This article was initially published in The Nation Blogs.
They say audiences are maturing. Thanks to information explosion, audiences know what the marketing moguls are playing at. The pretty girl telling you to cook in only a certain kind of banaspati. The handsome man smiling at you to tell you that you will be just as handsome and just as successful only and only if you buy the deodorant he is trying to sell you. The perfect happy family eating this brand of cookies and the perfect happy girl and boy eating that brand of ice cream. They’re all trying to sell you something and they know the images that will help them sell it.
The same formula is applied to dramas. Pakistani dramas are often found lazily creating characters that sell you the stereotypes that are easiest to accept. The girl who is a home breaker is wearing jeans and smokey eyes. Her hair is flying and she’s talking in English. She’s wearing red nail polish and high heels. She’s dangerous. She’s evil.
Then there is the girl who is wearing a shalwar qameez. Who often quotes things like “baron ka kahna maan’na chahiye” (we should listen to our elders) and other pearls of wisdom that seem to come out straight from a magazine for sixth graders. She’s never wearing dark lipstick or God forbid her hair is ever ruffled out of place. Her favorite clothes are shalwar qameezes and her pastimes include helping her mom out in the kitchen.
While some of these cliches may be true – it has gone on too far and too long where writers have consistently found these stereotypes as the pivots upon which their stories move. Must it always be the girl who went to a foreign university, who can string two sentences of English together, who turns into the monster? Must the middle-class girl always be the victim? And why are either of these women so limited in their intelligence? Why can’t they sort their problems out like adults or at least like equals? Or is financial equivalence or ability to use cosmetics paramount to common sense?
I’ve recently seen the play Sanam that panders to such a stereotype yet again. While the performances and the direction of the play seem to be pretty good, judging on their own merit, but if you see how, by and large, drama teams repeatedly play up the goody-two-shoes and villainize the snarky, outspoken girl, it starts to get really annoying, really fast.
Human personalities aren’t this black and white. But thanks to some of these depictions they tend to become this/that for viewers. In Sanam , the girl who is prone to fits of anger and is clearly paranoid and has a faint connection with what’s going on in real life is shown as rich and ‘spoilt’. Whereas the girl who is sane and soft-spoken, is middle-classy and ‘grounded’. Not only is this problematic when it comes to depiction of mental health, it is also harmful to say that women who are privileged are automatically insane. Or that women who are from the middle class couldn’t possibly be capable of manipulation.
It is my sincere hope that playwrights can change this direction in the future. Because Pakistani dramas have an enormous impact in the society. Not only locally, but our dramas are watched by global audiences. Let’s show them that Pakistani writers are not lazy – but in fact capable of portraying complexity and depth of characters without resorting to repeated stereotypes that have really been done to death.
Full video review here: