‘Wali’ as the quintessential Pakistani hero ?

Osman Khalid Butt as Wali in Diyar-e-Dil                                     Osman Khalid Butt as Wali in ‘Diyar-e-Dil’

This article was also published  here at http://www.hipinpakistan.com/news/1148666

As the year 2015 comes to an end, it may be relevant to ask who and what the quintessential ‘Pakistani hero’ is or should be. At this point in time, Pakistani dramas seem to have gained universal outreach and accessibility around the globe. Not only is Pakistani content being aired internationally on Pakistani media houses but also on major South Asian networks like Star Plus and Zee TV. In this context, it seems relevant to analyse the traits and qualities which stand out among popular Pakistani characters or which seem to define the arche-typical Pakistani hero in recent productions.

So at a recent event held at NYU we wanted to discuss who and what the symbolic new Pakistani hero would be, given the current assortment of popular heros that one comes across on Pakistani television. In our search for the ultimate Pakistani hero, the media bandwagon trail led us to the wildly popular character of Wali in Diyar e Dil . Given all the recent hype about Diyar-e-Dil, the play’s plot and character portrayals seem very useful and appropriate to frame the conversation about how such popular on-screen characters contribute to the notions of self hood and translate into meaning making in public culture in Pakistan. 

Osman Khalid Butt plays the very prominent role of  the  dashing debonair ‘Wali’ in Diyar-e-Dil, whose character seems to have generated a public persona that stand out among others and has garnered a massive following with the young and old audiences alike. Wali’s character has inspired innumerable well-circulated memes and gifs on the social media, ranging from those celebrating his various on-screen moments with his fiance/ wife, sister, mother-in-law, father-in law  and grand-father, leading one observer to note rather irreverently ‘ Wali inn sub ka baap lagta hai‘ or for another to say ‘Wali is the glue that keeps Diyar-e-Dil together’. Inspite of the fact that Diyar -e-Dil has ended many months ago, Wali seem to continues to romance the audiences (and his on-screen love interest Faraah ! ), as can be seen given his recent fashionable public appearances with Faraah ( Maya Ali) at various public platforms recently.

So could Wali be the new quintessential Pakistani hero? The ideal Pakistani hero is obviously a changing and ever-evolving category. We have seen the  Pakistani hero persona oscillate between the clean shaven, urban Waheed Murad style , the rural gandasa-bearing Maula Jutt swagger or the almost irrelevant non-hero who served as a side kick and was inadvertently overshadowed by dominant women and their overwhelming saas-bahu type problems.  However the days of the very visible romantic ‘Pakistani chocolate hero‘ obviously seem to have returned to the world of Pakistani entertainment (subtext: via the Asher from Humsafar, then  Zaroon in Zindagi Gulzar Hai trail). With these famous roles Fawad Khan has recently made Chocoloate Hero-dom popular in Pakistan once again, so much so that one sees many different reincarnations of the traditional chocolate hero types appearing constantly in the recent Pakistani productions.

In many ways Wali is also the conventional text book version of a chocolate hero, a young man bestowed with good-looks, privilege and nobility, who rights all moral wrongs, fights the bad guys, saves the damsel distress and eventually rides away with her into the proverbial sunset.  In addition to this, according to popular consensus , Wali’s character seems to be thoroughly embedded in ‘tradition’ ( Closer to Tradition; Closer to Audience? )  while being equally modern at the same time, which perhaps raises his moral standing as ‘a family man’ and makes him unlike the other simply ‘modern’ popular heroes who captured the Pakistani imagination in the recent past.  Would this then make Wali different or all the same?

So we asked Osman what he himself thought about ‘Wali’ and he came back to us with a critique of ‘Wali’ and the ‘quintessential Pakistani hero’ which, to say the least, came as an awfully wonderful surprise ! Not only was Osman kind enough to take out the time from his busy schedule to  answer our queries, he actually brought to the conversation many thoughtful insights and helpful nuances that greatly added to our perspective. Osman gave us a good overview of the current generation of hero archetypes being represented on Pakistan television today such as the ” brooding , alpha male types who never speak when they should”, or “the brash street smart guy who cant tell the difference between wooing a woman and downright stalking her”. In the very same way Osman also looks at Wali from a critical distance and he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by all the ultra-masculine  hyper-narratives  and  machismo images surrounding many conversations regarding Wali.

