Pakistan's female TV protagonists are in retrograde

Mehreen from Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay is one in a long line of Pakistani TV heroines who have gone from warrior to weeper.
Updated 23 Dec, 2021

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.

Mahira Khan as Mehreen Mansoor in Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay
Mahira Khan as Mehreen Mansoor in Hum Kahan Ke Sachay Thay

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.

Mawra Hocane as Anaya in *Sabaat* and Iqra Aziz as Noor in *Ranjha Ranjha Kard*i.
Mawra Hocane as Anaya in Sabaat and Iqra Aziz as Noor in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi.

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?


Fast comment Dec 23, 2021 10:20am
Misconceptions. Nothing more.
Recommend (0)
Masood Haider Dec 23, 2021 10:32am
Wonderful article. Why does a network like HUM headed by highly educated and progressive women continue to present one drama after another with such horrible stereotypes of Pakistani women and why do Pakistani stars male and females alike continue to accept roles in cringe worthy and deplorable dramas with awful plots is really shocking. Perhaps more critical articles like this one will shame them into following an upright course.
Recommend (0)
sana Dec 23, 2021 11:20am
@Masood Haider Sadly Hum TV dramas started to become more regressive after the success of Humsafar. During its inception the channel had promised the revival of old school Pakistani dramas but was forced to revert back to stereotypical ones to cater to the tastes of the conservative Pak audience.
Recommend (0)
Saira Khan Dec 23, 2021 12:09pm
Mediocre actors like Usman Mukhtar who are in the industry only due to their parents cannot work on strong scripts. Why do we expect them to live up to the Golden Age of PTV?
Recommend (0)
Khokhar Dec 23, 2021 12:31pm
I think this is planned, there must be some people at top who want limit Pakistanis (specially women) to household politics. Every single channel on Pakistan has a crying women, I means what's the point of these shows? unless its a planned agenda to make Pakistanis Dumb af.
Recommend (0)
Ahmed Dec 23, 2021 12:58pm
A woman wanting to be a good wife and have babies is as good an ambition as a woman wanting to be a young CEO. Stop projecting your ideas of happiness on others. Usually the woman who speak on these topics haven't really achieved much in life themselves.
Recommend (0)
Riz Ali Dec 23, 2021 02:02pm
Having grown up in the UK with Pakistani parents it was a delight to watch classic dramas such as Khuda ki Basti, Alif Noon, Guest House etc however since 2000s the whole drama scene is always revolving around toxic and dysfunctional families littered with domestic abuse. My late brother would always make fun of these new dramas "if you want to cry then watch this drama as they are always crying or fighting"!!!
Recommend (0)
Bashir Dec 23, 2021 02:51pm
The industry that appeals to the masses must make dramas for the masses i.e. more revenue. It's a business. If they make a female too strong (by that I mean Pakistani society), it will only be loved by a select group of people but many will not connect to it. Lost business.
Recommend (0)
Malz Dec 23, 2021 03:21pm
All for ratings. As audience we should also not watch these kind of stories so Thor ratings drop
Recommend (0)
JS Dec 23, 2021 06:52pm
@Ahmed Wanting to be a good wife and mother does not mean having to put up with abuse. The writer is not criticising women who choose traditional roles, but the characters who are expected to have no life or desires except to appease horrible family members.
Recommend (0)
Kamran Aquil Dec 23, 2021 06:56pm
Pakistani Drama as we all know are fed to the illiterate masses that prey saas baho issues and victimizing young women. Please improve the drama content . The drama artist should refuse to play such role that degrades women to be weak
Recommend (0)
noor Dec 23, 2021 07:10pm
Blaming Mahira Khan yet again! This is Dawn's third article in as many weeks against her.
Recommend (0)
Nadia Dec 23, 2021 07:45pm
Its pathetic to see what is portrayed in Pakistani dramas these days. Women should start boycotting such plays.The only way for the producers to recognize is the drop in TRPs.
Recommend (0)
Masood Haider Dec 23, 2021 07:46pm
@sana : Very true. Humsafar was widely praised but really was no different than the vast majority of dramas with misogynistic plots being presented these days.
Recommend (0)
Asma Sayeed Dec 23, 2021 08:22pm
You forgot the epitome character in all this: Dureshahwar!!! The woman who was guided by her dad's letters to bear it all up. It was legitimized by the happy turn that how the sacrifices prove good in the end and the husband succumbs. Great article btw. I don't agree with the Noori bit though.
Recommend (0)
Suraiya Kasim Dec 24, 2021 06:57am
Very well written. Hope the writers and producers will read this and take notice.
Recommend (0)
TPA Dec 24, 2021 07:07am
Mahira Khan should act her age. She should play grandmother roles.
Recommend (0)
Abrar Dec 24, 2021 07:47am
Irony.... "mazloom aurat" is more appealing, and thus sales more....
Recommend (0)
Saturday Dec 24, 2021 09:48am
Finally someone noticed how bad our dramas have become. Many of our audience is watching international dramas because of scripts like these
Recommend (0)
WesternEast Dec 26, 2021 09:54am
Can't believe that this rubbish(HKKST) is from the same pen that wrote epics like 'Aks' and 'Peer e Kamil'; May be writers like Umera Ahmed also needs to put values above everything else.
Recommend (0)