Pakistan’s ‘answer to Glee’ will address homosexuality and extremism — in song, of course


A still from "Taan," a new Pakistani soap opera with a plot similar to Glee. (Taan/BBC)

Starting in September, Pakistani TV stations will begin broadcasting what some have called the country's "answer to Glee": an envelope-pushing musical drama called "Taan," set in a fictional Lahore high school.

If a peppy musical about misfit teenagers and their social/sexual escapades seems out of place in Pakistan, that’s because it is. Interviews with director Samar Raza tend to focus on the way the show can grapple with those issues like sexuality and teen romance without provoking the ire of Pakistan’s media censors -- the same people who warned TV media earlier this year not to promote Valentine’s Day and once took an entire cable network off the air after it broadcast a Salman Rushdie interview.

Raza told Agence France-Presse, for instance, that the show suggests a homosexual relationship through innuendo and conversation among the characters. (Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan.) It will also tackle Pakistan’s religious and sectarian violence: One of the characters is described as an extremist who initially planned to blow the music school up -- before getting into music, of course. Another main character is a Christian whose girl family was massacred in the 2009 riots at Gojra, an actual event that heightened interfaith tensions for weeks.

"Music is the only thing that can unite this country," one of the show’s actors, Hassan Niazi, told The Telegraph. (The BBC also has some more behind-the-scenes interviews, and a few shots from the program, in this video.)

But it’s not as though Pakistan has shied away from controversy on TV. Pakistani dramas, often filmed in Lahore and modeled on Indian shows, have addressed child abuse, divorce and incest, Pakistani journalist Kamal Siddiqi told the Times of India for a feature on Pakistani TV last year. One of the country’s most popular domestic soaps, a family drama called “Humsafar,” revolved around a cast of willful women -- and gave plenty of screentime to issues like divorce and mental illness.

Foreign imports from Turkey and India are also wildly popular in Pakistan. As the New York Times reported in January, the country’s most watched Turkish soap, appropriately titled “Forbidden Love,” follows the adventures of the rich and promiscuous as they fall in and out of love triangles and otherwise sordid relationships. (The video below, a slow-mo compilation of meaningful glances from the show, is absolutely worth watching.) Critics have slammed the show as vulgar and un-Islamic, but it’s still on-air.

Risque foreign shows have also prompted demands that Pakistan devote more air time to its domestic film industry. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which oversees (and censors) TV and radio, already protects domestic shows by limiting the number of foreign ones that air each day. But because the agency doesn’t specify when the shows run, producers have argued, imported soaps overrun the primetime slots -- rather like “importing plastic goods from China and selling them in Pakistan,” one editorial complained.

Since Pakistan’s soap producers renewed their fight in December, the issue has become further mired in debates about identity politics and cultural purity -- and veiled suggestions, like this one from actress and producer Samina Ahmed, that shows for and about Pakistanis will end without more government protection.

Taan will fortunately have no problems there: The show was filmed in Lahore, and its creators have licensed more than 100 classic Pakistani songs for the “Glee” treatment. Now Raza and his crew need only hope that their bold storylines receive the same kind of reception Glee, a rule-breaker in its own right, got in the U.S. According to Nielsen, he show raked in more than 8 million viewers during its last season.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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