Saturday, March 3, 2012

A new golden age of Pakistani drama? Think not

A Pakistani drama serial has brought the nation together once again, reminding people of the ‘80’s when ‘Waaris’ and ‘Tanhaiyaan’ are fabled to have left the streets of Lahore deserted.
Pakistani drama had been witnessing a revival for a couple of years now, but not until Humsafar did that scattered babble converge to a deafening roar; confronting the unsuspecting on every corner regardless of consent. It is the kind of all-encompassing popularity that legends are made of, and who but the shallowest snob would begrudge such a culturally defining moment?
So, to bring myself up to speed, I decided to spend one weekend on YouTube catching up on the Pakistani zeitgeist. Closing the dozen or so windows that are usually open on my Chrome at any given time to allow my computer optimum performance and speed, I settled down to plug into the pop-culture rhythm of modern Pakistan.
It didn’t begin very promisingly. The principal characters were immediately defined through tired old tropes of class —poor girl with chadar equal to good and chaste; rich girl in jeans, spoilt and forward. Add to that the poverty-stricken but upright mother on her death bed and (the soon to turn into) evil NGO-aunty mother-in-law, and every tired old cliché in the Pakistani moral universe begins to gnaw at whatever little substance the play had to begin with. These said characters then proceeded to act in the way the middle class writer’s imagination perceives poor people act, or equally rich ones. The women orbitting in their pre-determined paths around the intense and manly object of desire whose taut face and pregnant pauses helped drive the contrived ‘plot’.
While the female characters are painted through a Nazeer Ahmed-esque moral lens of angelic goodness and devilish design, the man’s agreeableness remains superfluous to his desirability, perhaps even detrimental to it; his unreasonable suspicions proof of his virile masculinity.
Sarah, who in the first fifteen minutes is presented as the demure sidekick in Asher’s business, suddenly discovers a histrionic streak that would put Malka-e-Jazbaat, Bahaar to shame.
That there are women who might choose to behave like Sara when they find out that the love of their life is betrothed to another is not under doubt, neither is the fact that there are women like Khirad who could be led into marrying a stranger because they have no other option; the problematic bit is that all Pakistani plays across the board depict most ‘lovable’ female characters in this light. This is their idea of what people want, and with the unprecedented success of ‘Humsafar’, it seems like they’ve got it right. 
The play’s popularity amongst the well-to-do, private school educated classes is the most fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. It is possible that the main reason for it is the charisma of Fawad Khan and the dewy faced Mahira, at least if my class full of 15-year-old girls is any proof, but our perverse obsession with suffering is also another plausible reason for its success. Suffering women in particular seem to be placed on a pedestal; by men because they are the ultimate romantic symbols of womanly sacrifice, by women because it is nice to be validated on screen for life choices that have them personally unfulfilled but socially approved.
Humsafar’s popularity is sad evidence of the systemic erosion of Pakistan’s social consciousness since the enforced piety of Zia’s days. If Haseena Moin was the benchmark of mass popularity back then, then Humsafar in as indicator of our endemic regressiveness. The sad irony is that Haseena’s heroines challenged the status quo by being their bubbly, independent, if hopelessly romantic selves; in comparison, the Khirads and Sarahs of today are a firm step backward. Those earlier women had time to be just women, with humour, grace and tenacity that lent texture and authenticity to their characters. Today’s specimens perpetually shuffle from one tear-jerker to another; their whole lives one long, painful dirge on the hazards of being a woman in a patriarchal world they have no interest in challenging or shaping. Sassy, single women of the 'repressed' 80’s (think Badar Khalil in Tanhaiyan) had the wherewithal to support two grown-up, orphaned nieces without any of them being played for the ‘bechaari’ sentiment that drives most depiction of women today. Besides, female friendship was celebrated, whether amongst college friends, sisters or between aunts and nieces. The Sarah and Khirad model inevitably pits them against one another, rendering them useless without the pivotal man in the middle.
Today’s plays, including Humsafar, are much like Razia Butt novels, just having shifted mediums from the inside pages of a women’s weekly to the 8 o’clock slot on television. Only through this switch the impact of their regressive mindset has widened considerably, entrenching our society’s stereotypes ever more solidly into our consciousness.

First published here on


  1. I think, it is not the story which has made the drama so popular, it is the magnificient work of the director and the actors which has made it a huge hit and which you failed to acknowledge. I think the issues you discussed are not even relevant to its success. What I like about this drama is that all characters are equally flawed, irrespective of status, bank balance, level of education or attire.

  2. Replies
    1. @Sabahat
      1: Khirad is materialistic. She thinks that only material things will make her daughter happy and the trauma of the sudden disappearance and continued absence of her mother will be offset by her dad's money.

      2: She is selfish. She is only thinking of herself when she leaves her daughter with Ashar. She is portraying it to be a noble act, act of selfless love for her daughter's future. It is her pure selfishness that she does not even stop to think that her daughter would be in her evil MIL's care! Why does she not demand khulla is beyond me. Oh how I despise people who play the victims card and feel all superior for it!

      3: She talks of khuddari and ana and yet, she has been living with Batool khalla these past years and she goes back to her once again!

      I could go on and on, and I am sure many people can present counter arguments. I haven't watched the last episode so I dont know how her character behaves.

