By Kabir Altaf
Since last September, one TV serial has taken Pakistan by storm, becoming a major topic for conversation and forcing people to reschedule social occasions so that they don’t clash with the program’s time slot. Entitled Humsafar (Companion), the drama has made stars out of its leading couple, Fawad Afzal Khan and Mahira Khan. The play is a typical melodrama, centering around the relationship between Ashar and Khirad and the intrigues that drive them apart, intrigues created by Ashar’s controlling mother, Farida. Yet somehow, this hackneyed plotline has had the entire nation hooked for six months.
To briefly summarize the plot: Ashar is the son of a rich man living in Karachi and working in his father’s company. His cousin, Khirad, meanwhile lives a middle-class life with her mother in Hyderabad. Khirad’s mother finds out that she has cancer and calls her brother (Ashar’s father) and asks him to help her. Her brother brings her to Karachi and gets her treatment, but it is too late. As she waits to die, she begs her brother to get her daughter married so that she is assured a secure future. Her brother agrees, telling her that he will marry Khirad to his own son. Ashar agrees to honor his father’s promise, but his mother, Farida, is totally against the marriage, believing that Khirad is beneath her son’s standard. Farida has also hoped that her own niece, Sara, will become Ashar’s wife. Sara loves Ashar and believes that she will eventually marry him. However, under threat of divorce, Farida is forced to accept the marriage. While her husband is alive, she pretends to accept Khirad but as soon as he passes away she begins plotting to get rid of her. Her plot involves making Ashar believe that Khirad has been unfaithful to him. Ashar is made to witness a scene in which Khirad is alone in the kitchen with another man who is holding her dupatta in his hands. Farida immediately accuses Khirad of infidelity, and though Khirad begs Ashar to believe she is innocent, he rejects her. Farida than throws Khirad (who is pregnant, unknown to Ashar) out of the house in the middle of the night. Khirad writes a letter to Ashar, telling him that what he saw was orchestrated by his mother, and that she is pregnant. However, Ashar doesn’t read this letter until much later.
Khirad gives birth to a daughter, Hareem, and the story moves ahead four years. Hareem has a congenital heart condition, and Khirad comes to Ashar to tell him that he has a daughter who needs open-heart surgery. She herself shows no desire to reconcile with him, but simply wants him to do his duty towards his child. Ashar takes the responsibility of getting the child treated, and mother and daughter move into Ashar’s house. Ashar begins to fall in love with Khirad again, but Khirad decides that once Hareem is well, she will leave her with her father, and go back to Hyderabad, believing that Ashar can provide her daughter with a much better life than she can. When she leaves, Ashar discovers her letter of four years ago and learns the truth. He rushes after Khirad to bring her back. Meanwhile Sara has realized that she was manipulated by her aunt and that Ashar will never love her. She commits suicide. Ashar returns and confronts his mother, who subsequently has a nervous breakdown. Ashar and Khirad reconcile.
As the drama grew more and more popular, many editorials and op-eds highlighted the “regressive” themes of the story. The critics argued that the drama shows three women all fighting over one man. They also criticized Ashar for being so easily beguiled by his mother’s plot and for not even giving his wife a chance to tell her side of the story. They pointed out that Khirad is portrayed as religious and conservatively dressed, with her head always covered by her dupatta. On the other hand, the vamp, Sara, dresses in Western clothes, practices yoga, and is successful in the corporate world. The evil mother-in-law, Farida, is shown running an NGO but clearly her real fulfillment in life comes from controlling her son. While all these criticisms are true, I would argue that the critics are missing two major points: that this plot line plays on very old literary and dramatic tropes, and that it accurately reflects Pakistani society today.
I would answer those feminists who find Humsafar regressive by pointing out that the serial shares many elements with Shakespeare’s Othello. Of course, Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place in the 16th Century, an era that was obviously much more patriarchal than our own, while Humsafar is set in contemporary times. However, one can account for this by pointing out that Pakistan is a deeply conservative and patriarchal society, which in many ways is comparable to the Europe of 400 years ago. Like Othello, Ashar is manipulated into believing that his wife has been unfaithful to him. In Othello’s case, the “proof” of his wife’s betrayal is the presence of her handkerchief in someone else’s room while in Ashar’s case the proof is his wife’s dupatta in the hands of another man. In both stories, the male lead does not question his suspicions and is driven into a jealous rage. The differences in the two plots lie in the motivations of the manipulator as well as the reactions of the innocent wife.
