What is it about Sehar Khan and Hamza Sohail’s Fairy Tale that makes women love it so?

It may have something to do with a female lead who isn't a damsel in distress and a male lead who is walking green flag.
05 Aug, 2023

When HUM decided to cast Sehar Khan (who, at just 23, has relentlessly trudged through multiple scripts far beneath her caliber) and Hamza Sohail (who will play his first lead role at the coveted 8pm slot on Pakistani television tonight) in a Ramzaan show called Fairy Tale, written by Sarah Majeed (who had last written a script for the channel in 2018) and handed the reins over to director Ali Hassan (who was expected to guide five young actors, three of whom were debutantes through a month-long play), it is unlikely they were expecting the team to deliver a hit. In fact, it is unlikely anyone was expecting them to deliver a hit. The show was airing in the 7pm slot that clashed with Iftar time, initial reviews were mixed, and the channel’s other Ramazan special was a Danish Taimoor and Ayeza Khan starrer penned by Saima Akram Chaudhry, which received the bulk of its marketing department’s attention.

But then a Ramazan miracle happened.

The show found an audience on social media, word of mouth traveled and it snowballed in popularity. Before you knew it, Fairy Tale became a cult favorite amongst a dedicated group of fans online, Khan and Sohail found themselves thrust into unexpected fame and the channel commissioned a second season.

And now, a little over three months since the show’s last episode aired, everyone is, to put it mildly, a little bit confused. No one can seem to fully grasp how the show managed to achieve the kind of success that it did. Ali Safina, who played Asadullah Khan in the show’s first season, expressed his befuddlement in an interview. The leads paired their surprise with gratitude and humility during one of their Instagram live sessions. Reviewers believe it is the palpable chemistry between Khan and Sohail that is driving the fanbase. It is all the more astonishing because the show was clearly meant for young girls — it’s in the name, you see. What self-respecting adult watches a show named Fairy Tale, pfft.

I figured that before the second season drops tonight, it is pertinent to decode the mystery behind the success no one saw coming. It was time, I realised, to speak to the community that the show had fostered on social media. What was it about a light-hearted romantic comedy about a flawed yet well-meaning young woman whom the narrative offered dignity and a considerate, respectful young man who embodied gentle masculinity, situated within the local context that was garnering such love from women who enjoyed K-dramas, were fans of Taylor Swift and found comfort in Shahrukh Khan movies?

The key was the romance between the leads, apparently. Or that is, at least, how the conversation began. “It has something so earnest and refreshing about it,” said Zoha, a PhD student in the field of molecular biology researching cancer in Bangalore. “They really want to make a good love story — one you can aspire to have, something which is not toxic, something which does not challenge your sensibilities.”

That was shocking for several reasons. Firstly, production houses in Pakistan had crunched the numbers, ran rigorous quantitative analysis on their data, and conducted thorough market research to reassure us that the “masses” (retire the word, I beg you), wanted to watch women put through several rounds of misery and abuse. And moreover, I was not expecting to find full-blown scientists in the fanbase of a frivolous, nonsensical romantic comedy showing on a local TV channel. Clearly, this was some anomaly. But then the fans really began to join in and agree with Zoha’s assessment.

“The romance and falling in love is so subtle and still it hits you so hard, the way you go on this journey with Farjaad and Umeed, the little nuances, the perfectly timed background music, it’s all so good,” said Saba*, a 33-year-old software engineer based in Norway.

Hiba, who is 25 years old and currently based in Kuwait, told me how the romance in the show made her “inner child happy”, meanwhile Farwa, a 28-year-old data engineer working in Texas added that the show reminded her of her time in college and the early days of her relationship with her husband. For Nida, a 45-year-old Indian-American working in tech, this had fast become her comfort show.

“And honestly, when was the last time we saw playful, relatable, flirting on our screens?” challenged Nimra, a 24-year-old student based in Malaysia. Well, I would argue that really depends on how you defined the term. Sometimes the cousin you were forced into marriage with might not be unhinged enough to slap you across the face, and technically speaking, wasn’t that also flirting?

But few in the fanbase were in the mood for serious, mature reasoning. To 21-year-old Zala, a mass communication student in Peshawar, the show was reminiscent of books by her favourite romance author, Sophie Kinsella. But for 30-year-old US-based architect Hiba Beg, the show reminded her of the joy she got from old classics like Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinarey.

“I felt invested in a romance after such a long time,” said Ilsa, who is pursuing a PhD in history in Seattle.

And just when I thought I understood what the mania behind the show was about, 23-year-old software engineer Alina offered me a little more insight. “I’ve read and seen a lot of grumpy guy, sunshine girl romances, but never done so well in a Pakistani setting.”

