I’m sure all of you have heard about the tragic murder of Asma Rani. She was a medical student, nearing the completion of her studies. Some days ago, she was shot by the man she refused to marry. In the aftermath of such a violent headline, the immediate response is grief. Often, this is followed by attempts to explain what happened. And, in the case of Pakistan, a reminder of how many times this has happened before.
Asma Rani was not the first Pakistani woman to be attacked by a jilted suitor. She certainly wasn’t the first to come across a guy who felt entitled to her company. And while I hope that she was the last, I also know that this isn’t the case.
Perhaps because of this, it becomes doubly problematic to be accosted by Pakistani pop-culture that glamorizes violent tendencies. You know what I’m talking about. The man who can’t take no for an answer, a decidedly timid female, the story that is ‘romantic’ because the director said so. We have seen this so many times, that you have to accept it as a trope.
Film, Television and Life
So before we dissect anything, I think it is fair to note that I am not blaming acts of violence on the entertainment media that we consume. I am not saying that a film alone will convince, or even influence, people to behave in certain ways. Simply because even when there have been cases of copycats, you have to question the mind that takes its social cue from a work of fiction. If a child acts out the central conflict from 13 Reasons Why, then you do have to look at the case of that child first. I’m not saying the program isn’t problematic, it just isn’t responsible for what happened. Not entirely at least.
But films, television, songs, books (non-academic, mind you) do have the potential to shape world views. They may not convince you how to act, but they can shape what you think and how you feel about something. This is why films have been known to be effective tools for propaganda. This is also why the fact that the military entertainment complex is gaining traction should concern us.
And also, the visual medium in particular is incredibly projective, and unforgiving. Films, television shows, even music videos project the world view of the minds that create them. The tendencies of the screenwriter, the director, the cinematographer, and the production team are laid bare. There really is nowhere to hide when you have visually shown us what you believe and how you think.
So when Syed Noor writes and directs a film about an obsessive, compulsive leading man stalking a woman, it raises questions about his views about women. When he then justifies any violence projected in said film as ‘love’ those question marks turn into exclamation points.
But, before we sink our teeth into Mr. Noor’s incredibly convoluted mess, it is pertinent to point out that he isn’t alone. Many a filmmaker has projected some pretty questionable content in the guise of romance. The ones that I find particularly troubling are the ones that seem harmless.
Stalking, Because Love
‘Oh, it’s just a romantic comedy,’ say the filmmakers. All while their leading man responds to being jilted by a woman by traveling across the country to stop her wedding. Karachi Se Lahore was a film that I hated, and the rest of the country was basically okay with. When questions were raised, they were about the bawdiness of the humour and the reliance on demeaning, ethnic stereotypes.
Now, I didn’t like those either. But can we take a minute to dissect that ‘harmless’ story? Zaheem is a young man living in Karachi. Despite having a job, a place to live and friends, he begins the film with a long dirge about how terrible his life is. He is then dumped by his girlfriend Ashi, a materialistic, emasculating cataclysm of demeaning clichés.
But of course, our leading man is not one to give up so easily. So, what does he do? Why, he makes the titular trip from Karachi to Lahore to stop her wedding, of course!
And wait, before you type that angry comment, let me assure you; I know what you’re thinking. ‘This isn’t violent, he’s just in love, he never does anything to her.’ And can I just say that while you have a right to an opinion, you’re absolutely wrong. This is violent behaviour.
See, the underlying suggestion here is that Zaheem is entitled to Ashi’s company. Of course, it isn’t nice when we’re turned down. But, if you want to have a relationship with a human being, then you have to accept their right to reject you. They, whether you like it or not, have that autonomy. Ashi exercises that autonomy. She isn’t being forced to marry someone she doesn’t want to. She never tells Zaheem that she loves him, but zaalim samaaj won’t let them be together. Ashi decides that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. The reasons for her decision maybe selfish, but it is still her decision.
Zaheem’s reaction is proof that he either doesn’t recognize her right to break up with him should she please, or he doesn’t care. In either case, this is a problematic relationship. It is a problematic story, which has been exhibited in far too many films.