” Wali  has a lot of qualities that a Pakistani hero should have. He’s honorable, respectful, and has great regard for family values”, Osman says. But for him Wali for is “a flawed character” who “shows flashes of anger” and  ” let his emotions get the better of reason”. “While these traits humanized Wali to me , as opposed to the horse riding superhero that he was being made out to be, I was surprised to see some of the reactions on the controversial moment when Wali forces Faraah away from her house. I saw that as the desperate actions of a desperate man who snaps under pressure of keeping his family intact in the wake of his father and uncle’s death. However many viewers saw this as Wali finally acting, and I quote, like ‘a mard ka bacha’. As if acting violently and attempting to put Faraah in her place is something to be celebrated”, he says. “That’s all kind of messed up, I think. After reading all the responses of  those people, I found myself thinking that this scene, that moment was not what made Wali a man, it’s his patience, his perseverance, his unbridled love, him striving to do the right thing, stumbling and rising again….that makes him worthy of Faraah. Reading those reactions I felt relieved that Farhat (Ishtiaq) wrote Faraah’s character as a strong willed woman who can hold her own against Wali !” .

And it would be worthwhile to point out that all these reactions that Osman is alluding to, were coming from  educated and privileged people who habituate the indulgent world of the social media. As is universally true, fans can often go overboard in their undulating worship of onscreen characters. However in a country like Pakistan rife with violence of all sorts this trend towards a desire for aggression can be seen as very problematic.  It is even more disturbing to note that a majority of these reactions were coming from women themselves. At various points in Diyar-e-Dil we see Wali unceremoniously pushing Faraah’s maid aside, lovingly kidnapping Faraah as the super macho male staking his natural claim over his wife  and even shoving Faraah somewhat aggressively onto the bed as she resists (in what was ironically supposed to be depicted as the very romantic culminating scene of the last episode ). Although some of these scenes caused some vocal consternation, mostly however such scenes were predominantly celebrated as ‘super-romantic’ with ‘Wali taking the lead’ and valorized as being’necessary’ and ‘the need of the situation’.

This also bring into question the amount (or lack) of agency that artistes themselves have when directed to depict such indignities. According to the various conversations I’ve had with many artists, it seems like such choices are non-existent if they want to ‘survive in the industry’ or ‘secure any future projects’.  Following the script and the directions, they point out, is very much part of the deal and seen as a criterion for their ‘professionalism’. Given the fact then that the actors themselves do not have much space to negotiate how they portray their characters, it is important for the scriptwriters,producers and directors to remember that  even these small male micro-aggressions, which are projected as being very normative and even aspirational in our media, lead to the normalization and justification of such aggression and can often translate into actual physical violence for a lot of women. These gestures are clearly unwelcome and unacceptable forms of  soft violence towards women, as a way of putting women in their place, and visibly reinforcing the idea that women can be dealt in any which way. What we therefore need in our productions are nuanced representations and measured ,dignified gestures towards women regardless of what their class, social or moral condition is shown to be.

As Osman himself points out, these kind of  misogynistic reactions calls for a greater question, which is “how sensitized are we really after watching play upon play that showcase women as these frail creatures in the need of a knight in shining armor ?”. Osman questions the underlying value of television plays which according to him, keep “finding new and inventive ways to inflict torture and misery  upon the female leads”. “The masses find a character like Wali to be boring until he acts out in rage and he does something irredeemable, had it not been for his other positive characteristics. This kind of mentality and this grab for TRPs, needs to stop”, he says.

Osman also challenges the prevalent logic about the repeating the formulaic representations of submissive , oppressed women. “The stereotypes from my Humsafar parody still hold today, women is either the home maker or the home breaker. There’s just no middle ground. All the blame is placed on the beybuss, duthkari hui woman, who has all the decisions in life made for her , who is without voice, who is the lamb to the slaughter, the ever forgiving one, no matter how terrible the crime against her is. That trope is what audience supposedly wants to see, but honestly when you don’t given them anything else to watch …if you don’t give them diversity, how do you expect the mindset to change? “, he asks. This dilemma possibly has to do something with the complacence and escapist attitudes of a certain age and class demographic who have access to Western programming and who Osman believes “can afford to be snarky towards the groan-inducing tropes that we see on Pakistani television”. But clearly not everyone has that opportunity. Osman feels that “the TV as a widespread medium should be used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain. We definitely need to diversify in order to move ahead and to make this the Golden age of the Pakistani television”.

We appreciate Osman for having the sensitivity to speak meaningfully about gender representations in our media without any sense of male entitlement whatsoever. In any case we feel that its rather commendable for all men, who are at the top of their game, to publicly speak about these issues. Some may also remember Fawad Khan himself calling out one of his extremely famous character Zaroon for being a chauvinist and a misogynist. The bottom-line however is that these characters, however flawed are nevertheless seen as ‘compelling’ and continue to dominate popular imagination.  So perhaps, as a mirror of the society itself, the quintessential Pakistani hero is ultimately ‘a flawed man’ like Wali. Many Wali-Faraah ‘shippers’ may even be heart broken to hear Osman’s views about their favorite hero, but clearly it is not Wali who is the uber-hero here that many would like him to be, but rather that hero appears to be Osman himself  !

 

 

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