Women who speak and men who are in love: The evolving trajectories of romance in Pakistani dramas

Romance tropes of the 80s are making a comeback in the best possible way — through heroes that aren't toxic.
26 Jan, 2024

Over the past two years, the distinctive genre of Pakistani romance dramas following the legacy of 1980s dramas has resurfaced on our private television channels. Dramas that aired on national TV in 1980s are still remembered and appreciated by a large audience that understands Urdu.

The most popular dramas of that period, such as Ankahi (1982), Tanhaiyaan (1985), and Dhoop Kinarey (1987), were romance dramas as they had a central love story, and the leading male and female characters found true love and lived happily ever after.

The culturally, religiously, and politically restricted environment of the country at the time posed challenges for onscreen representations of love stories, resulting in the creation of a nuanced genre of romance dramas that carried carefully contrived social overtones, comic banter, and fiercely independent main female characters. This genre of romance dramas started disappearing from the screen in the late 1990s, only to be replaced by love stories celebrating toxic masculinity or the wronged heroine narratives.

Now, with dramas such as Kuch Ankahi, Ishq Murshid, and Jaan-e-Jahan, an overall attempt is being made to once again show women who dare to question illogical social conventions, and men who are in love and not harassing or dragging their love interests across the first 10 episodes.

Television dramas, in the ever challenging socio-economic situation of Pakistan, are still the main source of entertainment for the vast majority of middle and lower-middle income households, even when there are an excess of entertainment options. This popularity sustained the production of dramas amid an increasingly complex cultural environment where religious, ethnic, and political identities kept on mutating.

In the 2010s, a new trope emerged that featured a heroine who is terribly wronged by society and by the hero, and who sails courageously through all her sufferings to achieve success. This trope was initiated by the success of dramas like Humsafar, which was aired in 2011 on HUM TV and later on Netflix in 2016. Based on a popular romance novel by Farhat Ishtiaq, the drama told the story of a beautiful and naïve girl who is thrown out of her house after her mother-in-law accuses her of adultery and convinces her husband of her infidelity.

The success of dramas like Humsafar gave rise to the production of love stories woven around wronged female leads who are shown crying with soulful music playing in the background, a dupatta being dragged on the floor, and smudged eye makeup. Although the happily-ever-after endings of such dramas, which focus on the change of heart of the misogynist male lead, have been criticised in various write-ups in Pakistani newspapers and magazines, the shows still proliferate our television channels.

While dramas with glamorous female characters being thrown out of their houses by their husbands and/or in-laws, wearing an excessive amount of makeup that does not blend well with the situation dominate the national entertainment landscape, romantic comedies like Suno Chanda, Chupke Chupke, Hum Tum, and Fairy Tale, aired between 2018 and 2023, presented female characters who had the courage to speak for themselves.

Romance narratives embedded in social issues and brightened with lighthearted banter, fashioned after the 1980s genre, made a powerful comeback with Kuch Ankahi. The plot revolved around a romance triangle and dealt with social taboos around age, body shaming, and women’s right to own property. The female protagonist, Aliya, is very vocal about female liberation and navigates her own confusions around romantic love. The hero, Salman, is not some rich, tuxedo-wearing macho landlord, but is courageous enough to recognise his own insecurities and give space and freedom of choice to his beloved.

Perhaps the success of Kuch Ankahi paved the way for more slow-paced dramas, Ishq Murshid and Jaan-e-Jahan, which are more of a romance in the traditional and scholarly sense of the term.

The hero, Shahmeer, in Ishq Murshid became estranged from his father, who is a prominent rich politician, after the untimely death of his mother. He falls in love with Shibra when she gives him her umbrella, incorrectly assuming he is a homeless person soaking in rain while he was roaming aimlessly on the streets. Later, he pretends to be a poor office clerk to win her love because she dislikes the elite ruling class and courageously speaks against exploitation by politicians. Shahmeer’s character is played by actor Bilal Abbas, who also played Salman in Kuch Ankahi and enjoys a powerful fandom in the country. Shahmeer’s character is different from the uber masculine heroes infiltrating Pakistani television channels because he becomes vulnerable when in love, and leaves his comfort zone and woes rather than harass his beloved.

The playful dialogue of the drama and the romantic gestures of the hero become viral online when a new episode is broadcasted every Sunday. The hero of Jaan-e-Jahan, Shehram, is rich, kind-hearted, and easily exploited by his stepmother. Played by Hamza Ali Abbasi, another actor with a huge fan base, the character of Shehram is also shown to be vulnerable. The portrayal of both leading male characters in these popular romance dramas shows a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, connecting them with the personality traits represented by fictional television heroes of the 1980s and setting them apart from their shouting and scowling onscreen peers.

Shibra, the feisty heroine of Ishq Murshid, is an ambitious young woman who is lovingly supported by her father in her efforts to speak for and stand with victims of societal injustice. She is not afraid to speak up, even though it decreases the chances of her getting married as outspoken women are not considered to be ‘suitable life partners’. Much to the chagrin of her mother, she keeps defying social conventions.

Similarly, Mahnoor, the female lead of Jaan-e-Jahan, becomes a social outcast and is condemned by her family after she refuses to marry her fiancé when he took the side of his friend who harassed her sister. The characters of Shibra and Mahnoor are played by Durefishan Saleem and Ayeza Khan respectively, both of whom have performed the proverbial roles of meek damsels in distress many times in the past.

Characters like Aliya, Shibra, and Mahnoor, resilient yet trapped in social systems, are closer to the lived reality of the average educated middle-class audience in urban centres, making their love stories and the genre’s ultimate promise of a happy ending more popular and meaningful.

Among the many reasons to appreciate the revival of the national genre of romantic drama is that there will be a break from the frequently presented and systemically normalised figure of the toxic masculine hero who fulfils the criteria of ‘manhood’ in our desi patriarchal society. Stories on screen can always benefit from women who are independent and have the ability to follow their dreams and fall in love. Television dramas are more impactful in socially constrained societies with few outlets for entertainment. To increase the levels of tolerance and ease the boundaries of social acceptance, it is significant to keep bringing forth culturally acceptable, light-hearted romance narratives.