When the initial teaser for Baaghi was released I was both impressed and underwhelmed.
I was impressed because they had clearly created an effective campaign. They had utilized Qandeel Baloch’s popularity, the contrast between the urban and the rural and her infamous murder to create something instantly shareable. The team understood the notoriety of their subject and the demands of the digital age well.
But I was disappointed because right off the bat the project seemed to be riddled with clichés. Saba Qamar is a gifted actress (clearly given her recent prowess in Hindi Medium) but her rendition of Qandeel’s viral social media videos bordered exaggerated, and the montage contrasting how she was treated by the men in her family also seemed formulaic.
This, albeit boldly and artfully done, seemed less about Qandeel’s life and more about a story, a single story that reverberates across Pakistan’s television productions.
There is a clear protagonist, usually a woman, who is tormented by the regressive factions within Pakistani society, often literally personified by a man. The serial then follows the protagonist as she makes her way towards a savior, often another man. There is a love story in the mix, because throw together a knight on horseback and a few pretty sets and why wouldn’t love conquer all?
If you have kept abreast with local televisions, then you know that this could be the basic plot for obvious love sagas like Mann Mayal. It also exists in more peculiar serials like Gul e Rana which do overturn this a bit by not really ending on a happily ever after (although this isn’t necessarily a good thing, as Gul e Rana had a wide set of its own problems). Even when a drama serial apparently set-out to tackle a social issue, it can’t always shake this generic set-up, as was the case for Muqabil.
From what I have been seeing of Baaghi, it maybe guilty of following similar tropes.
For a TED talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the “danger of a single story”. Referring to her experiences as an African coming to America, she claimed that Americans had a single story of Africa; that it was poor, and they were unable to conceive it as anything other than that. Speaking about the creation of a single story she said:
“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”
In a patriarchal society, which Pakistan is whether we want to admit it, deny it, be ashamed of it, or stake our honor upon it, the single story of women is that we are puppets in the hands of men, and Pakistani television reverberates with it. When a character is the victim, it is a man who is her culprit. When she is a victor, it is a man that she is victorious against.
This is our single story, our only story.
Even when a project is supposed to revolve around a woman, as is the case for Baaghi, her conflicts, her pathos, her reasons for being stem from the men in her life.
In all the teasers for the show Saba Qamar is never NOT accompanied by a man. This can either be the clear antagonists, Qandeel’s brothers or ex-husband, or it can be a would-be love interest, played by Osman Khalid Butt.
By portraying her life almost entirely through her relationship with the men around her, the production team despite their intentions have indeed stuffed Qandeel Baloch into the single story of Pakistani women. Relegating her to the victim of patriarchy, and nothing more.
Some of you may argue that that is what she was. As arguably the most famous victim of honor killing and murdered by her own brother, she was a victim of patriarchy.
And I can’t disagree with you. That was definitely one of Qandeel’s stories, but it was just one, and the others were just as important.
For example, on the Facebook page for the upcoming series the synopsis reads that the leading female is “misguided by people,” because of which, “she ended up putting controversial videos on social media to gain attention. However, the outcome wasn’t pleasant and she received nationwide criticism.”
And yet, in an interview with BBC Urdu, Qandeel said that she chose to upload videos of herself on social media after being disillusioned by the shady world of Pakistani ‘show-biz’. Rather than being a passive target who was ‘misguided’, she seemed to exhibit active agency in all her decisions.
Often, she seemed to understand that what she was doing could be construed as controversial and did it despite that.
Simultaneously, while she faced a lot of criticism from conservative factions, what Baaghi’s social media description omits to mention is that she also achieved unrivaled followers, many of whom applauded her for turning conservative norms on their head.
Qandeel Baloch was shunned by a lot of people, and put into boxes depending on how she made us feel. When we found her accent and antics amusing, she became the butt of a joke. When she was good for ratings, she became a controversial headline, and now that she is the subject of a Pakistani television series, she maybe relegated into the single story that women before her have been confined to. And as a complex and nuanced individual she deserved and deserves better, particularly now when her story is all that is left.