New Delhi, India -The unlikeliest of Indian media companies is doing the unthinkable.
Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, a $944m (revenue), Mumbai-based media conglomerate, is banking on the appeal of a Pakistani drama series to grab eyeballs and a sizable chunk of the global streaming audience.
On Friday, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam (loosely translated as An Ode to Murderous Beauties), a seven-part noir anthology that Zee produced and shot in Pakistan, drops on ZEE5 Global, its streaming platform.
It is ZEE5’s fourth Pakistani series and its most ambitious to date, created by Meenu Gaur, an Indian-British writer-director whose last outing in Pakistan, the 2013 film Zinda Bhaag, became that country’s third-ever Oscar entry.
Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam will be available for streaming in 190 countries, except in Pakistan, where the platform is banned.
ZEE5 is hoping that the appeal of its prestige series, which stars some of Pakistan’s best-known actors including six actresses who play femme fatales in bloody pursuit of deceitful men, will make up for that loss by attracting audiences at home as well as in the 43 million-strong South Asian diaspora, including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians living in the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
“They together represent one of the world’s largest diaspora which makes it extremely significant,” Archana Anand, the chief business officer of ZEE5 Global, told Al Jazeera, adding that the US is already driving over 40 percent of its international revenue.
Zee group is a major player in India’s satellite cable market with 45 news and entertainment TV channels across several regional languages. It has nurtured its domestic audience for over two decades with its shrill, jingoistic prime time news and a steady diet of melodramatic daily soaps that pirouette on Hindu traditions and toxic but sacred marital bonds.
By adding a Pakistani Urdu series into the mix, Zee is hoping to make big audience strides at a crucial streaming juncture.
India’s $1.5bn streaming market is one of the fastest-growing in the world and is expected to hit $4bn by 2025, according to a 2021 report by RBSA Advisors, a Mumbai-based transaction advisory firm.
This pot of gold is attracting a lot of investment and content that’s vying for viewers and subscribers.
The stakes are high for ZEE5, which has only a 9 percent share of India’s streaming market – much lower than its foreign competitors Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+Hotstar, which together claim 57 percent of the pie, per the RBSA report.
This is despite Zee producing Bollywood films, and a string of highly popular long-running serials that are available in 18 languages (12 regional and six foreign) on its various channels in India and overseas as well as its streaming platform. Even after its imminent merger with Sony Pictures Networks India, that size isn’t likely to grow much as Sony’s streaming platform has a mere 4 percent market share.
Content is king
Digital subscription revenues in India in 2020 were up by 49 percent as 28 million Indians signed up, nearly three times the 10.5 million paid subscribers the previous year, according to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry and Ernest & Young (FICCI-EY).
A report by the Boston Consulting Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry found that 30 percent of viewers rated original platform-exclusive content as their most-watched genre.
In 2020, streaming sites in India spent $135m to create around 1,200 hours of original content across 220 titles, according to the FICCI-EY report. This was lower than the previous year on account of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the amount spent is expected to go up to $253m.
Some other Indian streaming platforms, like MX Player, have been acquiring Pakistani-Urdu shows, while Eros Now has a content deal with Pakistan’s Hum TV and has produced a Pakistani web series. But Zee5, with its slate of spunky, original Pakistani series, has a clear edge.
ZEE5 doesn’t share its subscription numbers, or how much money it’s spending on creating original shows, but in a market dominated by multinational players with deep pockets, it has to look for content that holds immediate appeal for binge-watchers at home, but also has cinematic heft to attract a global audience, including the 50 percent of the Indian diaspora who pay to watch Indian content.
Pakistani series, much like Korean dramas, have an inherent warmth and decency to them. They also have a loyal viewership in South Asia.
Indians’ love for Pakistani series dates back to the 1980s, to what’s called the “golden age of Pakistani TV”. Mention Dhoop Kinare or Tanhaiyan even today in most living rooms in the subcontinent, and you will likely hear nostalgia-laced loving sighs.
Zee knows this because it has harnessed the power of Pakistani series to its benefit before.
In 2014, it launched a channel in India, Zindagi, with just Pakistani series despite the fear of shutdowns that happen every time there’s a flare-up of tensions between India and Pakistan.
