As the local feminist discourse evolves, the way women’s stories are told must change as well
The evolving social conscience of a society struggling to shed its puritanical patriarchal garb demands that the portrayal of the feminine advances with the changing discourse. It is time that the Pakistani cinema and TV industry move towards diversifying the narrative to meet the needs of changing social sensibilities. Unfortunately, many local TV serials, primarily targeting a largely female demographic, lack strong female characters. Some attempts have undoubtedly been made at expanding the discussion around social issues. However, there are fewer progressive, relatable and impactful female characters to watch on TV than ever before.
During the Zia era Haseena Moin penned some of the most forward-thinking and refreshing female characters of all time. Zara, Sanya and Zubi Khala of Tanhayian remain all-time favourites for a simple reason: they represented the average, modern Pakistani women of their time. Most importantly, these characters were survivors; instead of playing distressed damsels, they faced life’s challenges with absolute resolve. Interestingly, the men in Moin’s plays were equally real. Dr Ahmar, of Dhoop Kinaray, played by Rahat Kazmi, worked relentlessly to overcome the perceived betrayal to make room for love in his life.
The characters were never static and growth was evident over the course of successive episodes. There were no last-minute epiphanies to imbue the characters with the Herculean strength needed to change the course of fate in the final episode.
As with any post-colonial society, an assertion of indigenous culture through art has become a natural resource for Pakistan. Film and TV play a pivotal role in creating and promoting the indigenous narrative, as presented to the outside world. Cinema and TV are essentially forms of entertainment. However, they can serve a higher purpose, establishing local identity through stories that are rooted and challenging the stagnancy of age-old narratives that have failed to advance with time.
As the local feminist discourse evolves, the way women’s stories are told must change as well. In recent years, characters like Kashf of Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Anaya of Sabaat have emerged as prime examples of young, modern Pakistani women. The fundamentally romantic plotlines do not take away from the impact of the distinctive female voice in these dramas.
Kashf, an intelligent young woman often riddled with self-doubt, manages to win over audiences locally and across the border with her resilience. Sanam Saeed’s effortless acting and Sultana Siddiqui’s masterful direction make Kashf a character worth remembering. Zindagi Gulzar Hai is not a story about a woman finding love. It is about a woman acknowledging her worth, facing her childhood trauma and coming to understand that marriage is just one chapter in a person’s life.
In 2020, Sabaat‘s treatment of two diametrically different female characters, Anaya and Miral, made for exciting TV. Many viewers may have written off Miral, the nemesis of the protagonist, Anaya, as inherently evil. Still, these characters reflected the complexity of the human condition and mind.
Dil Na Umeed Tou Naheen and Raqeeb Say are two recent dramas that portray women as dynamic, multi-faceted characters. Unfortunately, both have not received their deserved share of viewership. The PEMRA issued a notice to the makers of Dil Na Umeed Tou Naheen for a false and scandalous portrayal of Pakistani society.
The show, starring Yumna Zaidi, explores themes of child abuse, human trafficking, prostitution, dowry-related violence and abuse of power. What makes it stand out from other dramas that are currently on-air is its empathetic treatment of unconventional characters, especially women caught in the vicious cycle of social repression and misery.
Raqeeb Say‘s plot, setting, and characters bear no resemblance to those mentioned above. This is a story about four women, each equally complex, trying to navigate their perceptions of love, agency and womanhood. These stories may be radically different, yet they have managed to achieve the common goal of humanising their female characters. The lead female characters of the two dramas are not put up on a pedestal, which is often difficult to achieve considering the tendency of local content creators to depict women through the good and evil binary.
Across the border, stories and narratives are changing. With the advent of prolific OTT platforms, artists now have an opportunity to express themselves much more freely. This new-found freedom is allowing for experimentation, inclusivity and, at times, sheer madness. Not all content available for consumption on these online platforms is worthy of applause, but the fact that there is more to choose from is refreshing.
A prime example of our changing content preferences is Bombay Begums, which is currently the most popular show on Netflix in Pakistan. It is a story by a woman about five women of different socioeconomic backgrounds, age-groups and aspirations. The plot deals with women’s rapidly changing role in modern-day India; their ambitions, fears, strengths and follies. The show is relatable for the most part, but far-fetched in some ways. The fact that Pakistanis are watching and enjoying women-centric stories marks a shift in the local perception of evolving female narratives. Indeed, Netflix and other paid streaming platforms do not have a mass viewership in Pakistan. Nonetheless, it would be imprudent to disregard a reasonable chunk of the local population wanting to watch the stories of Rani, Fatima or Lily.
Most Pakistani dramas are stories of women, written by women for a significant female viewership. Local TV writers must realise their responsibility to tell stories that are relatable and impactful. Women in a story can be strong, imperfect, empowered or weak. The critical point is that characters need to be well-rounded. Modern-day storytelling demands a certain mindfulness in the way that gender is treated on television. Every other female character on TV cannot be an evil mastermind plotting to ruin another woman’s life. It is high time that our narratives evolve to celebrate female camaraderie and the many roles of women in the realm of stories and beyond.
The writer is a staff member