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On the eighth take, everything seems to come together. The actress walks slowly up the church aisle to the altar. A painted-blond Jesus beams from the ceiling. She clasps her hands in prayer. The camera sweeps up behind her and settles on the back of her head, the blue-eyed Jesus still visible above.

“Cut.” The director, Samar Raza, turns to review the sequence on a monitor next to the pulpit. “Outclass,” he says with a nod of approval. In a pew a few rows back, an elderly man dragged into the church as an extra pulls his Muslim prayer cap back on.

We’re on the set of Pakistan’s answer to the hit US TV show Glee. A church setting may seem an incongruous location for a scene in a TV series made in the Muslim majority nation but Taan – Urdu for musical note – is about as Pakistani as it gets.

Set in a crumbling old house tucked down the narrow streets of the walled old city of Lahore, the series follows a group of aspiring musicians brought together in a music academy. It pulls together many storylines that are part of life in Pakistan today including religion and radicalism, homosexuality, wealth and corruption.

Swap a high school for a music academy and the series has many of the same ingredients that made Glee – which is now on its sixth series and is one of the highest grossing TV shows in the US – such a success. Or at least that’s what producer Nabeel Sarwar hopes. The show, which is inspired by Glee but has no official links, is being made by Narowal Media Company – a production set up, owned and run by Sarwar – and is expected to air in April.

Taan brings together an eclectic, possibly even controversial, cast of characters that hail from all walks of the diverse social fabric that makes up Pakistan today. There’s a Christian girl, two terrorist characters, the daughter of a rich bureaucrat who hides her musical dreams from her family, a talentless beauty who dreams of Bollywood fame, and characters from all of the various ethnic groups that make up Pakistan’s mixed society.

Each character has a story that, some stereotypes permitting, tackle some tricky subjects – as Glee did with just a little more polish. Some of the stories would be lost on a non-Pakistani audience but, taken as a whole, the series reveals more about Pakistan today than the headlines that beam out of the South Asian nation: soldiers killed in a suicide attack, sectarian group attacks Shia Muslims, Christian lynched for blasphemy. Zipping between locations in Lahore in a cramped minibus, the cast and crew know they’re making something that will challenge audiences.

“The audience has been trained to just watch housewives,” says actor Ali Rizvi, dismissing the usual fare on Pakistani TV – a lot of which has come from India and Turkey. “They are made to believe life is just marriages, arguments and adultery. This [Taan] is a whole story. This is something different, relevant and new.”

The number of TV channels in Pakistan has surged over the past decade from just one state-owned network as successive governments have eased restrictions on the media. The influx of Indian and Turkish TV dramas has breathed new life into Pakistani production houses after nearly two decades of neglect.

The history of Pakistani TV and its renaissance today is tied up in the tale of two cities – Karachi and Lahore. Karachi – Pakistan’s restive megacity where political parties, criminals gangs and militant groups vie for control in a ceaseless battle for votes, money and turf – is also home to a plethora of new TV channels.

Lahore in the east was once the home to Lollywood, Pakistan’s film hub. Through the 1960s and 1970s it was churning out some of the most exciting films to emerge from South Asia. Lahore is commonly described as the cultural capital of Pakistan but today the crumbling buildings of the old city belong to an even more distant era than the nearly forgotten time of Lollywood.

The two cities exist in a love-hate relationship that neither can escape; the same tension that Taan explores through the clash of the classical music of Pakistan’s past and today’s pop music that has already propelled a number of Pakistani singers to international stardom, mostly over the border in India.

The songs that are percolated through Taan belong to Pakistan of yesteryear but they have been updated to suit today’s palate: the key lowered and the beat sped up. They are songs by some of Pakistan’s most famous singers and Sarwar hopes the soundtrack sales will take the show to the same giddy success that Glee enjoyed with its rearrangements of famous classics. “All this music is rotting away,” says Sarwar, sitting in the cramped editing suite in Karachi where the final touches are being made to the show.

