For the uninitiated, ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’ is a television series about a woman with daddy issues and a guy with mommy issues, journaling their way through life. Superficially, this television series comes across as a classic story tale of opposites attract, woven in alluring Urdu, seemingly the champion of female empowerment and women’s education. The series covers the growth and eventual union of Zaroon & Kashaf, characters that stem from opposite factions of society- the upper class and the lower middle class; the affluent & the underdog; the man & the woman. And yet, a commonality remains throughout both their journeys – the sense of ungratefulness.
Kashaf, forced to live in adversity holds a grudge against God. After her father, Murtaza, abandoned his family for a second marriage due to want for a son, life, according to Kashaf, is full of strife and has been nothing but cruel to her mother, Rafiya & her two sisters, Sidra & Shehnila. Murtuza’s perpetual negligence towards his first wife and daughters’ basic needs, while pampering and prioritising his second family above her own, has made Kashaf ungrateful towards life. She refuses to allow herself even a moment of happiness, lest she loses it. She has no expectations from life and is always quick to dismiss the possibility of anything good ever happening to her. Kashaf, in short, is the ultimate pessimist.
The guitar strumming casanova, Zaroon, on the other hand, is a privileged brat who hasn’t figured out what he wants from life, yet, because he has so many options to choose from. He wants life to be an adventure, and questions whether it’s worth always living in comfort, while still having his father pay off his credit card bills even after he gets a job in Central Superior Services. The biggest problem Zaroon seems to have in life is women, especially the freedom that the women in his life seem to have. His arc begins with him journaling into his MacBook about how women are a source of tension in the face of life’s brilliant gifts. Taking a cue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Zaroon types on, “Women thy name is frailty, stupidity, stubbornness, selfishness, and hypocrisy.” This entitled overgrown manchild, time and again claims how much he can’t stand an independent woman, with a mind of her own, because he does believe that at the end of the day, it’s a man’s world, and that’s how it should be.
It’s surprising how the makers got away with pairing a character that breaks the centuries-old stereotype assigned to daughters being a burden to their parents at every level, with a man whose biggest complaint from life is that his mother has always been career-oriented and his sister seems to be more pampered for her own good. In fact, in one particular scene, when Kashaf is finally opening up to Zaroon about her terrible insecurities and hardships, the scene quickly becomes all about how Zaroon has suffered from his mother’s absence while growing up. At no point in this conversation does Zaroon try to support Kashaf for feeling the way that she does, instead he makes it all about himself.
Kashaf, a respectable officer of the Central Superior Services, herself, is constantly seen being taught by her mother about how to be a perfect wife and daughter-in-law. If this isn’t classical patriarchal conditioning, I don’t know what is. At the same time, Zaroon’s mother warns him about the money he gives to Kashaf to run the house, as women from ‘lower’ backgrounds tend to exploit their husbands. The use of phrases like “apne ghar ki hona” which essentially translate into being married off, since daughters never belong to their parents, and implications that once a woman is married off she has to follow the rules set onto her by her husband, affirm the patriarchal ideologies of the makers.
Kashaf seems to fall more in love with Zaroon because he gives her money and tells her she is his responsibility even though she has a steady income and is at an equally respectable position as him. This is understandable since she comes from a place where her father has always shirked his responsibilities. But this is just another example of how low her expectations are from the men in her life. While Kashaf is shown to be consistently wary of letting her guard down in front of Zaroon, lest he too abandons her, he on the other hand despite all his chauvinism & prejudice, is portrayed as the knight in shining armour, for not being as toxic as Murtuza.
Even though the series is full of strong women characters from various walks of life, the makers only seem to favour them as long as they have been through enough bouts of helplessness. They do this consistently throughout the series by playing a sorrowful background score every time Kashaf and her family have discussions about life’s misgivings, while Zaroon’s mother, Ghazala, and his sister, Sara’s scenes are accompanied with a more wicked, villainous score. His best friend and eventual fiancé, Asmara, also seems to come under the same mold. For example, Rafiya, an honest principal of a government school, who single-handedly raised three daughters in the face of extreme opposition and obstacles that her husband & in-laws create for her, is portrayed as an ideal woman, while Ghazala is judged for not knowing where her husband’s brown suit is, when she is in the middle of sharing the news of her selection to speak at a conference in Vienna, simply because she seems to be flying too high for her own good, apparently the result of ‘too much freedom that her husband has extended to her’.
Sara, who is pretty much the female counterpart of Zaroon, is portrayed as arrogant, stubborn, immature & entitled, & is judged for having the same qualities that Zaroon has, simply because she is a woman. She is villainised for wearing a sleeveless top and going for a concert with her male friends, returning home late and even for not knowing how to sew a button of her brother’s shirt. All through his university days Asmara, blown off by Zaroon when she deems him a flirt, is judged by him once they’re engaged, for socialising and hanging out with her male friends.
Throughout this dreadful storyline, the makers would be happy to have us believe that liberal families create uncontrolled, badly behaved women, while conservative families create strong, dignified, ideal women that make obedient wives and daughters. Further, that liberal men are weak and should be sympathised with, for losing control over the women in their lives, while oppressive, toxic men will be judged, but they can be redeemed if they apologise hard enough & show up for their family. The exception to this is the one positive male character, Osama, who in my opinion would have made the ideal partner for any woman. Unlike Zaroon, he has respected Kashaf, and treated her as an equal, from the get-go. He has also often been the voice of reason in Zaroon’s life, even though the latter never accepted his point of view.
The question is, in this era of feminism, when women are still fighting to abolish systemic sexism, much like Rafiya, standing up against her husband and refusing to thwart her daughter’s education, should we still laud shows like Zindagi Gulzar Hai, that re-affirm and re-establish the frightening & disappointing patriarchal approach that a woman can be the ideal daughter, ace her career, become independent, but is only considered truly successful, once she marries a man & births his children? All this, under the guise of female empowerment. Here’s the story of a strong-willed, well educated, responsible, self-made woman, guilt-tripped by her own mother, the same woman that helped empower her, into marrying someone she despises.
What’s worse is, Kashaf agrees to marry Zaroon without a proper discussion about their future, their goals, their individual beliefs, in fact, without really talking about anything in particular, simply because he stopped a hot cup of tea from falling onto her. In fact, even after leaving Zaroon on learning of his indiscretions, the only reason she feels compelled to reconcile with him is that she doesn’t think she can raise daughters all by herself like her mother did. Romanticising the fact that Zaroon was delighted to learn that he was having two daughters, unlike her own father, brings one back to ponder on how low Kashaf’s expectations from men are, clearly, not very unlike the expectations of Indians from television soap operas, I’d say, after the garbage fed to us by Balaji Telefilms all these years, that they fell in love with a carefully crafted, misogynistic and sexist show like Zindagi Gulzar hai.