When home is worse than a prison

April 16, 2023

With its realistic themes and thoughtful script, Pinjra is a must-watch for families

When home is worse than a prison


he last episode of the drama serial Pinjra aired last week. The ending, though expected, felt good in the way that collective catharsis does.

The play merits a conversation over chai. It had a remarkable storyline, a strong script and on-point character development. Even more so because of the social themes that unravel as the narrative progresses. Parental pressure and the effects of trauma on adolescents are two such themes.

The protagonist, Abaan, a fourteen-year-old. He is routinely admonished by his over-critical father. He is a gifted artist and deeply interested in art and music.

His parents, however, have other expectations from him. They want him to give up arts and focus on his studies, by which they mean natural sciences.

The things come to a head when Abaan does not do well in science subjects. His father does not mince words. He tells the child that he is a disappointment and dismisses his aptitude for arts.

Abaan is shown suffering from stress, anxiety and dysfunctionality. The serial traces his journey through very rough times.

The play is poignant. It is also realistic. Most viewers can empathise with Abaan who struggles with drug abuse and is later accused of murdering a class fellow.

The court directs that he be sent to a juvenile detention centre. However, he gets sent to an adult prison instead because the complainant is a politically influential and well-connected man. Abaan survives an assault in prison and is left traumatised.

The play pivots on how childhood trauma and parental neglect can destroy a young person’s life. It also shows that healing is possible through collective efforts.

Asma Nabeel, the screenwriter, did a wonderful job of weaving the narrative into the storyline and imbuing it with takeaways meant to improve parent-child interactions.

When Abaan is granted bail and asked to choose where he wants to live, he says he prefers the juvenile prison to his home. The implied parallel between a prison and an autocratic household is an eye-opener. The revelation that their child would rather remain in prison than live with them, shakes his parents to the core. It forces them to revisit, and eventually change, their approach to parenting.

There seems to be too much reliance on storytelling through acting or script and too little of it on storytelling through camera work and production design. Script-wise, Pinjra is very different from mainstream TV productions. Such scripts deserve respect and a departure from templated cinematography and direction 

Some unpredictable twists and turns draw the viewers in and prevent the story from becoming bland. This is a difficult feat to accomplish when a major part of the narrative hinges on day-to-day situations.

Pinjra features many sub-plots, all of which add to its charm. These sub-plots accurately capture various forms of labour and sacrifices necessary for a family unit to arrive at a coherent decision – and then act on it.

It is through these sub-plots that the writer tackles the issues of drugs on campus and in prison, difficulties that single mothers face in a patriarchal society, post-divorce complications and how hyper-surveillance affects children.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly the child actors. They set the bar for acting pretty high, even for adults. Some of the children seem more suave than the adults who appear in some situations to be struggling with their characters.

While the sequence of events in the script and their portrayal by the child actors keeps the viewers mesmerised, the stagnation in framing, including light and props, can be disappointing.

There is too much reliance on storytelling through script and acting and too little through camera work and production design.

One of the very few, powerful frame sequences is one in which Abaan’s disciplinarian father apologises to him. The sequence stands out because we do not see parents apologising to children very often, although it is a healthy way to resolve conflicts. Set in the dining room, the scene is presented using a mixture of over-the-shoulder shots - wide angle as well as close-up. It is impactful and not only because of the intense conversation but also because of how it was filmed.

However, such points are rare and there are not many scenes where camera-work is coherent, and aligned with the narrative. At times, the lack of alignment between the storyline, cinematography, direction and music is quite jarring.

The story is deliberately set at a slow pace. The art direction is also a bit patchy. Realism is lacking in the coverage of the juvenile detention centre and the prison cells.

Script-wise, Pinjra is different from mainstream TV productions in many ways. Such scripts deserve respect and a departure from templated cinematography and direction.

Filming unique plots is an art. When the effort is missing, it can cause the message to be lost. Drawn-out scenes, in particular, can cause boredom.

A major takeaway with Pinjra, is that the Pakistani drama industry does not lack good stories. However, the directors and the directors of photography need to push the boundaries of their craft.

The writer is a theatre practitioner and a drama critic

When home is worse than a prison