Activists and critics scratch heads over Dunk's irresponsible and misogynistic portrayal of women

Published 14 Aug, 2021 12:33pm

A Uks panel discussed the damaging effects of dramas such as Dunk and how plays in Pakistan need to change.

The recently concluded drama serial Dunk and its strongly prejudiced theme against women has prompted several activists, feminists and drama critics, under the umbrella of Hopscotch, to question the play’s relevance in a society where women’s issues are already downplayed.

Hopscotch is the Uks Research, Resource and Publication Centre on Women and Media’s new initiative that examines drama content. As the director of Uks, Tasneem Ahmar, pointed out, “These days viewers are pretty much pushed into playing hopscotch over what is laid out before them in the name of content.”

Hopscotch took up the serial Dunk to discuss the faults in its content that turned into a wrong and damaging narrative, quite capable of being misinterpreted by viewers, especially regarding women.

Dunk tells the story of Amal and Haider, cousins, engaged to be married who happen to attend the same university. Haider has a male friend named Anjum. One day just out of fun he shares some pictures that may be offending to certain people with his buddy. But by mistake those pictures are forwarded to Mrs Anjum, a professor at Haider’s university instead of his friend. The lady does not take it lightly. She tells her colleague Professor Humayun about it and he encourages her to lodge an official complaint against Haider.

Amal then tries to convince Professor Humayun not to push the issue forward. When he doesn’t listen, she locks herself in his office and screams and cries to make it look like he was harassing her. All else is forgotten and suddenly there is a huge scandal at the university. Amal plays the victim very well. She doesn’t even tell Haider that she framed the professor, though he later accidentally finds out. Meanwhile, sick and tired of the accusations and finger pointing, the professor, a proud family man, commits suicide.

Haider doesn’t share with anyone what he found out about Amal though he refuses to marry her and she marries his older brother Safeer instead. But she doesn’t forget Haider’s rejection and the schemer that she is, she turns against him too. Later, she plays the same game she had played with the professor and accuses Haider of attempted rape.

A woman falsely accusing anyone is the biggest problem with Dunk. It shows how women are being reflected in the media. “Why is the public taking it in and not responding?” asked Ahmar, adding that it was such behaviour that compelled her to form Hopscotch. “Why can’t we make more positive and refreshing plays and movies? Dunk represented the five per cent of women in the wrong while undermining the 95 per cent looking for justice in our society,” she said before picking up on some of the wrongs in Dunk.

“There were lies in the story that you could detect right from the beginning,” she pointed out.

Broadcast journalist and film and drama critic Omair Alavi said the serial could have been shorter in length but it dragged on instead. “It was really dragging on and with not much happening in each episode I started reviewing it on alternate weeks,” he said.

“Still, I believe that the issue in the plot was valid. It could have ended in 10 episodes but trying to make it longer resulted in the channel adding more masala [spice] to it. The kidnapping episode was unnecessary. I don’t even understand its relevance.

"But this much I can say that the same production house had also done a serial rape and sexual harassment and in Dunk they have done a counter narrative of that,” he said.

Alavi also said it appears as if there are certain play templates used again and again. “One play shows a maid falling head over heels in love with the boss, and then you have more plays [along] those lines because the first play had good ratings. They are all copying each other as none of the actors take any stands. Activism comes to them later,” he pointed out.

Rights activist and author Khawar Mumtaz said plays and serials should be written after properly understanding issues in society and those issues should be handled with tact. The characters in the story should be portrayed with sensitivity, he said. “Our plays should prompt people to think positively at least. But here the whole thinking process turned on its head,” she said.

Screenwriter and director of several plays and serials Bee Gul termed Dunk an irresponsible serial as it does not consider and is not sensitive to what victims of violence actually go through. “Television is an important part of society but sadly, most producers and writers seem to be convinced that what was shown in Dunk does happen. All they really care about is making money through such programmes,” she said.

“You’ll be surprised to learn that Dunk was a popular play,” she said. “You are a niche audience. Out there, people are appreciating such stories as channel owners make money. That’s why channel owners should also be made part of this dialogue. They should be made to understand that there is a need for proper research, proper character development [and] a way to tackle real issues in a plot,” she said.

Ahmar then explained that for the current discussion, she had reached out to the writers and entire team of Dunk. “We wanted to hear from them but only two people responded though they also could not join us. On our part, we also reach out to news channels in order to help them improve their content and provide news responsibly but you still see them playing songs with news,” she lamented.

Psychologist Asha Bedar said Dunk was problematic from the start. “It was not a play about sexual harassment. It was a play about false accusations. And the character Amal became more and more evil as she falsely accused the professor of sexual harassment and then Haider of attempted rape,” she said.

“It was clearly a play with an agenda to show the protagonist as a liar and a horrible woman as the men became the victims and garnered all sympathies. If there was any woman gaining any sympathy in Dunk, it had to be the professor’s poor widow,” she explained.

Journalist Sarah Zaman said the makers of the drama could have done a better job by doing a proper male harassment story. “Here they didn’t have a counterbalance,” she said.

“There is also always the choice of switching off the television or changing the channel if you don’t like a play. But still there is someone who is watching it,” she added.

Mehreen Shahid said she watches all the plays. “I consume all content and I have seen other plays also showing false accusations but here they could have done a better job if Amal had been shown doing what she did because she was forced by Haider. But here she is shown manipulating everyone to suit herself. It was traumatic for us women to watch her,” she said. “But the viewers think that what is being shown in it is quite normal and okay,” she said.

Journalist Lubna Jerar said there was a need to show that sexual harassment happens. “But here the whole situation was underplayed. We need plays that carry impact or the element of shock such as Udaari. But Dunk, which showed that women are the root of all evil, got no reaction. I believe that the sponsors of such plays and the media houses producing these plays need to be told that the truth and positives also sell,” she said.

Child rights activist Fazela Gulrez said maligning women was a vicious thing to do and this is exactly what Dunk did. “Amal was made so evil to reinforce the misogynistic and patriarchal mindset,” she said, adding that she is tired of unnatural plots where women are shown in love with their sister’s husbands. “These plots are not normal but our plays are making them normal.”

Another problem in Dunk raised by Ahmar was that none of the women characters were shown as professional women who worked. “They were shown as going to the kitchen and making coffee, getting ready in nice saris and dresses but they were all housewives,” she pointed out.

Bee Gul had an explanation for this. “You see the political scenario here, shifting the women to inside the four walls of their homes where they are expected to be told things and where they watch such plays while accepting and identifying with the issues shown in them. And in doing this, they come to believe that if they step out of the house they will get harassed. And so they surrender to their fate. This is how they give in to cultural resilience.”

Ahmar then recalled the plays and serials of the 1970s and 80s. “Those were the days when our television plays and serials were so well thought out and absorbing that they used to stop traffic on the roads as everyone would be home and in front of the television. But plays these days are stopping our minds and our brains from working. Dunk, in particular, has been so problematic that it gave me headaches and vertigo,” she sighed.