Redefining the femme fatale

November 21, 2021

We’re looking at feminist noir, a sub-genre that delivers chills and thrills in Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s upcoming web-series Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, where femme fatales are no longer stereotyped as young,oversexualized bombshells.

Doing ‘desi noir’ right: seven powerful women headline six stories in this anthology written and directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi for ZEE5. – Poster art developed and conceptualised by Samya Arif.
Doing ‘desi noir’ right: seven powerful women headline six stories in this anthology written and directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi for ZEE5. – Poster art developed and conceptualised by Samya Arif.

As television continues to present variations of the distressed damsel, women struggling to find their voice let alone exhibit even an iota of agency, we luckily have OTT platforms that are willing to get their hands dirty with central female characters that are multidimensional and refreshingly menacing. We saw Asim Abbasi’s Churails on ZEE5 and then Dai, featuring Frieha Altaf as a murderous midwife, on UrduFlix. Sheheryar Munawar’s Prince Charming presented a housewife having an affair with the illusion of her husband and similarly, there are countless stories introducing women as diverse characters instead of the sanitized production line they are manufactured on for TV. The wallflower, luckily, has very little room to blossom online.

What broke the internet this past one week, with a motion poster (by none other than Samya Arif) followed by an intense trailer, is Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, the latest in what is being referred to as ‘feminist noir’. Written by Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur (Zinda Bhaag) and directed by Meenu Gaur, Qatil is a ZEE5 production that looks to throw the young and oversexualized femme fatale into the pyre for a new and improved version of the lethal woman.

“I’m a big lover of film noir as a genre but it’s always been very sexist,” co-writer and director Meenu Gaur shares the concept behind Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam with Instep. “The femme fatale is always presented by a man, through his voice telling you who she is. I wanted to turn the genre around and tell the story from the woman’s perspective,” she explains when and how she came up with the idea and immediately took it to Farjad Nabi, who she often collaborates with.

“My imagination was fired by the idea of this fictional ‘androon sheher’ and these women who had murderous intent,” Farjad echoes Meenu’s excitement in this transnational conversation we have with Meenu in London, Farjad in Lahore and I in Karachi. “It was a very unique universe,” he added. “I’ve always been riveted by mysteries and this idea immediately clicked.”

It’s definitely a concept that’s been on the rise; we saw Churails shock Pakistan’s patriarchy with characters that didn’t conform to any trope. The sub-genre of avenging women has been around in popular cinema, in pulp all over the world for ages, but what we’re seeing now is feminist noir. It’s a genre that isn’t restricting the femme fatale to be overtly glamorous; she’s not a young, white bombshell. “It’s the golden age for women of all ages,” says Meenu. We have actors like Samiya Mumtaz and Beo Zafar leading two of the stories in the 6-episode anthology. Sanam Saeed, Sarwat Gilani, Mehar Bano, Eman Suleman and Faiza Gillani headline the other stories, making this a very heady cocktail.

Credit goes to Meenu and Farjad for telling the stories from a woman’s perspective, without trivialising, stereotyping or short changing the men in the series either.

“The men are not entirely negative or positive; they are multidimensional and have been presented in all shades,” shares Farjad. “And it’s amazing that male stars and veteran actors have agreed to roles in which the women lead and win.”

So, how do the men in this series feel about being part of this narrative?

“Each episode has a very interesting interplay between protagonist and antagonist,” says Osman Khalid Butt, who plays Aftab, Mehek’s (Sarwat Gilani) abusive, alcoholic husband in Episode One. “I’ve been wanting to scratch that web-series itch for a while now. When your character’s arc is contained within an episode, it gives you a lot more freedom to experiment and make bold, distinct choices. When I read my episode, I was drawn to the screenplay, which read like a darker, more twisted Cyrano de Bergerac. Plus, the opportunity to work with Meenu and Mo Azmi was one I couldn’t pass,” he added, on what compelled him to sign up for the role.

Ahsan Khan, who’s now infamous for playing all sorts of chauvinist on TV, makes his digital debut (in a web-series) in Qatil Haseenas. Sharing space with Osman in the same episode, his character is sinister with a twist.

“We’re so used to doing run of the mill work (on TV) which the audience loves, that usually an actor gets too comfortable and stops exploring,” Ahsan Khan says. “So, when you get a unique character with an amazing director like Meenu, a writer like Farjad, Mo Azmi as a camera person, and to top that a platform like ZEE5 that has a diverse audience, it excites you as an actor.”

While the focus is on women, the series has roped in an interesting selection of men too. Other than the vocally feminist Osman Khalid Butt and the TV-famous Ahsan Khan, we see Sheheryar Munawar, Fawad Khan (Churails), Saleem Mairaj and then Omar Rahim as the closeted Joji in Episode Four with Sanam Saeed.

“I loved the script of QHKN, specifically the episode in which I was offered a role,” says Omar, who now lives in New York and has been making short films on his own too. “It was suspenseful, clever and daring. I actually found the male character arcs extre-mely satisfying, which is why I jumped at the oppor-tunity. In addition, knowing the seasoned team behind the project, I had confidence that the exe-cution of the project would be excellent.

QHKN takes extra-ordinary risks,” he adds, “which are essential in making compelling content. Love it or hate it, audiences won’t be able to forget Qatil Haseenas.”

OTT platforms are allowing filmmakers to take risks they hesitate to take for TV or film, which is why it has opened up a whole new landscape of content for a whole new generation. Can one hope for just a bit of the adventure and experimentation to permeate the mass platforms?

“We’re big consumers of mystery but on film and TV, maybe there are phases,” says Meenu. “Indian film Kahani became a stupendous, unexpected success and there was an audience for it. Audiences are educated enough to know their genres but producers aren’t yet willing to take risks. It’s obvious that artists want to diversify.”

Veteran actor Saleem Mairaj, who’ll be sharing the screen with the equally powerful Samiya Mumtaz, feels the content is somewhat the same but what you see depends on the execution.

“There’s nothing different as such,” he feels. “The main thing is the execution, which is the role of director and producer. If we give this script to a regular director, he can ruin it. Similarly if an average script is provided to a good director he can make it successful.”

Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam does feel different though. It feels dangerously progressive, which is exactly what’s needed to counter the current narrative. The women are not cape wearing super heroes, they’re not black and white; they’re everyday women. And that’s actually what makes them threatening; they’re real.

“There is a flood of different female leads in some of the top web series and films being made in the world,” Farjad concludes. “There is a shift happening, whether in web-series or in feature films, in superhero or murder mysteries. It’s not pervasive but the shift is definitely happening. We’re going through a very interesting time.”

Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam premieres on ZEE5 on
December 10.

Redefining the femme fatale