Humsafar versus Zindagi Gulzar Hai

So let’s get out of the way the reason we actually watched these serials, yeah? Fawad Khan. Full stop.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see how strong the writing was, and how good the performances were. I also really appreciated that the story wound up after one season, similar to the UK tradition of limited series. This is restraint entirely foreign to Hindi, Tamil, and English-American series.

Fawad’s characters, Ashar and Zaroon, are very similar: the ostensibly-modern desi male. It doesn’t take a ton of imagination to transpose the two. Consequently, the best lens to contrast these two series through is their portrayal of their women, particularly their leading ladies: Khirad and Kashaf, respectively.

Khirad, played by Mahira Khan, and Kashaf, by Sanam Saeed, are both poor, proud and smart. Khirad is somewhat docile and not super-ambitious; Kashaf is headstrong and very ambitious. Both are extremely relatable, but their stories could not be more different. Khirad goes from trusting and innocent to hardened (but never bitter) and wary. Kashaf, on the other hand, learns to trust, to make herself vulnerable to love. Neither initial personality is surprising. Khirad was brought up by loving parents, Kashaf’s father is distant (having married a second time because his first wife only bore him daughters) and fully undependable.

Even after she loses her parents, Khirad moves under the loving protection of her maternal uncle and father-in-law Baseerat, cousin and husband Ashar, and—until a fateful moment—aunt and mother-in-law Farida. All she has known is people looking out for her. Even as her mother lies on her death-bed, she begs Baseerat to find a good husband for Khirad so that she is not left unprotected. When Farida causes a rift between Ashar and Khirad through pure duplicity, Khirad is left alone in the world. Her predicament is all the more terrifying because of her sheltered life so far. But she is strong, she ploughs through it for the sake of her daughter, Hareem. (It is Hareem’s illness that brings her parents together, eventually causes Ashar to realise his mother’s villiany.)

The men in Kashaf’s life exist to take advantage of the women. Her father does not support his first wife and three daughters even a little. All his love is showered upon his son from his second wife. Said son, Hammad, is affectionate towards his half-sisters and step-mother, but is foolish and irresponsible. Kashaf and her sisters, however, do not have that luxury. Along with their mother, Rafia, they eke out an existence teaching. The series draws these women so well: Rafia, deferential towards her husband and his family while not hesitating to defy them when it comes to her daughters’ well-being; Kashaf, oldest born, cynical, wilful, highly accomplished academically; Sidra the second-born, optimistic, sweet, sensible, not as accomplished as her sisters academically, her mother’s support; Shaneela, the last, is the mid-point between Kashaf and Sidra, academically and otherwise. It is a joy to just watch these women on screen, watch them interacting, watch them live. Kashaf’s sisters and mother are supporting characters, but they merit extensive mention in a paragraph about her because they are such an integral part of her.

Given both stories revolve around women in a very fundamental way, the next question to ask is, naturally: what are their attitudes towards women in general, towards womanhood?

One gets the sense that Zindagi Gulzar Hai wants to be feminist, or at least wants to make a statement about feminism. After all, its protagonist and the three women closest to her are strong and self-reliant. Self-reliance is, in fact, Kashaf’s all-consuming desire. However, the problem is that ZGH’s definition of feminism starts and ends there. It goes out of its way to say this, through the story arc of Sara, Zaroon’s sister. Sara, Asmara (Zaroon’s one-time fiancee) and Zaroon’s mother Ghazala are shown to be what the show calls “too liberal”. They stay out late, never tell anyone where they’re going, (in the case of Ghazala) have no time for their children, (in the case of Sara and Asmara) wear skimpy clothes. Zaroon does not scruple to tell all three exactly what he thinks of their actions (which, unsurprisingly, leads Asmara to break off their engagement). More troubling, this constant attempt to check and control the women around him is presented as evidence of Zaroon’s substance, evidence that Kashaf should not judge him shallow. (There are worse things than shallow, ZGH, and controlling is one of them.) It’s one thing if Zaroon starts out this way, and is shown up by Kashaf. That, unfortunately, doesn’t happen. Indeed, it’s Kashaf who allows herself to be controlled by Zaroon. Wait, this gets worse: Kashaf’s giving in is painted as committing to the relationship, as answer to Zaroon’s (eminently reasonable) wish that she confide her problems in him. Ultimately, this is the statement ZGH wants to make: that limits on women may be lifted if it means they can work more, but not when they simply want to enjoy life a bit. It does this by wilfully (and erroneously!) conflating liberalism with irresponsibility, trust with obedience, and conservatism with substance. No, thank you.

Viewed in this light, Humsafar comes off much better even though—or perhaps because—it doesn’t start off wanting to make lofty statements about feminism. It’s just a masala story, of a vindictive mother-in-law who succeeds in bringing hell to the lives of her son and daughter-in-law. There are heroes (Khirad), villians (Farida, Zarina, Sara, Khizar), nincompoops (Ashar) and innocents (Hareem). Khirad ends up being far more feminist than Kashaf does. Although she starts off as docile and malleable (her mother and uncle say so in so many words), she ends up trusting herself fully, being very clear-eyed about the kind of weak man Ashar is. Even when she does go back to him, there is a clear sense that this time she is not swept off her feet by his charm, but is still fully aware of his faults. Khirad gains self-respect and agency at very high cost, and she keeps them with a will, even when a life of comfort and security is restored to her.

However, despite Humsafar being better on women, Zindagi Gulzar Hai is the better-written serial. Days later, it is ZGH that I think of often, not so much Humsafar. And yet, both serials were well worth the time to watch, with lots to think upon and say after the credits roll.

Definitely not your standard Radaan Creations interminable mega-serial.