There was controversy about television serial Dunk before it even went on air.
When producer Fahad Mustafa declared that this serial was a 'tribute' to victims of false accusations, many believed it was an attempt to undermine the #MeToo movement’s campaign against breaking the silence about sexual harassment.
One of the leads, Yasra Rizvi, (who plays a falsely accused professor’s wife in the drama), has also had to defend herself from accusations of hypocrisy and not being “feminist” enough for appearing in this drama after her stint in the more liberal web-series Churails.
According to the makers, the story is based on a true incident that recently took place in Lahore when a Government MAO College lecturer took his own life despite being cleared of allegations of harassment.
Haider (Bilal Abbas Khan) and Amal (Sana Javed) are cousins and childhood sweethearts set to marry after graduation, but everything changes when Amal accuses their teacher, Professor Humayun (Nauman Ejaz), of propositioning her. This sets into motion a high-profile investigation, dividing staff, students and even the general public, as the case goes viral.
Amal is mostly given support and acceptance in the show, while Professor Humayun is irrevocably tainted by the charge against him, losing all respect and credibility, with few supporters but his wife. The few voices of dissent on campus who question Amal’s version of events are cowed into silence by her supporters with Haider leading the charge.
Unable to contain his outrage, Haider then pays an ill-conceived visit to the professor’s home where he assaults the older man in front of his wife, deeply traumatising their young daughter. “Your father is a bad man,” he snarls into the trembling child’s face.
However, when Haider overhears Amal taunting Professor Humayun that she could lie and still be believed, he realises that her accusation was fabricated. Meanwhile, triggered by the humiliating confrontation in his own home, Professor Humayun breaks under the pressure and commits suicide.
Bilal Abbas Khan shines as a flawed, immature young man grappling with a severe moral crisis. Initially, his portrayal skimmed razor close to his previous outing as a picture of privilege in Cheekh, but he veers away from that path, giving Haider a very different energy, which is wracked with guilt and seeking absolution at any cost.
While Haider accepts his culpability, his comeback still lacks the humility of a true penitent. By cancelling his wedding to Amal, he extricates himself from the relationship and punishes her for the lies that provoked him. However, he does not expose the truth — either to spare his family public disgrace or as one last act of loyalty to Amal — and carries the secret alone.
Some of Khan’s best scenes are Haider watching from a distance as Amal presides at her mayun, as if seeing her for the first time. Haider’s intentions might be called noble from one angle, but his lack of candour leaves his parents and brother Safeer (Fahad Shaikh) vulnerable to the machinations of a ruthless manipulator like Amal.
Unlike Amal or Haider, Safeer is a more accommodating, gentle person willing to do anything to make his parents happy. He agrees to a face-saving marriage for his parent’s sake but is still hoping Haider will step up.
In several poignant scenes Safeer engages his stubborn younger brother asking him to rethink his decision but gets nothing in return.
Silence that can enable and empower the wrong kind of people is a familiar motif in writer Mohsin Ali and director Badar Mahmood’s work. Their collaborations under Mustafa’s Big Bang productions, have addressed some serious social topics.
Ishqiya was about a young woman so afraid of her blackmailing ex-boyfriend, she allows him to marry her sister.
Another drama, Aise Hai Tanhai, covered cyber bullying by leaking personal images on social media, and rape. The duo has mastered the art of taking a tough social issue and packaging it into easily digested episodes for the public. While this approach has often garnered enviable ratings and acclaim, the use of 'kitchen politics' can obscure the issue with melodrama.
Amal’s character is not as easy to understand as the male protagonist's. Her rationale for targeting the professor, to save Haider from an inquiry about an inappropriate video he accidentally sent to a female teacher, still seems weak for such a drastic accusation. Both Professor Humayun and the female teacher provide proof to the investigating committee, yet Haider faces no disciplinary action.
While resisting the all too enjoyable urge to dive too deeply as a “google psychologist,” it is obvious by episode eight that Amal is not normal: her moral compass is terribly skewed and she demonstrates many of the traits and pathologies of a sociopath. Sana Javed deserves an ovation for this controlled performance.
The first sign is her lack of empathy, illustrated by the indifferent way she carries on celebrating her mayun despite being informed of the innocent professor’s suicide. Or the way she casually applies lipgloss half listening while her sister asks her not to be such a sacrificial lamb. Then there is her compulsive need to control Haider, disguised as her many innocent attempts to mend family ties.
She jumps at the chance to marry the more malleable Safeer, painting it as her chosen self-punishment, but it becomes clear that she is playing a deeper game. People like Amal will do anything to maintain their image and she is very aware that her cover may break at any moment if she does not discredit Haider in every way.
Rizvi has also given a strong showing as the professor’s wife, supporting her husband and desperately trying to protect her child against the onslaught of gossip. Just as the child stars of Dil Naumeed Toh Nahi have shone, the young actor playing Humayun’s daughter has also given a heartbreakingly believable performance.
Having given us the meat, the serial is now following what seems to be a familiar pattern of rating-friendly tropes for a chunk of episodes before drawing in the loose threads of the story towards the end. The game of musical wedding chairs, where everybody just switches position on the “nikkah-go-round“, no matter how awkward, unfeeling or potentially damaging it might be, has just began.
Amal was supposed to marry Haider, but is now married to his brother Safeer and it looks as if she is maneuvering the situation so Haider marries her friend Minal.
To add more masala to the mix, Haider’s visits to help heal Professor Humayun’s widow and child have led to the all too familiar “bad character” aspersions from the neighbours and “beva pay keecher" dialogues, leaving the door open for Haider to take yet more drastic actions to right the wrong.
Dunk is actually a very competent thriller so far and, with such a strong creative team, it could have explored the subject of sexual harassment in the university setting through the lens of social media, or the way political and social tribalism can decide how we perceive guilt or innocence, and still have been gripping viewing. The disparity in class and wealth between the protagonists is another layer to this phenomenon that was ignored, but could have made this show just as interesting as the big question about who gets to marry whom.
The makers of such dramas are always walking a fine line between the interests of the public looking for simpler entertainment and a more refined style of drama-making that will be appreciated by more discerning audiences.
Ab Deykh Khuda Kiya Karta Hai, Darr Khuda Sey, Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat, Log Kiya Kahenge, Sabaat, Inkaar and many other Urdu language dramas have touched on the undeniable reality of sexual harassment, all emphasising the historic power imbalance women face in such situations.
Although “cunning women stealing husbands", discrediting “good girls" or even having affairs are in every second drama, stories centring on a male victim are few and far in between.
In recent memory, Yakeen Ka Safar showed us a barrister trying to defend a rape victim who is discredited by a paid accuser but it did not cause a stir because it presented this as one of many perspectives on character assassination. Two other dramas on air also use the theme of women weaponising an accusation to achieve their ends, Beadab playing on Hum and Khawabnagar Ki Shehzadi on ARY, but neither have suffered the same public scrutiny as Dunk.
Dunk is not unique in its scope and follows the usual pattern of socially relevant Pakistani serials that tailor their story around specific concerns. There is no sign yet that the drama has much of an agenda other than telling a story, which may not be common but has been done and does happen.
The object of any investigation should not be to prove a point but to reach the truth, which Dunk points out cannot be guaranteed by the gender of the person we believe, but by the facts of case.