Forced into exile? - Hajrah Mumtaz - Monday, February 21, 2011

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IN the early 1980s, some of Pakistan`s producers of culture came up with an idea — a business proposition — that was entirely fresh and new, and was to become an icon for virtually an entire generation of Pakistanis.

Created and directed by Fareed Ahmed, financed by Parvez Rahim and released by EMI Pakistan, the Cassette Kahani series was bound to do well, and it did. Nothing of the sort had been undertaken in the country before, and while audio books were being released in other parts of the world, they were nothing like the Cassette Kahanis.

These were not just narrations but audio adventures, with detailed sound effects and different voices for various characters that brought the story to life in the listeners` minds. Among the people who contributed to the series` conception and execution was the noted music director Arshad Mahmood, who also played some of the characters in the stories.

The series was advertised on television and every child who had access to a cassette player wanted it. I`m sure many readers will remember the Cassette Kahani series with fondness and nostalgia.

The success of the series was such that it ought to have financially supported the copyright holders for life. Like so much in Pakistan, however, things did not go according to plan. Just a few years into distribution, pirates attacked the ship. The tapes started being copied and widely sold on the piracy market, with the profits going into the pirates` pockets.

The distributors tried to enforce their rights, trying measures such as stickers and special cassette jackets to distinguish the legal copies from the pirated. But all such measures can be replicated by the piracy industry — and given the amount of money to be gained, it really was rapidly turning into an industry. The then Ziaul Haq government was too busy in other things to involve itself in the enforcement of copyright laws or in cracking down on the pirates.

And so, quite soon, the ship found itself in serious distress and the Cassette Kahanis were taken over. The market was flooded by the series but the overwhelming majority of the tapes were pirated and the creators earned virtually nothing. Unable to retain control over their property, the creators stopped production.

By 1983, it was all over. Fareed Ahmed — unable to earn from, in cultural terms, the idea of the decade — decided to immigrate. Arshad Mahmood went on to great success but his work, as that of almost everybody who works in this industry, has in the subsequent decades been a favourite target of pirates.

Meanwhile, the piracy industry flourished to such an extent that EMI Pakistan, a subsidiary of HMV, was forced to gradually scale down its investment and operations and, finally, sell off its vaults and pull out.

The Cassette Kahanis could theoretically be re-released. But the holders of the copyrights know that there is no way they would be able to retain control over them. The piracy situation has only worsened over the past two decades. The only hope lies in taking them abroad for release. And even then, it is virtually certain that as soon as they were to become available, Pakistan`s markets would be flooded with illegal copies.

Does such a situation not amount to forcing Pakistan`s cultural products into exile? The sad tale of this series continues to be replicated across the industry. Musicians and pop stars have had to take their work across to India and elsewhere to be released, due to Pakistan`s inability to shut down the piracy market.

In many cases they have come under criticism here in Pakistan for such a decision, but really, what choice do they have? A few bands that tried to release their work under powerful local company labels found that even the contracts tended to be exploitative, with their rights over their work severely curtailed by the corporate giants.

Much is said about Pakistan`s culture being under the shadow of that of the powerhouse to the east, and legislators speak frequently of their fears about young minds being `corrupted` by Indian influence. Yet how can Pakistani cultural products flourish or be exported without support from the state and enforcement of the law?

Piracy is not the only nemesis of those who are the producers of cultural products in Pakistan. The television industry, for example, is characterised by contracts between private producers and powerful channels that amount to being exploitative. While the channels earn substantially from advertising, the private producers of the programmes aired have to work with little (negotiated) profit, endlessly delayed payments and in most cases, no rights over re-runs or the subsequent sale of the programme. Murder She Wrote Baywatch

In the more developed world, the contract between a producer and a broadcaster covers first airing rights only. If the broadcaster decides to run the programme again, or to sell it onwards, the original producer must be paid his dues. That is why successful series, say or , have made their creators rich for life. Every time an episode runs anywhere in the world, a portion of the earnings is meant to go to the copyright holders.

By paying scant attention to these issues, Pakistan can be seen as forcing its producers of cultural products to go elsewhere, where contracts are fairer and laws enforceable. The sad reality is, unfortunately, that culture tends to be language-, area- and audience-specific. A film or television programme that relates to the Pakistani experience will be far less relevant to someone in another country, and entirely irrelevant to an audience that does not speak Urdu. (Though there is somewhat greater flexibility in music.)

For the producers of culture, the world is not open. Thus, they must continue to labour on with little recompense and virtually non-existent state support.

The writer is a member of staff.

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