The television divide
THE heroine of a recent telefilm Riaya faced a conundrum. Married to a less-than-successful shopkeeper nursing pretensions of piety, she could barely keep the tea and bread going.
Worse than the financial constraints were the impositions of her husband, who preferred to be called ‘maulvi sahib’ by his wife, daughters and sundry neighbours despite having no real religious vocation or training. Finding the world of commerce cut-throat, he distilled his religious sentiment into a subjugation of family, flying into rages at 10-year-olds’ missing dupattas, always on the lookout for any incidental acts of insolence.
When he discovers that the wife has been supplementing the family’s meagre pot with some sewing and stitching, he erupts from a minor devil into a full-blown ogre — beating up the wife and the children on the basis of his religiously permitted dominion. Because the story is fictive, it ends well.
The woman, herself uneducated, begins to learn Urdu, and reads for herself the religious justifications being put forth for her beatings. Informed thus, she becomes powerful, counters ‘maulvi sahib’ and offers the similarly situated, formerly ignorant viewer a lesson in rebellion.
The story in Riaya is not a singular exploration of the changing gender dynamics of a society in flux. A large number of the most popular soaps on Pakistani television involve at least one polygamous couple. Here, too, is a nuanced presentation. What is sold in the prescriptions of religious sermons as a solution to the problem of destitute women — their easy insertion into the three empty slots available to a married man — are all taken apart here in the realm of the television soap.
In the details of the spats between warring wives is an exposition of the emotional costs of polygamy, the fact that even a man with the most equanimity and a first wife with the barest ounce of envy cannot handle the intimate betrayals in the midst of what was once a pair.
Polygamy is not the only sin; subtle allusions present the woes of women married to homosexuals, women married to men who love other women, and women married to men who will not let them work.
Under it all lie unspoken questions of emotional justice, the terror-ridden reality of relationships based on pragmatism and customs suddenly beset with the burdens of intimacy.
Do women bringing in hefty paychecks still need husbands? Does having a bedridden wife justify getting a new one, or do the cruelties of a mother-in-law justify revenge?
Brick by brick, the edifice of Pakistani society is taken apart. With their recurrence, previously untouchable issues such as marrying after divorce or blending families where either side has progeny from previous partners become somehow digestible.
There is need for pause, however, between noting these nascent shades of change in the Pakistani television drama and celebrating it as a venue of gender revolution and groundbreaking cultural transformation.
While the unsaid emotional dimensions of intimacy are being duly explored, what remains absent — except in the most tangential sense — are connections to the political violence that surrounds nearly every Pakistani. The characters in the soaps, thrust into dramatic confrontations when secret wives confront dominant ones, all inhabit a bubble untouched by CNG shortages, power outages, bus burnings and sectarian killings.
These ‘other’ topics are inhabitants of the political world, the meaty matter not of the Pakistani soap opera but the Pakistani television talk show. If Hamid Mir or Kamran Khan or Talat Hussain rarely delve into the issue of secret wives or the working woman’s woes, the soap opera similarly ignores the political dimensions which can and do cast their shadows on the private sphere.
It is perhaps not an incidental omission; the droves of viewers attracted to viewing the latest in the family dramas of others are there also to escape from the traumas of a violence-ridden existence. Also compelling is the consideration that a good story, when burdened too heavily with the moral prescriptions of the author, risks becoming a lecture.
At the same time, the failure to explore the connections between violence in the public sphere and imperialism and terrorism within the private realm also risks the potential of this crucial avenue of cultural transformation not being fully explored.
For one, the public sphere as the political one, and one dominated by men, is not a maxim that should be endorsed by the producers or the consumers of the Pakistani soap opera.
Second, the interspersion of the public and private, the connections of the violence everyone is being forced to digest in the public sphere and its link with emotional violence are left untended and invisible.
Nevertheless, in the decade of its maturation, the profusion and variety of storytelling via the Pakistani television drama is heartening.
In a country where a large part of the population has moved from little towns and villages to teeming cities, and where their new lives are filled not just with the joys and terrors of consumer economies but also violence that requires a determined desensitisation, the soap opera is a welcome resurrection of feelings.
For a few hours every night, different stories give women who may have toiled with children all day, or shuffled papers at an office, or tended to patients at a hospital, and men who decide to break a gender boundary, a few hours where emotion — otherwise compartmentalised or repressed — can pull at the heartstrings.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.