Zindagi Gulzar Hai: Attractively Regressive

(Doing a ‘Queen‘ on the best thing from across the western border since absolutely everything from across the western border. Once again I’m railing and at length. In situations like these, I think it isn’t bad form to ask the fanboys to stay out.)

In the formulaic, regressive, cliche-spewing world of Indian TV soap operas, anything that appears less evil or meaningless brings hope and relief. “Zindagi Gulzar Hai” (ZGH) looked like one such welcome change, a promising romantic drama imported from Pakistan. With just 26 episodes, the series had a beginning and an end – its finiteness a pleasant departure from the endless drivels on Indian TV that simply won’t close out.

Zindagi Gulzar Hai is the story of Kashaf Murtaza, a gifted girl fated to live in reduced circumstances, and rich boy Zaroon Mir, and how their mutual disregard and hatred eventually blossoms in love. The basic plot doesn’t break new ground, but there’s something about the “girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl eventually loves boy’ storyline that never ceases to amuse unless very shabbily handled.

Scratch the Surface, Find the Rot

In the show, Zaroon is the complete package. He is beautiful, wealthy, classy, kind and yet respectfully measured in his response to the attention from the ladies around him. Oh, he is also sharp as a tack, because beauty without brains can’t cut the mustard among South Asian women.

With so much awesome-ness crammed in one mere mortal, you want to overlook the sexist undertone of his Pakistani upper class politeness and finesse of speech. The kind of sexism that doesn’t hit you smack in the face but definitely exists and has been invisible to or willfully ignored by otherwise astute observers of gender bias in popular culture.

There are several examples of this. Zaroon tells his sister Zara to cover herself up when she steps out in a sleeveless kameez. He also tells her it’s wrong for her to stay out till so late in the night. When Zara points out so does he, he says that he can because he’s a man. Zaroon goes on to mumble something like ‘mahaul kharaab hai’ – important words that most of us cling to in order to believe this is merely brotherly concern, a sensible way of thinking in Lahore – a city that is more primitive and less safe for women than Bombay or Bangalore where similar injunctions would have been met with something along the lines of ‘don’t tell your girls, tell your boys’ and rightly so.

I think Zaroon isn’t as bothered about her sister’s safety as it appears. In all likelihood, Zara is going to step inside a chauffeur-driven car while still at her home and step out somewhere that will have familiar faces for guests. It is the possibility of her being looked at by other men that troubles him more. In Zaroon’s mind, the honour of a woman’s family is directly proportional to the lack of visual access to her body parts, hitting peak honour at the impeccably puritanical, not-fully-veiled-but-almost-there Kashaf Murtaza.

(He also says the servants ‘observe things and gossip’. Telltale signs of a patriarchal mindset wedded to a feudal attitude, but I guess that’s alright when you have such disorientatingly dreamy eyes.)

Zaroon repeats his disapproval of clothes that reveals more skin than deemed acceptable in a posh, Pakistani university to his fiancé Asmara.

The similarity in the two situations is that neither Zara nor Asmara is willing to listen to Zaroon, routinely shushing his Zen-like voice of reason and thwarting his attempt to wise them up for their own good. The women are united in their mulish stubbornness, their pride, their tendency to alternately yell at men and turn clingy and grovel at their feet, and their fatal mistake of taking their independence, generously given by the men in their lives, for granted.

Another similarity between the two is that when they talk to Zaroon they jump from making sense to going full idiot in 15 seconds flat, give or take 5 seconds. Asmara and Zara start off with what promise to be unassailable arguments defending their rights and exposing Zaroon for the bigot he is before suddenly veering into the zone of snooty, anger-laden irrationality. We lampoon Indian shows for passing selfish viciousness off as feminism in naked attempts to discredit the demand for empowerment of women by making it look like the demand for subjugation of men. ZGH should’ve elicited similar reactions but didn’t.

Both women pay a price for their hubris. Asmara loses her fiancé to another woman; so does Zara. The loss of a good man who only asked for some womanly, restrained behavior to another girl hits Zara hard and pushes her into clinical depression. She eventually recovers, humbled, healed and utterly repentant. She admits her mistake to wise brother Zaroon and becomes a “better woman”.

In Zara’s and Asmara’s unreal, exaggerated follies lie an important lesson for subcontinental women – behave or watch your man replace you for calmer, homelier, more manageable alternatives.

Ambition makes a bad mother.

