In one of my classes, when I was a student, my teacher asked me to analyze ‘A Dolls House,’ a play by Henry Isben as part of the class assignment.
I got an insignificantly small and pale copy of the play from the university library. The musky scent of the old and dusty pages made me realize that book wasn’t famous in the academic circles in my part of the world.
The story revolved around Nora Helmer, a Norweign housewife trapped in a marriage where she submits herself to her husband obediently and subserviently. As per her husband, her role was to look good and take care of the house.
She tries to carve her own identity, but her husband bound by the cultural norms restricts her way. In the last scene, she abandons her children and husband, walks out of her home, slamming the door. The play ends here.
The play was written in 1879 and managed to generate enough controversy in the traditional European society.
The main character, Nora left a profound mark on my psyche as she strives to make her own identity in the male-dominated world. Her act of slamming the door raised a plethora of questions regarding traditional gender roles in the society.
Since then, I have been searching and looking for a glimpse of Nora in the Indian soap operas. The good old Doordarshan had its bold moments with serials such as Shanti, Swabhiman, Saans, Udaan and Pachpan Khambay Lal Dewarein. They were known for their strong and sensitive portrayal of women who were multi-dimensional. They looked at different facets of life from the perspective of women. But those were good old days..it was a Buland Bharat (new and upcoming India).
Sadly, with the advent of private television channels, the quality of content has gone down. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that I was hugely disappointed by the regressive and unrealistic portrayal of women. The present-day serials concern themselves too much with fighting mother in laws and screaming sister in laws. The character of women is over dramatized and are portrayed as docile and coy who are entirely tied to the family or are shown as vamps who are scheming and manipulative.
A couple of years ago, my parents had completely stopped watching TV. But sometime in 2014, Zindagi channel opened the windows to the world which my parents had long forgotten.
The channel started telecasting Pakistani dramas which evoked memories of land that my family had left decades ago. The language, the culture and the clothes all refreshed memories of the bygone era. I guess the channel has been discontinued because of the turbulent relations between India and Pakistan. But the fresh content is available on Youtube and can be accessed freely.
Few Pakistani dramas have turned out to be a breath of fresh air where women are depicted as strong, confident, bold and intelligent.
The women stood tall, strong and collected in spite of trying circumstances and the extremely rigid, conservative and patriarchal society. They carve their own identity and niche for themselves. They logically and mindfully find their way and free themselves from the shackles of the society.
Incredible performances by the women artists are the icing on the cake.
Some of my favorites are Sitara aur Mehrunisa, Dhoop Kinare, Jackson Heights, Durre-e-Shehwar, Rehaii, Tanhaiyyan, Udaari and many many others.
But the one who has a streak of Nora Helmer is Kashaf Murtaza from Zindagi Gulzar Hai. Sanam Saeed played the character of Kashaf with great elan and poise.
Kashaf is an ordinary and average looking girl from a lower-middle-class family who often questions the way her father, society, even Allah (God) has been unjust and unfair to her mother and her two younger sisters. She pens her thoughts in a journal where she often self-deliberates on the deep philosophical issues of life through the lens of everyday and mundane events of life.
She is a very realistic, practical and relatable girl who is pained by seeing her mother, who is a school principal toil day and night to meet the financial needs for her sisters and her education. She questions her mother in having a relationship with a man (her father) who is unsupportive, unkind and selfish. Her father had left her mother to marry another woman as her mother could not give him a son.
Her mother who barely manages to make ends meet leaves no stone unturned to ensure a decent education for her three girls.
With her hard work and persistence, she manages to get admission to an elite college. Here she meets Zaroon, ably played by super handsome Fawad Khan. Zaroon is a typical narrow-minded male chauvinist but belongs to the upper echelon of the Pakistani society. Their college life is a constant battle where the stark economic and social differences between the two opposite sections of the society are visible. Both have mutual contempt and hatred for each other.
Somewhere in the deepest corner of her heart, Kashaf develops an inferiority complex because of her ordinary clothes and her daily struggles of traveling by bus.
Ask me..how one feels or is made to feel when an ordinary family child goes to an elite women’s college. One sees class divisions everywhere… from clothes to cars. It’s just everywhere!
Anyways, after graduating, she joins the Pakistan civil services. Zaroon too joins the same, and they come in contact again. Zaroon now relentlessly pursues Kashaf, and eventually, they get married. (This part of the show was not very convincing as for how the attitude of Kashaf changes towards marriage and Zaroon in particular).
She maintains her professional and financial independence after marriage though Zaroon tries hard to push his male intentions and attitude.
After some misunderstanding, the independent, stubborn and strong-willed Kashaf leaves Zaroon. Though she realizes her love for Zaroon and eventually they are united.
Kashaf had a streak of boldness just like Nora. Though initially Nora is shown as an innocent and meek but her character progresses. A Doll’s House was written in a different era and for a different set of audiences than Zindagi Gulzar Hai.
They both are suitable role models for today’s women as they try to free themselves from the oppression in their unique ways and under peculiar circumstances.