Not all dramas perpetuate stereotypes and social norms. Some openly challenge them.
There is a lot of criticism of Pakistani television dramas — and justifiably so. They usually reinforce deeply entrenched societal narratives but, on rare occasions, some dramas attempt not only to challenge the mainstream but also engage in radical politics in subtle ways, despite fear of censorship and public backlash.
Radical politics aims to critique, challenge and sometimes overthrow entrenched fundamental principles of society and the system it operates in. In Pakistan, patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity and deeply-rooted militarised nationalism often come at the expense of certain groups and ideas. Three Pakistani dramas that have subtly challenged these narratives are Dastaan, Parizaad and Dhoop ki Deewar.
Dastaan is an adaptation of Razia Butt’s novel Bano for HUM by Samira Fazal. Dastaan is a radical feminist play at its core. Its main focus is on the plight of its main female protagonist — Bano — a young champion for a free Muslim nation state before Partition who suffers the despite the nation state becoming a reality.
She actively takes part in Muslim league rallies, makes posters for ‘azaadi’ and the creation of a ‘pak’ homeland. In the ensuing communal riots, she survives an attempted rape by a Hindu neighbour with the help of her brother’s old Hindu friend. Later, on her way to Pakistani territory on foot, Bano is raped and dumped in a field. She is taken home by a Sikh man who, along with his wife, takes care of her till she is well enough to travel by train to Pakistan.
Tragedy strikes again and her train is raided. She is abducted by another Sikh man, Basanta. He forcefully marries her, and tries his best to strip her of her Muslim identity. It is only several years and a son later that she manages to escape after Basanta falls to his death. She finally reaches Pakistan and kneels down to kiss the ‘pak mitti [pure earth]’ of her homeland. Most fans remember this play up to this point and remember Dastaan as a drama that showed the sacrifices people of the time had to make to gain Pakistan, just like most other national narratives of Partition.
However, the story does not end there. When she meets her extended family again in Pakistan, her former fiancé is engaged to another woman and her aunt wants nothing to do with her. She leaves and first works as a maid for an elite family and then at another office. The real tragedy of her struggles begins to manifest when she realises that the elite family she works for is still anglicised and in her opinion, enslaved. She feels utterly dejected at the state of her new homeland and rejects this form of ‘azaadi’. Eventually she suffers a complete breakdown when her Muslim boss attempts to rape her and she kills him in self-defence. She cries that she has killed ‘Basanta’ and cleansed her homeland.
Dastaan’s real politics is in how it ends by showing a mirror to Pakistani society in the form of its continued brutal patriarchal violence inflicted on its women. It questions whether women truly became free after Partition.
Bano suffers at the hands of violent men from all three major religious identities in both nations pre and post-independence, by men rich and poor. Dastaan refuses to assign blame for the violence to any particular religious, class or national identity because toxic masculinity knows none.
Dastaan asks this ultimate question: is the new Muslim homeland really ‘pak’ and ‘azaad’ if it keeps brutalising its women? The writer’s radical answer is no.
Parizaad, written by Hashim Nadeem, is a multilayered show with several sub plots. The most radical subplot explored queer experiences, which made it radical, not just for their depiction but the treatment they received.
Parizaad, the titular main character, is sent underground by his mafia boss, Behroze Karim, to his most trusted right hand person, Guru. He discovers that Guru has a reputation of being a ruthless enforcer of the mafia’s justice. To his surprise, he discovers that Guru is actually an intersex individual. Radically, Guru is shown in a hyper masculine light with the job of a mob’s enforcer and a fearsome reputation. Such a depiction defies the usual depictions of intersex individuals who are often shown in much more downtrodden circumstances, often portrayed as feminine in their mannerisms, forced into beggary or prostitution.
Guru is shown as the king of the underworld, yet Guru retains some feminine traits as well, rejecting the hegemonic masculinity that often comes with such a job. Guru is shown to be very loyal to their boss and an extremely sensitive and protective person towards their community members. Guru’s house is full of people with queer identities whom he has saved over time.
One such person under Guru’s care is Bubbly Badmash. Parizaad discovers that Bubbly Badshah is his old friend Saima/Bubbly who had sought refuge in Guru’s home. Under Guru’s care, Bubbly had changed their gender identity and transitioned to Dilawar. Dilawar’s parents do not know that they have transitioned and fears them finding out. Parizaad makes efforts to reach Dilawar’s parents and, with Guru’s help, convinces them to love and accept Dilawar again, to shed their prejudice against trans people and treat Dilawar with dignity and respect. In our society, the scene in which the parents embrace Dilawar with love again as tearful Guru and Parizaad watch on, was nothing short of radical. Parizaad sends a radical message to a deeply prejudiced society that people with different gender identities deserve dignity.
Dhoop Ki Dewaar
Dhoop Ki Dewaar, written by Umera Ahmed, is the radical story of friendship and unfulfilled love between two orphans of war, Vishal and Sara, on either side of the Pakistan-India border. The drama explores themes which directly challenge mainstream narratives of militarised nationalism and masculinity.
Vishal and Sara’s relationship starts with a heated debate but eventually they find a connection over their shared experiences of grief over losing their soldier fathers. They bond over how they feel exploited by the media to engage in hatred towards each other. They both feel abandoned by their parents’ siblings who appear to care more about the pension of their martyred fathers than about their orphaned children.
The show also hints at how difficult it actually sometimes is to get pension payments for martyred families. Sara is harassed on the street and feels betrayed, questioning whether her father’s sacrifice for the people of a country who harass helpless women was worth it. Vishal’s family runs into financial trouble and he is attacked by extremist goons.
Vishal is shown to be a sensitive boy who deeply cares for his family. He forces his depressed mother to seek help, gives extra attention to his grandmother who suffers from the double grief of losing both her husband and son to war and becomes the primary caregiver for his younger twin sisters. His deep empathy, despite being the only ‘man of the house’, makes him feel deeply for Sara as they connect over calls and texts on the opposite sides of the border, the ‘Dhoop Ki Deewar’, between India and Pakistan. Eventually, his grandmother insists on him upholding the protector role as the man of the house and forces him to join the army, not really out of nationalism but for the protection and financial stability that comes with an army uniform. Circumstances eventually force him to engage in the norms of militarised nationalism and hegemonic masculinity. On hearing this news, Sara bids him goodbye and marries a Pakistani army captain named Junaid, as thinly veiled revenge.
The end of the show is the most radical of all. Sara’s husband, Junaid, and Vishal come face to face in their uniforms at the Line of Control. Both recognise each other and acknowledge that killing each other would only create more widows and orphans. Vishal is allowed to walk back to the Indian border by Junaid but other shooters on both sides of the border open fire at both men in a flash. This scene is a rarity in shows about war, especially in South Asia. When the guns go off, two bodies fall to the ground and the viewer feels empathy for both sides. There is no winner in war. By not glorifying war in a military drama, Dhoop Ki Dewaar proves to be a rare radical narrative that shoves the ugly futility of war in our faces.
These three Pakistan dramas are rare examples of radical artistic endeavors that dare to challenge deeply entrenched ideas and narratives. One can only hope, we can experience more such daring art in the future.