Why is the damsel always in distress?

  • 26 Oct - 01 Nov, 2019
  • Eman Saleem
  • Feature

It’s a little past sunrise; a lady dressed in a shalwar kameez with a matching dupatta walks sleepy eyed in the kitchen tying her hair up in a bun. Making her way to the stove, she breaks into the routine of every morning to the background music of sizzling oil and cracking eggs. Here’s the opening scene from a brand new serial that just went on air, a scene that makes its way on our screens again… and again… and again.

On a recommendation of an Indian friend streaming Pakistani dramas online, I succumb to the hype. But the constant soppy mood of yet another actress aching for her emotionally unavailable husband’s validation while she checks off chores after chores laden on her by a snarky mother-in-law with sad background music could not keep me hooked. I would’ve changed the channel but chances are that I’d find the same hackneyed scene with a different cast. Here we go, another one ranting about repetition of scripts. But my annoyance with the same old mediocrity led me to pick a scriptwriter’s brain about it. I take my questions to acclaimed drama, webseries and theatre writer Saji Gul of O Rangreza and Iltijah success, reflective and judicious, he gives me a peek at the sorrows of a writer barred into a box by tortoise-paced evolution of an industry, a culturally lagging audience and short-term profit goals; giving me a stirring outlook on what goes on when the show is still on paper.

Why is there a lagging lack of strong female leads?

In a patriarchal culture where misogyny is so deeply rooted, a headstrong woman in a story is labeled a ‘bad character’ to the extent that the jolts of this judgment are extended to the female writer that pens the story. Gul tells me, that his female colleagues in the industry preclude themselves from writing strong female protagonists from fear of character assassination at the hands of their audience. On the other hand, it’s all about numbers for the production house, channels and the sponsors. Strong female-centric dramas have fluctuating ratings, while the damsels in distress sell better. Since moral duties don’t make money, channels go where the numbers are bigger.

Audience’s receptiveness to the story

The industry has so far only understood one thing and made it their mantra behind serial-making: the audience must relate to the story. Let’s talk about Money Heist. How many robbers does an average person know? Gul says, “People connect to the emotions of a story more so than to the story. It doesn’t matter how unrealistic the story is, if the audience can connect to the emotion behind it, then you’ve hit the spot.” The drama industry seems to work on the surface, reluctant of exploring depth. I asked my interviewee if channels and production houses play it safe. “Too safe. They are disinclined to experimentation thanks to incoming notices from PEMRA and audiences coupled with shortsightedness from profits and cost-saving.” Gul has been known to write stories around serious social issues addressed with a feministic POV, (fun fact: the story must be women-centric to cater to the pre-conceived idea that only women watch TV), so I ask him how he gets away with it? “There’s the constant demand of a hero-heroine romance and our audience has an unhealthy obsession of evil MILs. So a good story would get the nod under layering of love triangles, marital problems and saas-bahu banter. Even our sufi tales and stories of divine intervention are wrapped in a packaging of romance.”

The misunderstood craft of story telling

There’s a foundation of weaving a story that comes together, a craft much lacking, to say the least. “It’s not an achievement the pick up an issue but rather how to address it. We need writers to have exposure to the real world from which they could address elements,” chips Gul. And if it wasn’t enough, then there is the multitude of limitations imposed by TV channels – no gray areas, no multi-faceted characters, must-be-flat characters, single tracked, limited to drawing room concept to save on production costs – all of which, limits the scope to mediocrity.

Is the audience not ready for undomestic stories?

“There is a cultural lag. Something that is beyond our control is readily accepted but what is in our control can be barred. They’d consume content from other countries which gets (or used to) airtime on our media but the same standard gets shamed and labeled ‘too explicit’ if locally produced.” The audience needs to open their minds and try to look at a show like it is: a story. “We live in auto, we need to put in gears. Explore things that you haven’t experienced,” says the scriptwriter, frustrated from pushing good stories along.

How do we like our men?

In one word: aggressive. It all comes back to our internalised misogyny. I asked if a family loving, faithful and caring man wins the audience’s affection to which Gul smirks and tells me how so many women from the audience want these heroes to ‘man up’. Let’s take a look at the record-breaking show Humsafar. The more wrong or aggressive a man is, the more the heroine and the audiences adore him. Stories are played on two things: fear and fantasy. And we are catering to the fantasy of ‘fixing’ or ‘righting’ a man; to conquer and win him. Also, here’s a list of mainstream drama ‘fears’: divorce, disloyal spouse and doosri shaadi.

Despite our dramas being demanded and watched, why do we still not experiment?

“Shortsightedness,” – in a word Gul sums up the problem. The irony of how the term keeps repeating is not lost on me. “We don’t think at a global scale, as writers we don’t get royalties but if that was the case and we were aiming for the global market, maybe we would have a different approach to penning stories. For example, Turkish plays have gone as far as Latin America because they focus on their content with a worldview. Their tourism industry has also boomed from their content products going abroad. We are blinded by short-term profits too much to consider bigger business models. And then there is the evil that is consumerism. Ever noticed the sobbing woman in the drama is followed by a strong, happy woman making a choice between product A and B in the commercials? Let the intensity of the striking difference between the two women on the screen at prime time sink in.•