Fake feminism in ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’ and South Asia

Last year after the release of Dangal Buzzfeed India published this article. I don’t normally associate Buzzfeed with anything other than shitposting mediocre memes, but this article made me see another side to Buzzfeed India. It discussed something that had drifted around inside my head, but I’d never consciously thought about and given words. All I felt was a nagging that something was off.

I’ve recently decided to branch out and try Pakistani serials. I’ve always been wary of Indian – and by extension, South Asian – TV shows because whatever I’ve seen of Indian popular TV is really fucking OTT and absolutely unpalatable.* However, I saw 2 serials on Netflix and both star Fawad Khan – so of course I had to give them a go! Zindagi Gulzar Hai got better reviews in my quick Google research, so I started with that and finished it yesterday.

Zindagu Gulzar Hai is about the lives of two completely different people and how they intersect: lower middle class Kashaf Murtaza, a serious and hardworking woman who comes from a troubled family and hates men; and upper class Zaroon Junaid, a carefree and fun-loving man whose family life runs smoothly and loves women. Naturally, they fall in love by the end of the show and live happily ever after – what else did you expect from a show whose title roughly translates to “Life is a bed of roses”?

From a feminist perspective, the first few episodes don’t seem that bad. A lot of importance and emphasis is given to women’s education, being independent, and not relying on men, as well as calling out Zaroon for his double standards and chauvinistic thinking (“chauvinist” is the characters’ favourite word to apply to Zaroon). However, about halfway through the series takes a sharp downturn: Zaroon’s demands that his fiancée stop socialising with men (that she’s known since childhood and is very good friends with) and stop going out without first informing him, are actually supported by his father. Meanwhile, his mother is supporting her daughter Sara in divorcing her husband, who after marriage adopts a similar set of values and restrictions to Zaroon (such as his wife leaving the house without informing him first). Fine, right? At least we have these sensible characters?

Guess again.

A couple of episodes later, Sara has fallen into a deep depression over her divorce and how does she deal with this? Sara lashes out at her mother for supporting her “blindly” during her divorce!!! Her mother should’ve made her “understand” her misbehaviour! Never mind that not only was her mother her most ardent supporter, but Zaroon and her father both did try to make her “understand”!

During Sara’s divorce “arc”, Zaroon and Sara both “call out” their mother for being a career woman and not devoting enough time to them when they were younger. Consequently, she is to blame for their failed relationships! And her husband agrees she was useless as a parent!

Later, Sara decides to remarry, to a man who is even more conservative than her ex-husband. When her mother expresses her concerns, Sara tells her she’s seen the error of her ways and learnt from her mistakes and will make compromises in order to keep her husband happy. Once again, she tells her mother that she was effectively useless and absent during their childhood. Coming from a calm and “more mature” Sara, her mother sees the error of her ways too and decides to dedicate more time to her home and husband.

Erm, what?

All this is telling viewers that to be a feminist in the true sense of the word and to believe that women should have equal rights and choices to men is wrong! It will screw up your children and their relationships for life! All it does is cause pain to families when women are not kept in their place!

And people hail this as a feminist show.

Speaking of which, the “strong role model” Kashaf isn’t blameless either. Initially, her storyline focusses on how her father abandoned his wife and three daughters for another woman because Kashaf’s mother didn’t have a son. Kashaf’s low opinion of men is perfectly understandable, and her and her family’s focus on education is commendable. But halfway through the series, after she graduates? Her mother’s concern becomes marrying her off instead! Never mind that Kashaf insists multiple times that she doesn’t want to marry or have children – her mother tells her that a woman is incomplete without a man and children! Despite the emphasis Kashaf’s mother places on education and the doors it can open, all she tries to do is force Kashaf through one door.

The only reason Kashaf decides to marry is because of her mother: when her mother hears that her husband’s second wife (villified as the “evil stepmother” stereotype with the aid of strong makeup, of course) is spreading vicious rumours about her and Kashaf, her mother lashes out at Kashaf and says clearly Kashaf doesn’t give a fuck about her if she can’t even do this one thing for her and get married!!!

What. The. Actual. Fuck?!

This scene angered me so much. All Kashaf has done in this show up to this point is worry about her mother and try to make her proud. She tutors kids so she can help pay the bills, and later gets a job to help pay for her sister’s wedding. She gets the highest marks throughout her time at university so her mother will be proud of her. When she comes home from university she helps her mother and sisters with the housework. And her mother has the gall to turn around and say Kashaf does nothing for her?! She makes it sound like all she’s ever asked of Kashaf is to do this one little thing, completely ignoring the fact that marriage is a big responsibility and how her daughter feels. Whenever Kashaf tells her that she can never get married after watching how her father treated her mother, how can her mother say Kashaf doesn’t give a shit about her; how can she just ignore Kashaf and say “All men are not like your father” and move on?

Later, Kashaf marries Zaroon and her mother just spouts crap after crap on how to be a good wife and how her life is now dedicated to her husband and his needs, and Kashaf eats this stuff up. And the worst part? These are the “qualities” Zaroon thinks a good wife should have, and why he fell in love with Kashaf in the first place. (aside, murmured under breath: He should’ve just married her mother instead and be done with it.)

I’ve elaborated on specific points about the fake feminism in Zindagi Gulzar Hai a lot, I know; like I said, I just finished watching this yesterday so it’s still fresh in my mind. It’s a character-driven show, so naturally the characters are what sparked the most emotional responses in me. The Buzzfeed India article is specifically talking about Bollywood but I linked it because I now feel it applies to South Asian media – and the subcontinent – in general. I’m also linking this article if you want more of an overview of the many flaws in Zindagi Gulzar Hai.

If I were going to briefly review this show I would say yes, I liked it – certainly enough that I finished it. But it advocates such backward attitudes that it makes it very hard to swallow and enjoy. At times I was so disgusted. But I’m also so grateful that I can notice and write about my disgust, instead of just going along with it because I’m that brainwashed.

Have you watched Zindagi Gulzar Hai or any similar shows? Let me know what your thoughts in the comments, and if you have any recommendations – next on my list is Udaari!

– S


*Having said that, it anyone has really good recommendations feel free to hmu in the comments!

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