Ottoman Turks never expanded their empire as far as today’s Pakistan, but some people fear their descendants are now launching a cultural invasion – via popular soap operas that Pakistani artists and politicians say threaten the local TV industry and the country’s conservative Islamic values.
Some of the Turkish shows feature actresses wearing miniskirts and showing cleavage, a far cry from the billowing shalwar kameez garments worn by most Pakistani women that hardly reveal skin.
The shows, which have taken Pakistan by storm over the last year, are attractive to local TV operators because they are much cheaper to buy than Pakistani dramas are to produce, and also feature more elaborate costumes and sets.
“It is a big challenge,” said Abid Ali, a veteran Pakistani TV star, while filming his latest show, Mere Apne, or My Loved Ones, in the southern city of Karachi. “Turkish shows have very expensive productions our industry can’t afford.”
The spartan set of Ali’s show, which chronicles the sad life of a young girl after her parents die, helped prove his point. The entire episode was filmed in the living room and driveway of a small rented house in an upscale area of Karachi. The actresses used the only bedroom on the ground floor to apply their makeup, and the kids who lived in the house were scolded for making too much noise while they were filming. Since there was only one camera, they had to shoot each scene three times from different angles.
One of the most popular Turkish shows in Pakistan right now is Mera Sultan, (known in the UAE as Hareem Al Sultan) a period drama about the powerful Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent. The show is no Game of Thrones, but it does feature ornate Ottoman-style sets, scenes with horses and archery and beautifully designed costumes.
“There are multiple reasons behind the success of Turkish drama serials,” said Athar Waqar Azeem, a senior vice president at Hum TV, one of Pakistan’s leading entertainment channels. “Freshness, better and beautiful locations and new faces attract Pakistanis.”
One episode of a Turkish drama costs a Pakistani TV station about $2,500 (Dh9,182) to broadcast, while the production of a Pakistani show can be four times that amount, Azeem said.
The popularity of the Turkish shows has sparked concern from Pakistani politicians. The Senate committee responsible for information and broadcasting said at the end of last year that it was worried the shows would harm Pakistan’s TV industry and featured content that ran counter to local cultural norms.
Pakistani TV star Javeria Abbasi, who co-stars with Ali in Mere Apne, agreed, saying “if a Pakistani actress wears a miniskirt, nobody accepts it, but Turkish actresses are gaining popularity in these costumes.”
Turkey is also a majority Muslim country but is generally more liberal than Pakistan. Sometimes Pakistani TV channels blur miniskirts and low-cut tops worn by women in the Turkish shows in the name of propriety.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads an Islamic-based party, has expressed concern about the content of Turkish shows. Last year, he accused the producers of Mera Sultan, which is called Magnificent Century in Turkey, and others of “playing with the nation’s values.”
Pakistan’s Supreme Court also expressed concern last year about “obscenity” shown on local TV. The court specifically mentioned shows made in India, Pakistan’s neighbour and archenemy. Indian shows have been popular in Pakistan for much longer than Turkish ones, and have sparked many of the same concerns. The popularity of Bollywood movies has also harmed Pakistan’s local cinema industry.
Pakistan is far from the only country to experience the growing influence of Turkish TV shows. Turkey earned more than $60 million in 2011 from exporting over 100 TV series to more than 20 countries, according to the Oxford Business Group.
The shows have also sparked concern in the Middle East, where Muslim preachers have accused them of being un-Islamic and urged the faithful to change channels.
The popularity of Turkish shows in Pakistan has benefited at least one group in the media industry: voice-over artists who translate the dramas from Turkish into Urdu. The pay isn’t great – $20 to $40 per episode, which takes about eight hours to dub – but it’s enough to make a living.
“For the first time in the history of the voice-over industry, there is enough work for an artist because of Urdu dubbing of Turkish serials and soaps,” said Tasleem Ansari, a veteran voice-over artist, who was working out of a cheap apartment in Karachi. “Before this trend, voice-over artists could only perform in commercials.”
Ansari said she wasn’t persuaded by those who argue that the Turkish shows threatened Pakistani cultural norms.
“Local actresses and models also wear miniskirts on television programmes and at award functions,” Ansari said. “I agree that these costumes do not match Pakistani culture, but Turkish drama is all about Turkish culture, and people like it and have accepted it.”