Shakespeare’s Iago manipulates Othello because he hates him and resents that he has been passed over for promotion. Farida, on the other hand, claims to love her son and to want what is best for him. In many ways, it is easier to accept Ashar’s blind faith in Farida than to accept Othello’s blind faith in Iago. Farida is after all Ashar’s mother while Iago is simply Othello’s friend. It is also interesting to note that in Othello both the hero and the villain are male, while in Humsafar, the evil mastermind is female. Certainly then, the Pakistani drama does depict powerful women – it’s just that these women choose to use their power for evil rather than for good.
Another major difference between the two plays is in the character of the innocent wife. Although in the earlier episodes of the serial, Khirad behaves like Shakespeare’s Desdemona, not understanding why her husband is suspicious and constantly asking where her fault lies, once she is rejected, her behavior changes drastically. When she returns to Ashar’s life four years later, she is simply interested in getting medical help for her daughter’s heart condition. She has no desire to get back together with the man that has mistreated her. When Farida insinuates that Khirad is using her daughter to worm her way back into Ashar’s life, Khirad replies: “When my daughter is well, I will leave. I curse you, your house, and your son.” She realizes that Ashar is weak and easily manipulated and that he has failed to protect her. Even when Ashar offers to forget the past, she does not choose to reconcile with him. She only agrees to accept him as her husband once he realizes that she was innocent all along and it was his mother who made him believe that she was unfaithful. In many ways, then, Khirad is a feminist. She does not believe that her life is incomplete without a man and that she must reconcile with Ashar at any cost. Though she does initially try to make him see the truth, once he refuses to listen, she decides that she can do without him. By paying for their daughter’s treatment, he is not doing her any favors, but simply doing his duty towards his child. Khirad is also a strong woman who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice by leaving her daughter with Ashar, at the cost of her own happiness. She is not willing to compromise her self-respect or her dignity. In this respect, Khirad is very different from Desdemona, who goes through the entire play not knowing what she has done to make her husband angry and who is eventually suffocated to death by him. Of course, Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy while Humsafar ends with the reconciliation of the lovers.
A final element of Humsafar that is very Shakespearean is Farida’s nervous breakdown. After being confronted by Ashar, Farida experiences a vision where she sees three spirits: Her late husband, Sara, and Khirad. The ghost of Farida’s husband tells her that she has betrayed her own son, Sara tells her that she is responsible for her death, and Khirad tells her that God has punished her for her actions. These guilt-induced visions resemble two scenes in Macbeth, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet and when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes the blood off her hands.
Asides from harking back to tropes as ancient as those of Shakespeare’s plays, Humsafar also reflects contemporary Pakistani society. It is true that women compete for male attention, whether that man is their husband or son. Many mothers-in-law are jealous of their daughters-in-law and do plot against them (though not in as dramatic a manner as depicted in the serial). Finally, men are very touchy about female sexuality and the notion of “honor.” It is quite plausible that someone like Ashar would not doubt the evidence he has seen with his own eyes or what he is told by his mother. Just the mere suspicion of infidelity is grounds for divorce. Thus, the events depicted in the serial are entirely believable, though obviously heightened for dramatic effect.
One element of Humsafar that I felt was weak was that the “bad” women (Farida and Sara) were not given any chance to redeem themselves. Farida ended up mad while Sara ended up dead. The basic plot would not have been changed very much if, for example, instead of eventually reading Khirad’s letter, Ashar learned the truth by being told by Sara about his mother’s plan and her own role in it. While this would have resulted in Ashar hating Sara, she would have redeemed herself as a character by implicating herself in the plot and finally being honest with him. Similarly, if the writers had not depicted Farida going insane and had her confront what she had done and apologize to Khirad, they would have created a character who took responsibility for her behavior and learned from it, rather than turning Farida simply into an object of pity. While one can understand why the creators chose to do the traditional moralistic thing and have the villains receive their comeuppance, allowing them the opportunity for redemption would have made them more complex and added another level to the story.
While it is true that on a surface level, serials like Humsafar seem to be promoting regressive, anti-feminist values, it is important to remember that they are versions of plot lines that are venerable literary tropes and that they do reflect the society that produces them. After all, if there were not some truth in the serial, the Pakistani audience would have been unable to relate to Khirad, Ashar, and even Farida, and Humsafar would not have created the sensation that it did.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.