Monday, August 14, 2006
Kabul (UNI): When Ajmal went to a wedding celebration this week, he had decided to return home quite early because of an urgent appointment. But his hosts had already made the necessary arrangements for him to keep the date at the wedding hall itself. To make sure that Ajmal and the other guests did not leave the venue, the hosts had hired a TV set and set aside a room so that everyone could watch the daily episode of 'Tulsi', as "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' is known in this country.
Wedding planners in Afghanistan have been forced to make room for this new national obsession so that their happy family gatherings are not suddenly emptied when the guests leave en masse for what has become compulsory viewing of Tulsi every evening seven days a week. According to an internal survey done on the adult population of Kabul by JWT Afghanistan/Altai Consultants in May this year, 86% of the population watched Tulsi. This, says Emmanuel, a partner in Altai Consultants, is unprecedented in a country where viewers have access to more than one TV channel.
The popularity of Bollywood in Afghanistan is old news now. Every Afghan with access to TV has his or her favourite movie and film stars. Bollywood actors and actresses are pin ups on taxis and in shop windows. Though conservative Afghan culture would not condone the same kind of dress codes or behaviour in public, Afghans are perfectly happy to watch the movies and the moves on the TV screen. From time to time the government's media watchdogs which keep a check to ensure 'un-Islamic' content does not get into the media, censure TV stations which screen a particularly raunchy 'item number' from the Bollywood movies. But most Afghans, especially the youth, love to watch every movie and dream of meeting the stars in India.
Great consternation is expressed when Indians confess that most of them have actually never met or been near any of those stars. However many of the older or more traditional generation prefer older movies and are even critical of the impact of Bollywood culture on Afghan society. It is here that Tulsi's popularity seems universal, transcending the differences of taste, cutting across barriers of language, age and geography. The most important factor about Tulsi is that most Afghans can watch it with their families, unlike other Bollywood fare which they may find embarrassing viewing in front of their wives or children. ''We knew it was going to be a hit'' says Wajma Mohseni, marketing manager of Tolo TV, the country's most successful private TV channel,''because of the format and the focus on family dynamics - the friction, the tension between family members.''
Abdul Latif Sharif is a proud husband and a good father. He likes Tulsi because watching it is an activity he can share with his family. "The culture reflected in the serial, the focus on the family, is very similar to Afghan culture" he says. "They show the conversations and problems between the son-in-law and the mother-in -law, the father the mother, the uncle - all these situations are familiar to us." Latif watches the movie along with all his children aged all of 5, 3 and 2 years. Because it is dubbed in Dari, the most commonly spoken local language, even his two year old can see it, he says.
Wajma Mohseni recalls viewers calling to thank the TV station for dubbing the serial in Dari, and Altai says this has been the key to the success of the program. Encouraged by the response Tolo now plans to telecast two other Indian serials- 'Kasauti' and 'Kahani ghar ghar ki' from next month. Latif doesn't like watching the new Bollywood movies because they are like the Hollywood movie he says. He used to watch Dilip Kumar, Amitabh and Rajesh Khanna, but he only watches some of the new Bollywood movies if they are aired on the state broadcaster, RTV, which censors the more raunchy parts of it.
Faiz Mohammed watches Tulsi everyday in his home with his family. "It is culturally closer to Afghanistan than the Bollywood movies" he says, while emphasising that the old Bollywood movies were good. His family ensures that the battery is charged sufficiently to help them run the TV for the half an hour during the serial. Sometimes neighbours who do not have enough power come to their house to join them. It is not just in urban towns and cities that people are watching it. Visiting a kishlak(mountain village) in Takhar province (bordering Tajikistan) Murasal,a young Afghan woman, found the village gets together every evening, pooling together for fuel to run their generator for that moment of the evening.
When Afghan Telecom decided to advertise the launch of its revamped services a few months ago, it decided to sponsor the serial for three months. Their sales quadrupled during that period. The only problem was that its call centres were deluged with calls from Tulsi viewers who wanted to know why Afghan Telecom didn't telecast a longer segment! It is the most popular segment for advertisers wanting to reach a mass market, says Mohseni, even though viewers call with requests that the ads be dropped.
Much like the telecast of Ramayana on Sunday mornings every week a few years ago, streets empty out during this half hour when Tulsi is telecast. It is rumoured that the counter narcotics campaign may take advantage of the serial and the main character's popularity to try and make an ad campaign. Faced with an uphill task in their efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation in the country, the planners are resorting to desperate measures. The character playing Tulsi, Smriti Irani, may be approached to participate in an ad campaign against narcotics it is rumoured. While that may or may not happen yet, all who have heard of it agree that it could be the most efficacious step taken so far by the counter narcotics planners.