This piece is a summary of my reaction to my first Pakistani drama, Zindagi Gulzar Hai. The title is usually translated “Life is a Garden” but the first half in particular was such a painful watch that I couldn’t help thinking of thorns.
My favourite film ever is Pyaasa, and one of the main reasons I love it is the artistry of the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi who wrote the lyrics for the film’s songs. Watching this drama had me singing one line from one of those songs over and over again, “Hamne toh jab kaliyaan maangi kaanton kaa haar mila” – “Whenever I asked for flowers, I received a crown of thorns”. Here are the flowers and the thorns I found in Zindagi Gulzar Hai.
I love the sound of Urdu. After Italian, it’s probably my second favourite language in terms of aural aesthetics. I love the blend of Indic structures and Persian/Arabic vocabulary that makes it both familiar and different. And, although I can’t read it I simply adore its beautiful script, as in the Drama’s title above. It was a delight to enhance my Urdu vocabulary by watching it with subtitles so that I could learn the Urdu equivalents of familiar Hindi words, while getting more from the dialogues than subtitles alone can give. If I watch another Pakistani Drama, it will be primarily a learning experience, like this one was.
The female lead was without question the Drama’s rose. Appropriately prickly, she was a great character. Intelligent, independent, hard-working, stubborn, pessimistic, angry and slow to both trust and forgive, she was a well-rounded, believable and likeable human being. She worked tirelessly to support her Mother and her younger sisters, and her fierce self-reliance was a delight to watch. She was also incredibly self-righteous and short-tempered. No perfect “Candy” here, that’s for sure.
I also really liked her Mother and sisters. Rafiya was a great role model as a woman and a mother. Abandoned by her husband for bearing only daughters, she set her three girls an example they all followed in the value of education and self-reliance. She also demonstrated (for the most part) great deftness in negotiating the tricky waters of life as an independent working mother in a VERY male-dominated society. Which brings me to
The picture above nicely captures my reaction to at least 60% of this character’s screentime. Reviews of the Drama describe him with words phrases such as “charismatic”, flirty yet sensible” and other similarly complimentary terms. I would describe him as arrogant, hypocritical and rage-inducingly chauvinist.
For the first fourteen of the Drama’s twenty-six episodes he was breathtakingly awful. So astonishingly brazen and unashamed of his hypocritical misogyny it left me speechless. His attitudes on the roles and rights of men and women made the cartoon stereotype of the hair-pulling troglodyte seem rabidly liberal.
This character insisted that he was always right in everything because of being male, and that he had the right to bully, harass and abuse the female lead because she wasn’t. A systematic campaign of deception and degradation was not only OK, it was the right and proper thing for him to do, because she was committing the unforgivable sin of not acknowledging his innate, all-encompassing superiority.
If I hated the character so much, why did I stick it out? Because of my experience with East Asian Dramas. I’m used to the trope of a jerk lead growing and becoming a better person, often “transformed” by the power of the female lead’s love. So while ranting and cursing and filling my Twitter with ragetweets about what a contemptible chauvinist he was, I was also expecting to see some character development. I assumed he would grow into something resembling a reasonable, moderate human being. I was wrong. Over the 26 episodes of the Drama, his character DID move forward, but he did so less than any continental shelf did in the same time period.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this was in the climactic conflict between the two leads. He went ballistic with rage at finding out that she had been proposed to by someone else, and never apologised for his astonishing reaction, even when others pointed out that her rejecting that proposal and accepting his should have made him happy. He then proceeded to start secretly texting and even meeting up with his own ex-fiancee. To the end, he insisted there was nothing wrong with this, and that his double standards about what was acceptable were right and proper because he’s a man. In the end, predictably, his wife Kashaf gave in. Contrary to the show’s intentions, I did not find this to be a happy ending.
As bad as I found his character to be, I do not fault the writing. Someone on my Twitter timeline said watching the Drama was informative, and I tried to keep that point of view. Pakistan is a religiously and socially conservative country, and the attitudes of the male lead always seemed authentic. Even while I found his words and actions repellent, I knew they were credible. I also applauded the writer(s) for the depth of the female characters. Kashaf’s Mum was another good example of this. Besides the strong points I highlighted earlier, she was shown as having a fundamental weakness, an inability to say no to the husband who abandoned her, even when he asked her to take in the son he left her to have!
I also salute the writers for the way they integrated the presumably mandated religious content. With the exception of the closing scenes which were accompanied by direct sermons of praise from both leads, the integration of Islamic culture and theology into the Drama seemed organic and believable for the modern day . Right down to the presentation of the lead as someone who saw the inside of a mosque only a couple of times a year.
In summary, this garden had plenty of beauty in the cast, and plenty of pain in the characters. I loved the sound of the words even when I hated their content. I learned more about a country and culture I really should know more of, and I (hopefully) amused my Twitter timeline with my ragetweets. If you’re looking for something different in the way of Dramas, check this one out and see if you find more roses than thorns. For reading this all the way through, shukriya, Khuda hafiz!
- “haar” is “necklace” or “garland” but given the amount of Christ references in the film’s imagery, “crown” seems to fit here↩