’s market is still way below India’s estimated 4.4 million subscriber count, while Netflix, a multi-billion-dollar international endeavour has 195 million paid subscribers worldwide.
Wronged a second time over, Zee5 is one of the many players in India with 76.4 million active users of which a fourth may be actual subscribers with others enjoying its free-to-watch segment.
Pakistan is a small market, most international television channels aired in Pakistan is rebranded transmissions from either the Indian or Singaporean broadcast streams.
Given this reality on the web front, and with its own cinema industry that has grown in the last 15 years during the time of President Pervez Musharraf who liberalised film imports, including from Bollywood, Pakistan seems to be on a misguided mission and Kamran Khan may be right in smelling “ego-driven politics and a serious lack of an enterprising mindset.”
(The writer is President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)