Where were you when Netflix arrived in Pakistan? In the years to come, we can rest assured that this is a question no one will be asking anyone else. After all, the ‘waves’ made by the news that the entertainment streaming giant has started offering its services in Pakistan amounted to little more than gentle ripples in a tiny puddle of irrelevance. In a country where bandwidth is limited and expensive, websites are routinely banned and blocked by largely unaccountable government bodies in thrall to religious extremists, piracy is rampant, and levels of disposable income are miniscule, there is every reason to believe Netflix will remain a relatively niche form of entertainment.
This is in contrast, of course, with the seemingly unstoppable and irresistible rise of the Urdu drama serial. Every evening, people watching television across the nation are subjected to an aural and visual assault of truly stupefying proportions, having little choice but to watch in helpless awe, fascination, and perhaps even terror as tales of intrigue, love, and betrayal unfold before them. Mothers-in-law at war with their daughters-in-law. Daughters-in-law at war with their mothers-in-law. Sons at war with their mothers at the behest of their wives, and sons at war with their wives at the behest of their mothers. Brothers and sisters fighting over property and, of course, their in-laws. Occasionally, things are spiced up a bit by introducing more risqué elements; clandestine affairs leading to second marriages (and more in-laws), and second marriages leading to clandestine affairs with previous spouses. And so on and so forth.
If art holds up a mirror to society, the image these dramas give of Pakistani society is a bizarrely surreal one that seems to suggest an unhealthy, overpowering obsession with marriage and in-laws. It is a world in which no familial relationship (or, indeed, relationship of any kind) is free of Machiavellian calculation, and where every human interaction amounts to a zero-sum game in which individuals can only achieve their goals at each other’s expense. It is also a space of inexplicable miscommunication, where events of apocalyptic import unfold in a context where a simple chat between two characters might prevent the worst from happening. More of than not, the term ‘worst’ is employed in its loosest sense, encapsulating outcomes ranging from unexpected pregnancies to tea being served to in-laws (who else?) in inappropriate crockery. It is a dystopian vision of an alternate reality in which every word, every slight, and every glance is imbued with explosive meaning and consequence.
For all its self-evident absurdity, the fact is that the formula employed by these dramas is one that works. Much like reality television, an oxymoron if there ever was one given how such shows are usually scripted and directed to within an inch of their lives, many of the drama serials on our screen for today make for extremely compelling viewing. In addition to their entertainment value, they offer a revealing insight in to the broader dynamics of society.
Take for example the approach many of these programmes take to traditional gender roles. Inevitably and invariably, ‘good’ women are depicted as being thoroughly traditional, conforming to mainstream expectations about their role in the household as submissive daughters, wives, and sisters looking after their homes, raising children, avoiding strange men, and acquiescing to any and all manner of half-baked marriage proposal that might be sent their way. Indeed, the very premise at the heart of many of these dramas – of the women victimized by unfair circumstances (and, of course, in-laws) – establishes the worthiness of the protagonists by emphasizing their conformity with mainstream gender norms. If a daughter-in-law in one of these dramas is deserving of sympathy, it is precisely because she ticks the requisite boxes of domesticity and passivity. The message is emphasized even further by the endless advertisements that accompany these programmes, with the campaigns for household goods like detergent and cooking oil invoking the idea that a woman’s place should always be in the home. Women who are depicted as not subscribing to these norms – either by choosing to work or interacting with the opposite sex on their own terms – are shown as being evil, conniving, and disruptive, veritable forces of nature threatening to tear down and destroy the very fabric of society.
Compare this with the way in which men are often depicted in these same drama serials. Other than the obvious emphasis placed on the notion that the public sphere is an exclusively male domain, there is a certain duality at work when it comes to many male protagonists in these programmes. On the one hand, men are shown as being both worldly and experienced, running business, building empires, and engaging in liaisons with the opposite sex freed from the judgment and excoriation that their sisters, wives, and daughters would face (in the same programmes!). On the other hand, there is also a tendency to infantilize men, showing them to be utterly incapable of understanding or even detecting the scheming machinations of the women around them (who, many of these dramas would suggest, obviously have nothing better to do with their time). This is particularly true when it comes to the figure of the mother; men who might otherwise start the day with a murder, engage in a couple of robberies by lunch, and indulge in several rounds of lascivious leering by dinner, are inevitably shown to be utterly and completely incapable of questioning their mothers and their actions.
It is a depressing state of affairs. In the universe constructed by these drama serials, ‘good’ women are destined for nothing more than a life of domestic drudgery, abuse, and psychological torture, while men are little more than adult children free to do as they please until they encounter their mothers. The most frightening thing about all of this is how it is impossible to shake the feeling that, in this case, fact may actually be stranger than fiction.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.