India and Pakistan's complex relationship has been marked by contrasting trends in recent weeks - a worsening of ties on the government level and an increasing interest by ordinary Indians in the ordinary lives of their counterparts across the border.
Even as the nations' security forces exchanged fire at the Line of Control dividing Kashhmir and leaders fueled nationalistic passions, huge numbers of people in India were enjoying Pakistani TV soap operas on cable television.
Viewership of the Zindagi channel, which airs Pakistani soaps in India, was not affected at all by the recent escalation in violence, according to the channel’s business head Priyanka Dutta.
Buoyed by its success and undeterred by the ongoing tensions, the four-month-old channel launched its most coveted Pakistani soap, "Humsafar," this Tuesday.
"Humsafar," which charts the troubled course of a couple's marriage and aired in Pakistan in 2011-2012, was dubbed by India's leading newspaper, The Times of India, as the “drama which changed the history of Pakistani television industry.”
The channel which reached around 28 million people last week is hopeful that this “big ticket item” will help it to consolidate its position further in the competitive Indian market.
Pakistani Show Well Received in India
Madhu Goswami, a retired government official who lives in New Delhi, watched the first episode and found it captivating. Goswami has been following Pakistani soaps on the Zindagi channel since its launch.
Goswami says that it’s a mixture of curiosity about Pakistan and the better quality of programing that is drawing her towards the soaps. “It was a surprise to see that they used Hindi words in their day-to-day conversations and that they face the same problems in daily life as we do,” said Goswami, who considers most Hindi soaps too loud.
Goswami noted people around her are watching and discussing Pakistani soaps, too. “I know a lot of people whose Whatsapp IDs reflect that they are enamored by these soaps,” she said.
Unlike people in Pakistan, who are exposed to Indian popular culture because of Bollywood movies and Indian entertainment channels, Indians have had very limited exposure to Pakistani social and cultural life.
Although Pakistani classical musicians and poets have long enjoyed huge popularity in India and recently many artists from Pakistan have entered Indian film industry, the lack of images in India of Pakistani life has led to some misconceptions about the nation, says Delhi based journalist and human right activist Kuldip Nayar, who was born in Pakistan.
“Pakistan is beginning to be seen as some fundamentalist state by many Indians,” said Kuldip Nayar. He further noted that ignorance about Pakistan is at the heart of such predispositions. He said that Pakistani soaps have the potential to fill the knowledge gap.
To many analysts it seems natural that people in India are loving soaps from across the border. S.D. Muni, professor emeritus at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that most of the South Asian states were integrated before 1947 and therefore there is a cultural affinity among them.
Muni, who has written extensively on India's foreign policy, noted that in the last few years there has been an upward trend in interaction among people in the sub-continent. “As barriers are eroding and becoming irrelevant the inherent unity of the subcontinent is sought of asserting itself,” he said.
Impact on Policy Unknown
Foreign policy experts are not sure whether cross border soaps can make any significant impact on the policy. However, Kuldip Nayar said that "we live in democracy and, if there is pressure from below, the government will listen.”
On the flip side, years of rivalry and suspicion have created interest groups on both sides who are against these cross-border cultural exchanges.
Priyanka Dutta of Zindagi channel said initially they were concerned about criticism for airing Pakistani soaps. “We thought a lot about it while launching the channel. We prepared ourselves for it but we were lucky that nothing happened,” said Dutta.
In order to avoid problems, Zindagi has created an elaborate system to preview the content of soaps coming from a country with which India has fought three wars. “We have a full-fledged Standards and Practices team in place. Each and every soap has to go through three to five checks to ensure that Indian sensibilities are taken care of,” said Dutta.
Although Zindagi channel was conceived from a purely business standpoint, it has been promoted as a vehicle “to unite people in India and across the world” by India based Zee Entertainment Enterprise Limited, parent company of Zindagi channel.
Zindagi’s tagline Jode Dilon ko (Connecting hearts) was a marketing slogan but initial viewer reactions suggest that it might be true.
"After watching these soaps it occurred to me, culturally we are so similar. Then why is there such a divide between us,” Madhu Goswami said.