Are progressive women characters slowly taking over our TV screens?

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend left you alone with their parents? You might have noticed that commenting on the weather in these situations only gets you so far. So, here’s a tip: before the conversation inevitably turns to job and marriage (shudders!), try “Aunty dramay dekhti hain aap?”. Sit back and rest assured, because Aunty will have a lot to say on that. And Uncle too, though he probably won’t admit it.

With private entertainment channels reigning over the television screen, and churning out content faster than news channels churn out useless ‘breaking news’, Pakistani drama continues to stand tall (or, at least, stand) in the face of the imminent OTT takeover. This Women’s Day, let us reflect on how far we have come (if at all) with respect to the portrayal of women.

Progress is inherently relative, so it helps to see what we are measuring it against. Pakistan’s cultural kaleidoscope represents the ideas, values and expressions that developed in or survived the partition in 1947, the westernization in the 60’s, Islamization in the 70’s, two wars (or was it three? four?) and a tragic saga of political turmoil in between and to this day. When I first saw Ankahi which was broadcast on PTV over ten years before I was born, I was surprised – and sad – at how refreshing Shehnaz Sheikh or Sana’s aura was. She is more at ease in the skin of the character she’s playing than most of us in our own skin. It was liberating just to watch.

Have we not had a good actress since Shehnaz Sheikh? We have, and today they are as popular as they deserve and have earned for themselves to be. But somewhere between 1982 and 2022 our priorities changed. What we were looking for and what we wanted to see, changed. In an interview to Samina Peerzada, Hasina Moin, who wrote the drama Ankahi, said “I created women (characters) who were brave […] today, the same women are getting beaten up and sobbing”

At the turn of the 21st century and with the liberalization of the media and the proliferation of private channels, shrewd commercial operators picked up on just that: content people would watch, even if just to criticize later. Content that was irresistible, though distasteful. As Hasina Moin said in her interview, it makes for a thrilling scene. Back when Mawra Hocane and Sajal Aly first came to the television screen, they were recognized as actresses who could nail a crying sequence like no other and that was what catapulted them to prominence. Today, though Mawra seems to have retreated from the scene, Sajal is playing the vivacious and feisty Aaliya in Kuch Ankahi who is locked in an unrelenting professional rivalry with Salman. But Salman is gradually developing a romantic interest in Aaliya, who is one of four daughters (of course), of an elderly father (Muhammad Ahmad, of course), three of whom he is still worried about marrying (well…), as they marry one off in the hands of an evil mother-in-law (of course!).

It is a Pakistani drama after all.

So, then, have we come far? We are certainly trying. The creative process flourishes best where there is no pressure. And here, there is a lot of it. For writers today, there is pressure from both liberal and conservative quarters, and on top of it all is the commercial pressure from their employers. It is hard to deliver in an environment like this. It is harder still to develop a strong woman character when we, as a society, cannot agree on the definition of a strong woman. It is a difficult line to tread, and increasingly controversial.

If opinion-makers are to be believed, we have a crisis of competence. Intuitively speaking, and in fairness to those who are trying both to develop that character and that definition, there are competent people out there – if only a few – gradually making their way up. We have noticed the more prominence and recognition an actor gets, the more selective they are about the scripts they are offered. Sania Saeed, Samiya Mumtaz, Saba Qamar, Sanam Saeed and Sarwat Gillani are all accomplished actresses whom we see far less of today, because they have taken a principled stand on the roles they want to play. Let us hope more actors toe their line, and that we, as audience, learn to use the leverage we have responsibly so Pakistani television, once again, becomes something we can be proud of.

For now, we can sit back and enjoy the stellar performance that Saba Qamar brings us in Sar-e-Rah, or the contagious feel-good energy of Sanam Jung’s Pyari Mona – both of whom represent the brighter, more promising side of Pakistani television.

Or, better still, turn to the silver screen. In Daadal, scheduled to release this Eid-ul-Fitr, Sonya Hussyn plays Haya Baloch – a boxer from Lyari out to avenge the wrong done to her sister. Promising to play the fighter rather than the victim, Hussyn’s character certainly sounds like something to look forward to



About the author

Naima Shahab enjoys reading and writing about literature, politics, and – occasionally – religion. Here at FourFaces, she will be writing on her newfound interest in art and culture. You can reach her personal blog here.

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