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Playing upon female misery

By Amel Ghani

The re-emergence of television plays has coincided with depiction of women in a conformist mode, a patriarchal culture, and maintenance of the status quo

A female figure with her bowed head covered in a dupatta, crying silent tears of anguish and misery, has become a common feature of Pakistani drama. While the patience level of these women characters must be applauded, one cannot help but get frustrated by their inability to stand up for their rights.

In some sense, these plays are a realistic comment on the limited choices available to women, but they borrow too heavily from a patriarchal culture, at times exaggerating the truth, and finally settle for maintaining the status quo. Far too often, they are defined by story lines where sisters are out to steal their sisters’ husbands, second marriages occur like dengue outbreak and men deem women guilty for everything.

So what happened to the once-strong television drama content? While it’s believed to have technically advanced exponentially, how it did it stoop to such a stereotypical depiction of women and who is to blame for it? Going beyond the obvious links, which remain the writer and the director, one is sometimes forced to think why do these independent women, who have exercised the bold choice of acting in television serials, bow before the retrogressive content and not assert themselves.

A nexus between the plays and the women’s magazines called digests is believed to be responsible for the current trend. Senior artiste Bushra Ansari thinks there is a class of women with whom these digests resonate very well; they idolise women who sacrifice, women who have a typical eastern Islamic outlook, and who don’t laugh too loudly. “Digests paint such women because it is this type of women who read the digests. Such women, it is presumed, are liked in society because they don’t have an opinion of their own and suit the menfolk. This is a vicious circle based on male chauvinism. Mostly, these plays are written by women who earlier wrote for the digests.”

Pakistan has seen a re-emergence of television plays in the past few years, with television actors becoming household names; “Humsafar” received an unprecedented response. Despite all this, they continue to preach a set of values which emerges from a perception of what will be popularly accepted instead of diversifying and creating something different. It is not about blatantly promoting women rights as an agenda, but more about accepting responsibility that comes with having such a wide audience, a majority of which is illiterate. It is about showing a broader frame of human experience.

At times, one feels art is not imitating life where, unlike the plays, women are making quick strides of progress.

So how do other women actors look at the phenomenon? Samina Peerzada, who has been in the field for decades, points out: “We have created a captive audience over a period of some years. Now we can experiment and try new stories. When you don’t have an audience, you go into stereotypical representations to attract them. This is the right time for us to create a new identity for our women. It is important to make them independent thinking people through the medium of theatre or television.”

Women directors can take the lead. Ace director Mehreen Jabbar accepts her role when she says, “It is the responsibility of writers and directors to also inform and educate and portray a wide variety of human characters. And there are several of them. Empowered women do not exist in the rich classes only; there are many of them in the middle and lower classes, doing hard work and supporting families.”

Somewhere in this search for popular acclaim, producers, writers and directors seem to have fallen into a rut — of trying out the same formula over and over again, creating the same kind of stories, showing the same type of women. Thus, it is not simply about educating an audience but also developing our literature. As Bushra Ansari puts it, “In the past few years, we have not developed our literature.”

Understandably, there is a commercial dimension. “Unfortunately, a lot of things are driven by rating and what is perceived to be successful with the audience,” says Jabbar. “So, according to the producers or the channel, if you depict a tolerant wife or mother, that will resonate better with the audiences.”

Modern, thinking, independent- and open-minded women lose out amid such stereotypical representation. Dressing up in jeans inevitably means an egotistical personality and loose morals. This jeans-clad woman will usually be shown in a negative light, ultimately accepting her past mistakes as well as the status quo. Such representation points out to men that such women must not be tolerated; being concerned about women’s honour is a legitimate reason for controlling them.

Pakistani drama now needs to move beyond this and show the new woman too who, regardless of the popular narrative, exists within our society facing her own breed of challenges. Ansari says, “Girls having their own opinion show a healthy mind, whereas in TV plays women who express their opinion are often divorced. This is something that bothers all of us. I think channels are responsible for all of this because writers write for them.”

At the same time, we also need to show men who are accepting of this woman, who don’t necessarily condemn this ‘modern’ woman, and as Samina Peerzada puts it “depict a man who is not the enemy but a friend, a companion and a partner.”

Our stories have lost some of their realistic touch. Bushra Ansari points out: “They are very unreal at times; they are catering to those who are illiterate, who will in turn act in the same way shown.”

This has to be a collective effort on the part of producers, directors and writers to change the existing trends and tell captive stories without making women the helpless sufferers that they are shown to be.

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