To their credit, Pakistani dramas have never been shy of addressing difficult or controversial subjects and over the past few viewing seasons, there has been an uptick in stories touching on difficult social issues.
Hum TV’s recent hit Udaari is a prime example, garnering not only ratings and a fan following, but much critical acclaim for its sensitive handling of a potentially disturbing subject like child rape.
ARY’s award-winning drama Roag also managed to give the full impact of this most heinous of crimes without lurid details. However, not every drama has managed to meet these high standards and some like ARY ‘s Chup Raho and Hum TV’s Sangat and Gul-e-Rana have received strong criticism for their misleading depictions.
Like murder, rape's use as a plot device is nothing new.
However, unlike the old days when the hero’s sister conveniently commits suicide after being “defiled”, or the victim is married off to the repentant sinner rapist in order to restore her “honour”, rape victims depicted with sensitivity are now shown surviving and overcoming their ordeal, courageously demanding justice at all costs.
But with the highly competitive and commercial nature of today’s drama industry, it seems as if those few steps forward are being undermined by a lot of steps backwards. Case in point? The emergence of the "romantic rapist."
The motif of the “romantic rapist“ has made a resurgence in serials like Sangat, Gul-e--Rana, Muqqadas and the most recent cause of outrage, ARY's Bay Khudi. Episodes 3 and 4 of Bay Khudi show an angry man whose proposal has been rejected, sneaking into the family home and raping his unsuspecting cousin in a well-planned fit of jealous rage and then tearing himself up with remorse.
In what looks like an attempt to beat Hum TV’s incredibly crass use of the lyrics “Mera jism mera gunnah hai“ in Sangat (which seemed to imply the victim Saba Qamar somehow raped herself because her body was the focus of the sin), viewers were treated to the lyrics "Nadaniyaan jo hamse huwee maaf kar dey Khuda."
Apparently a planned violent rape by a competent, fully conscious male is a “nadaani” in ARY’s lexicon.
While no one can deny the sad truth that such things happen, the presentation of the rapist as an otherwise wonderful guy who just happens to make this one “bad decision” is completely inappropriate and untrue.
Such a personality may be an incredibly manipulative liar who can deceive others at will but he should be shown as such, or his tendency to cruelty and violence must show in his other behaviour.
With so many dramas on air, it’s difficult for channels to keep up with every detail of their content but this disturbing trend definitely warrants close inspection.
What message is sent by such characterisations, what precedents are being set in the minds of those watching: that rape is okay if you are ‘in love’, that it is just a sign of uncontrollable passion, that ‘good people’ can do this?
Research shows that rape is never about love or romance; rather it is about control, dominance and complete humiliation. While it may be too much to say that such soft portrayals are encouraging this behaviour, they certainly are making it more palatable by wrapping it up in dreamy, ambiguous glow that distances the viewer from the raw viciousness of the act.
As a caveat its important to note that Pakistani dramas do not exist in isolation: as with all media in today’s highly connected society there is a strong cross pollination effect at work, where popular trends from all over the world affect and inspire the stories we see on our screens.
While it’s easy to accuse a badly made Urdu drama of feeding into rape culture, perhaps we can also point out the way western serials like Game of Thrones and books like Fifty Shades of Grey also feed into the same narrative yet are swallowed wholesale as “entertainment”.
The normalisation of sexual violence is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
We asked several prominent drama makers their opinion and here is what they said:
Noor Hassan – Actor (who plays the lead/rapist in Bay Khudi)
"The message of Bay Khudi is that even if one successfully gets away with the crime, one never manages to be happy or content. And eventually has to pay for it."
Mustapha Afridi – Writer of Sange Mar Mar and *Aseerzadi*
"Rape isn't just a mistake, it's a crime and criminals should be punished, not married off. We can't give sick heroes a pass and cloak their lust as innocence or that he didn't know any better. If every other guy starts to do acts like this to feed his ego, imagine the state of society then."
Farhat Ishtiaq – Writer of Udaari, Humsafar, etc.
"As writers, we have to be very serious and responsible while writing about such issues. It's never okay to force sex on someone. It is unforgivable, period! I was very clear about Imtiaz’s character. He was a child rapist. I didn't even try to create some justifications for his wrongdoings like he was abused as a child or any other such reason to "justify" his evil nature."
Mohammad Ehtashamuddin – Director of Udaari and Sadqay Tumharay
"Rape is real and painful, a scar for a lifetime. Bringing subjects like rape and child abuse to the screen is no joke to me and my team."
Udaari was a sheer burden of responsibility, a narrative that is drenched in painful reality; it can’t be sensationalised. So by handling this subject very carefully, team Udaari brought to light the pain that accompanied Zebo as a victim, and against all odds also showed her the strength of a survivor. We all have to stand up as a nation, speak out, seek justice and spread awareness.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Roag was aired on Geo TV. The error is regretted.
Romanticising rape is not okay. So why do Pakistani dramas do it anyway?