Drama serials: Golden Age?
A Pakistani drama serial has brought the nation together once again, reminding people of the ‘80’s when ‘Waris’ 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 orbiting 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 being proof of his virile masculinity.
Sarah, who in the first 15 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 Sarah 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 is an 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.