Screen + Sound + Stage
Text by Vivek Tejuja. Collage by Aishwaryashree
My mother loves the idiot box. I think it is her best friend. I am not judging her; I am just saying things as they are. Before the lockdown, the television in most homes would remain on for the majority of the day, but Indian parents were still incapable of grasping the concept of binge-watching. It isn’t for them, or so I thought. The lockdown has changed everything. Now, my mother has not only understood what it means to binge-watch but has also become a “binger” herself. Serial watching like a serial watcher. From not knowing how to make sense of the navigation on YouTube, she has turned into the Vishwanathan Anand of binging, mastering the art. I was impressed, not to mention quite intimidated by her speed of consuming content.
The low hum of voices coming from the television, however, began to sound odd to me, different from the din of her usual fare of saas-bahu dramas, until I realised she had shifted to watching Pakistani serials. My mother is a strange one. No child of hers will date a Muslim (at least she believes she has control over that), but she will happily devour one Urdu TV show after the next, commenting on how good looking Pakistanis are. I couldn’t help but guffaw and call her out on it. Needless to say, she didn’t take too kindly to my criticism.
Given the intensely fraught relationship between India and Pakistan, it is surprising to see entertainment from the other side of the border consumed with such gusto. As though nothing has happened. As though nothing is weighing us down. And despite the Indian government’s blanket ban on Pakistani artistes either acting or performing on our soil, we still love to watch Coke Studio (say “aye” if you think the Pakistani version way is better than its Indian counterpart) and admire our neighbours for their looks and the language they communicate in.
My mother often comments on how the stressful situation needs to end. I think she looks at it very simplistically; to her mind, it could be all over and done with. There can be brotherhood.
“They are our own,” she says.
“Why are we fighting people that once belonged to us?”
In a way, I think it also has to do with separating the art from the country. From one series to another, for those thirty minutes or so, it somehow becomes easier to overlook all the differences and focus on what you want. In the name of art, all is fair and square.
Well, back to how it all started.
At the beginning of the lockdown, my mother was complaining to her sister about the dearth of things to watch on TV.
“Watch Pakistani serials on YouTube,” came the pat reply from my aunt.
“What?” my mother inquired, sounding flummoxed.
“YouTube,” my aunt repeated.
That settled it. But her foray into Pakistani serials was not through YouTube. The first one my mother watched was Zindagi Gulzar Hai, on Netflix. It starred Fawad Khan, who she knew from the film Kapoor & Sons. I recommended this one to her (I had already finished it since there was nothing new for us to see from Fawad Khan), and she loved it. Set between Karachi and Lahore, it is the story of a boy and a girl – two college students who come from different economic backgrounds and can’t stand the sight of each other. By some twist of fate, they end up getting married and have to figure life out as they go along.
My mother was utterly enamoured by it. And she couldn’t help but fawn over the physical appearance of the actors on the show.
“There’s no melodrama, and I love that the most about this show,” she gushed.
“They are so good looking,” she added, rather callously.
But I had to agree with her. They are more than easy on the eyes.
My mother also loves the fact that these shows actually end. She celebrates it. But there some have been etched into her mind, either because of an absurd plot line or something more positive; for instance, the straightforward manner in which she believes the protagonists profess their love – without any drama and complication.
“It’s just the way it should be,” she declares.
From matters of the heart to the subjugation of women, Pakistani serials have it all, ready for her to laud and criticize in equal measure. Case in point: Suno Chanda (Listen Love) has a headstrong female lead and embraces feminism. It includes strong female characters with arcs that push them out into the world, instead of shielding them and painting them as damsels in distress. Jia (or Chanda) has her ambitions and dreams and will not give in to anyone else’s will. If anything, her future husband, Arsalan, has to recalibrate his notions of love in the context of her aspirations.
“That’s how a man should be anyway. Why should the woman have to ‘sacrifice’?”
“Why shouldn’t her needs be placed before the man’s’?”
My mother continues her questions, looking at me for validation: “Why should he become a hero?”
“Of course Ma! I’m in complete agreement with you there. These serials are just the same. Always putting men on a pedestal.”
Despite all the times they shine, these serials aren’t without flaws. Take Munafiq (Hypocrite): Ujala, a young woman rooted in the values of religion and the word of Allah, is married off against her will to Armaan, a budding politician. His demanding family coerces her into bearing a child. Although she is a school teacher, her character is reduced to that of an oppressed second wife who has to watch silently as her husband marries the love of his life. My mother liked this show only because of Marina Khan, who plays Armaan’s mother, Sabiha Begum. She instantly recognised her as Dr. Zoya Ali Khan from the 1987 Pakistani show Dhoop Kinare (At the Edge of Sunshine). The memory of watching it on a VHS tape many years ago had compelled her to look upon the actors fondly, but she also realised how much the world, including India and Pakistan, has changed since then.
While some of the shows have progressive narrative threads, they also peddle regressive tropes to a mainstream audience that is already firmly ensconced in a patriarchal society. The objective of a mother is always to get the daughter married. The objective of a son is to take over the business and produce an heir. Simultaneously, and sometimes jarringly so, there is also talk of educating girls, of equality and of inheritance. My mother, for once, has stopped speaking of marriage. She doesn’t expect it from me or my sibling.
“It is alright,” she reflects.
“We have to constantly break stereotypes,” she says one day, after finishing a show.
I was not surprised. She is changing. Slowly. Steadily.
My mother feels Pakistani serials are just like the Indian ones, except for the language and certain cultural differences. She watches them with subtitles because the Urdu spoken is so chaste that it is, at times, hard for her to understand. But watch she must. Another thing, according to her, is that in reality the so-called “rich” people depicted in the show wouldn’t use salutations such as “Allah Hafiz” or “Khuda Hafiz”, or even address their parents as “Ammi” or “Abbu”. That is what the middle class does, she claims. This divide through language, and perhaps the delusion of snobbery is striking and has led her to read Pakistani literature. She wants to cross over to that art form and see the culture as it is portrayed in books.
Once my mother has finished the last episode, she won’t discuss the show with anyone else because none of her friends watch the same ones. In that sense, she is a lone wolf; she stews in the revelations sparked by her viewings. But I think there is a purpose to this new-found fixation. It helps her better understand the place her parents came from and where her grandparents, whom she never knew, were born and raised – this simple pastime binds her to her Sindhi roots. She does mention a couple of times, with a look of curiosity and longing, about what life would’ve been like for her grandparents and parents when they migrated to India during partition, or even before that.
There’s the possibility that she won’t go back to watching Indian shows when they air again because of the time gap, her memory and changed preferences. That all the regressiveness will be over once and for all. I am in the process of making her watch Turkish and Korean shows. Don’t know which way that might go….