One woman behind the TV renaissance is Sultana Siddiqui. A legendary TV producer in the 1990s, she set up Hum Network in 2004 as Pakistan’s first entertainment-only channel. “People said it would never work, that no one watches Pakistani dramas anymore,” she says, speaking from her Karachi office.

The concrete high-rise that houses Hum Network stands just across the road from the HQ of Jang Group – one of the largest media conglomerates in Pakistan, which runs Geo TV. Also close by is TechnoCity Corporate Tower, home to cnbc Pakistan. Karachi’s repressive humidity appears to have provided the perfect greenhouse for Pakistan’s TV entrepreneurs.

“Our dramas became the talk of the town and copy-cat channels began to appear. That opened avenues for production houses and actors in Pakistan,” says Shanaz Ramzi, general manager at Hum Network, who has been with the channel since its inception.

In March 2012, when the final episode of Humsafar – a Pakistani-made TV drama about two cousins forced together in marriage and then torn apart – aired, cities went quiet and the roads were deserted as the country stopped to tune in for the finale. “If you are invited to a dinner or a wedding that would be after the show,” says Ramzi.

The dramas tackle taboos like interfamily marriages and divorce. Religious leaders are stripped of their cloak of infallibility. Daughters defy their fathers. Wives challenge their husbands. Question marks appear in people’s minds about what a secular Pakistan could look like.

Pakistani TV has long been the unlikely home of content that has challenged the creeping Islamisation in the country. In the 1960s and 1970s Pakistan had a vibrant arts scene and a booming film industry. That was destroyed by military dictator Muhammad Zia ul Haq, who came to power in 1978 and is still blamed today for introducing a more puritanical form of Islam that continues to grip swathes of the country.

Zia ul Haq banned dancing, imprisoned artists and shut down cinemas, destroying the arts in Pakistan and effectively lobotomising the young country’s cultural memory.

“Your history started in 1947,” Zia ul Haq preached, referring to the year Pakistan became independent. “Everything before that was lost,” says Nadia Jamil, a popular TV and film actress in Pakistan. Sitting in her home in Lahore, surrounded by an eclectic mix of Pakistani paintings and crafts, Jamil says she was raised in the 1980s in a liberal cocoon created by her parents but that around her Pakistan was forgetting its Sufi roots. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that celebrates arts and music and was most prevalent in what is geographically Pakistan today prior to partition from India.

Even after Zia ul Haq was pushed from power and democracy was restored, tight controls remained over media that weren’t lifted until Pakistan’s next military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, came to power in 1999. In the 1990s newspapers and books were heavily censored for content deemed un-Islamic and anti-Pakistan. But ptv, the single terrestrial state-run TV channel, became the surprising home of Pakistan’s liberal minds. It was heavily censored but the channel needed content for broadcast and that thirst meant writers were able to get around the censor board with thinly veiled double entendre. The meaning may have been lost on government bureaucrats but not on audiences. The invasion of Turkish and Indian-made TV dramas in the early 2000s pushed some of the politics out and pulled the glamour in (“They’re cooking in silk saris,” says Ramzi, referring to an Indian TV drama. “The glamour appeals to people.”) – and so did the sudden surge in TV channels all desperate for content and ratings.

Boundaries have continued to be pushed nonetheless – just within certain parameters. No cleavage, no kissing, no alcohol allowed but it’s OK to show a Taliban suicide bomber being seduced by the mysticism of Sufi music. Believing his Taliban past has left him beyond redemption, he blows up his Taliban handler, killing himself as well – a storyline in Taan.

Watching TV is a family affair in Pakistan so shows have to appeal to all ages and not anger the person who controls the remote – probably the male head of the household. It’s a fine line to tread – and Taan’s makers hope they’ve remained on the right side of the tightrope. Sarwar is still in talks with three major channels all hoping to get their hands on Taan, but he hopes the show will hit TV sets in April.

