Last week a good friend and columnist took to task a local TV soap called Zindagi Gulzar Hai.
Even though I completely agree with her in her condemnation of the kind of sexist and misogynist plots, dialogues and characters most TV plays in this country are plagued by, I believe Zindagi Gulzar Hai was not entirely the correct example to give.
Before I get into some detail about why I think Zindagi… was the wrong example, I must admit the overall theme of the column was justified.
Flick across local entertainment channels between 8 and 9 pm and you are bound to witness prolonged images of women sobbing and pleading their helplessness in front of stern looking men.
No, the idea is not to critique self-loathing women who can’t stand up to misogyny or narrow-minded males.
The idea is to attract a cheap emotional response from the viewers who are then taken on a rollercoaster ride across the series anticipating a closure where the self-loathing woman finally lets go of even an inkling in her to question her position vis-à-vis that of the male’s, and completely submits to what is explained as a natural occurrence: Male superiority.
The most recent example in this context actually became a huge hit: Humsafar.
Offered as an engrossing serial, Humsafar actually turned out to be an unintentional parody of the Pakistani TV soap.
Though scripted by a woman, it seemed the woman was thinking more like a man.
The two leading characters of the hit serial had perhaps the most pathetic dispositions this side of glitzy, empty television.
Consider this: A handsome young rich guy is forced to marry a not very well-off simpleton cousin of his, when the plan was for him to tie the knot with another cousin of his who is as well-off and modern as he.
The simpleton girl is the icon of the kind of saadgi (modesty) that the censor boards under the former reactionary dictator, Ziaul Haq, loved to see in ‘good women’ roles: Always in a dupatta, with the least bit of make-up, entirely fatalistic, self-pitying, a good (read submissive) wife, and a woman who considers (or indirectly advocates) a glaring lack of intelligence as an admirable virtue.
Forget about the fact that in real life such a woman is more than likely to be diagnosed as suffering from a curious strain of psychosis; even in fiction such a character became passé after Nek Parveen (Pious Parveen) made emotional self-flagellation and humiliation seem romantic on the Pakistani cinema screens decades ago.
Then there was the hero of Humsafar. Rich, dumb and most probably suffering from the Asperger Syndrome, because throughout the series he just couldn’t see his conniving mom’s rather obvious maneuvers to degrade his wife; things even a four-year-old would have managed to notice.
In other words, this man’s ego and consequent cruelty towards her simpleton wife is the outcome of the doings of a rich conniving woman — his mom!
The hero and the heroine are haunted by the hero’s cousin, Sara, a compulsive-obsessive stalker, hell-bent on chasing down the hero, break his marriage and marry him.
So, since she is kind of weird and a bit sick in the head, she just had to be the opposite of the heroine.
Thus, she is individualistic, wears western clothes, does yoga, and her everyday lingo is punctuated with a lot of English words and expressions. And, of course, (and maybe even therefore), she is also suicidal.
Such hackneyed personifications of the good woman, bad woman, and an innocent man turned bad by a bad woman only to come around by the emotional sacrifices of the good woman are a regular occurrence in Pakistani teleplays.
Furthermore, religion too has crept in. The good woman is a pious woman and intellectually uncomplicated because her spirituality is untainted by material desires even if she is okay about being continuously kicked in the backside by a mass of meat she calls her husband.
This is the imagined (even wishful) dramatisation by ‘traditionalist’ middle-class women who seem to be writing most of these soaps, understanding them as providing emotional and spiritual closures and healing to women stung by that dreadful bug called individuality.
But this has not happened in Zindagi … In this play a flirtatious rich guy’s moral hypocrisy is at once confronted by his girlfriend whenever he admonishes her for wearing revealing clothes in public.
Yes, his dialogues are cringingly reactionary, but they do not fly without being shot down by his girlfriend.
Unlike in Humsafar where the individualistic woman was shown to be a bit of a cuckoo, in Zindagi … such a woman is not judged by the writer.
However, the most interesting and unprecedented character in the play that is an intellectual and social foil to the rich guy, is the not-so-well-off fellow student of his at college.
Her role is unprecedented (in the annals of local TV) because she reacts to the moral hypocrisy of her disaffected father, the pomposity of the rich guy, and to her own struggling lower-middle-class status by questioning the whole concept of fatalism that is so rampant in our society.
She does this by questioning God every time anyone evokes his name during the most testing moments of the financial crises that her family is a victim of. To her ‘God is only interested in the affairs of the rich.’
Though outspoken, bitter, intelligent and individualistic, she is not portrayed as being mentally sick or misguided.
It is this that has made Zindagi… a kind of an anti-thesis of the misogynistic nonsense that goes on in most of the country’s teleplays.
Of course, what the closure would be for such a woman in this play is anybody’s guess.
I just hope she doesn’t become a wreck; or, (like the heroine in that farcical serial, Sheharzad), she does not experience an episode of psychological meltdown that was amazingly (and to me, hilariously), portrayed by the play to be a moment of spiritual awakening!
As long as Zindagi.. brings forth a nonjudgmental discourse between competing ideas of morality, faith and class, it will retain its edge. And let’s hope it stays this way.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.