      Humsafar is a love story and should be watched in that context alone. It is beautifully directed and well performed. The characters are both admirable and flawed at the same time. It can not be compared to dramas like Waris which were about our society's deep rooted issues (apples? oranges?)

    2. Hi Faiza!

      Thank you for your input. I am sorry, but I think I'll have to disagree with you. I do not think that the acting in the play is good, but of course that is subjective and to each his own.

      You say that the story should be seen in a love story context alone, but I don't think we can perceive it that way because the audience takes moral lessons from the story itself. I say this because I see people's interest in not only the love story, but they seem to take away more than that about the characters and the moral lessons they seem to offer.

      It is with this realization that I am a little saddened that the Pakistani community is still entertained by such a plot. It is the same old traditional story line. I hope that as a nation we are able to produce dramas which talk about real problems of the country, and perhaps offer solutions. The media can be a very powerful resource, and I just don't think we are using it in the full capacity we can, especially when we can use it to educate the masses about some very important issues.

  3. Wow - I am so missing out - wish I was in Pakistan

  4. First of all, story was very well written. Unfortunately, Farhat Ishtiaq didnt get the same level of fame as other did. No doubt about Sarmad Khoosat perfect direction and Momina's Production but writ iter should get the credit as well.

  5. Well regarding to Humsafar though it was good in production but it's portrays that still out tv audience loves to watch drama on old trend where war is between rich and poor, either leading male character is poor or female.

  6. Sabahat,

    I agree with you about the regression of our popular culture. You have very rightly pointed out how the drama and several others firmly entrench the stereotypes. The drama of yesteryears was much more progressive compared to this. A while ago another piece of writing crossed my eyes. Am attaching for your perusal:

    Have fun.

    By the way, the less said about Sarmad Khoosats direction, the loopholes in the plot, loose ends, and production quality, the better.

  7. I believe it worked for the fabulous chemistry between two good-looking actors. Beyond that,distance between them could have crept in without the evil scheming of Atiqa Odhu. It was un-necessary and a little too unbelievable. I was actually quite pleased initially when she was portrayed to have accepted khirad as her bahu. It was a pleasant change of attitudes. Then, Ashar, claiming of such affection towards his new found love with his wife, not giving her a chance to explain her side of the story is again unrealistic. It was pure drama and therefore liked for its ability to amuse. Nothing more than that...

  8. I think such novels are best left to what they are. Novels. Not that they are not well loved. I would still read it. But seeing it on prime TV only reminds one of the helpless and dependent plight of a woman in our society today, and that how a woman is always going to be the real enemy of a woman. This sadly is a indian television infused culture, catering to a largely female audience, giving them female evils to rebuke, and a female victim to self-associate with.
    Not done.
    Ankahi and Tanhaiyan anyday.

    If acting is what is being praised here, Maat, a drama running on Hum TV and just ended this week should have been applauded much more. Very realistically portrayed by Amna Sheikh and Saba Qamar, the plot was again pitting a woman against a woman, but at least the real evil was something more than mundane in-laws issues.

  9. It is interesting and praise worthy that somebody has finally taken the responsibility of pointing out how mysogynyistic, and demeaning to women the plots of the majority of Pakistani TV play now a days are: probably a reflection of the headlong plunge of the society into reactionary attitudes and crazed religiosity. Women, in general are portrayed as hapless, subservient and powerless victims who can find redemption only through being slavishly loyal to their husbands and extended families no matter how badly they are treated. Seeking a divorce is not an option since they are admonished that once married, their Susarals are their real homes, nor are leaving home for a hostel or shelter or seeking a job.

    The worst recent example of such abominations is the play 'Meray Qatil Meray Dildar' a highly implausible, unrealistic and idiotic play in which a mousy housewife with a Master's degree in Psychology passively suffers the incredibly cruel treatment meted out to her by her husband and 'Phuppoo' that even a dog would rebel at. The husband, in the meantime is lusting after none other than his own brother's wife whom he ultimately marries after she had been summarily divorced by her jellyfish of a husband by him reciting 'I divorce you' three times (A mode of rendering divorce hugely favored by the electronic media which has no solid justification in Islamic Jurisprudence). Here again,the heroine of the play, a MBA, suffers myriad indignities for one year before she is divorced and thrown out of the house instead of asking for a divorce herself long before the culmination of her torture in this manner.

    In another idiotic play 'Almed Habib Ki Batiyan'the father having been burned once makes exactly the same mistake with her third daughter. The widowed daughter suffers the constant abuse of her ex-mother-in-law but although gainfully employed would not dream of moving out and living on her own and the third daughter despite living in a free society such as France and despite being in the work force, does not report her husband who terrorizes and enslaves her, to the police.

    The channels display a highly irresponsible attitude in creating such negative stereotypes of the women of Pakistan. Such portrayals should be denounced and actively challenged by all concerned with reclaiming the heritage of Pakistan as a progressive state before it was overrun by a tidal wave of fanaticism, intolerance and arch conservatism.

  10. you gave words to what i had in my mind lady.

  11. I absolutely love this post! I feel as though you've spoken my mind :) The way 'female characters' are being televised as helpless and rather righteous seems like an undermining tone for the stature of women in the South Asian society itself; especially when girls and women are struggling to speak up and ammend the wrongs done in the past.
    I'm really glad you touched upon the topic of 'Humsafar' and its female characters. :)