2014 had been a particularly painful year for me – reeling from my first heartbreak and enduring the anguish of those taut teenage years, where the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, and the newly launched Instagram hammered into me that everyone should and can attain happiness; any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow my fault. It was the inevitable period where the struggle between the umbilical cord and autonomy consumed my life so much, that barely a civil word was exchanged between my mother and me.
2014 was also when the Zindagi channel introduced Fawad Khan into the lives of Indians and imploded my personal world.
At first, it began with my mother trying to repair the vestiges of our relationship by announcing that the “Fawad show” was on daily at 8.30 sharp. As we sat at either end of the sofa, Humsafar quietly created a no-man’s land between us, where vitriolic words and impenetrable silences were replaced with the fluid cadence of Urdu, and of course, Fawad’s dark, beady eyes that said volumes as he looked up from under his eyelashes.
Humsafar is neither a great nor an original story. Pakistan’s daily soap demographic, similar to India’s, caters largely to middle-class housewives seeking an escape from deteriorating socio-economic conditions. They escape into the volatile yet irresistible arena of forced marriages between individuals from vastly different backgrounds, unrequited love, and a long-drawn separation with bone-deep angst – all beautifully brought together by haunting Urdu melodies. It is the classic Mills & Boon template, which I devoured while stepping into puberty – and nostalgia is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
However, the main reason behind the inimitable success of M&B romances and daily soaps is the gender empowerment through the female-centric gaze. In highly patriarchal societies like India and Pakistan, these shows revolve around the feelings, thoughts and ambitions of women. The story is a fairly typical one – poor yet self-respecting girl meets Yale-educated boy who is low on emotional intelligence and high on economic intelligence, they fall in love, girl is outfoxed through a devious machination, and brought back through a paternal lineage into the family. The show is littered with misogynistic narratives where the Westernised “other woman” (Sara) is shown to be evil through her dressing sense, while the naïve Khirad is shown to be pure and virginal through her extensive crying and praying. Middle-class morality is underpinned by a somewhat conservative attitude to gender roles in terms of how women come across visibly and the attention they pay to the tarbiat (training) of their children.
Humsafar is a study in the masculinity crisis that plagues most South-Asian men. Asher struggles between liberal values embedded by his foreign education and Urdu-speaking conservatism and male entitlement. His loyalty to his scheming mother and his love for Khirad’s simple, traditional beauty is stereotypical, and it is the women who are shown as good and evil, lacking any complexity. Driven by social hierarchies, he needs Khirad with her traditional values to teach him the lesson of conjugal love with her forbearance, while his daughter Hareem’s precarious health is the glue that pushes the narrative forward and brings the dysfunctional family back together. The cruel mother, who metaphorically killed her son with her obsessive love, loses her mind, while Sara (who was in love with Asher) conveniently meets her end by suicide.
Despite the patriarchal, familial subservience, I cannot help the warmth that seeps inside every time Asher looks at Khirad with tenderness – there is a blatant emphasis on the vulnerability of his gaze and the inherent sexual tension in their chaste touches. We see Asher unable to bear the shock of his wife’s supposed betrayal, having a mental breakdown, and getting depressed. The intense loyalty to her memory, the chinks in his armour when he sees her pain despite his coldness, has a magnetic appeal. We know it’s a fairytale, but their journey towards falling in love in small moments like eating ice cream together, or Asher gallantly ‘allowing’ her to continue her education after his surprising discovery about her affinity for numbers, makes you root for the couple, despite knowing better. It is a begrudging, helpless emotion that makes me go back to particular scenes like when a blushing, perpetually downward-looking Khirad shyly meets Asher’s earnest, burning gaze as they fall deeper in love.
The title song ‘Woh Humsafar Tha’ is sheer poetry and complements the scenes beautifully, delineating the leads’ pain evocatively. Every time the chorus hits crescendo, there is a meeting of poignant gazes, a moment shared. The portrayal of emotion in ordinary situations furthered the show’s success, and Indians began comparing the garish melodrama of Indian dramas to the beauty of Pakistani silences. The leads had a chemistry that has remained unparallelled in my eyes, reminiscent of Shahrukh and Kajol in the blockbusters of the late 90s and early 2000s.
The familiarity of the plot – that the leads would get their happily ever after despite the tumultuous journey – makes it an ideal comfort watch for me when I need all the ‘feels’ to tug at my heartstrings. The mismatched couple, and a storyline that bleeds emotions, complete with a redemptive hero, are all I need after a bad day.
As for my mother and I – Khoobsurat, Fawad’s first leading role as a dashing Bollywood prince, was also the first movie I took her for: first day, first show.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.