Televised drama serials in Pakistan have a long history of masking toxic masculinity as love through romantic dialogue, background music, and powerful visuals of abundant wealth. Toxic masculinity can be broadly understood as an unwritten social guideline for men that explains what heterosexual men should and should not be doing. In many dramas, which are often wrongfully grouped under the genre of romance, the male lead displays traits of misogyny, socio-economic privilege, and aggressive domination. This year however, the gendered show of toxicity has taken over the silver screen with the two major entertainment channels, HUM and ARY, glamourising harassment in their big budget productions Zakham and Kaisi Teri Khudgarzi.
This glamorisation can be looked at as a systemic construct, created especially for the audience belonging to middle and lower-middle socio-economic classes.
The glamour toolkit
The first item in the toolkit used for glamorisation is the man-costumery, which essentially includes dark sunshades, a handgun or revolver, and the most expensive cars and wrist watches. The wardrobe choice is all-black Western suits and shirts if the toxic male is from the urban elite, and immaculately stitched shalwar kameez and waistcoats in the case of feudal lords.
The toolkit is highlighted in the first two episodes of the serials, especially when the hero is introduced on screen. The vertical panning camera shots, which convey the grandeur of his lifestyle to the audience, are usually accompanied by music scores meant for adventure thrillers.
Music plays a significant role in glamourising harassment, as the core act of the harasser-hero falling in love with the unsuspecting heroine, is accompanied by the original soundtrack of the drama. The lyrics of the soundtracks contain meaningful commentary on love and usually gain popularity among the public. So, usually the acts of harassment, stalking, and exploitation of the female lead by the toxic male lead, are disguised as love by the melodious romantic songs playing in the background.
Another important related component in the process of this masking is the structure of the dialogues. Some stock declarations of love used by toxic alpha male characters for their female love interests are: “you are mine,” “I will make you mine,” “no one can take you away from me,” and “you have no idea how much I love you.”
Technically, most scripts do not endorse acts of violence and domination, but the dialogues carry intense romantic vibes that give a different message altogether. For example, in Kaisi Teri Khudgarzi the hero has fallen in love with the heroine at first sight while holding a gun to her father’s head. His elite family is against his marriage to the girl because her socio-economic status is lower than theirs.
The hero dramatically states, with background music and still camera effects, “She is mine. I am her caste, and I am her family. And that is all you need to know about her.” Such a statement was appreciated by viewers in a society where cultural hierarchies impact individual relationships. The glory of the hero willing to let go of his wealth and status for the woman he loves, successfully glosses over the questions of consent and clear harassment.
The character of a hegemonic toxic male in Pakistani love stories is mostly played by five actors — Danish Taimoor, Feroze Khan, Faysal Quraishi, Nauman Ijaz and Humayun Saeed. The growing popularity of Zakham may establish Agha Ali as the new harrier on the block.
These actors have huge fan bases and their images work well in promotions. Consequently, the actual love interests of the targeted female characters get little to no limelight. For instance, all posters for Deewangi display the toxic male lead (played by Taimoor) and his beloved (played by Hiba Bukhari). Bukhari’s character is happily married and very loyal, to her husband (played by Ali Abbas), whose character never makes it to the posters. Similarly, in Khaani, the female lead (played by Sana Javed) never falls in love with her harasser Mir Haadi (played by Feroze Khan), who is also the cold-blooded killer of her twin brother.
However, Haadi’s intense love is showcased grandiloquently, through wistful monologues, mad ravings of forlorn love, and romantic dream sequences. The lead pair, of the harasser and his victim, garnered immense public fame, leading to frequent casting of the duo in other bona fide romance and comedy dramas such as Dino ki Dulhania, Aye Musht-e-Khaak and Romeo Weds Heer.
A legacy of toxic masculinity
It will be very difficult to determine when and how the toxic alpha male trope gained popularity in our national narrative of love, but we can see its marked proliferation in the last decade. These dramas can be roughly divided into two categories of tragic and happy endings.
The tragic endings group include dramas like Jo Chaley Toh Jaan Se Guzar Gaye (2011) and Muqqaddar (2020), wherein the feudal lord heroes fall in love at first sight with beautiful and audacious women. The heroines are betrothed to their cousins in both stories, and the feudal lord heroes blackmail them into the matrimonial trap by kidnapping their fiancés.
After marriage, the women start acknowledging the more refined traits of their husbands’ personalities and eventually fall in love with them. Nevertheless, the male lead of Jo Chaley Toh Jaan Se Guzar Gaye commits suicide at the end as he could not bear the guilt of entrapping his beloved by foul means. His wife remains in love with him but marries her former fiancé. Similarly, the hero of Muqqadar gets shot by his political enemies, but his wife does not remarry and dedicates her life to charitable causes.
But we also find happily-ever-afters for the toxic male and the oppressed female. One the costliest television productions, Bashar Momin, tells the love story of a money launderer and criminal with strong political affiliations who manipulates the heroine into marrying him so that her fiancé can get married to his sister. The convoluted plot of intrigue and treachery ends with the heroine and hero falling madly in love with each other and forgetting their problematic past, which includes marital rape and forced abortion.
In Malaal-e-Yaar, the heroine is kidnapped by her paternal cousin and compelled to sign the marriage contract to save her sister’s life. She not only falls in love with the errant and wayward hero, but also manages to tame him into a doting husband.
Occasionally, Pakistani viewers get some variations in their toxic masculinity plots. In Dil Lagi, the male lead is a complicated modern-day Robin Hood who favours the poor but works for the land mafia. A case leads to love at first sight for the hero, him stalking the heroine and making sure that she cannot get married to anyone else. The heroine, however, has a strong personality. Her consistent fight for her identity and space lessens the masculine toxicity on screen, providing the audience with the side narrative of female emancipation.
Over the years, viewers have developed a taste of cheering for the on screen romance between a powerful man and a helpless female victim. Snippets of the longing gaze of the stalker, testimonies of his obsession with the unwilling female love interest, and his romantic monologues are turned into short videos and shared and re-shared by engaged fans.
Breaking the love code
Pakistani TV channels have time and again showed their potential to create unproblematic family entertainment, romance, intrigue, horror, and thriller genre dramas. Private production houses need to rethink their proclivity for using the code of love to beautify acts of stalking, forced marriage, and horrifying scenes of powerful men literally chasing the women they have randomly selected to love.
We live in a patriarchal society with a twisted sense of morality and limited social roles for women. Exploiting the concept of love to make harassment palatable — and in some cases attractive to the public — has a very obvious negative impact on society. There is an urgent need to find ways of enticing television drama viewers without adding unnecessary nuances to the miseries of existing as a woman in Pakistan.