Maham Sajid explains how Pakistani TV shows could try to be relatable for viewers without reinforcing the worst narratives in the country

Television culture is not innocent. The people who consume it might well be innocent, but the people who make it are certainly not. Our television shows currently are an amalgamation of the worst stereotypes and the most horrid social realities put together in an assorted package so as to be relatable for audiences – and hence win their viewership.

The director of Joker, Todd Philips, recently pointed out in an interview that the purpose of entertainment should not be to cater to the audiences but to push them out of their comfort zones. His statement perfectly encapsulates the dilemma of the content decline in Pakistani culture. The female protagonists are either crying over men like babies cry over milk bottles, or are feigning domestic abuse in dazzling titles like Jhooti (Liar), trivializing one of the most menacing plagues in our society, i.e. violence against women. The men are either chasing the “other” woman or are caught desperately in the mother-vs-wife dilemma. The women-vs-women rivalries are the most recurrent: the mother-in-law who conspires against the daughter-in-law, sisters who are after their sister’s husbands, friends insanely jealous of the other’s good fortune and so on. This is the fodder we are feeding young impressionable minds who deserve better. I understand that we can’t expect our producers to churn out content like Game of Thrones – nor does our audience demand this complexity but the numbing simplicity and shallowness with which domestic issues are portrayed needs to change.

Jane Austen's world remains relatable in deeply patriarchal Pakistan today

There is a universal ring to all our domestic issues and there is a proper way to highlight them without unnecessary glorification – and I’ll tell you why. Jane Austen, one of the most revered English authors published Pride and Prejudice in 1813. The book had prolific characters (that all still dwell within the frame of a place relatable to contemporary Pakistani society) and yet it was refreshing in its tone and handling of issues. If an author born in England two centuries ago could write about the pressures on young women to find suitable beaus, mothers pestering their daughters to get married, wealth and social status being hailed superior to morality: what’s more Pakistani than this? These issues have stood true in the face of time and geography. Austen tried to highlight the hypocrisy without embedding it deeper into the fabric of society. And that, my dear friends, is how it should be done.

Soniah Kamal, a Pakistani-American author, adapted Pride and Prejudice into the mould of a Pakistani society. The adaptation is called Unmarriageable. It’s set in early 2000 and revolves around a couple deprived of inheritance courtesy of a family feud and their five daughters – each with a meaty, interesting personality. The two elder ones, Alys and Jena, are 30 and 32 respectively and all hell has broken loose according to their mother since they chose to remain unmarried and are working to support their family. They refuse to become prisoners of society’s expectations and continue to strive forth without “settling down” for the sake of money or acceptability. The conversations are witty and insightful into how our society functions. Despite being fiercely independent Alys Binat aka Elizabeth Bennet (Austen’s version) understands the limitations placed on women and rightly says so, “behind every Pakistani girl who fulfilled a dream stood a father who allowed her to soar instead of clipping her wings”.

Kamal has a wonderful grip over cultural nuances and pays exquisite attention when describing Pakistani food and clothes. She goes into extensively vivid detail when describing the food layout at several occasions. Her dinner menu was “mutton karahi, beef seekh kebabs, ginger chicken, eggplant in tomatoes, creamy black dal, potato cutlets, cucumber raita and kachumbar salads”. But for breakfast layout she chose – “fried eggs, Pakistani omelette brimming with cumin and green chillies, potato bhujia, French toast, and cornflakes”. If these descriptions don’t instantly make you reminisce the gorgeous food arrangements in Pakistan, then I need to see your passport please. Mrs. Binat, the doting mother eager to get her daughters married off, keeps on imparting pearls of wisdom throughout book such as, “Clothes are a woman’s weapon” or “girls are only as good as their tailor”. There is a hint of every Pakistani mother in there.

Every character has substance and relatability, making it highly commercial content. Here’s to wishing that this book catches the fancy of television executives and producers who are actually in a position to bring about change – but hopefully and most preferably not the eye of Mr. Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar.

For Jane Austen might roll over in her grave upon her beloved prose being treated by that greatest of feminist icons in Pakistan.