So it is the setting behind this brouhaha, I asked. It was the relatability, I was quickly corrected.

“We always see two white people having a love story,” Nimra told me, and before I could tell her that actually we have a vast array of romances to choose from, she added, “and even when we see it in our own TV shows, there is always so much trauma, that it just ruins the love story itself!” Well, that considerably reduced the offerings then.

“We can watch however many Hollywood romances we want [but] we will never be able to relate to that. To watch a show depict romance the way we experience it was special,” said 24-year-old Mishal, who works in audit advisory in London.

And by the looks of it, it was not just the tropes that the show was employing that was giving everyone the butterflies, it was also the stereotypes it was breaking. “While most of our dramas perpetuate gender stereotypes, this one is different. The princess has agency, the prince understands consent, marriage is not the solution to our female protagonist’s problems and the hero is not her saviour. She is her own saviour. I also enjoyed how the writer seems to know all the romcom tropes but also knows how to flip them,” offered Hadia* a Pakistani-Swedish teacher.

“For me, one of the best parts of Fairy Tale are the outdoor scenes,” Zala said, “From Umeed climbing up Kidney Hill to her flying to Islamabad all alone, it’s what I needed to feel seen in a Pakistani drama.”

It was also undoing the long-held trope of women being out to get each other, Hiba Beg explained. “Umeed and her best friend Mimi (Amna Youzasaif) don’t fight with each other over the fact that the man the latter is interested in is pursuing her friend. Umeed and her cousin Haya (Aena Khan) are polar opposites yet are each other’s biggest support systems.”

I remained unconvinced. No way were they watching a Pakistani romance for stereotype breaking and intelligent writing. I was sure the man had to come into the picture at some point. All it needed was some gentle coaxing.

“Farjaad is grumpy, he is moody,” Mishal eventually confessed, and I strapped in for this. I could not wait to hear why he was misunderstood, or what humanity ran under the angry persona he projected to the world, what deep man-pain fuelled this character that women were obsessed with. “But whilst being those things, he is also respectful, and caring. He has a good heart. He doesn’t show his rage through violence. Grumpy guys don’t have to intimidate their female leads. He knows how to smile. The fact that she never had to teach him how to respect her was honestly so refreshing.”

Wait. So…he didn’t punch walls?

And apparently, it was not just the female lead he was sexually interested in that he afforded kindness to. According to the fanbase, that is how he supposedly treated all the women in his life. “Farjaad’s relationship with his sister Mimi is so much like the relationship I have with my own brother,” said Misbah, a 24-year-old working in governance in Islamabad. “He is older than her, old enough to make his younger sister his ghairat, but not once does he do that, he never crosses that line.”

So…he isn’t going around gently caressing his manly moustache?

“Farjaad’s character is actually a complete ‘green flag’,” Safa*, a 23-year-old research analyst based in the US insisted. “He does not get disrespectful, even when angry, he maintains communication during conflict and apologises when he is in the wrong. You don’t get to see a lot of male characters like that.”

And then, they let me in on a secret. Apparently, women find consent in romance insanely attractive. I do not wish to boast, but my efforts were unearthing very profound discoveries.

“In the episode where they had to stop Umeed’s nikkah, Farjaad comes to help but he does not act like a knight in shining armour who sees Umeed as a damsel in distress. Umeed has agency throughout and Farjaad assists when indicated she needs help,” said Hadia, who is 40 years old, “Teaching about honour culture and consent is a part of Swedish national curriculum and I thought this episode could also be used as a stimulus for discussions about it with my Pakistani students. In fact, I had a very good discussion about it with my own teenage daughter.”

Twenty-one-year-old Zala explained the same concept in the following words: “Farjaad understood the assignment.”

I don’t necessarily mean to take anything away from young Hamza Sohail and the hours he is clearly spending in the gym — his female fanbase is not oblivious to his charm and good looks — but it is really his sensitive portrayal of a modern romantic hero and the earnest vulnerability he brings to the role that they are taken in by.

“I think we can see Farjaad’s complexity because Hamza has taken the time to perfect what unsaid feelings look like,” said Hamna. “Hamza breathed life into Farjaad, elevated each emotion to the next level. I can’t wait to see more of him,” said Sana, a 21-year-old biology student from Kashmir.

“Hamza doesn’t portray Farjaad as some unattainable masculine ideal, too embroiled in his own heroism, instead he lends an everyday tenderness and warmth to him,” said Hafsa, a 26-year-old digital illustrator based in Islamabad. “Farjaad is smooth enough to flirt with the woman he likes, but he is also confident enough to let her laugh at him and blush under her loving gaze.”

