I am back. With a vengeance. Teeth sharpened, claws twitching like a cat about to devour a recently mutilated mouse. It has been torturous watching the scenes which shall be placed on the slaughtering block and chopped up, frame by frame, deconstructed, dismantled and disembowelled for the deeper meaning inherent in what otherwise appears to be nothing but a poorly conceived and executed attempt to entertain the viewing masses.
When I set out to analyse the fare that is being produced and aired in the name of entertainment, I had only a vague idea how insidious the design of this industry could be, how dangerous the kinds of notions that form the foundation of the scripts that are acted out, literally, by men and women who may just be doing what seems to be a ‘job’.
Is it possible that the damage inherent in the roles and scenarios being played out escapes the entire production team? Can an actor actually take on a character without analysing the significance of the dialogue, the narrative, the denouement of the entire plot line? Apparently, all of this is possible. Apparently, there is no need to consider the implausibility of certain events or to reconsider the retrogressive nature of certain cultural notions that reinforce already existing values that are neither just nor desirable.
Let us begin with addressing the issue of sanity and its lack thereof. In the soaps viewed, more than just a few appear to base their ‘drama’ on the madness of the potential heroine: this can be an unwed young woman, a married young woman, a childless young woman, or a recently divorced young woman. The common factor shared by this rich variety of characters is that they are deeply, irretrievably unhappy and, not to overstate this, that they are young.
They are also usually fair complexioned, reasonably pleasant looking, with hair the colour of a Makrani sunset. They are usually totally powerless; they haven’t got a college degree; they do not work; and they have no ambition to do anything other than get married, have children and attend to the whims and fancies of husbands, mothers-in-law and sundry neighbours who breeze in and out of bedrooms, lounges, kitchens and courtyards, with nothing to do other than enquire about the unwed daughter, the married one, the childless one and, of course, in conspiratorial whispers, the divorced one.
Now, the various reasons the aforementioned young women are rendered insane present themselves as follows: the unwed daughter has lost it since she has not received the right marriage proposal; the married one has stopped speaking since she has married the wrong man; the childless woman weeps endlessly, copious glycerine tears pouring out of mascaraed eyes, endlessly berated for being barren; and the divorced woman stares at walls uselessly for she is just a used good, a burden on her parents and hard-working or, alternately, jobless brothers.
A divorced woman is a shunned woman so her madness does not really count. She must have been mad to start with and that could be the reason why she was not able to keep a marriage going, despite having married the wrong man, of course. No sympathy for such marital miscalculations! The strange behaviour of the unwed girl, the wrongly married girl and the childless girl with a womb as vacant as the look in her eyes, however, is something that needs redressal.
In families across the country, supposedly depicted in the plethora of soaps being broadcasted night and ceaseless day, young girls are seen sitting or lying down on beds, doing nothing, sitting on sofas with golden frames and lurid upholstery to make up for the vapid conversation and insipid histrionics, or they are opening gates for milkmen, vegetable vendors or total strangers who happen to form a link to the riveting happenings which shall unfold scene after painful scene.
Therefore, given that these young women have absolutely nothing else to do other than lounge around like lizards sunbathing on a rock, it should certainly not come as a surprise when one of them stops talking or starts staring at unseen things on walls littered haphazardly with calendars several years too old, clocks whose hands do not move and pictures of cats and babies, and red roses growing in some distant garden (a metaphor for kittens and babies growing in a distant womb, clearly).
The very fact that these frail, jobless, sad yet meticulously made over characters display symptoms which are not very hard to distinguish from the daily pattern of their behaviour speaks volumes for the deviousness of the minds responsible for churning out script after vacuous script. Once the non-symptoms of supposed madness have been detected and acknowledged, usually through a protracted process of pointless and rhetorical question asking (‘kya ho gaya hai bitya ko?’), the responsible adults in the young girl’s family make a beeline for the mysterious yet familiar environs of dubious men who claim to have the solution up their sleeve, or in the pot, so to speak. Instead of consulting a doctor or even the local midwife (who has knowledge about ‘wombs with no view’ that would make the most competent obstetrician or gynaecologist blush with shame), the local aamil or pir baba is sought out.
