“Yeh sab kyun karti ho?” asks Shahryar, the latest addition to the cast of Urdu1’s serial Baaghi. It’s a question many would have liked to ask of Pakistani YouTube star Qandeel Baloch, on whose life this TV serial is loosely based, and one the story tries to answer.
Fouzia Batool has transformed herself into Kanwal Baloch, and it has been a rough journey full of pain and compromise to achieve some sort of stability. Like the Kardashians, she has become famous for being outrageous; her pouting, suggestive YouTube sessions and sexy music video all feed into the fake persona that she maintains to make money.
The cost of maintaining her lifestyle allows her just enough to get by, but she does her best to send money to her family. However, when Fouzia’s father loses his leg in an accident, she takes on the mantle of the family breadwinner. In the face of each problem that her family presents, Fouzia sacrifices her own needs and self-respect, even sleeping with a policeman to get her selfish older brother out of jail.
While Fouzia’s money provides temporary stability, it also becomes a double-edged sword, allowing her brothers to become dependent and facilitating their worst instincts. The situation comes to a head as her younger drug addict brother and selfish, cheapskate older brother begin to blackmail her for more and more money, their questions about the source of her income begin to sound openly menacing.
Baaghi touches on the sad realities women face even if they don’t want to take the slippery road that Qandeel did.
Thrown into this volatile mix is another character, Shahryar (Osman Khalid Butt), whose accidental acquaintance becomes an on/off relationship that sustains but also haunts Kanwal as something special and sincere that is just beyond her reach.
Fouzia can't understand Shahryar at first. Unlike all the men she has ever met, he isn’t interested in taking advantage of her or controlling her; in fact, his unfailing kindness and gentle manners often baffle her. Superficially, they are polar opposites. But just like Fouzia, Shahryar is wounded soul still healing from the sudden loss of his young wife and child.
Strong performances are keeping Baaghi's audience hooked
After Main Sitara, this is yet another outstanding performance from Saba Qamar, who proves again that she is one of Pakistan’s finest actresses.
She captures Kanwal’s bravado and Fouzia’s vulnerability perfectly. What she has missed is the hardheaded, strategic business woman that Kanwal (and Qandeel on whom she is based) often was and that may well be because the script does not address that side of her. As Kanwal, her answer to Shahryar’s exasperated question is full of regret and pathos, “yeh paapi peyt, yeh nahi karoongi tou bhooka maroongi”. In contrast, the real Qandeel had a touch of pride and all the defiance of youth when answering the same questions.
Shahryar’s rather pat response, “koi nahi bhooka marta”, is a reply that speaks not just to his character’s privilege, but to the privilege of a lot of us watching with distaste from afar. While there is no denying Qandeel was not just a “mazloom aurat” and was responsible for her choices, it’s also fair to say a woman with no support, no education and nothing but a strong will to succeed will use what she has to survive.
This serial also features some knockout performances from Sarmad Khoosat, Nadia Afghan, Osman Khalid Butt and Khalid Malik. Sarmad Khoosat and Nadia Afghan are amazing us as the self-centered and mean spirited brother and bhabi; their characters are a specialty of Umera Ahmed who can translate human folly with such accuracy to the screen.
Osman Khalid Butt serves as a much needed breath of fresh air in this story’s endless parade of cruel, self-serving personalities. His chemistry with Saba Qamar is amazing, but his real contribution is the empathy and vulnerability he brings to Shahryar, allowing his character to be fully fleshed out contrast to the toxic masculinity Abid, Rheemay and Munna display.
Shahryar is more than a love interest for Kanwal, he is the voice of reason, the call to a better life and at the same time he is “polite society” confused, disgusted and at times fascinated by her behaviour.
On the other end of the spectrum, Khalid Malik also makes a fun pair with Saba Qamar and their banter is often sweet, but his character Rehan has some very grey shades, supportive and kind yet subtly pushing Kanwal in the wrong direction.
Facing exploitation is hard for Pakistan — on and off screen
This is a well written, well-acted serial that provides a fascinating insight into another side of Pakistani society, a side that we would prefer not to exist.
It touches on the sad realities many women have to face even if they don’t want to take the slippery road that Qandeel did. Women have complained of harassment at universities, in business environments, as journalists and in all the so-called “sharif “or respectable spheres of work. Yet we still don’t want to face up to the difficulties women face in order to earn any kind of living.
Just consider the huge outcry that accompanied the initial announcement that Urdu1 was making Qandeel Baloch the subject of an upcoming TV serial. Angry social media commenters — including some celebrities who should have known better — demanded to know why Qandeel was being “glorified”, or made into a “heroine“.
So it’s not surprising that the story has kept its main focus on Kanwal’s difficulties rather than balancing it with her determination to succeed at any cost. However flawed, Urdu1 took a brave step in even making this serial and shining a light on the kind of choices we all hope we never have to make.