Rewind back almost twelve months, to January, when one could harbour some hopes and desires. Given how Pakistani dramas are enjoying unprecedented global viewership and what with all the praise pouring in – about their realism and relatability – I had hopes thatthe year to follow would bring us some much-needed respite from the tedium and mediocrity that seemed to have found a permanent home in our serials over the past few years.
One hoped for something different. Perhaps there would be some innovation, or perhaps we’ll get a few hatke stories – something that deviates from the usual run-of-the-mill content. Basically I made myself a promise to approach 2015 with a clean slate: Jo guzar gaya woh bhool jao, aane waley kal pe nazar rakho and behter ki umeed karo (Forget that which has passed, look forward to tomorrow) you know na, those dialogues and ghissey pittey (hackneyed) lectures?
So pepped up was I by my own speech that in my enthusiasm I cancelled my three- to four-year-oldmembership at the tissue-box-of-the-week-club and with my fingers and toes tightly crossed, hoped for the best and waited to see what the coming year held in store for us.
What we see on our TV screens is a culture ridden with rape-supportive beliefs
Fast forward to now, to December, and it’s pretty much déjà vu time. I am just as disappointed and disillusioned, but where last year there had been a least one serial – Bee Gul and Khalid Ahmed’s Pehchan – which was a keeper in every sense of the word, 2015 brought us nothing that merited unqualified praise. In fact at this point I am hard pressed to make light of the shortcomings of our dramas, so deeply concerned am I about the disturbing direction our plays have taken. One cannot help but worry about the impact that these carelessly told, crassly handled stories are leaving on young, impressionable minds.
As it was in the years past, in 2015 too pyar (love)and shaadi (marriage) remained the raison d’être of our TV serials. So enamored were our drama-makers with the notion of pehli nazar ki muhabbat (love at first sight) that what in real life would be unquestioningly termed as awaragi (vagrancy) was reframed in Mera Naam Yousuf Hai and a sarak-chhap ‘ashiq’s chichori harkats (a street vagabond’s boorish antics)designated as divinely inspired ‘ishq (love). Blithely ignored were the girl’s feelings – that she said “no” loudly and clearly and repeatedly, was never even a minor blip on our intrepid hero’s radar. What mattered was that he was in love with her.
When did such behavior become acceptable enough that a stalker was being declared a lover and a hero on primetime TV? Even more troubling was how this ‘classic love story’ was received by impressionable viewers. Imran Abbas and Maya Ali, the popular, good-looking lead pair had fans drooling – all of whom were beyond eager to see the ‘cute’ and ‘filmy romance’ blossom between Yousuf and Zulekha.
With saas-nand-bahu triangles considered passé and second or third wives having become yesterday’s news, a twist in the tale was introduced with the mainstreaming of talaq kidhamkis (threats of divorce) and talaqs (divorces) themselves. As if mocking the sanctity of nikah (marriage) wasn’t bad enough, we were served drama after drama where the concept of halala (religious injunction about re-marrying a divorced wife only after she has been temporarily married to someone else first) was casually discussed and given as much thought as would be deemed appropriate for deciding a lunch menu for the next day. Chup Raho, Main Bushra, Dua, Khuda Dekh Raha Hai, Ek Thi Misal, Tumhare Siwa and Gar Maan Reh Jaye – to name just a few – are evidence of this trend.
There’s been much written about the mazloom aurat (oppressed woman) of our dramas, but nothing in her past comes close to all that she has had to endure this past year. Rape, a matter as serious as it gets, became the topic du jour for our primetime dramas. Had there been a sincere engagement with the issue, then an open and honest conversation would have been heartily welcomed, but as they say, yahan tau ulti ganga beh rahi hai (the river Ganges flows the wrong way). Instead of teaching viewers how to empower survivors, we are being shown lame attempts at rehabilitating the perpetrator.
Forget about raising awareness and educating the public at large, what we get in its stead is cheap sensationalism, where the woman, our so called izzat (honour), is being systematically raped by content heads, marketing departments, producers and channel owners – all in the name of increased TRPS. Sadqay Tumhare, Chup Raho, Muqaddas and Sangat are examples of this abominable trend.
Along with rapes, 2015 also saw an appreciable increase in the number of dramas depicting physical and emotional abuse. To her credit, Mehreen Jabbar is the only director this year who worked within the existing framework to bring us serials that engaged meaningfully with instances of domestic violence. Jackson Heights and Mera Naam Yousuf Hai both depicted survivors who not only walked away from their abusers but also managed to forge new paths for themselves.
With rapes now commonplace on TV, the bar has been raised high in terms of what an inured viewer perceives as inappropriate behavior. In Diyar-e-Dil ‘minor’ incidents like dragging and pushing a woman around, issuing verbal threats, waving a loaded gun – all were rationalised and happily lapped up by audiences, mainly female, as totally justified and befitting the mardangi (masculinity) and shaan (majesty) of the hero, played by the very popular Osman Khalid Butt.
With the super success of Diyar-e-Dil it was only a matter of time before others followed suit and it therefore comes as no great surprise to see similarities – heroine kidnapped and dragged to a haunted house – play out in the recently launched Gul-e-Rana. This is, once again a serial popular with young fans because of the lead pair, Feroze Khan and Sajal Ali. The audience’s love for their favorite actors translates into high TRPs, which in turn translates into even more iterations of the same old.
In viewing these troubling scripts alongside the reception they are getting from the masses, it is evident that in the last few years our TV serials have done a remarkable job perpetuating clichés, reinforcing problematic gendered stereotypes, robbing a woman of her agency onscreen and normalising misogyny. The term “rape culture” is an ugly one. But the harsh reality is that what we see happening on our TV screens is almost exactly how one would describe a culture ridden with rape-supportive beliefs about women. In such a culture, the issue of their consent is trivialised to the point of being inconsequential.
And in talking about culture, let’s also not forget that our dramas are being watched by a global audience. On the one hand we scream ourselves hoarse about hamara culture yeh and hamara culture woh (“our culture this” and “our culture that”). We complain and question as to how and why others portray us in a less-than-flattering light, but then on the other hand we depict as heroes men who acquire and discard wives with mindboggling ease, who have no issues raising their hands on their loved ones, who openly threaten others in public, carry revolvers on their person and have no issues mouthing lines like thapar laga-oonga (I’ll slap you), munh tor doonga (I’ll break your face),zinda garh doonga (I’ll bury you alive) and goliyan utaar doonga (I’ll shoot you). To be perfectly blunt, we don’t really need outsiders to come malign us: we are happily doing it on our own!
I am not a media insider so I cannot say what the content heads, marketing departments, channels and producers are thinking – if at all – when they put out such troubling messages. I get that TRPs are the be-all and end-all but how far are they willing to lower the bar? Now that our masses are happily hooked on to misogyny and rapes, my one question, at the end of 2015 is: What’s next on the agenda? What happens when the now-thrill-hungry public wants more?