While women forgive their partners' betrayal and violence, I'm not holding my breath for Mehwish to be forgiven.
Like most of our dramas, there is nothing new in ARY Digital’s latest hit, Meray Pass Tum Ho. Stories of infidelity, second marriages and “bad” women are standard fare.
To make things even clearer, writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar admits to writing the same story earlier as a teleplay, but perhaps most telling are the glaring similarities to his previous serials Zara Yaad Kar and Tau Dil Ka Kiya Hua.
Mehwish (Ayeza Khan) and Danish (Humayun Saeed) are a middle class couple with a love marriage, a son called Rumi and a flat to their credit.
After two or three episodes, it’s obvious that the beautiful Mehwish is tired of having to argue with rickshaw drivers over a few hundred rupees and dreams of diamond necklaces — well above her husband’s paygrade.
Enter temptation in the form of inappropriately fancy friend Anoushay (Mehar Bano) and a meeting with rich, handsome CEO Shahwar Ahmad (Adnan Siddiqui). Post some pro-forma hesitation and flirting, Mehwish starts sleeping with Shahwar, which the makers have done their best to illustrate in as much lurid detail as Pakistani censorship laws will allow.
After the shocking episode of Shahwar and Mehwish’s betrayal, questions about “bedroom selfies” and the sudden appearance of a pink nightie cropped up like an unwanted rash in every other conversation about the show.
While the bad guys enjoy their moment of victory, unlike most female protagonists in such situations, Danish is the recipient of universal acceptance and sympathy.
In fact, he becomes an overnight millionaire by quietly investing in Shahwar’s company and his friend literally forces him into a partnership in his brokerage firm.
After Mehwish abandons him, Danish’s lucky streak is so amazing that it also immediately gives him a new love interest and replacement mother-figure for Rumi in the form of Hania (Hira Mani).
Balancing out Mehwish’s “bad girl” character, the writer gives us Hania, a standard issue “good girl” who (of course) is fresh-faced, never-married and — despite her father’s history of betrayal — has no problem connecting with a divorced man or slipping into the role of mother for Rumi.
So why has this old trope caught so much attention?
Firstly, it’s a triumph of marketing, starting with a provocative interview from the master of rhetoric and sophistry himself, author Khalil ur Rehman Qamar, infamously declaring that a man cannot resist a woman tempting him.
Not surprisingly the statement caused an uproar online. This was followed by a similar but more subtle push of the same message by actor Adnan Siddiqui, who shrugged his elegant shoulders and explained his character Shahwar was just like any man, on the lookout for a “chance”.
The ultimate blame, he said, lay with the female character for accepting his offer of an affair.
Both statements are a damning and false indictment of men but more importantly, they reveal a frighteningly common mindset that the burden of guilt in moral lapses lies on the woman’s shoulders, not the man’s.
What a handy excuse for rapists, harassers and adulterers, who can say, “She tempted me and I couldn’t help myself, I am a man, I have no self-control.”
One young man actually argued this point with me on Twitter, declaring that if a man can maintain self-control, it’s because the woman was not beautiful enough, echoing Siddiqui and Qamar’s words
Then came the infamous do takkay ki aurat dialogue; of course, Pakistani social media took the bait.
From chest-thumping declarations of affirmation by men seething in anger at “feminists”to young women upset that a female character who cheated on her husband and abandoned her child was being “judged”, social media became a battleground.
Since we live in a post-truth era, full of information but precious little clarity, the real questions audiences should have been asking themselves was forgotten in the haze of triggered responses. There is no culture on earth that condones or celebrates adultery.
In fact, the universal disapproval given to those who cheat on their spouse is a moral nearly every culture has in common. So strong is this disgust that even people who cheat on the person they are monogamously dating are considered scum, so judging Mehwish wasn’t the issue. The problem was not judging Shahwar.
Just like Mehwish, Shahwar also broke his marriage vows and he also tempted Mehwish. In every respect, he was as guilty as her, yet no one calls him a cheap, worthless man.
The episode showing Mehwish’s departure is a fascinating insight into this outlook: Danish’s anger at Mehwish is a slow burn. He is very polite and quite practical, asking after keys and various domestic chores in a muted way until his pain and anger quite naturally boil over and he aims one small insult at his errant wife.
Stranger still is his respectful camaraderie with Shahwar, whom he continues to call saheb and insists on offering tea to.
There is a disturbing air of negotiation and transaction in their conversations, almost as if Danish is handing over Mehwish. When Danish finally does get angry at Shahwar, it’s not because he cheated with Mehwish but threatened to take away Rumi.
In another episode, a visibly drunk Shahwar warns Mehwish not to pray because “Allah doesn’t like women who get a divorce,” again reinforcing this lopsided morality.
This week’s episode showed Shahwar finally getting his comeuppance when his wife, Maham, in the shape of a stern-looking Savera Nadeem, turns up to send him to jail on charges of fraud.
Maham is quite the trooper and begins her conversation with Mehwish with a well-placed slap, putting an end to the belated nikah between the adulterous pair before it even began. Just like the previous do takkay ki aurat dialogue, the slap was celebrated by social media as well-deserved.
Apart from providing the chaska factor of giving audiences front-row seats to the kind of masalaydar divorce case usually described through gossip and whispered half-truths in quiet corners, Meray Pass Tum Ho is a solid, well-made drama with some excellent performances and sharp direction.
Humayun Saeed reminds us again that he is actually a good actor and can connect to the audience with his every sigh or smile.
Ayeza Khan is amazing; her cold, self-centred portrayal is flawless and I particularly like her easy underplaying of certain scenes that reduce the melodrama but increase the impact. Adnan Siddiqui is, well, Adnan Siddiqui — an incredibly talented actor and a master of his craft.
Mehar Bano as “the bad influence” has actually provided a little light relief: amongst all the characters, her Anoushay seems the most normal. Her moues of distaste and barely concealed voyeuristic pleasure are all of us — surprised, taken aback but curious nonetheless.
At the level of pure entertainment, the script does drag at times and despite some riveting, powerful episodes, there have been some so predictable and slow that it’s a chore to watch.
Director Nadeem Baig is simply one of the best in Pakistan and his disciplined touch is the magic that has infused so much tension and suspense in this drama.
So, why taint a well-made drama with such glaring misogyny in interviews and dialogues? Meray Pass Tum Ho is incredibly popular, but the subliminal messaging that men are somehow immune from moral responsibility is dangerously wrong and must be challenged.
This attitude is not new — just look at the ending for Hum TV’s Inkaar: the heroine forgives the villain who tried to rape her, harassed her, stabbed her with a pair of scissors, nearly killed her, maligned her reputation, kidnapped her brother and more because the writer decided that if the villain went to jail he would become even more hardened and angry towards women. Drama-makers are making money but they are ignoring their social responsibility.
According to Adnan Siddiqui, more men than women are watching Meray Pass Tum Ho, which is not a surprising statistic because the show flips the usual Pakistani drama plot line by making the man the victim of infidelity.
While women usually forgive their errant partners’ kidnapping, betrayal, neglect, physical violence and mental abuse by the last episode for a happily-ever-after scenario, somehow, I am not holding my breath for Mehwish to be forgiven.
After watching a lot of Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar dramas, I am guessing there will be some attempt at a halala in later episodes. I am so hoping to be proved wrong because halala is repugnant and distasteful, and for good reason: a divorce is a divorce and people should move on.
Meanwhile, cast interviews have suggested there is more mayhem to come, including a murder or two — which sounds a lot more thrilling than the usual will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together endings of Qamar’s other dramas.