“Zindagi was born out of the belief that stories know no borders,” Shailja Kejriwal, the creative force behind the channel, told Al Jazeera. The immediate sensation was a show called Zindagi Gulzar Hai, which catapulted Pakistani actor Fawad Khan to overnight stardom. “Audiences couldn’t have enough of him and all the shows starring [him] did spectacularly well,” Kejriwal recalled.
But two years later, in September, following an attack on an Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir that left 19 Indian soldiers dead, Zindagi dropped all Pakistani shows. Khan’s role in a Bollywood film that was all set to be a blockbuster was chopped down to a fleeting appearance.
Zindagi, too, struggled to survive, assuming different digital roles and avatars for a while. But it couldn’t regain its glory and returned last year as the producer of original Pakistani content for Zee5 Global, with Kejriwal as its chief creative officer.
Zindagi was a channel with domestic obligations to the sentiments of the government and audience. But a streaming platform has fewer such constraints.
In August last year, Zindagi launched on ZEE5 its first-ever Pakistani production, a 10-part feminist series Churails (Witches). The show was a hit in Pakistan. But a month later a raunchy clip from the series went viral and the State Bank of Pakistan blocked any form of payment for Zee5.
In June this year, Dhoop Ki Deewar (which translates to Wall of Sunlight), another Zindagi-produced Pakistani show on ZEE5, created a huge furore. A story of cross-border love between an Indian Hindu boy and a Pakistani Muslim girl, it was slammed for many things, including questioning the two-nation theory.
“Circumstances play a role in putting things on hold from time to time,” said Kejriwal. “So we take a step back and then come with redoubled energy of taking two steps forward! That’s the reality of Zindagi!”
Now Zindagi, meaning life in Urdu, has upped the game.
A feminist noir, a desi angle
Noir cinema conjures up a morally bleak world where shadowy figures lurk in the dark, stray cats prowl wet alleys, men in top hats and silhouettes under a dim street light let out cigarette smoke, and femme fatales in satin gowns and birdcage veils spell doom.
Director Gaur says she wanted to turn the noir genre on its head, and got the green light from Kejriwal.
“I love the genre, but it really bothered me that you never got to know the femme fatale except from the point of view of the man … I wanted to do noir from a femme fatale, feminist perspective, and I wanted to do it in South Asia, from a desi perspective,” Gaur told Al Jazeera.
Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam has femme fatales in saris and jhumka earrings as its protagonists. They smoke, abuse, drink, romance and kill.
“I believe there is a wealth of stories that need to be told if we go beyond the tropes of the goddess and the slut,” said Kejriwal. “Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam is one such anthology that celebrates, and is an ode to the ‘imperfect’ woman.”
Sarwat Gilani, a popular Pakistani actress who plays one such imperfect woman in the series, says it was liberating to do things that she hadn’t done in her 20-year acting career.
“As a performer, all of us were thrilled to do things that we couldn’t on television,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s only this much that you can do, you know, being in a box. This totally got us out of the box.”
Gilani recalled a scene where she had to act drunk. “I [had] never acted drunk … on screen … How do you translate that feeling and that body language and that, you know, vocals on screen? So that was very challenging for me,” she said.
Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam was shot in three different cities in Pakistan but it is set in a mythical space called Androon Sheher, which, says Kejriwal, is a microcosm of South Asian society. “It’s a space inhabited by all the characters we see, growing up in this part of the world,” she said.
There’s the rich socialite, the lovelorn couple, the child who is prostituted, the undercover cop, the gay drug lord, the Anglo-Asian righteous mother and a crumbling but charming building bearing a Hindu, very Indian name – Dhani Ram Mansion.
“If you go to any old city [in the subcontinent], then these are the names of the buildings … These are basically pre-partition buildings … And that’s the reality,” said Gaur.
Such bits and baubles from a shared past are designed not only to kindle a yearning for what was, but also pull at many heartstrings and keep the viewers misty-eyed and hooked.
Or so hopes ZEE5’s Anand, who has four more Pakistani shows ready to be released in his drive to make ZEE5 the “go-to platform for real, authentic storytelling from South Asia”.