She’s Mine, Because I said So
Okay, now let’s talk about Chain Aye Na. Let me just reiterate that when the trailer for this magnum opus was released, I was one of the two people who was actually excited. The other being Syed Noor of course. And I maintain my opinion; this film is so bad that you have to accept it as being unwittingly good.
This of course doesn’t mean that we can’t discuss Mr. Noor’s warped view of the world. It certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question his conceptions about women.
Now, I’m not going to go into the stuff that has already been discussed. We know that the leading man slaps his lady love because she doesn’t say yes to him. We know that the antagonist kills a woman without flinching. And I think we’ve always known that Mr. Noor’s directorial prowess has to be questioned.
But let’s go deeper than that; let’s question the story itself. I use the word ‘story’ quite loosely when discussing this film, but we do have to ask what the central premise is. And therein lies the ultimate problem. Chain Aye Na is not a meet cute, love at first sight flick. It isn’t the ‘breeding pair versus zaalim samajh’ number either. Ultimately, it is the story of two men fighting over a woman, whom they view as a shiny object, by the way.
The fact that each exhibits violent behaviour towards her isn’t the problem. If anything, that’s a by-product. The central problem is that they claim dominion over her; it’s the old ‘she’s mine because I said so’ argument. And yes, you have seen it before. In fact, it is so common that most people don’t even question it anymore.
But we should question it. Because, we can blame Mr. Noor for unleashing his passion project onto the world, but he didn’t author this idea. This narrative has existed before him, and it is as problematic as ever.
Pakistani Women and The Male Gaze
The issue with tropes, stereotypes and clichés is that they have a longstanding history.
Every time you accuse a director of projecting troubling views, their immediate reaction is utterly dumbfounded. And I am a trusting person, so I will believe their confusion and accept that they genuinely don’t see the problems in their work. But, this doesn’t mean that we should accept the trend of passing off violent behavior as romance as one of Pakistani cinema’s quirks.
Instead, we should ask why it is so very persistent.
Cinematic traditions borrow from the culture that produces them. So, one argument could be that Pakistani films simply reflect Pakistan itself. But here is my issue, films are not reality (I know, shocker). There is nothing natural about cinema; the story, the lighting, everything is decided upon.
And, the woman and men that we see onscreen aren’t real either. They may rely on flesh and bone (that is, the actors playing them). But they are ‘mediated’ in that they have been deliberately crafted, and projected. What they can do, as I suggested earlier, is project the mind that creates them.
The woman reflected onscreen, across Pakistani productions, is a male creation. To quote Laura Mulvey, she is a projection of the ‘male gaze’. A term that refers to both the way the female character is shot in a film, but also how she is positioned in the narrative. The woman in Pakistani film is reflected in relation to the man, and what she represents for him. In far too many films, she represents what he must achieve. Couple this with a sense of entitlement, and you get a narrative that justifies some pretty disturbing behaviour.
Our leading man cannot take no for an answer, he stalks the woman in question, he acts irrationally and blames her for it. And ultimately, the film brushes all of this off as the logical reactions of one who is in love, when his love isn’t reciprocated.
The Violent Reality
Of course, if anything rivals the improbable actions of Pakistani cinema’s leading man, it is the incredible leaps of the story itself. The dirge of Machiavellian schemes, smatterings of hijinks and runtimes that bring tears to my eyes. The reality of women being pursued by men who cannot take no for an answer is simpler, shorter and starker.
In 2016, law student Khadija Siddiqui was stabbed multiple times. She survived the incident. Later revealing that the man responsible had been a friend, until he became ‘coercive’, even hacking her online accounts at one point.
In 2017, Hina Shahnawaz was murdered by her cousin. Investigations revealed that she had rejected his marriage proposal.
This Monday, video footage of a critically wounded Asma Rani spread across the internet. A few hours later, she met her untimely death.
And then on Tuesday, a teenage girl in Mansehra revealed that she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man who wanted to marry her.
All of this is far too common, and again I am not blaming the behaviour on the cinematic tradition. What I am blaming it for is perpetuating the world view. Perpetuating that a man shouldn’t take no for an answer. That a woman owes him her time and company because he wants to marry her. And worst of all, passing any violent behaviour that ensues as romantic. The realities that encompass such cases should force us to question the trope. The violent ends met by most of the victims should convince us that it was never okay to begin with.