The role that made people notice Pakistani actor Fawad Khan

03 February, 2015

This past Sunday, at the 60th Filmfare Awards, Pakistani leading man Fawad Khan won the award for the best male debut in Bollywood for his role in Khoobsurat. In our November 2014 issue, Karanjeet Kaur explored the crossover appeal of dramas from Pakistan with the advent of Zee Zindagi. In this excerpt from that story, she reviews Zindagi Gulzar Hai, the television series that first brought Fawad Khan to the attention of his Indian fan following.

The current crop of Pakistani dramas to make their way across the border, via Zindagi, were all created over the last four or five years, in the image of the old PTV plays. They were originally telecast on private Urdu channels—such as Hum TV, Geo TV and ARY Zindagi—that launched around the time General Pervez Musharraf seized power after a coup d’etat in 1999. The influx of private money into the media and entertainment sectors during the early and mid 2000s helped revive teleserials. Before the decade ended, the industry had found a name it could bank on: Umera Ahmad.

The 37-year-old writer’s romantic novels and screenplays centre around female protagonists, and mirror middle- and upper-class anxieties about love, weddings and social mobility. Her milieus are contemporary, and her heroines, somewhat like Haseena Moin’s, appear progressive, if ultimately acquiescent. Doraha (Crossroads, 2008), an adaptation of her novel directed by Mehreen Jabbar and featuring a soundtrack by the pop sensation Jal, catapulted her to renown, paving the way for future teleplays, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan (My Existence is Meaningless, 2009) and Shehr-e-Zaat (City Unto Self, 2012).

Zee Zindagi started broadcasting on 23 June, with the flagship show Zindagi Gulzar Hai (Life is a Bed of Roses, 2012), based on Ahmad’s novel of the same name. Starring Sanam Saeed and Fawad Khan in the lead roles of Kashaf Murtaza and Zaroon Junaid, Zindagi Gulzar Hai is an intelligent update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; its main preoccupations, through its 26 episodes, are ideas of class and upbringing—ideas that mainstream Indian serials have often picked up, but usually subjected to notoriously melodramatic treatment.

The two lead characters’ diverging worldviews, which the narrative uses as a framing device, are a function of their respective classes. Kashaf has been moulded into a fiercely independent and strong-willed young woman by her economic and familial circumstances. Money is tight, and she frequently clashes with her father, who left her mother and two sisters to marry another woman and father a son. Kashaf meets the dreamy, upper-class chauvinist Zaroon at university. Their perspectives are so irreconcilable that you might doubt the potential for any romance between the two, even though the opening credits sequence makes clear that their love is inevitable.

In one of my favourite scenes from the show, Kashaf launches into a direct, unrepentant lecture-hall examination of Zaroon’s class privilege—though some of her fire is extinguished in translation: “Zaroon called the entire nation debased,” she says, in Urdu. “In reality, if anyone is substandard it’s Pakistan’s upper classes. For sixty years, they’ve been exploiting the people of this country. And Zaroon can tell you best about this class, because he is a part of it. A section of society becomes selfish, refuses to pay its taxes, and misuses its power, but this doesn’t give anyone the license to belittle the whole country.”

“Don’t get personal with me,” Zaroon replies, in English.

“I’m not getting personal,” she shoots back. “Main bas facts state kar rahin hoon”—I am only stating the facts.

Later, in the show’s “library scene” (famous within its fandom) she condemns his caddish behaviour, loudly cutting him and his obnoxious friends to size. In both cases, Kashaf remains defiant about her censure—of Zaroon, and also of Allah, for failing to mitigate her condition.

Yet the show’s narrative gloss wears off almost as soon as its motivations become clear. While class mobility is encouraged, gender roles remain circumscribed. Defiance is cast as arrogance when employed by someone on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, namely Ghazala, Zaroon’s mother and a businesswoman. A strain of low-grade passive-aggression between Ghazala and her husband—who thinks she doesn’t pay enough attention to the family because she doesn’t hang his business suits in the wardrobe—suffuses their household. A woman’s autonomy and ambition is validated only so long as the goal is financial security or transcending one’s class, as in Kashaf’s case. Take that out of the equation, as with Ghazala, and a woman’s telos remains the hearth.

Zaroon takes his father’s mildly conservative traits and runs with them, often displaying a shockingly regressive outlook. His female ideal is Rafia, Kashaf’s genteel schoolteacher mother who balances back-breaking paid work with domesticity, and keeps her head covered. He tries to control his sister Sara’s independence, leaves his fiancée because she has male friends, and slyly checks his wife’s letters and text messages. Each of these women protest, convincingly and sometimes movingly, against his chauvinism. The serial’s ultimately conservative takeaway can feel like a betrayal, perhaps because its characters’ capitulations hew closer to reality than we’re willing to admit.

By the final episode, every female character tilts towards a traditional, domestic role. Ghazala realises the emptiness of privileging her profession over her partner. Sara, chastened by a divorce and a bout of clinical depression, wants to marry an even more conventional man. Once Rafia’s daughters are out of the home, she forgives and accepts her husband, despite his abandonment of the family. The only major character who seems always on the verge of making a compromise, but who remains ultimately unchanged, is Zaroon. The teleplay’s final silence on his undiminished male privilege is particularly jarring, partly because many characters, including Zaroon, have voiced an awareness of it throughout.

In the days before Zindagi’s launch, hoardings at several busy junctions in the major metros screamed: “Sarhad paar ki behtareen kahaniyan naye channel Zindagi par”—The best stories from across the border on the new channel Zindagi. The channel’s tagline, Jodey Dilon Ko—Bringing Hearts Closer—is not just a reference to the romantic dramas it airs, but a sentimental nod to the cultural links between the two countries. Soft diplomacy blossomed into a full-fledged love affair when Zindagi Gulzar Hai was re-run barely a month after it had first ended, its popularity fuelled at least in part by the frenzy surrounding its heavy-lidded hero Fawad Khan, a crossover heart-throb who recently appeared in a Bollywood film, Khoobsurat.

An excerpt from ‘Opening a Channel,’ published in The Caravan’s November 2014 issue. Read the story in full here.

Karanjeet Kaur is the former deputy editor of National Geographic Magazine (India). She writes on art, culture and travel, and has reported for Mint Lounge, Time Out, Yahoo! India, Art India and Mail Today in the past. She tweets as @kaju_katri.