'No means no' is a much repeated dialogue in Hum TV’s drama Inkaar, but the Urdu word inkaar is more powerful than the English 'no', it’s a strong rejection, a refusal that the men in this story just cannot seem to understand.
Like ARY Digital's Cheekh, Inkaar is another drama that sets out to tackle the culture of privilege, the patriarchy and honour that too often works in the favour of rapists and murderers, especially those connected to the ruling elites.
This story revolves around Hajra played by Yumna Zaidi, an actor who excels at playing brave young women without losing the charm of innocence when bucking tradition. Hajra is the kind of girl anyone would root for: simple, hardworking and above all courageous.
Her strength comes from the positive relationship she has with her father, Hafiz Saheb (Rehan Sheikh), a well-respected sweet maker, known for his piety and honesty. In a refreshing change from the usual stereotype of men being narrow-minded, conservative and oblivious to the happiness of his children, he is shown as a loving friend to his daughter.
From episode one, it’s clear that Hajra is a bird with a broken wing, she has suffered some trauma that has made her withdraw from her hard earned place at university to work well below her potential as a teacher in private school for wealthy children. A quiet, studious girl, Hajra isn’t the kind to garner too much attention yet fate makes her the focus of obsession for two men.
In a refreshing change from the usual stereotype of men being narrow-minded, conservative and oblivious to the happiness of his children, Hajra's father is shown as a loving friend to his daughter.
As her story unfolds we find out she has been betrayed by one young man: Rehan Chaudhry (Imran Ashraf), who carefully built up a relationship with her which ended when he tried to rape her. The victim of a frightening sexual assault, she escapes his clutches only to sink into depression, bitterly dissecting the past as she works to understand what happened to her.
It is in this state that she receives a traditional proposal from another young man, one who claims to know her, but she scarcely remembers. Despite being the son of a well-placed government official, Shayan Malik (Sami Khan) was easy to miss, shy, lacking in confidence, he never had the courage to make a deeper connection with Hajra even when her consciousness was not overwhelmed by the self-assured Chaudhry.
It is Shayan who brings the unassuming Hajra to Rehan’s notice and becomes the unwitting catalyst for much of Hajra’s misery. Oblivious to any connection Hajra refuses Shayan’s proposal because her faith in men and love has been shattered but he works hard at winning her over, till he slowly gains her trust. While Hajra and Shayan celebrate their new relationship, neither of them is prepared for Rehan’s stubborn refusal to accept no for an answer.
Fully fleshed-out characters give this drama an edge
At a technical level writer Zafar Mairaj and Director Kashif Nisar are amongst the most formidable talents in Pakistani television, with some memorable dramas to their credit. However some of their projects have used a clumsy and problematic treatment of sensitive topics like rape, the most glaring example being an earlier Hum TV drama, Sangat, which seemed to highlight the rapist's 'troubled' journey and rather than the victim. Twelve episodes down and Inkaar has managed to avoid this kind of ambiguity, drawing a clear line between right and wrong without sacrificing the nuance required to explore every aspect of this issue.
Shot through a cold, raw lens that leaches the colour and vibrancy usually synonymous with the Lahore of popular imagination, this serial could be set in any Pakistani city. The director cuts in and out of the narrative with flash backs allowing each new twist to reframe the characters and relationships in classic thriller style. This shifting perspective works, keeping the audience guessing, where a more linear style might have reduced this story to the level of a static melodrama.
The greatest strength of this must watch serial is the detailed and nuanced characterisations, each protagonist has purpose and a well etched personality. The most fascinating of which is Rehan Chaudhry, brilliantly underplayed by Imran Ashraf, who even manages to squeeze out a little sympathy for this narcissistic character, without relieving him of any of the responsibility for his crimes.
With each episode the audience can see the sensitivity and empathy that defines Shayan’s character as the opposite of the kind of toxic masculinity that Rehan represents.
Rehan is a victim of his father’s ambition and neglect, wrenched from his uneducated birth mother at a young age and placed under the tutelage of his father’s manipulative city wife, any human decency he might have had has long been erased. Blinded by wealth and power, drunk on entitlement, Rehan Chaudhry is the distillation of an amoral, politically connected elite class, which has produced convicted criminals like Shahrukh Jatoi.
Sami Khan gives an equally strong performance, balancing out Imran Ashraf’s intensity and bringing every shade of his character Shayan to life. With each episode the audience can see the sensitivity and empathy that defines Shayan’s character as the opposite of the kind of toxic masculinity that Rehan represents. Shayan has spent a life time being overshadowed by his swaggering, audacious “friend” Rehan, but his love for Hajra allows him to grow, and mature into someone much more powerful than the selfish Chaudhry.
Inkaar avoids the pitfalls of dramatising a real-life story
Dramatising a story straight from the headlines in not an easy task, the pursuit of ratings can lead the best of intentions down a rabbit hole of irresponsible sensationalism and misinformation. Last year’s super hit Geo drama Khaani is a prime example of how to make a hash out of a serious issue, by including some completely misplaced element of romance between the murderer and the victim’s sister.
Inkaar seems to be following the Shah Hussain stabbing case, and has so far managed to avoid the usual pitfalls, maintaining a relentlessly realistic approach. While this drama is about consent, this script pinpoints so many of the societal undercurrents that bring about these attitudes.
This drama gives us a clear picture of the different standards for men and women: men make mistakes, women commit sins.
The quiet acceptance of violence against women is illustrated by Hajra’s mother, Zulekha, whose dismissive attitude to her household staff's regular beatings is the norm. Then there is the ever present monster of 'izzat' or honour which lies in wait for any woman who dares to step outside her house. Hajra is too embarrassed to tell her parents about the sexual harassment by her professor, this lack of communications makes her easy prey for Chaudhry who pretends to be her savior and then her assault at his hands is another source of fear and shame.
Perhaps the most telling scenes were in episode 12, Rehan Chaudhry’s family knows he is a potential rapist and murderer but their sympathies and protection are immediately there to support him. Despite being an innocent victim, Hajra is left begging for her father’s forgiveness as she lies in pain on a hospital bed. Meanwhile her brother and mother vent their anger on her character and their loss of 'respect' by wishing she died in the attack.
This drama gives us a clear picture of the different standards for men and women: men make mistakes, women commit sins. In Pakistani culture, raising awareness of this false evaluation of men and women, sets this story a cut above the run of the mill.
Ideally this drama needed a little editing to make the story crisper and increase the tension, and the jury is still out on whether using such a depressing filter and so completely deglamorising the cast was a good idea. But overall Inkaar is an excellent drama, its thoughtful, detailed approach may make it a tad slow but once you start watching you won’t be able to stop.