January issue 2013

By | Arts & Culture | Published 11 years ago

Ask-i-Memnu (locally titled Ishq-e-Memnu), the steamy Turkish soap — dubbed in Urdu — that has instigated a nationwide debate about protecting the local television industry and potentially banning foreign television content, snuck up on Pakistan quietly enough. It had begun airing during the summer, but most viewers started taking notice of the show after the episodes had been airing for several months. Its popularity rose steadily and by the time its final episode aired in December, it had matched — and, some might even argue, surpassed — the success of Humsafar, the other TV phenomenon of 2012. It wasn’t just in Pakistan that Ask-i-Memnu was so popular — it is the top-rated television series in Turkey and had taken the Arab world by storm when it aired there back in 2010. So what was it about the sudsy soap that had fans so enthralled?

The drama is a modern adaptation of a late 19th century Turkish novel. The story revolves around Adnan, a wealthy widower, who lives with his young daughter, Nihal, and teenage son, Bulent, along with an army of servants, including the children’s nanny, Mrs. Dennis and the chauffer, Bashir. Several years after losing his wife, Adnan marries the beautiful Behter, who is much younger than him. Soon after, Behter falls for and begins a torrid affair with Adnan’s nephew, Behlul, the philandering Adonis who also lives with them.  The rest of the saga charts the progression of the affair, and its effects on the rest of the characters. The story is not entirely groundbreaking — think Anna Karenina on the Bosphorus, with a slightly incestuous twist. However, it is the skill with which the story is handled that is remarkable. The characters are well-written, the situations that arise and the conflicting array of emotions that each character goes through are believable — and the beautiful, stylishly-dressed people and exotic locales don’t exactly hurt either.

“All of the characters were robust and many-sided,” Azra Khan, an avid fan of the series, tells Newsline. “They weren’t caricatures representing a clear-cut dichotomy of good or evil. Even the conniving characters had layers to them and invoked the viewers’ sympathies.” It might also have been the depiction of the female characters, in particular, that appealed to Pakistani fans. All the women in the drama are portrayed as strong and empowered, and their boisterous characterisation is not tinged with negative connotations, in contrast with current Pakistani dramas, where the meek and submissive woman is often considered more virtuous than the more opinionated one. “I liked that the women weren’t constantly being oppressed. They were perfectly capable of holding their ground,” Azra says.

Another possible reason for the drama’s popularity could have been the multiple storylines that were unfolding simultaneously. “All the characters had their own narrative. The supporting characters weren’t just there to propel forward the story of the main characters,” says Sarah Amjad, another enthusiastic follower of the drama. The servants of the household had their own ambitions and desires, their own share of unrequited love and longing, running alongside those of their employers.

There is also the matter of the gorgeous male lead of the blue eyes, blond hair and chiselled features, whose presence set the ladies’ hearts aflutter in all the countries where the drama was telecast. Such was the impact of his good looks that a cartoon in a Saudi newspaper depicted a homely Saudi man visiting a plastic surgeon, with a picture of the heartthrob. The man in the cartoon asks the surgeon if he can have Behlul’s rugged looks. “Behlul is definitely giving Fawad Khan a run for his money in the hunk department,” Mariam Nabeel, another fan, tellsNewsline laughingly. She jokes that if other Turkish dramas feature men as good-looking as him, she will tune in for sure.

The bold themes of infidelity and betrayal caused as much of a stir here as in the Middle East. Although most of the more risqué scenes didn’t make it past the censors in Pakistan, critics of the show here and abroad argued that it was corrupting the values of its viewers. And lest we think that it is only Pakistanis who are prone to overreaction, Saudi clerics even issued fatwas against this show and other Turkish ones like it, calling for the murders of the soaps’ distributors. “These are serials of immorality. They are prepared by people who invite men and women to the devil,” one Saudi cleric thundered.

Critics’ warnings have, of course, not diminished fans’ love for the show. “It is a sort of escape,” explains Yumna Atiq. “Watching the lives of the rich and glamorous unfold, against the scenic beauty of Turkey, is very entertaining.” She says it was a welcome departure from Pakistani dramas which feature the same faces and similar storylines. The slick production of the drama, with good editing and direction, is also a factor. “The show didn’t drag on needlessly,” says Yumna.

At the end of the day, it may be the show’s portrayal of the universal themes of love, betrayal and loyalty that appealed to viewers’ sensibilities. Regardless of any amount of criticism, the fact that it effectively depicted characters whose lives and emotions transcended national and cultural boundaries, is the real measure of the show’s success.

This article was originally published in the Annual 2013 issue of Newsline.

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.