Coming back to Zaroon, the man politely articulates his hatred of ambitious women several times in the show. Who must be blamed for his ill-concealed disapproval of women who, in his own words and also in Kashaf’s, are kuch zyaada hi modern, kuch zyaada hi liberal? And who is to be blamed for Zara’s despicable love for parties and friends even after getting married? The answer is Ghazala, a woman who is a successful professional but fails as a mother. Or let’s say, a woman who fails as a mother because she is a successful professional.

Now, both Ghazala and her husband have shining careers. Both have work that requires them to take frequent trips away from home. But while Zaroon takes jibes at her mother for not being a hands-on parent, he has nothing but respect for his father.

That the father’s absence isn’t much of a problem is evident. In a scene when it is clearly late evening, Zaroon casually asks his father if he is stepping out. The father, as calm and saintly as his male progeny, says no. The men then proceed to discuss the silly, immature behaviour of the women in their lives.

Ghazala’s husband is a successful man too but while his ambition never runs counter to the interests of his family, Ghazala’s does. Her personal ambition all but destroys her motherly instincts.

The confidence that her professional success generates leads Ghazala into thinking women do not need the love and support of men to lead a fulfilling life. Men are so dispensable to her that she actively encourages her daughter to file for legal separation from her husband simply because he wants her to party in moderation! I’m yet to come across a woman in flesh and blood as prone to such impatient, knee-jerk reactions in matters of love and conjugal relationships – we are mostly encouraged to choose death over divorce – as Ghazala. But in the morality play called ZGH, she serves a crucial purpose. Ghazala and similarly overambitious, overconfident women, though rare in real life, act as warnings, as scary examples of female empowerment gone terribly wrong. Their lives offer a glimpse of the dystopia that the family and the society might disintegrate into if women and their behavior aren’t controlled or regulated well.

There’s no such thing as a bad father.

Zaroon’s misogyny can be traced to Ghazala’s ghastly, unfeminine attitude toward child rearing, but why is Kashaf, the show’s female lead, so antagonistic toward men?

The answer lies in Kashaf’s father Mohammad Murtaza.

Kashaf has nothing but disdain for her father. The man remarries because his first wife Rafia could bear him no son, only three daughters. He then refuses to support the first wife but indulges his second wife Nigar’s every demand, the unreasonable ones far outnumbering the reasonable ones.

For all his lack of integrity and commitment, – and this is where the contrast between him and Zaroon’s failed mother is at its starkest – Mohammad Murtaza is no repugnant villain.

For most of the series, Murtaza is your regular guy who just wants to get on with his life with his new wife and son while also desirous of a cordial, working relationship with the older wife, who has somewhat outlived her utility, and with her daughters.

Stopping him from making amends with her first wife after his initial act of abandoning her is his second wife, Nigar. Nigar is your average beautiful, young woman who is driven by jealousy and mistrust toward the sister-wife (the Urdu eqivalent is “sautan“). Her life’s ambition is to ensure a comfortable present and a secure future for herself and her son. She is supremely selfish and morally bankrupt; she is also nosy and takes pleasure in pushing Rafia and her daughters deeper into penury.

What’s more, Nigar’s wickedness doesn’t affect her husband alone. She is also a bad mother who makes her son Hammad, otherwise a charming, happy-go-lucky boy, an unwilling accomplice in spying on Rafia. She also hates it when he gravitates towards Rafia and her family because Rafia is substantially more motherly and can prepare wonderful meals – both defining qualities of good women.

As the show progresses, the viewers’ unease over Mohammad’s decision to enter into a polygamous relationship fades entirely because they see just how hapless he is in the face of the ruthlessly manipulative second wife. Unlike Zaroon’s mother Ghazala whose failure as a mother happens despite the positive influence of the men in her life, Kashaf’s father Mohammad fails to be the perfect father because of a scheming woman.

The more you pity Mohammad, the more you want to question Kashaf’s unceasing criticism of men. After all, it stems from her inability to perceive her father without her own jaundiced view. And since Mohammad isn’t such a monster in the first place, Kashaf’s disapproval of men sounds increasingly myopic, senseless and like a harangue. While Zaroon’s misogyny is grounded in reason, Kashaf’s hatred of men is based on very flimsy ground and hence, like a minor malady, treatable.

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This brings us to Kashaf Murtaza, a character who is just about the dullest, most prudish, judgmental, ill-mannered sociopath you will ever come across. She also suffers from a persecution complex, which is annoying to say the least.

