Pakistan's female TV protagonists are in retrograde
Let’s play a guessing game. Imagine yourself in possession of two TV storylines, and place the storylines to their appropriate era.
Story 1: The story of a young woman who loses her parents in a car accident and then her childhood home. However, she builds a life again for herself and her sister, starts a successful business from scratch, vows to buy her house back and lives life on her own terms.
Story 2: The story of a young woman who loses her parents at an early age, one to death and the other to second marriage. She spends the rest of her childhood suffering abuse at her grandmother’s house, and adulthood at her emotionally abusive husband’s, wrongfully charged with her cousin’s murder. She has zero ambitions coupled with a severe case of self-pity and helplessness.
Without context, most people would erroneously select Story 1 as the modern one. Unfortunately, it is astounding and almost inconceivable that the first plot (Tanhaiyyan) was written 35 years ago, and the mediocrity that is the second plot (Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay) was written in this day and age, airing as a primetime serial with a star-studded cast. It is a tragic turn of events that the Pakistani woman of 2021 in our TV dramas is a far cry from the Pakistani woman of the 80s, an era that provided us gems like Zara, Saniya, and Dr Zoya.
Episode 17 of Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay’ caused a hue and cry on social media when Mehreen Mansoor (played by Mahira Khan) professed her love for her emotionally abusive husband Aswad (played by Usman Mukhtar), who never leaves a chance to gaslight, torture and humiliate her. The development took Twitter by storm and started yet another discussion on Khan’s choice of regressive scripts.
Does Mahira Khan deserve the criticism she is receiving for her role? Considering her superstar status in the country, it is only fair to hold her accountable for her choice in characters. However, the issue here is far more complex than the choice of a single star. The criticism, although well-deserved, also needs to be extended to the people who are running the show behind the scenes — the writers, producers, directors, content heads and channel heads. All the stakeholders involved in the creation of a drama have a hand in creating what I call the ‘Classic Angelic Leading Lady Template’, which has become the fate of every leading lady in the TV industry.
The template is as follows: The classic angelic leading lady is always confined to the four walls of her house. She does not know what ambition means. One consistent trait is the leading lady’s unwavering resolve to become a sacrificial lamb. She will put absolutely everyone and anyone above her. The leading lady does not complain, does not get angry. She has an ungodly amount of patience reserved for every single toxic person in her life. The leading lady can do no wrong, is upright, and born with a perfect moral compass. She has no friends. No life of her own. She solves everyone’s issues, and yet leaves her own problems to fate. To put it in one sentence, she has no concept of the ‘self’.
Perhaps the recent outrage with Khan's character might not have been so severe had Mehreen Mansoor always been an emotionally weak character. The fact that the audience was introduced to an entirely different protagonist in the start — a character who was bitter, petty, angry, but fearless, independent, and self-respecting — only for her to morph into a lifeless soul soon after, has left them agitated. It was a betrayal, as we, the audience, were lured in with a promising journey of a strong woman, but instead must endure a cringe fest with dialogues like, "talaq le ke kahan jaun gi" week after week.
And that is my problem with the leading lady of 2020s. She is packaged in the beginning to be someone different. Someone who breaks the conventional stereotype. Branded as a breath of fresh air from the usual standardised characters being produced out of the same factory of miserable angelic leading ladies. But alas, it is only a matter of time when the main conflict arises and the leading lady loses all semblance of the personality she appeared to have initially.
Other recent seemingly independent and different protagonists also fall in the same category. Be it Anaya from Sabaat, a character with dignified strength who forgives her husband in the end; Noori from Ranjha Ranjha Kardi a victim of marital rape who devotes her life to ‘fixing’ her husband who has disabilities; Mahjabeen from Pyaar Ke Sadqay who is delighted to reconcile with her cheating husband; Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai giving into patriarchal notions and succumbing to her misogynist husband; Maahi from Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3 pining over a good-for-nothing loser for 40 episodes; and last but not the least, Khirad and Falak from Humsafar and Shehrezaat respectively who decide to forgive their husbands for all their transgressions.
It is unfortunate that all these characters are lauded for their ‘strong’ portrayal of women in Pakistani dramas. Of course, when you compare them with Dilnasheen from Fitoor, Mannu from Mann Mayal, Rakhshi from Pehli Si Mohabbat, Mehar from Meharposh or Humna from Ishqiya, the bar has been set very low, and compared to the latter, the former truly seem like warrior women. But while they are packaged to be different from the conventions, they all converge onto the same road that is written in the fate of all leading ladies.
Although at times, we are gifted with a Samia from Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat, Insha from Raqeeb Se, Dr Zubia from Yakeen Ka Safar, Chammi from Aangan, Mehru from Dobara or Qandeel from Baaghi — delightful characters who truly embody the essence of a modern woman — these characters are few and far between and too sparse and intermittently presented to turn the regressive tide.
What we need is more characters with interesting and believable characterisations of fallible normal, everyday women. Your average Pakistani woman is not necessarily clad in shalwar kameez to signify her piousness. She has actual hobbies aside from cleaning the house. She studies and she works. She is ambitious and wants to reach somewhere in life that is not necessarily her susraal (in-laws). She is fallible. She makes mistakes. She does not know better until she does. She cries. She gets angry. Sometimes even — gasp — lies. She has friends who also are her support system. And surprise, surprise, she does not need a knight in shining armour because she is one herself.
But to write such characters requires a change in the perspective of what it means to be a Pakistani woman today. A lens that does not attempt to fashion the characters to fit the traditional patriarchal definition of a ‘good woman’. If we were to go by our TV serials, it would seem almost as if the average Pakistani woman was progressing backwards. Even Mercury comes out of retrograde, when will our TV heroines do the same?