And if Taan is to follow its American precursor it could take Pakistani-made TV to new heights. “Glee; it’s a catchy phrase,” says Sarwar, “But I want the show to be judged on its own merits.” — (m)On the eighth take, everything seems to come together. The actress walks slowly up the church aisle to the altar. A painted-blond Jesus beams from the ceiling. She clasps her hands in prayer. The camera sweeps up behind her and settles on the back of her head, the blue-eyed Jesus still visible above.

“Cut.” The director, Samar Raza, turns to review the sequence on a monitor next to the pulpit. “Outclass,” he says with a nod of approval. In a pew a few rows back, an elderly man dragged into the church as an extra pulls his Muslim prayer cap back on.

We’re on the set of Pakistan’s answer to the hit US TV show Glee. A church setting may seem an incongruous location for a scene in a TV series made in the Muslim majority nation but Taan – Urdu for musical note – is about as Pakistani as it gets.

Set in a crumbling old house tucked down the narrow streets of the walled old city of Lahore, the series follows a group of aspiring musicians brought together in a music academy. It pulls together many storylines that are part of life in Pakistan today including religion and radicalism, homosexuality, wealth and corruption.

Swap a high school for a music academy and the series has many of the same ingredients that made Glee – which is now on its sixth series and is one of the highest grossing TV shows in the US – such a success. Or at least that’s what producer Nabeel Sarwar hopes. The show, which is inspired by Glee but has no official links, is being made by Narowal Media Company – a production set up, owned and run by Sarwar – and is expected to air in April.

Taan brings together an eclectic, possibly even controversial, cast of characters that hail from all walks of the diverse social fabric that makes up Pakistan today. There’s a Christian girl, two terrorist characters, the daughter of a rich bureaucrat who hides her musical dreams from her family, a talentless beauty who dreams of Bollywood fame, and characters from all of the various ethnic groups that make up Pakistan’s mixed society.

Each character has a story that, some stereotypes permitting, tackle some tricky subjects – as Glee did with just a little more polish. Some of the stories would be lost on a non-Pakistani audience but, taken as a whole, the series reveals more about Pakistan today than the headlines that beam out of the South Asian nation: soldiers killed in a suicide attack, sectarian group attacks Shia Muslims, Christian lynched for blasphemy. Zipping between locations in Lahore in a cramped minibus, the cast and crew know they’re making something that will challenge audiences.

“The audience has been trained to just watch housewives,” says actor Ali Rizvi, dismissing the usual fare on Pakistani TV – a lot of which has come from India and Turkey. “They are made to believe life is just marriages, arguments and adultery. This [Taan] is a whole story. This is something different, relevant and new.”

The number of TV channels in Pakistan has surged over the past decade from just one state-owned network as successive governments have eased restrictions on the media. The influx of Indian and Turkish TV dramas has breathed new life into Pakistani production houses after nearly two decades of neglect.

The history of Pakistani TV and its renaissance today is tied up in the tale of two cities – Karachi and Lahore. Karachi – Pakistan’s restive megacity where political parties, criminals gangs and militant groups vie for control in a ceaseless battle for votes, money and turf – is also home to a plethora of new TV channels.

Lahore in the east was once the home to Lollywood, Pakistan’s film hub. Through the 1960s and 1970s it was churning out some of the most exciting films to emerge from South Asia. Lahore is commonly described as the cultural capital of Pakistan but today the crumbling buildings of the old city belong to an even more distant era than the nearly forgotten time of Lollywood.

The two cities exist in a love-hate relationship that neither can escape; the same tension that Taan explores through the clash of the classical music of Pakistan’s past and today’s pop music that has already propelled a number of Pakistani singers to international stardom, mostly over the border in India.

The songs that are percolated through Taan belong to Pakistan of yesteryear but they have been updated to suit today’s palate: the key lowered and the beat sped up. They are songs by some of Pakistan’s most famous singers and Sarwar hopes the soundtrack sales will take the show to the same giddy success that Glee enjoyed with its rearrangements of famous classics. “All this music is rotting away,” says Sarwar, sitting in the cramped editing suite in Karachi where the final touches are being made to the show.