What is Kashaf’s attitude towards women other than her mother and her sisters? In college, she divides her time between studying and severely judging women who hang out with Zaroon and other men. She often asserts she isn’t “like the other girls”, obviously meaning she is better than them. She is also consistently rude to Maria, the only girl in the college who is nice and stoic enough to befriend Kashaf despite the latter’s lack of basic good manners or even humanity. In Kashaf’s scheme of things, Maria looks like a useless hanger-on and easily dispensable. (I am sure Kashaf wouldn’t have even bothered to send a wedding invite to Maria. Or maybe she mailed a scanned copy as an afterthought, but that’s it.)

And yet it is hard to not notice how smoothly Kashaf tones down her aggression and turns appropriately demure and obedient as the daughter-in-law of a wealthy family.

On one occasion, when Zaroon offers to drop her home after a college event ends late in the everning, she refuses to sit in the front next to him. Zaroon rightly feels offended. Funnily enough, such priggishness eventually turns Kashaf attractive to Zaroon and the viewers. Several episodes later when Zaroon reminds Kashaf how rude she had been him, Kashaf tells herself that had she sat next to him that day, she wouldn’t have ultimately found a permanent place next to him – in his car and in his life. Even Kashaf, your prototype irrational hater of men, subconsciously understands the rules of the game and plays by them. Her rumination, even if in retrospect, strengthens the insulting assumption that Zaroon had made about middle class women playing hard to get – one that Kashaf had fought against so fiercely when it was first made.

By the time the series draws to a close, Kashaf has emerged as the perfect wife material. Her puritanical hatred for any interaction with the opposite sex, which in turn lends her a sort of unattainable charm that pulled our cassanova hero toward her, gives way to her letting down her guard for him and him alone. Such guaranteed availability is the sub-continental television hero’s dream come true, but Kashaf’s qualities do not end here.

Kashaf is desirable because she isn’t a hell-raiser like Zara and Asmara were in their pre-reformation days. She internalizes and acts upon the lessons her mother imparts her – never sit next to unrelated men in their cars, get married at the “right age”, learn to cook to keep the shauhar happy and always, always be respectful toward him except in playful banters – women ought to sparkle occasionally; life will be boring otherwise.

In the end she is also deeply grateful for the presence of a fairly benevolent man in her life, even if he displays double standards by going ballistic when he learns of another guy’s one-sided interest in her at some time in the past but is proud of his own flirtatious ways and also doesn’t mind re-igniting a conversation with a girl he had dumped before setting his eyes on Kashaf.

Kashaf’s beauty lies in the fact that she frees the men in her life from the tedious responsibility of actively controlling a woman’s behavior. Kashaf doesn’t need to be kept on a tight leash because Kashaf does that for you – she holds one end of the leash and loops the other round her own neck.

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So why did so many of us love the show and praised it like the feminist miracle it never was?

For starters, ZGH scores a winner by simply not looking criminally stupid. Unlike Indian shows, its dialogue is well-crafted and well-delivered; the emphasis on accurate pronunciations and the respect accorded to language shine through. The scenes are tightly-controlled, the characters are somewhat believable, and nobody hams. There are references to the quotidian realities of a tough, lower middle-class life such as the difficulties of making the cut in a prestigious (read: private and pricey) university, unaffordable vegetables, and shoes that get replaced not when they go out of fashion but when they fall apart and also when there’s money to buy new ones. Such references are mostly made in a matter-of-fact way without making a big deal out of it. Well Kashaf does, but Kashaf is weird like that.

The show camouflages its sexism well. There is no evil-looking woman flashing evil smiles, no witchcraft, no family feuds erupting over khichri that tastes too salty, no fasting for the long life of husbands, and no slapping of women by the same husbands when they have been tragically misled. Also women on Pakistani TV look less silly and more modern because they do not come burdened under layers of make-up, traditional jewelry and shiny kanjeevarams.

Additionally, Pakistani shows deal with very basic ideas of human and gender liberty – let the girls study, earn; think twice before taking in a second wife; don’t be jealous of a good-looking partner, etc., etc. The average Indian viewer, convinced that such ideas must be galvanizing men and women into positive action in dark, medieval corners of the subcontinent, is satisfied enough with the liberal quotient of the shows to overlook the demeaning codes of conduct the shows prescribes for women who have, in fact, reached a certain stage of educational and professional success or self-sufficiency.

Finally, I think in some intellectual circles in India it is considered uncool to criticize any artistic endeavor that has its origins in Pakistan. We like to make sweeping statements such as “Pak Coke Studio is much better than India’s Coke Studio” or “Pakistani singers are much better than Indian singers”. I think such blanket approval has partly to do with our tendency to romanticize our ties with Pakistan, partly to do with just how conventionally good-looking Pakistanis are and partly with our desire to overcompensate for the time they have been spending on NewsHour.

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