Cliched storylines need to go

July 4, 2021

Do progressives have a space in our media landscape?

TV serials promote the idea that a rich girl who wears jeans is a bad influence on the naik Parveen heroine.
TV serials promote the idea that a rich girl who wears jeans is a bad influence on the naik Parveen heroine.

Pakistani TV plays are now watched by many a cool hipster, broad-minded ladies and tolerant seniors that were not the intended audience in the beginning. In fact, cool hipsters are now acting in them in cliched roles. Watched also in India and the Middle East, these plays aim to portray the Pakistani society. How accurate the portrayal is, is a matter of opinion. So also is the question of the way they need to change.

The archetypal mother-in-law

The mother-in-law trope that first caught my attention was in Humsafar in 2011 with the brilliant Atiqa Odho cast as Mummy. Khirad’s (Mahira Khan) fear of her husband’s mother was not unfounded. Unknown to her son, Mummy worked in clever, unexpected ways to bring about her daughter-in-law’s downfall. Odho’s Mummy is on the top rung of the archetypal mother-in-law character ladder. Her machinations beat the common desi saas behaviour. She showed us what a strong desi mother-in-law can do, in a pretty non-desi way. She chose the path of plotting rather than laying her cards on the table. These days, most on-screen mothers-in-law are so transparent you can almost hear the next taunt before they utter it. What needs to change then? The fact that not all mothers-in-law are plotting, cursing, son-obsessed women. Not all of them spoil their sons silly. The serials that bring nuance to this character stand out for that reason; Asma Abbas as Bhola’s mother in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi; Hina Khwaja Bayat as Husna in Aunn Zara; Vaneeza Ahmed Ali as Saad’s (Ahad Raza Mir) mother and Dua’s (Alizeh Shah) mother-in-law.

Women who have been consistently nasty to their daughters-in-law need to be re-written or taken out. Enough already. Can we have kinder women, please?

Cousins in love and marriage

Cousin marriage is a tradition in our part of the world. In Pakistani drama serials, it is depicted as the preferred mode of marriage and presents young people the opportunity to find love. But its constant depiction in TV plays is nauseating and excessive. Statistics show that half of South Asian marriages are consanguineous and that keeping it in the family is not always healthy. Our serials would do a social service by deviating from this projection. Advice to Pakistani serial writers: Please stop creating romance where the heroine has called her future husband bhai for as long as she can remember. It is plain cringe-worthy. Enough of the phuppo ki beti phenomenon, there are myriad possibilities for love and relationships in the world.

The Chai obsession

Why is every woman in almost every drama serial offering her husband/ brother/ son a tea mug? Serving a mug of mixed chai is an essential daily ritual on TV. How about mixing it up a little, script-writers and directors? Have a family sit-down to tea with a trolley, using a teapot covered with a Kashmiri wool tea-cosy? That’s desi enough. Mixed chai is not the only kind of tea imbibed in our country; what about steeped tea leaves in a teapot, Kashmiri chai; Peshawari qahwa? Maybe someone else should make it for a change, the husband maybe?

Westernised girls

For the past ten years, TV serials have promoted the idea that a rich girl who wears jeans is a bad influence on the naik Parveen heroine. One sees this trope even in some nuanced scripts. The most vivid of these characters has been Sarah (Navin Waqar) from Humsafar. After Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest comments about women inciting rape with their clothing, I don’t think we will ever see a Westernised girl from a well-off family cast as naik. If writing isn’t honest and representative of society — multi-dimensional and multi-cultural — Pakistani serials will continue to meander in the twilight zone. Generation Z is putting more interesting content on social media and the web than is available on TV. Some of the best Pakistani writers are writing scripts for an Indian channel — Churails is a case in point. So what’s the future for Pakistani channels and content creators? They have to take some risks.

Age is not an insult

Last week, actress Ayesha Omar shared her thoughts on social media after she was trolled for an Instagram photo featuring her and a few female colleagues including Angeline Malik, Nausheen Shah, Bushra Ansari and Saba Hameed — the troll called the ladies shaitan buddhian.

Ugly comments such as these have become commonplace on social media. Omar defended herself by saying: “It’s a blessing to be alive and healthy in the latter part of your life… Aren’t your parents old, Mister Troll? Or your grandparents? Do you insult them for their age too?”

Some of our nicest actresses are being cast as mothers of grown daughters as soon as they are over 40. This includes Tara Mehmood, Salma Hasan, Arjumand Rahim, Zainab Qayyum and Hadiqa Kiani. Are there no stories about this age group? Can they not be cast as heroines? Is love only for 21-year-olds?

The lowest common denominator

Barring a few exceptions, Pakistani script-writers write for a conservative audience. Nothing wrong with that, but there needs to be some diversity in themes. For example, look at Umera Ahmed’s Shehr-i-Zaat, Muhabbat Subh ka Sitara, Durre-i-Shehwar — the conflicts presented are: shadi naheen hui; achi bahu bannay ka saheeh tariqa, and rich people are usually corrupt. Farhat Ishtiaq’s Humsafar, Diyar-i-Dil and others surreptitiously do the same. Her script for Udaari is the exception. One cannot insist enough that diversity in our TV plays needs to be representative of the social conditions of our times. Only then can the TV promote tolerance, acceptance and liberality.

We have a rich history of syncretic cultural coexistence; South Asian history is replete with women warriors and leaders. We do not need to subscribe to the most distasteful belief systems propagated by a few self-styled gatekeepers of our faith. Writers need to be more creative; the thought police less rigid.

Cliched storylines need to go