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The changing face of Pakistani dramas

Mahwash Ajaz
The most frequently cited criticism of Pakistani drama serials is about the lack of innovative plots. Most viewers find the plots of our drama serials employing the same old saas-bahu or evil woman versus miskeen aurat binaries. Pakistani dramas do frequently rely on such comfortable stereotypes. In majority of our plays, there will be ‘evil, modern’ women who steal innocent men from unsuspecting wives. These devoted naik parveens are shown wearing big dupattas with almost minimal makeup and their hair is almost always tied in a choti. On the contrary, the conniving secretary who steals their husband from them is shown dressed up in short kameezes, has her hair flung open and wears flashy makeup. The message is: the more empowered a woman is, the more dangerous she is to society. So one wonders has it always been like this. Let us we look back at the age of Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinaray. Take the example of Uroosa. The eponymous character was played by Mishi Khan. She was shown as an ‘innocent’ heroine not known much for intelligence. Her mother, played by Ghazala Kaifi, was the true heroine of the play. She walks out of an emotionally abusive marriage and raises her daughter alone despite all odds. The drama had gone on air in 1992; fresh out of the Zia era when Pakistan Television was still depicting women with dupattas on their heads all the time. Despite the rigorously conservative expectations from televised material, dramas could still appreciate and depict strong and empowered women as heroic and winners of their battles. In Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan — aired on Geo Television in 2009 — Samiya Mumtaz’s character faces a situation like that of Ghazala’s. But instead of showing her as succeeding in life, she is depicted as a downtrodden and godforsaken picture of poverty and sadness. The message is that a woman who attempts to take charge of her destiny either has to sit back and let destiny steamroll all over her or face a situation where she is seen as an evil witch and is hated by everyone. There’s no room for that grey area in which most real women survive.All of this is not to say that horrible things do not happen to women in Pakistan. As per data compiled by Thompson Reuters, Pakistan is one of the top five most dangerous countries in the world for women.
Every second woman in Pakistan suffers from domestic violence. Women are often abused in the name of ‘infertility’ or over financial matters.

There were over 700 cases of rape reported in 2015 alone. Considering the amount of taboo and stigma associated with reporting such a crime, the actual statistics could be much higher. Therefore if Pakistani media continues to depict women as victims of various forms of internalised patriarchy, is it not simply depicting what is happening in the society?

The answer to this question can be found by referring to the process of evolution. Thus, Pakistani dramas may indeed be showing repetitive and inherently misogynistic stories but they are also in a process of evolution.

Our serials have come a long way from the dukhiyari characters penned by Samiya Mumtaz. Take the example of the character of Sajjo/Tahira in the famous drama serial Udaari. She marries a man named Imtiaz who turns out to be a villain of a most sinister degree. Imtiaz sexually assaults Sajjo’s daughter. Sajjo attempts to kill him and flees to the city where she finds refuge in the home of Sheedan (played by Bushra Ansari) and her daughter Meera (Urwa Hocane). Sheedan and Meera had left their small village because Meera wanted to pursue a career in music industry.

Udaari was written by Farhat Ishtiaq, who also wrote the play Humsafar. Humsafar’s protagonist, Khirad, was not as empowered as you would want a modern Pakistani heroine to be. Yet the same writer came up with the character of Meera.

In Muqabil, Kubra Khan plays a rape victim who faces her assailant on a daily basis but instead of cowering down in fear and horror, she responds to him with strength and confidence. Kubra Khan has also tackled a difficult role in Andaz-e-Sitam, where she is a victim of marital rape. The play follows her quest for justice. Kitni Girhen Baqi Hain shows two women in a romantic relationship. In Sammi, Mawra Hocane plays the role of a girl given in blood marriage. She escapes to the city where she rebuilds her life. The play takes up the issue of lack of maternal health care facilities in Pakistan.

While there are still many dramas on television that continue to describe women in the given stereotypical roles, there are others that are portraying women characters in a different light. As a critic, I can only say that change is inevitable. Society is changing and so are our dramas. Sure, there are the saas-bahu flicks and the silly romances that make for mass entertainment. But there is no dearth of artful and meaningful writing that is gracing our TV screens.

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