Udaari is proof: A TV drama doesn't need helpless women to be a hit

Strong women, moments of hilarity and performances par excellence - Udaari's got plenty going for it
Updated 22 Jun, 2016

11 episodes down and Udaari is flying high, defying stereotypes and raising awareness about one of society’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Despite a recent notice from PEMRA, Udaari continues to highlight the insidious evil of child sexual abuse, which is a subject many of us find too difficult to acknowledge, let alone discuss and tackle head-on.

That's not the only reason we should celebrate Udaari. The drama, directed by Ehteshamuddin and written by Farhat Ishtiaq, has proven that strong female characters don't put off TV audiences. Women watching at home finally have a role model or two to observe on the small screen. That's as momentous an accomplishment for Pakistani TV as a candid exploration of child abuse. Let's examine how this has been achieved.

Also read: How Pakistani morning shows are keeping women 'where they belong'

First, a recap

Udaari’s main focus is Sajjo (Samiya Mumtaz), a widow who lives with her young daughter Zebu, next door to a merasi family that traditionally sings and dances at weddings for a living. Her neighbor Sheedan (Bushra Ansari) is a large-hearted woman who also takes care of Zebu when Sajjo is at work. Sheeda also has a daughter, Meera (Urwa Hocane) who has a beautiful voice (playback singing credit goes to Hadiqa Kiani).

As a single parent, Sajjo has little support and she ends up marrying Imtiaz (Ahsan Khan). Imtiaz initially seems like a dream come true, but turns out to be an evil child abuser on the prowl for a victim.

Ahsan Khan breaks out of the hero mould to play the abuser Imtiaz
Ahsan Khan breaks out of the hero mould to play the abuser Imtiaz

When Imtiaz tries to rape Meera, she manages to escape .The whole incident causes a deep rift between the neighbors as Sajjo sides with her new husband. This leaves her and Zebu isolated and easy targets for a predator like Imtiaz.

Meanwhile, a heartbroken Meera meets Milli, whose mother works with the Kashf Foundation, an NGO that promotes women's welfare. Milli and her friends Haris (Adnan Saeed) and Arsh (Farhan Saeed) are in desperate need of a vocalist for a competition, a position Milli thinks Meera can fill.

Udaari's women make the show a must-watch

The best thing about Udaari is the wonderful array of strong female characters writer Farhat Ishtiaq has created.

Sheedan is newly widowed and can barely afford her children’s next meal, but instead of crying about her fate, she looks for work where she can. If she has nothing else to give, she helps by working in Milli’s garden, in the kitchens or making a poultice for Milli’s mother to show her gratitude. Sajjo is also a widow with few resources, but earns a living and feeds her daughter with the help of her neighbors before she marries Imtiaz.

Meera's character, played by Urwa Hocane, bounces back after every disappointment
Meera's character, played by Urwa Hocane, bounces back after every disappointment

Meera is the character closest to the bholi larki trope, but she too is quick to come into her own. In earlier episodes, she allows Sajjo’s nephew Elyas to humiliate her about her merasi roots because she hopes to marry into respectability. However, when he lets her down, Meera learns her lesson, defying the usual trajectory of the forever naïve, helpless object, waiting to be rescued. She gives the arrogant Arsh as good as she gets.

Read on: Most people are okay with downtrodden women on TV, says Sakina Samo

Farhat Ishtiaq is smart to not write these characters like they are unrealistic super women. They are shown to suffer from the same weaknesses and vulnerabilities we all do: they cry, they get depressed but they don’t give up. When Elyas leaves her for a wealthier girl, Meera is heartbroken, and Imtiaz’s attempted rape leaves her shaken but even though Arsh hurts her feelings she won’t let him dominate her. Like all Farhat Ishtiaq’s heroines, these women have an innate self-respect and maintain their dignity no matter what life throws at them.

Similarly, Milli is not the typical 'elite' jeans-clad girl that we so often see in dramas. Instead of putting Meera down or trying to take advantage of her, Milli actually treats her with respect and kindness.

This should be an object lesson for drama producers who often insist that the mazloom aurat formula is the only way to gets ratings. Udaari avoids the trope yet proved to be popular.

Comic relief

For a drama dealing with such a grim subject, Udaari has a surprisingly upbeat tempo, offering audiences a spoonful of sugar to help each dose of the medicine go down.

Sheeda's trip to the modern-day bathroom

While the audience is horrified by the abuse Zebu has to suffer, the other tracks in the story also bring a little comic relief. Sheeda’s fights with Milli’s servants, her confusion over how to use an actual bathroom and Meera’s discovery that people are willing to pay a lot of money to eat 'kachi machi' (sushi), all poke gentle fun at the vast socio-economic differences between the characters.

Performances par excellence

Bushra Ansari is in brilliant form as Sheeda, capturing the viewers' hearts with her signature charm and magical ability to bond with audiences. Samiya Mumtaz and Ahsan Khan in particular have also given an excellent performance.

Bushra Ansari gives a winning performance as Sheeda
Bushra Ansari gives a winning performance as Sheeda

Ahsan Khan’s Imtiaz is an outstanding portrayal of evil and manipulation. Like all predators, he knows how to maintain a facade of goodness so convincing, that no one is willing to believe anything bad about him.

After having taken advantage of Zebu, Imtiaz is now following a common pattern of abusers, frightening and menacing his prey into silence and compliance. This is an important message for parents everywhere: trust your child, listen to them.

The on-screen chemistry pf Farhan Saeed and Urwa Hocane is apparent, unlike their other projects such as the mind-numbing Mere Ajnabi. As a more experienced actress, Urwa has been a delight to watch in every episode, but the real surprise is Farhan Saeed who manages to impress as Arsh. Although Arsh isn’t the usual extraordinary Farhat Ishtiaq hero, this angry young man has slowly endeared him to viewers as his arrogance melts into friendship with Meera.

Udaari’s success lies firmly with director Ehtashamuddin’s masterful ability to translate Farhat Ishtiaq’s wonderful script flawlessly to the screen. He has elicited some great performances from his team and made sure this wide-ranging storyline did not lose its way.

Udaari is what classic entertainment for the whole family should be: Intelligent, authentic and easy to watch.