Pakistani dramas normalise gaslighting. Here’s hoping Khaas changes that

Pakistani dramas normalise gaslighting. Here’s hoping Khaas changes that

The serial explores emotional and psychological abuse both men and women suffer at the hands of manipulative partners.

15 episodes in and things aren’t looking up for Saba (Sanam Baloch) and Amar (Ali Rehman Khan), the two lead protagonists of Hum TV’s drama, Khaas.

The story of Khaas revolves around Saba, who slowly discovers that her seemingly wonderful husband, Amar is an emotionally abusive narcissist. Saba and Amar make a beautiful couple: wealthy and educated, with families that love them and a marriage based on consent — they should be an ideal couple.

A poster for the Hum TV serial
A poster for the Hum TV serial

However, Amar is unhappy and it seems there is nothing Saba can ever do to change that. Most of the previous episodes established Amar’s patterns of behaviour and his inappropriate relationship with an old college girlfriend, the now-married Salma (played by Hira Tareen).

Much of Amar’s conduct follows a common playbook abusers use to control and undermine their victim’s credibility and sense of self: using blatant lies, gaslighting and confusing behaviour to make the victim and those around them doubt their own understanding of reality.

Amar has spent his lifetime fooling people and is an expert now: buying Saba an expensive new car on a whim while privately berating her as psychotic and stupid; mouthing filmy dialogues of love and fidelity in public while quietly rekindling an affair.

Ali Rehman plays Amar with a flawless hand, harnessing much of his own charm and energy into the character without mitigating any of Amar’s cruelty or arrogance.

Hira Tareen as Salma (left)
Hira Tareen as Salma (left)

Much of Amar’s conduct follows a common playbook abusers use to control and undermine their victim’s credibility and sense of self: using blatant lies, gaslighting and confusing behaviour to make the victim and those around them doubt their own understanding of reality.

After ignoring or demeaning her for days, Amar will turn around and suddenly praise Saba for a small task or act of obedience, leaving her clinging to a few crumbs of affection before returning to his usual hurtful ways.

Like every victim, Saba is left desperately trying to work out how to please him again so she can get her next fix of praise or affection.

Can we see some supportive parents onscreen already?

Apart from Amar and perhaps the selfish Salma, there are very few actual villains in this story, nor are there any grand schemes or plot twists — rather, a general attitude of willful blindness and neglect persists that allows Amar to control every situation.

At some point, our drama makers really need to get over using inexplicably neglectful parents as a plot point and give us more realistic depictions, but the trend of strange, emotionally withdrawn parents who will trust anyone except their own child seems to get ratings, so it’s likely to continue.

Saba’s family is particularly guilty of this, especially her father, who may not say it but feels the lack of a son deeply. He is especially grateful to Amar for his help in securing a property transaction. Her father becomes so indebted that he won’t take his daughter’s side in anything and actively ignores her.

Old traditions die hard and the idea that stepping back and always siding with your son-in-law will somehow guarantee your daughter a happy marriage is still an ideal in our culture. Saba receives little support from her in-laws or her mother, all of whom have bought into Amar’s manipulative facade.

Sanam Baloch is back in great form as Saba
Sanam Baloch is back in great form as Saba

At some point, our drama makers really need to get over using inexplicably neglectful parents as a plot point and give us more realistic depictions, but this trend of strange, emotionally withdrawn parents who will trust anyone except their own child seems to get ratings, so it’s likely to continue.

Also read: Ali Rehman Khan is on the brink of serious stardom this summer

Hurt and friendless Saba then turns to the one person willing to listen to her, Amar’s artist friend, Fakhir. In a fairly predictable (but entirely unnecessary) turn of events, Fakhir is falling for Saba while Amar’s younger sister, Nida (Anam Gohar) insists she will marry Fakhir — whether he wants her or not.

It doesn't seem like Amar and Saba are headed for a happy ending
It doesn’t seem like Amar and Saba are headed for a happy ending

Nida is another spoiled, selfish individual who tells Saba that she should be used to Amar’s infidelity by now when they catch him out and about with Salma. While it may sound shocking to hear it said out loud, this is exactly how “good women” are expected to behave.

Men who transgress are given free rein, while “respectable” women are expected to sacrifice, endure and cover for them in order to maintain their social status.

Related: Emotional abuse is a slippery subject but TV drama Khaas gets it right so far

In episode 14, Amar’s phuppo warns Saba that if she doesn’t dress up and make herself presentable for her husband, she will be held accountable by God if Amar strays: “Mard gumrah bhi hota hai thou uss ki zimaydari aurat pey hee ayad hoti hai — yeh dars wali baji kehti hai.” (If a man strays, the responsibility rests on his wife, according to my religious teacher.)

Writer Sarwat Nazir skillfully lays out the ease with which society protects men against the consequences of their worst behaviour. Apparently, the dars wali baji has never read the Holy Quran, which declares each individual must carry the weight of their own actions — but the real reason such regressive poison runs through our public and private discourse is that it is rarely challenged, especially not with any actual knowledge of religion.

Saba immediately accepts the older woman’s inaccurate but well-intentioned words as statements of fact and starts yet again to correct herself. Even when she confronts Amar and threatens to leave him if he doesn’t stop seeing Salma, she doesn’t have the courage to — at least, not yet.

While Khaas does need to pace things up just a little, it’s well worth your time

In a fascinating parallel, Khaas also explores the role of confidantes that couples have outside their marriage. Both Saba and Amar cannot communicate effectively with each other, so they seek comfort in friends like Fakhir and Salma.

Just like Fakhir and Saba, Amar reconnects with Salma by ostensibly sympathising over her abusive relationship with her on/off ex-husband. Saba is acutely aware that her conversations with Fakhir might lead to more stress in her crumbling marriage, so she sets limits and ultimately cuts off her connection with him.

Ali Rehman Khan as Amir with Sanam Baloch as Saba
Ali Rehman Khan as Amir with Sanam Baloch as Saba

Amar, on the other hand, has no such qualms about his relationship with Salma, getting into a public brawl with her ex-husband and even visiting her parents when he should be going to see Saba’s family. Amar thrives on public praise and adulation, and he will do absolutely anything to keep his good guy image intact.

Men who transgress are given free rein, while “respectable” women are expected to sacrifice, endure and cover for them in order to maintain their social status.

Sanam Baloch is back in great form as Saba; her performances are rarely anything other than excellent and this is no exception. Haroon Shahid as Fakhir is good, but he hasn’t had much of a role so far — his naturally empathetic nature and pleasant personality are generic, but hopefully we will see more depth as the story progresses.

Khaas is a well-written drama which opens the door to the kind of emotional and psychological abuse both men and women can suffer at the hands of manipulative partners. Director Danish Nawaz has, for the most part, done justice to the script but the pace is slow and needs to pick up. Shorter scenes, less repetition and some better supporting actors might have made have made it even better.

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