As Pakistan’s future in cinema and television appears to steadily brighten, we should acknowledge the women characters who have graced our screens over many decades.
Gender equality has a long way to go in Pakistan, but on our television sets and in cinema halls, we have progressed further than the titan industries of Hollywood and Bollywood.
Believe it or not, the first time I sat up in front of the television and actually enjoyed watching a woman in a drama was in the 90s when the beautiful, vivacious Shahnaz intimidated and eventually won over shy, insecure Gulsher in the hit series Alpha Bravo Charlie.
One woman in a show about young army men left a lasting impression on me because of her confidence and drive to fight for what she wanted.
There were many more similar women characters to choose from at the time. But television and movies around the world, then and now, still sorely need to give women in their industries more agency and more of a voice.
The past few years saw a spate of women-centric Bollywood films. Whether it was Kangana Ranaut proving that you don’t need a husband to be happy in Queen or Vidya Balan in almost every movie ever, I thought “Well finally, finally I can really enjoy Bollywood’s remarkable array of talented women”.
Then, Deepika tweeted angrily, her cleavage became a national debate and the fog cleared.
Women in Bollywood, with or without consent, are still marked by how titillating they can be. Forget Deepika’s acclaimed career, let us judge her by the number of times she bared skin.
Google Vidya Balan and you will inevitably come across articles about her curves. Like it or not, Bollywood despite its talented actresses still has a woman problem on and off screen.
Virginia Woolf observed in A Room of One’s Own, the limited roles given to female characters in fiction. “They are now and then mothers and daughters” she said,
But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.
She was talking about the literature of the early 20th century. Woolf’s thinking was later adapted by Alison Bechdel, a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, into “The Bechdel Test”.
This test became the standard for feminists (primarily in western cinema) to judge whether a work of fiction was woman-friendly. The work had to fulfil three criteria:
It would have to feature at least two women,
Depict them talking to each other,
And, frame that dialogue around something other than a man.
A study by the University of Southern California shows that in 11 major film producing regions of the world, less than a third of speaking roles even belong to women. These regions include India and the United States, home to the most influential and prolific industries in the world.
When exactly zero women directed the top 25 grossing films in Hollywood this year, is it fair to expect a miniscule Pakistani entertainment industry to present a few films with genuinely cool female characters?
I think we already have.
Considering the patriarchal social space most Pakistani women inhabit, the influence of realism in our films and television – a significant number pass the Bechdel test – highlights a subdued revolution that may one day emerge as the most subversive experiment in the Pakistani entertainment industry.
Women’s rights were at the forefront of a new spate of fiction and non-fiction films that brought our industry into the international sphere.
The subject of forced marriage was broached in Khuda kay liye, the trials and tribulations of a group of sisters were addressed in Bol, a Hindu-Pakistani mother struggled after losing her husband and son in Ramchand Pakistani, and this year in Dukhtar we saw the journey of a mother and daughter as they escaped a child marriage.
Yes, these stories revolve around the cruelty of men. They also underscore how women, experiencing that cruelty, confront the patriarchal curtain that silences them.
Unravelling norms that govern this patriarchal society is the presence of women-centered family units on the television. There are supportive – and oppressive – older women as mothers, aunts and wives in almost every drama who are more than caricatures.
They are complicated characters with hopes and struggles, and a significant amount of screen time is spent showing interactions between all these women. As much as it was a love story, acclaimed Partition-era drama, Dastaan was also a tale of mothers and daughters trying to survive without much needed male protection in turbulent times.
Let’s also recognise the positive influence of the funny woman in uplifting female characters in Pakistani comedy.
We have Saima Chaudhary of Kis Ki Aayegi Baraat played by Bushra Ansari, effortlessly barging into our living rooms every evening on her designer heels. She is part of a long line of slapstick family-centric comedies (starting with my childhood favourite, Family Front) where women are bumbling, oafish and as funny as their male counterparts.
We still have a long way to go.
We continue policing our actresses who take their talents to India, starting with Meera and Veena Malik and now Humaima Malick.
Many of our stories mobilise age-old stereotypes that reflect patriarchal attitudes towards female morality.
The popular show Humsafar broke records and created stars. The chemistry between Asher and Khirad, a star crossed husband and wife electrified the nation. Yet, the show perpetuated old tropes (spoiler alert!) of the innocent, modestly-dressed, small town girl who got the guy, while the jeans-clad, modern city woman was the evil temptress doomed to suffer a mental breakdown.
Another equally popular show Zindagi Gulzar Hai sanctified a middle class dupatta-clad girl while villainising the upper class girls in western attire.
The good girl/bad girl dichotomy, however, fails to erase the complexities that animate out of this binary.
With a Jane Eyre-esque earnestness, the good girl pursues a career, lives apart from her husband, and carves a space, where her being is not policed by men.
It is fair to say our entertainment industry, with all its shortcomings, has no shortage of diverse women. We have created a realm where characters are in different capacities strong, struggling, long-suffering, funny, flawed, sad, old and young.
These women emerge from a narrative that still belongs to men, and thrive in an industry that places them under a microscope.
Their performances and screen time is enough to prove that there is a demand for more and that demand has been there for a very long time.
Many of us don’t acknowledge this, but it is time to take note of the gender revolution on our screens and see it as a sign of better stories to come.
As published in Dawn.