I Heart Humsafar

This post contains some spoilers.

While I was visiting family and friends these past winter holidays, there was one sigh on everyone’s lips: Humsafar.  Even as I write this, I’m taking a deep breath, feeling both exhilarated and wishful, thinking about Khirad and Asher, and their various relationship trials and tribulations.  And if you’re already shaking your head in dismay, no, this is not another piece on South Asian dating traditions but rather a reference to the main protagonists of a very popular TV series taking Pakistan (and many South Asian communities abroad) by storm.

Main characters of Humsafar. Image via The Express Tribune.

“Humsafar” translates literally to “travelling companion” and this is where English can be so limiting.  In actuality, “Humsafar,” an Urdu word, conveys a perfectly nuanced reference to one’s soul mate.  It alludes to a partnership, a companion or significant other that helps you face the complexities of life’s pleasures and challenges.  Based on a novel by Farhat Ishtiaq and a production of Hum TV, the show tells the story of a young woman, Khirad, as she enters into an arranged marriage with the more affluent and worldly Asher.  The story unfolds as the couple faces a number of challenges, both at home, as a newly married couple with expectations to succeed, and externally, from people within Asher’s upper class, social network, some of whom look down at Khirad’s purported small town naïveté.  Also complicating the events is Khirad’s mother-in-law, providing the requisite foil to Khirad’s happy ending with Asher.  While this story is not original, the superb acting by the leads is both compelling and engrossing.  The chemistry between the main protagonists is particularly noteworthy.  For the first time, as an avid TV junkie, I was able to associate the Western TV idiom of “UST” or “unresolved sexual tension” with the main leads, and fervently hoped for a happy ending.

The story develops likes a primetime soap, minus the oft exaggerated sexual exploits found in some Western TV shows.  Overt romantic displays of affection are not tolerated between characters (let alone living *cough* breathing souls outside of television) and any references to such are implicit, so that romantic encounters include minimal hand holding; gentle, slowly drawn-out shoulder touches; and gazing/staring into each other’s eyes whilst a slightly melodramatic soundtrack soars to a climax.  To good effect, I might add – Humsafar employs this effectively throughout the show.

Pakistani TV dramas (as they are oft referred to) usually carry some elements of prevailing socio-economic and political conditions though Humsafar does not break any social or cultural barriers –  gendered roles are obvious and patriarchal undertones are prevalent.  What it has successfully accomplished instead is making its characters exceedingly relatable, explaining in part the show’s popularity.

Unfortunately, however, it plays upon common stereotypes of Pakistani women.  Mother- and daughter-in-law entanglements are common fodder for TV melodramas and Humsafar is no different.  Its execution of this particular storyline was, in my opinion, a surprise development, with the viewers learning of the character’s evil intentions much later in the show; kudos to the director for shaking things up.

Additionally, it continues to play the woman-as-victim card, something prevalent in other TV shows that I had the opportunity to watch over winter break (I’m looking at you, Meri Zaat Zara-e-Benishan).  My mother (an avid fan too) jokingly suggested that, with all the tears that Khirad has wept during the course of the show, she should be exceedingly dehydrated by now.  But jokes aside, after being treated abysmally by her husband and mother, Khirad returns to Asher, seeking his support when she is unable to provide for her daughter’s medical fees.  While such follow-through is consistent with religious laws and therefore expected, the show was unable to suggest circumstances whereby Khirad would have acquired financial independence – for example, as a career woman in her own right, since she’s depicted as being studious and having a fondness for mathematics, making the idea of her forging a successful career path entirely plausible.

Sara is another romantic foil to Asher and Khirad’s burgeoning romance; she is depicted as a rich, society girl with a cold heart.  While Khirad speaks exclusively in Urdu, Sara peppers her conversation with English phrases and expressions; Khirad observes the hijab on several occasions while Sara wears body defining western clothes; Sara works while Khirad stays at home – the list goes on.  Ultimately, the stereotypical English speaking, Western dressing and working single women in affluent circles as Godless and manipulative – not to mention shrill – is doing Pakistani women of similar backgrounds a disservice.

I watched the series finale with millions of my fellow Pakistanis this week and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.  It was a worthy ending; Asher and Khirad were united, and their precocious 4 year old Hareem was icing on the cake.  While I wince through some of the less-than-accurate (read stereotypical) portrayals of women in Pakistani society on Humsafar, I leave the show immensely entertained.  This speaks volumes, considering I haven’t been this enraptured by a Pakistani TV show in almost a decade.  The story isn’t ideal, but if you’re looking for love triangles, deaths, jealousy, malicious mothers-in-law, bits of medical drama, exceedingly good-looking leads oozing chemistry, and all the other staples of a Pak TV drama, do give Humsafar a try.

  • Sobia

    Great write-up.

    I kept seeing references to Humsafar on my FB newsfeed and then after my mother got hooked to it, I decided to check it out too. I also really enjoyed it. Especially the first bit. But once the evil mother-in-law appeared I started to skip through episodes, just skimming because it seemed too masala-ish (cliched)for me. Every Indian drama, and most Pakistani dramas, have some evil female character somewhere. I watched the later episodes in full as well.

    I actually liked the way they wrapped it up – mainly the way in which the mother-in-law issue was resolved. My assumption, by the end, was that she was not actually evil, rather she had mental health issues, which had manifested in a calm manner throughout the series, but became more explicit as she realized her schemes had all backfired on her. Not sure if others interpreted it that way. I have known a Pakistani woman who so feared being alone, to an irrational and pathological level, that she sabotaged her son’s marriage. Not from a place of evil, but from psychological issues. By the end of the series I assumed that was what was going on with Farida.

    I also did not like the way they portrayed Sara, even though I think they did try to humanize her. I didn’t see her as just evil either. She also had some serious mental health issues going on – her love for Asher was extremely obsessive and turned out to be a major weakness for her. I wish they had elaborated on that a little more. At times she did just seem cold and heartless.

    And the contrast between Khirad and Sara was irritating. Khirad, modest, religious, quiet, selfless, and very Pakistani, was the good girl, while Sara the loud, outgoing, Westernized (though her clothing was extremely modest according to Western standards), and presumably not religious, was the bad girl. But this trope is SOO incredibly common in Pakistani (and Indian) media its annoying. It seems like a local form of slut-shaming to me.*

    * I am not at all calling Sara type characters sluts. I hate that word. BUT I have a feeling that that is how they may be seen in desi media – with this very negative connotation. In fact, I watched a Pakistani parody of Humsafar recently in which Khirad was referred to as “sati savitri” (an obvious reference to the immense popularity of Indian soaps in Pakistan) and Sara was called “slutty savitri.” I just couldn’t figure out why they kept referring to Sara as slutty considering what the word implies AND considering Sara doesn’t fit that implication in the least.

    • Merium

      Hi Sobia! Thank you for your comment. You make some excellent points and yes, the ending was better than I expected. The case of Farida while extreme is not uncommon in some Pakistani families whereby women supposedly replaced in their son’s affections lash out in a number of ways. Also, Khirad and Sara are based on stereotypes and are extreme versions of them. Being worldly does NOT make you evil, just as being naïve does not necessarily mean you wear a halo. Needless, I’m glad we gave this show a chance. :)