If you stand at one corner of Lahore’s M M Alam Road and squint a little it is possible to delude yourself into thinking you live in a normal country. This high-end road in a city that has remained largely untouched by militant activity since 2010, thanks to an alleged Faustian pact between the Sharifs and the Taliban, wears a capitalist gloss that has come to be my only understanding of the Petula Clark song, Downtown: ‘Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city / Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty’ advises Clark as an antidote to everyday travails; and while a woman lingering on the sidewalks of M M Alam is more likely to find harassment than liberation, in a sufficiently air conditioned car that allows you to get off on the street just long enough to hand the valet your car keys and go up the elevator to the cineplex, it is almost possible to feel a part of that universal downtown whose capitalist attractions can momentarily cushion the blows of everyday living.
Of late I have even occasionally chanced upon that Holy Grail of Pakistani existence: an unaccompanied woman watching a movie all on her own. It might be a tiny drop in the giant ocean of misogyny and regression I have always lived in, but amateur anthropological observation tells me there are far more women driving on the streets of Gulberg and Defence than I ever saw as a child. Unlike trips to Ichra and Anarkali weasled under the pretext of shopping for household items, these are activities sought for pure entertainment alone. This empty excess might not be a praiseworthy or even remarkable fact in most places, but here in Lahore, finding increasing visual evidence of women inhabiting public spaces and spending money many of them earn themselves is a small victory I feel a special part of, especially in a darkened cinema hall full of mostly women.
And it is in one such cinema hall last week as women around me munched on caramel popcorn and chuckled at the scenes unfolding before them, that I was struck by how little this increasing swathe of economically empowered women is represented in Pakistani popular culture. The neglect is so gross, in fact, that the only option is to look towards a rapidly evolving Bollywood for any positive representation of the desi ‘liberated woman’, an idea that on Pakistani television is still associated with images of great domestic negligence and deeply selfish impulses. Indian cinema that had long defined its women through the dichotomies of sexually promiscuous vamp and virginal heroine has undergone a slow transformation of what constitutes as desirable in a woman. Watching two Indian films back to back, Queen and Bewakoofiyaan, with leading ladies fully in charge of their lives, embracing their sexual selves without resorting to titillation primarily aimed at male audiences, I was left pondering the reasons for a lack of similarly packaged women in the Pakistani media. Queen’s triumph lies in portraying the self-obsessed fiance as repulsive without easy resort to physical abuse to elicit quick and cheap negative emotion from the audience. Not a slap or even a threat is forthcoming from the man who nonetheless manages to earn the ire of everyone watching the film.
Compare this to Pakistani plays where women are treated as a mass of abuse and submission, hanging dearly on to men for their lives, and the reasons for such consistently regressive representation seem difficult to fathom.
The simple answer is that Pakistan’s never-ending security problems and religious obsessions are a far cry from India’s expanding middle class and the 'shining India' rhetoric that Bollywood has not just bought into but helped construct, piece by piece. Still, this answer fails to engage with Pakistan’s reality where women are at the helm of many of the channels that constantly churn out anti-feminist content. The women who act in these productions have lifestyles that are a far cry from the bechaaris they depict on screen and none of the people involved seem to have any qualms about this apparent hypocrisy. Perhaps the only women true to themselves are the ones writing the scripts for they often belong to smaller cities with different realities. Yet, the earnings of an Umera Ahmed provide her with a creative and economic imperative that she extends to none of her heroines.
More than what the masses want to see, the endemic regression of Pakistani drama seems to be entrenched in a lack of creative vision and a herd-following mentality that imagines ratings to be a function of feeding audiences with content that is barely distinguishable from each other. The phenomenal commercial success of Queen, a film that consciously takes a stance while remaining within a prescribed commercial framework, is the result of Bollywood’s and a nation’s increasing faith in itself. Pakistani plays, on the other hand, are a portrayal of a downward spiral in confidence that has revealed itself in clinging to a formula no-one has the artistic integrity or the self-belief to break.
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.