One woman behind the TV renaissance is Sultana Siddiqui. A legendary TV producer in the 1990s, she set up Hum Network in 2004 as Pakistan’s first entertainment-only channel. “People said it would never work, that no one watches Pakistani dramas anymore,” she says, speaking from her Karachi office.

The concrete high-rise that houses Hum Network stands just across the road from the HQ of Jang Group – one of the largest media conglomerates in Pakistan, which runs Geo TV. Also close by is TechnoCity Corporate Tower, home to cnbc Pakistan. Karachi’s repressive humidity appears to have provided the perfect greenhouse for Pakistan’s TV entrepreneurs.

“Our dramas became the talk of the town and copy-cat channels began to appear. That opened avenues for production houses and actors in Pakistan,” says Shanaz Ramzi, general manager at Hum Network, who has been with the channel since its inception.

In March 2012, when the final episode of Humsafar – a Pakistani-made TV drama about two cousins forced together in marriage and then torn apart – aired, cities went quiet and the roads were deserted as the country stopped to tune in for the finale. “If you are invited to a dinner or a wedding that would be after the show,” says Ramzi.

The dramas tackle taboos like interfamily marriages and divorce. Religious leaders are stripped of their cloak of infallibility. Daughters defy their fathers. Wives challenge their husbands. Question marks appear in people’s minds about what a secular Pakistan could look like.

Pakistani TV has long been the unlikely home of content that has challenged the creeping Islamisation in the country. In the 1960s and 1970s Pakistan had a vibrant arts scene and a booming film industry. That was destroyed by military dictator Muhammad Zia ul Haq, who came to power in 1978 and is still blamed today for introducing a more puritanical form of Islam that continues to grip swathes of the country.

Zia ul Haq banned dancing, imprisoned artists and shut down cinemas, destroying the arts in Pakistan and effectively lobotomising the young country’s cultural memory.

“Your history started in 1947,” Zia ul Haq preached, referring to the year Pakistan became independent. “Everything before that was lost,” says Nadia Jamil, a popular TV and film actress in Pakistan. Sitting in her home in Lahore, surrounded by an eclectic mix of Pakistani paintings and crafts, Jamil says she was raised in the 1980s in a liberal cocoon created by her parents but that around her Pakistan was forgetting its Sufi roots. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that celebrates arts and music and was most prevalent in what is geographically Pakistan today prior to partition from India.

Even after Zia ul Haq was pushed from power and democracy was restored, tight controls remained over media that weren’t lifted until Pakistan’s next military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, came to power in 1999. In the 1990s newspapers and books were heavily censored for content deemed un-Islamic and anti-Pakistan. But ptv, the single terrestrial state-run TV channel, became the surprising home of Pakistan’s liberal minds. It was heavily censored but the channel needed content for broadcast and that thirst meant writers were able to get around the censor board with thinly veiled double entendre. The meaning may have been lost on government bureaucrats but not on audiences. The invasion of Turkish and Indian-made TV dramas in the early 2000s pushed some of the politics out and pulled the glamour in (“They’re cooking in silk saris,” says Ramzi, referring to an Indian TV drama. “The glamour appeals to people.”) – and so did the sudden surge in TV channels all desperate for content and ratings.

Boundaries have continued to be pushed nonetheless – just within certain parameters. No cleavage, no kissing, no alcohol allowed but it’s OK to show a Taliban suicide bomber being seduced by the mysticism of Sufi music. Believing his Taliban past has left him beyond redemption, he blows up his Taliban handler, killing himself as well – a storyline in Taan.

Watching TV is a family affair in Pakistan so shows have to appeal to all ages and not anger the person who controls the remote – probably the male head of the household. It’s a fine line to tread – and Taan’s makers hope they’ve remained on the right side of the tightrope. Sarwar is still in talks with three major channels all hoping to get their hands on Taan, but he hopes the show will hit TV sets in April.

And if Taan is to follow its American precursor it could take Pakistani-made TV to new heights. “Glee; it’s a catchy phrase,” says Sarwar, “But I want the show to be judged on its own merits.”

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