Since its release, Jawani Phir Nahi Aani (JPNA) has broken several box office records. Momentarily disengaging from intellectualising; isn’t it nice that a Pakistani film came out, and South Asians from all across the planet are loving it?
Men, women, filmmakers, filmgoers, Lollywood, Bollywood – just positivity all around with just a bit of the usual controversy. It’s just nice to know that can still happen.
Now, with that out of the way, on to the intellectualising bit.
It’s 2015. It’s not unheard of for women to have careers, be the sole breadwinners, stay out all night partying, or choose a one-night stand over commitment.
Before you come at me wielding pitchforks, hear me out.
Pakistanis are one of Bollywood’s largest consumer markets. And what does our mass audience want? Looking at the films from across the border that have done well at our box offices, it seems that Pakistanis are okay with and routinely watch sexually charged rom-coms, laden with onscreen chemistry and item numbers, which Bollywood so notoriously is able to churn out on an annual, grand scale.
So control your pitchforks, fatwas, and moral grandstanding and accept that films like JPNA are the 'naya Pakistan'.
But, if you must, like the average Pakistani consumer, find something to be outraged over, then join me in redirecting your frustrations towards something that is far more subversive and damaging to our film industry than a Lollywood film that is ‘too liberal’.
The only real injustice the creators and cast of JPNA have committed upon us, the audience, is belittling our sensibilities by subjecting us to three hours of the overdone mantra of ‘sex sells’ and an overdrawn film plot premised on misogynistic practices.
I’m not offended because I’m having a kneejerk reaction to sexism and misogyny. I’m offended because that dynamic is so tired.
And, no, you no longer get a cop out with the rundown excuse of ‘this is what audiences expect’ because that is simply and demonstrably untrue.
Women like Aisha Khan, Mehwish Hayat, Sarwat Gillani, Uzma Khan and Sohai Ali are talented forces of nature and powerhouses in their own right
Pigeonholing these women, who act as role models and inspiration for women like me nationwide, into the ‘dressed up in designer wear, dull, dissatisfying and distracted wife’ trope not only second guesses their abilities as talented, veteran actresses of the industry, but unapologetically erodes at an already fragile state of womanhood in a society that remains shamefully patriarchal.
JPNA’s misogyny does not build a narrative. Nor does it make the male cast interesting. It’s just there because it’s so normalised.
This whole ‘guy gets girl, gets bored of girl, has to roam the world with many other girls to remember the good he has in the first girl’ is a pervasive issue, as old as cinema itself.
Too often, films rely on a character arc in which the male lead gets to disrespect, disown and demean women yet walk away with both his dignity and romantic relationships intact.
Pretty much every film industry is guilty of this. Think Tony Stark of Ironman fame.
It only took a three-film franchise for Stark to stop womanising (always followed by forgetting the name of aforementioned woman the next morning). Stark’s reward for growing up? The smoking hot, conveniently ever-present, and forever loyal personal assistant.
Girls like me grew up watching Aisha Khan and Sarwat Gillani play strong female characters on screen. Unfortunately, JPNA will not be remembered as one of those moments.
The JPNA female cast had all the ability to dominate the screen in a way that would have been brave and impossible not to care about (i.e. Sarwat Gillani’s ‘Pashto-gun-toting biwi’ role and Aisha Khan’s ‘financially, intellectually confident’ character).
Yet, unfortunately, they all fail the test for one reason or another by failing to be independent characters in their own right; instead, the women of JPNA are relegated to a footnote in the film designed only to interact with and support their men.
Initially, the audience hopes the women are going to promote some form of groundbreaking gender performance when the jilted wives show up in Thailand to break up the boys’ boozy, bikini fest.
But, alas, the female cast succumbs to the (surely, male) scriptwriter’s pen.
Sarwat Gillani opts to put her gun down and take back her clueless, philandering husband because, hey, there’s a second kid coming, and how on earth could a woman possibly parent alone, right?
Uzma Khan finally comes to her senses and realises that, oops, of course, it was her fault all along that her husband fled to Bangkok for physical affection in the form of ‘Thai massages’.
Despite initially being portrayed as an independent, modern-day Pakistani living abroad, Mehwish Hayat turns into a wedding-crazed, daddy-issues toting lost cause because of one rather mediocre encounter with Humayun Saeed.
And perhaps, most appalling of all the female cast’s story arcs is that of Ayesha Khan, whom I had faith in till the very last scene, in which she – the in-control, financially secure, confident leader of the pack – experiences a rare form of courtroom-induced amnesia that leads to her forgiving her cheating, lying husband.
In fact, nearly every woman we come across in JPNA is a prop – either used as a sexual object or depicted as emotionally unhinged.
The whole process is desperately sexist and misogynistic and, ironically, the only female character that does not completely annoy and let down the audience is Sohai Ali’s character whose only role in the film is to satisfy the male cast’s dream of a scantily clad, dumb, rich, and young (very young) selfie-obsessed queen.
Absurdly enough, only she gets a choice at the end. The rest of the women fulfill their prophecies by becoming the worst of cinematic tropes; given to men as rewards for growing the hell up, sending yet another reminder to our already chauvinistic society that they deserve beautiful women as a prize, no matter how flawed they are as long as they are able to succeed in the slightest, most mediocre of accomplishments (i.e. no longer cheating on your wife).
JPNA ends with a Fahad Mustafa cameo hinting at a sequel. Here's a pro tip to the future male cast of JPNA 2, on behalf of Pakistani women everywhere:
We’ll laugh at your admittedly terrific comedy and we’ll even happily watch you partying with Russian women and boozing on-screen – so long as you promise to make the next round of drinks shaken, not stirred, and with a side of gender equality.