ARY's latest Wednesday night offering is Meri Guriya, a story that touches on the harrowing subject of the rape and murder of children.
The last three or four years have seen an uptick in dramas dealing with difficult or 'sensitive' subjects that might have once been considered taboo for prime time. Serials like Udaari, Roag and Dar Si Jaati Hai Sila have managed to both treat the subject with respect and fascinate audiences.
Others like Sangat, Baykhudi and at times Muqabil have floundered due to lack of research and questionable characterisations.
Meri Guriya's first episode begins with the gruesome discovery of a young girl’s body, abandoned on the side of a road. The police are not surprised; the death fits a pattern they have seen before. And the media closes in, demanding immediate justice. The shock waves of the little girl’s death reverberate around her community, casting a shadow of fear on a wedding being held just a couple of streets down from the victim’s house.
Meanwhile, the victim's friend, little Abida, waits in vain for her at the local madrassa they both attended. The rest of the story strikes a familiar note typical of gharelu dramas: a prickly old mother-in-law (Ayesha Khan Sr.) venting at her bahu Shehnaz (Sania Saeed) for producing too many daughters and then having the temerity to insist on educating them.
The older woman’s rants against cable TV and girls taking too many liberties would be amusing if not for the sinister note director Ali Khan has skillfully woven into each scene.
Like most girls Shehnaz’s daughters are excited for the wedding being held two streets down but are frightened off by their grandmother’s tales of jinn who abduct young girls. Abida is the youngest and naively unafraid because her grandmother told her that jinns don’t bother little girls who study at the local madrassa.
The wedding also plays to a familiar trope in our dramas: the forced marriage that turns into a friendship. The feisty young bride Safina (Sonya Hussyn) is a state level badminton champion who would rather break a string of engagements than leave her sport. In contrast to her, the equally reluctant groom Dabeer (Mohsin Abbas Haider) seems to be a simple, shy young man who has deliberately chosen a girl no one wants to marry.
Their hesitant relationship is sweet at first with Dabeer’s charming willingness to support his new wife and Safina’s softening glances, but the shadow of the little girl’s death is never far.
What makes Meri Guriya work so far
First episodes are not always a great predictor of an entire serial, but so far the script and direction make this serial one to watch. With ARY's promotions determined on revealing every twist and turn before the episode even airs, director Ali Hassan has managed a near miracle by keeping up the tension and suspense.
Sania Saeed and Ayesha Khan Sr. are a joy to watch using Radain Shah’s sharp script and well written story to excellent effect.
Actor Fahad Mustafa’s company Big Bang productions has come a long way from the mass market stories they began with. Of late they have been coming up with quality scripts and well put-together serials.
But there's still a question of ethics...
While rape and sexual abuse are terrible realities that can't be avoided, even the clumsiest of these stories have been blended works of fiction, i.e., created by combining characters and incidents, allowing any victims they might have studied a cloak of anonymity.
What sets Meri Guriya apart is that it seems to be based on the murder of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari, a case that shook the nation to its core, exposing an underbelly of ignorance and entrenched attitudes that not only serve to enable abuse but actively work to protect abusers.
While the cast has said that story is fictional, the parallels to the Zainab case are inescapable in the first episode and it remains unclear whether Big Bang productions have asked the permission of Zainab’s family to use her story. Future episodes might show the drama take off on a different trajectory (in which case permission may not be required).
Even if the story is public property many on social media were outraged when another TV channel Aplus blatantly used her story for an upcoming tele-film Zainab Kay Qatil, criticising the lack of sensitivity to the grieving family’s feelings.
Production companies and TV channels are in the entertainment business with the emphasis on “business”, but there is absolutely no reason why both ethical standards can't be maintained along with the bottom line.
The overwhelming public anger at the string of murders and child abuse scandal in town of Kasur opened up an unprecedented national conversation. Both parents and children need to be educated about the predators that hide so easily amongst us. The need to keep that light shining on all the dark corners of our cultural reticence has not abated.