It was a bit perplexing to watch so many women, all of them extremely successful in their respective fields from across the globe, feeling absolutely no embarrassment about openly enjoying a Pakistani romantic comedy. You would think it would be beneath their intellect to engage so sincerely with locally produced content. They were, after all, strong independent women, who consumed intelligent media.

“It is such a stupid thing that society makes women feel unintelligent for enjoying romance. Why does liking a show make me any less of an intelligent person?” asked Mishal.

“It’s like finding a niche group of women in their late 20s, all very successful, but everyone comes together to fangirl,” said Fareeha, a PhD student based in London, “and no one is feeling embarrassed about it — my 15-year-old self feels sated.”

“I found a community that was just like me; brown women over the age of 25 and discussing a show. I found my people, I made lasting friendships. And even in the moment all of this is happening, I am having so much fun. I fit in with these people. It is so much more than just being a fan of the show,” Hafsa added.

And the longer I spoke to them, the more I realized it was not just the romance, it was not the young vibe, nor the empowered messaging, not even the handsome male lead that these women were congregating around. It was the female protagonist that they held dearest. It was Umeed, brilliantly portrayed by Sehar Khan, an absolute joy on screen, who was speaking to something deeply personal within them, regardless of age.

“I am not used to seeing happy Pakistani women on screen. I didn’t even realise how much I needed to see a brown woman being unapologetically herself. I genuinely got teary eyed when Umeed first appeared,” Hafsa confided.

“I love that little aafat so much, I will protect her with everything,” quipped Nimrah, a 31-year-old dentist based in Karachi.

“She is so optimistic, what I loved about her was she had so much faith and conviction in her own self, and that is so rare to see in a Pakistani woman,” Atiya, a 34-year-old communications lead for a Karachi-based firm pointed out.

“It took me some time to fully fall in love with Umeed — because so much of what she embodies is so antithetical to women of my specific generation, even though I like to think of myself as a fairly assertive, non-conforming person,” said Maya*, a 35-year-old fan based in India. “I ultimately fell in love with Umeed because I see her as aspirational — I wish I was like her when I was that age. I hope to be her some day.”

“Umeed was a character I did not know I needed to see on television. She has really made me kinder to my younger self,” Zara*, a 28-year-old development economist, told me.

“Every girl who was forced to shrink her desires and dreams for her brother will understand Umeed,” added 37-year-old, Lahore-based freelancer Sahar.

“My mother does not like Umeed for the same reasons she often doesn’t like me,” Misbah said, half-joking. “She loves me, but she sometimes doesn’t like me, like most brown mothers do. We love Umeed because we have learnt to love ourselves. The older I grew, the more I realised that we needed to like us. So I love Umeed and Sehar’s representation of her, as compensation to my younger self whom I couldn’t love fully.”

Sehar Khan’s vivacious portrayal of the character, that fans have come to feel so connected to and care so deeply about, has made a home for itself in the hearts of many. The natural ease with which this beautiful, budding star settles into the messy coming-of-age experiences of a young girl in our society has made many women feel seen and represented on Pakistani television after a long time.

“Sehar, I think, actually had the hardest role. Umeed is a character who is an emotional rollercoaster and in the hands of a lesser actress her sudden switches in emotions could so easily have been confusing or even unconvincing. But she slipped between them as easily as breathing,” Hafsa fondly said.

Fareeha agreed, “Umeed is the most unapologetic woman I’ve seen being played out on TV screens and it wouldn’t have been possible to endear her to us if not for Sehar’s performance.”

“Sehar’s energy as Umeed is infectious,” Hamna added, “it’s impossible to dislike her once you see her in her element.”

I sat there wondering if it really was this simple all along. If all you had to do to attract intelligent women to your show was to show them a layered, relatable female character whom the creators rooted for and loved enough to not punish for her mistakes and a male lead who was not collapsing under the weight of his own masculinity.

What of the female suffering we were made to believe was essential to mature storytelling? What of the tales that romanticised the male lead at the expense of the dignity of the female protagonist? What of the initial talks that such storytelling is childish and for an immature audience?

Surely, surely it cannot be this easy. There had to be some big, complex riddle that the world collectively couldn’t crack. How did this show become so successful?

But legend has it that there is a 28-year-old graduate student in the US who mentioned this show to an old woman once. She told her about a young firecracker female protagonist, and the old woman listened. She spoke of a city that was open to exploration by this female character, and the old woman listened. She praised a female character who had aspirations beyond marriage and the old woman listened. She then mentioned how this girl once ended up in jail and then lied to the police officer about being married to this gentle boy who drove to her in the middle of the night to bail her out, at which point the old woman, aged 72, professional grandmother, based in Karachi, interrupted and asked, “Dramay ka naam kya bataaya tha tum ne?”

I guess we will never figure it out.

*Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy