O Rungreza is a winner not just because of its text but also its subtext. The text, as we all are seeing and enjoying is dazzlingly colored, hues of all kind filled in just so by the gifted director, his talented creatives and the fabulous hand-picked actors, all of whom fit their characters like they were born to play them. It is with its subtext, however, where the play hit the ball out the park. Subversion now has a new name – Saji Gul.
I deliberately delayed the writing of this review because I wanted to see audiences’ reaction to this episode – to Qasim and Sassi’s equation – and the responses make for an interesting read. The call for Qasim to show his other side, to not be so gulible, to stop being a pushover, has been almost universal. This outpouring of hamdardi goes hand in hand with growing condemnation for Sassi’s inappropriate or unacceptable behavior.
These comments make for a fascinating study, of what we as a people understand and expect of gender roles. Conditioned over generations – larkiyan aise nahin boltein, larkiyan yeh nahin kartein, larkon kon aisey kaam nahin karney chahiyen, yeh tau larkiyon ke kaam hain, beta mard bano, shohar ho shohar ban kar raho – we as a society have created certain expectations of gendered behaviours. Hence for a man to behave as gently as Qasim does, is as unacceptable as it is uncomfortable. Even female audiences are discomfitted by his seemingly “unmanly” response to Sassi’s growing badtameezi. In recent days every conversation I have had about this character has ended with a variation on: Qasim just needs time to grow up … once he gets more confident he will learn to assert himself….
Likewise for Sassi. She makes us uncomfortable. This is not how “good girls” behave, is the general perception. It is almost as if we are holding our collective breath because clearly no good can come out of such attitude – and that too from a girl! The way she talks down to her mother makes us cringe as does her rudeness with her father. Her boldness with Wajih and her refusal to back down in face of familial pressure has us fearful of repercussions.
Yes, Sassi is pushing boundaries but so what if she does? What makes her wrong and our expectations of her right? What if Qasim doesn’t “man up”? Would that be so wrong? Why is this gentle Qasim not acceptable for us – why are we calling him a bakri?
Mammo and Khayyam represent the other end of the spectrum in terms of gendered desi expectations. So much of what we hate about Khayyam is precisely what we want Qasim to become – assertive, confident, dominating. We get frustrated with Mammo because she refuses to stand up for herself, allowing Khayyam to bully her. But then isn’t this what we have taught our girls and boys for generations? Biwi ka maqam versus shohar ka ooncha darja, beti shohar ki izzat karo, uski izzat tumhari izzat hai...Isn’t this precisely what Mommo was trying to teach Sassi in this episode?
So if Sassi’s rebellion scares us and Qasim’s unmanly-pan frustrates, then what is it that we are looking for and where do we go looking for “appropriate” role models?
TV is a medium with tremendous reach and influence. Earlier when I used to write this, I was often scolded for reading too much in what was merely a channel of amusement and entertainment, but the recent barrage of social-issue based dramas has proven me right. TV is no longer an idiot box, rather a very useful instrument that if utilized correctly can and does bring about much- needed change in perception. Viewed through this lens of social change, serials like O Rungreza then become very important.
With this serial, Saji Gul and the entire team of O Rungreza deserve a huge round of applause for compelling us to look beyond the text – a rebellious girl hell-bent on breaking the rules – into the subtext – what exactly is she rebelling against. If Mammo is not what we don’t want our daughter to be like then why are we still teaching them antiquated sabaqs, the kind Mammo teaches her daughter? Why aren’t we teaching them to take a leaf out of Sassi’s book and stand up for what they believe is right rather than waiting for someone to take a stand for them?
And it’s not just women, our perceptions of men need to change as well. Why can’t a soft-hearted, kind and gentle man be just as desirable if not more so than the typical alpha male desi hero? Look closely and Qasim walking away from Sassi is the most heroic thing a man can can ever do. Putting his beloved’s desire above that of his own – that’s what true love is all about. Setting love free and keeping faith that if it is meant to be it will eventually return to him of its own accord – Qasim is absolutely on the right track.
Love is not merely about a physical union it is about the meeting of minds- this is what Qasim tries to tell Mammo, but for someone so firmly entrenched in societally prescribed norms this view impossible to understand. And it is not just her, even Khayyam fails at looking beyond the proverbial box. For him love is ownership, an ownership akin to imprisonment. And that is precisely why Soniya Jahan is so fantastic. Like Sassi, Sonya is another woman who does not meet our societal standards of a “good girl,” on account of her profession, but then has being “good” helped Mammo? Similarly, for Sassi Qasim is a non-entity and Mommo berates him for being a pushover, but ask Sonya Jahan and what she would not give to have a sensitive man like Qasim stand by her side and in her life.
Challenging deeply entrenched socio-cultural norms is not easy and to not make it all sound like a long-winded preachy lecture, harder still. And that is why Saji Gul is the real hero of the story here. Every character of his holds up a mirror to society, speaking in a language we all understand, asking us to reflect on what we see staring back. Grotesque as these reflections may be, they need to be engaged with and understood. Mammo’s cultural understanding of womanhood and Khayyam’s internalizing of the socially prescribed mardanapan are the real problems here, not Sassi’s badtameezi and Qasim’s bechargi. The latter are merely behaviors formed as and in response.
We typically see youngsters blamed for all that is wrong in society today, but as seen here, for change in youngsters’ behavior, we the elders, i.e the society at large, have to change. We can teach but only after we have learned the same lesson ourselves. Become the change we want to see – this to me is the takeaway from this serial so far.
Written by SZ~