The violent side of TV

January 24, 2021

Given that slapping is a very common form of physical violence, especially in the sub-continent, it is imperative to discuss how Pakistani dramas are normalizing this barbaric act of brutality on television.

Ayeza Khan’s character Mehwish gets slapped in Mere Paas Tum Ho for transgressing her boundaries as the ‘other woman’; she even gets slapped when she plays a helpless character as Seher in Thora Sa Haq. One slap is for baghairti and the other for bechaargi; exactly what are producers and viewers deriving from this?

When dramas illustrate scene after scene where a woman gets repeatedly slapped, the drama ends up desensitizing viewers and also gives the message that a slap, which is actually a jarring act of violence, is completely permissible with no repercussions whatsoever. Dramas are inevitably normalizing slapping and this has to stop because people not only watch, absorb, incorporate and implement televised stories and characters into their lives, they also claim ownership over the content they consume.

The range and breadth of our television dramas is so miserably limited as a result of which women are perpetually shown as compromised individuals with zero display of intellect or agency. This is not the only kind of woman that exists in Pakistan. Fortunately, contrary to the average leading lady in every Urdu drama, the real Pakistani woman is far more capable than her reel counterpart.

Why then, one must ask, can’t we show women on-screen as engineers, scientists, activists, leaders, politicians, sportspersons or police officers? Such women exist and can plausibly become role models for society and young girls at large. But TV tells another story.

Anaya’s character played by Mawa Hocane in Sabaat was immensely inspiring but she too gets slapped twice by Miraal (Sara Khan) and even that is objectionable. There is a scene where Anaya admits to remaining silent to all the emotional and verbal abuse that would come her way because she wanted to be a ‘good supportive wife’. Here are the other dramas in which Mawra Hocane’s character has been abused or slapped: Ek Tamanna La Haasil Si, Yahan Pyar Nahi Hai, Nikhar Gaye Gulaab Saray, Mere Harjaai and there may be more. This just shows us that women across all social classes even on-screen do not get the dignity that they deserve. It does not matter how many degrees or accolades women may have to their name, they are perpetually presented as what Simone De Beauvoir aptly wrote and coined (over seven decades ago in 1949) ‘the second sex.’

Sadly, the art of subtlety is a lost art for Pakistani television. Once globally renowned for neo-realist dramatic intensity, the Urdu drama was devoured all across the world with sincere anticipation. Actors never relied on slaps for reformation, punishments or admonishment. The sound of silence, the mere stare of a character or even displeasure evoked through expression was adequate to communicate what verbose explicit language and physical assault in the form of frequent slaps has not been able to achieve today.

Slaps do not drive a plot forward; neither do they serve any purpose except for momentary sensationalism. Slapping in our dramas is just completely inconsequential, barbaric and a major contributor to the perpetuation of on-screen violence.

Is it ever okay to slap someone? No, there is no justification for slapping, not even as a crime of passion, just as there is no logical justification for domestic violence, murder and physical assault. After centuries of protests, three waves of feminism, and hundreds of women who have fought for nothing but equality between the sexes, we are still casually slapping women on-screen in Pakistan and consuming this violence with intrepid fervour.

Mira Sethi’s character, Neelofer, in Yeh Dil Mera for example gets slapped, whipped with a belt by her husband ( Mir Farooq Zaman played by Adnan Siddiqui) and apparently that never made it to PEMRA’s censorship cuts. But cleavages, blood, knives, guns, and Sonya Hussain’s (as Ulfat) barely visible belly button in Mohabbat Tujhe Alvida must be blurred and camouflaged as the bigger evil.

Slapping is also the result of unequal power in relationships, another unfortunate recurrence in our dramas. Violence can be physical (assault), emotional (sentimental abuse), verbal (abusive language), non-verbal (male-gaze), and psychological (gas lighting, ghosting). Globally, and especially in developing countries like Pakistan, women grow up in a climate of fear and violence. It is essential to understand that violence overrides differences in cultural background, social class, education, occupation etc.

For instance, Yumna Zaidi’s character, Mahjabeen, hails from an economically lower middle class, small household, gets slapped in Pyar Ke Sadqay by her father just for fibbing about an academic grade. On the other hand, Washma played by Srha Asghar, comes from a supposedly educated, elite, upper-class home but she also gets slapped for raising her voice against the actual sexual harasser in the house.

What can be done?

Established actresses and even male actors can say no to both slapping and being slapped on screen. This would be the first step to counter the desensitization, disrespect and degradation that women face on screen, off-screen and in reality. Drama writers can choose to exercise those creative grey cells which push the envelope when it comes to writing women protagonists or even supporting characters. There are myriad ways to evoke tension, display anger, and develop conflict on screen but that requires more time and effort which consequently will tantamount to a significant intellectual investment on behalf of content creators. Producers, television channels and production houses can develop soft standard operating policies which refrain from showing slapping on screen.

There was an era during which the primary responsibility of Art and Literature, succeeded by Film and Television, was to entertain. But times have now completely changed and so has the meaning of entertainment. With the advent of the internet, this digital age is being shaped and maneuvered by the content they voraciously consume. Thus, art in the form of entertainment and storytelling has a larger responsibility on its shoulders. Fewer people are turning to libraries or books for engagement or knowledge and televised content is up for mass consumption.

It is crucial for content creators and performing artists both to re-think the TV dramas that are being consumed not just in Pakistan but all across the globe. Dramas do not just need to entertain, but they need to also resurrect stories that reform, revolutionize and refine society for the better. This implies representing reality with a significant aspirational quotient and incorporating iconic inspirational characters that leave a long-lasting mark on viewers across the globe.

The violent side of TV