The journey to his abode is a harrowing one — through narrow lanes and eerie, fog-filled courtyards leading to an ‘astaana’ marked with strange symbols evocative of the intriguing spiral which serves as a symbol of the White Walkers in Game of Thrones.
We step inside the pir baba’s workplace for that is what it is, a fully equipped office of sorts, complete with dead goats’ heads, severed hands of babies, bloodied chicken feathers, plastic skulls, a scatter of pins and needles, and lots and lots of green chillies and lemons, enough to make up a nice garnishing on a baara masaalay ki chaat. The place is ill-lit, except for a rush of HMI light filtering through a ventilator placed in a wall opposite the throne of the said pir baba.
The light hits the pir baba’s bearded face. His eyes are hooded, his mouth chanting a mumbled mantra. His neck is weighed down by a flood of beaded garlands and he wears a long, loose garment, as green as a field of alfalfa on a sunny day. The pir baba has clearly not been to a barbershop in a long while; he shakes his tresses from side to side as the said sad-mad (young) woman is brought into the room by the said (responsible) adult member of her family.
Standing besides the pir baba is the Loyal Minion, the Assistant Director, Exorcism Branch of Retrogressive Ville, if you will. He is usually a slight man, not portly like his Master of Magical Ability. The assistant is poorly dressed, bereft of jewellery or any finery, and he squats or stands with gaze lowered, ready to strike if things get out of hand. And things do get out of hand as the satanic manifestation that has gotten a hold of the said sad-mad (young) woman reaches a fever pitch, with the pir baba shaking a lance or a jharroo at the said sad-mad woman, screaming horrific invective at the devil, urging the non-rent-paying shaitan to leave the body it has possessed or else there will be more shaking and shouting, and general pandemonium.
The script can veer into different directions at this point: an intervention takes place while the sad-mad maiden is being supposedly beaten to within an inch of her otherwise living-dead state. Sometimes it is a portly, stout, white-haired grandmother who finds her way through the labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleyways, not daunted by the creeping fog (smoke machines have a special place in the world of make-believe), determined to find the lost, sad-mad and soon-to-be-glad girl.
At other times it is a young man who steps in between the pir baba’s jharroo and the supposedly possessed but nubile body of the sad-mad-and-not-yet-glad young woman. In the former case, the grandmother falls at the feet of the enraged pir baba (the rage comes from the fact that the shaitan has illegally occupied a rather attractive accommodation). She wails and pleads and beseeches the Whipping Weirdo to spare her granddaughter. But the Whipping Weirdo is committed to the exorcism and continues to flagellate the young -sad-mad-and-not-yet-glad woman. The minion (Assistant Director, Ministry of Total Buffoonery) aids and abets his master by shouting ‘Haq Allah! Sach Allah, Baqi sab Jhoooth!’ until the young-sad-mad-and-not-yet-glad woman swoons and falls into a lifeless heap on the chilli and lemon festooned floor of the said voodoo venue.
Of course, the fact that she is usually equally lifeless while draped over a bed or slumbering on a sofa escapes the writer, director, producer and audience. In fact, the only time that said character actually comes to life is when she is mall crawling or merrily dancing at her best friend’s henna ceremony. Once the exorcism is over, the pir baba retires to his shady corner while the assistant director minion presses his master’s legs or ushers out the grateful grandmother/young, unknown stranger man/the possessed woman and perhaps the rickshaw driver who appears out of the blue into said shady lane.
This then, is the method to the madness of the young-sad-mad-and-not-yet-glad woman. As the sun rises over the horizon the next day, we will know for sure that the coveted rishta has come, that the estranged husband has returned, that the longed-for child will blossom in the hitherto empty womb. And back at the astaana of the Whipping Weirdo, more goat heads and chicken feathers vie for space on the cold brick floor, nestling themselves comfortably in the imagination of an audience hanging off its bed/golden sofa/garden chair, waiting for the next episode of straining moments of the weak.
The article was published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is an actor, film-maker and human rights activist.