The first Pakistani film I saw in a London cinema was Khuda Kay Liye, which with its story of radicalisation and prejudice was good but pretty grim. Grim also was its depiction of women: I can remember little about the women except that the ‘vilayat-return’ girl travelled to the tribal areas in stiletto heels and seemed generally clueless throughout.
But a new sort of Pakistani cinema is doing something very interesting: it depicts strong independent women within mainstream and highly commercial films. Although these films cater to commercial requirements in that they include lots of songs and colourfully choreographed dances, lots of good looking people and lots of glamorous locations they also manage to somehow avoid objectifying the women or typecasting them in submissive or demeaning roles.
I was particularly struck by this in Jawani Phir Nahin Aanee which I saw in Karachi when it was released two years ago. The film did well at the box office and is now described as a ‘blockbuster’, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was extremely funny, had a brilliant cast (it was terrific to see old pros Javed Sheikh, Bushra Ansari and Ismail Tara in the second half), and had an ending that I would not have expected from a Pakistani film — i.e. the playboy hero ends up not with a simpering, chaste girl, a ‘Naik Parveen’, but with the vamp — a woman ‘with a past’.
I was particularly struck by this and thought it rather gutsy in an environment where till pretty recently TV plays wouldn’t even give widows any kind of chance at remarriage or a proverbial happy ending. As a pairing it made perfect sense: the womanising international playboy and divorce lawyer (Humayun Saeed) meets his match (his true match!) in the confident, well travelled woman (Mehvish Hayat) who he meets while on holiday in the Far East. But in the subcontinental film and TV tradition screen vamps or non-submissive women have generally not been given much of a chance — especially not in Pakistan where the ‘Daddy mein club jaa rahi hoon’ type of girls have invariably been depicted as coming to a bad end in order to provide a moral lesson to viewers. High living or debauched male characters, by contrast, are given a chance by ‘repenting’ and being saved by a virtuous woman.
So it was a pleasant surprise to see that in the second Pakistani film I saw in a London cinema, the women characters were mostly strong and assertive. The film was Punjab Nahin Jaungi which is a Nadeem Baig film and includes many members of the Jawani Phir Nahin Aanee team (Ahmad Ali Butt is brilliant). This was a very funny and visually pleasing film with Humayun Saeed doing a very good job in a comic role: he is the entitled wadera ladla who falls for an independent, urban woman (Mahvish Hayat) who is on principle against feudalism and the feudal system. This is a confident, sporty heroine — jogging, shooting hoops, swimming, practising yoga — who makes her own decisions and stands her own ground. The other main female characters are also equally sure of themselves (Saba Wasim Abbas as the hero’s mother, Urwa Hocane as his cousin and Naveed Shahzad as matriarch and the heroine’s grandmother). The only unsatisfactory aspect of the ending is perhaps that the husband’s one episode of physical violence is not made enough of an issue.
Granted that such films do create a sort of fantasy world of beautiful clothes and gorgeous locales, they also do an impressive job of projecting through lighthearted entertainment, much that is positive about Pakistan. And this is done with much humour and with depictions of strong female characters as the norm rather than an exception.