by mh musings
For the last five years, I have been watching currently running, popular international dramas airing on local public TV, where popularity is defined by social media engagement and TV ratings trends that surpass its peers. With my observations concentrated on the Turkish dizi world, I have also dabbled into K-Drama and, most recently, into Pakistani drama.
The chaos on social media is a unique phenomenon during live shows, as compared to the more tame discussions on older shows. They can get emotional, judgmental, strongly opinionated, argumentative, demanding and often lack objectivity. However, the intense debates, social media engagement with the production team/media outlets, and appreciation tweets/comments, propel the shows into an unprecedented strata of popularity.
The Turkish 2020 - 21 series Sen Cal Kapimi broke all sorts of twitter records. The 2022 K-Drama Twenty Five Twenty One is in top 25 K-Dramas of all time. 2022-23 Turkish series Yali Capkini has been the top rated series in Turkey since it started airing. And, most recently, Pakistani drama Tere Bin has been breaking all sorts of records and propagating rapidly beyond its borders.
A keen observer of cinema, production quality and plot choices, despite diverse plot structures, I postulate some key elements that tie these productions together. The top three unifying factors are:
1) an indomitable, flawed female protagonist played well by a nuanced actor
2) a strong and progressive male lead who can or learns to honor the female lead as an equal and
3) a sexual awakening or a sensual sexual tension that is well portrayed by the lead pair
Whether this is a re-imagined trend or a passing phase, this self-determinism in women of substance is a welcome shift from stories that depict long suffering women with muted voices, crippled by social norms.
Today’s thought exploration will focus on Tere Bin as I come back to watching a Pakistani drama after more than five years. How does this show mirror my theoretical formula for what appeals to viewers who are increasingly willing to consume international content?
Tere Bin Summary
Meerab is an ambitious, progressive girl with a strong sense of justice, who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps as a lawyer. Inexplicably, the Khan family seems to have many opinions about her upbringing even though her parents are supposedly mere family friends. The sole male heir of this khandaan (family dynasty), Murtasim is also exasperated by the family’s meddling in Meerab’s affairs.
When a long held family secret is unveiled, it turns out Meerab’s biological father is Murtasim’s paternal uncle, and Anwar had given his daughter away to Waqas/Aneela as he couldn’t bear to look at her after losing his beloved wife at childbirth. Meerab, intent on pursuing her career goals with no heed for the interference from this pesky Khan family, is stumped when she discovers the truth after Maa Begum (Murtasim’s mother) selects her as Murtasim’s bride. Apparently, the marriage was the desire of Murtasim’s deceased father, the patriarch of the family. Neither Murtasim nor Meerab are enthused by the idea.
Meerab, feeling stripped of her identity, sense of self and belonging, is cornered by all the elders and has to acknowledge that she has no place to go. She agrees to marry Murtasim, and he also eventually agrees once he understands her reasons.
As the two confront each other with their values, desires and preconceptions about each other, their relationship is mired with challenges from many sides. Will they accept their love and be able to live their love, or will they be driven apart? Will theirs be a divine love for the ages, or a longing that fades with time?
The title Tere Bin, meaning ‘Without You’, foreshadows heartbreak for these two strong personalities even though, left on their own, they cannot help but gravitate towards each other. As circumstances teach them to overcome their prejudices, their understated but growing bond is portrayed well by the versatile Yumna Zaidi as the expressive Meerab and the nuanced Wahaj Ali as the stoic Murtasim.
With 30 of its planned 50 episodes aired across 15 weeks, the ratings have been off the charts and the YouTube viewership numbers have surpassed more than 850 million across all its episodes. It’s been trending in many countries every week, including #1 rankings in neighboring political rival, India. The power of the show is incredible.
What is so compelling about this clichéd story with weak supporting characters and bizarre side plots? The positives are, unsurprisingly, the same as I postulate in my opening comments.
Indomitable Female Lead
A spirited young girl unafraid to stand up to injustice, Meerab played by Yumna is a delight to watch. Often lacking in strong dialogue, Yumna expresses a spectrum of emotions through her eyes as she goes from an exuberant, idealistic college graduate to someone feeling like a discarded chess piece only to be put back into play at someone else’s whims. Played as a pawn to become a queen next to Murtasim, her footsteps begin to fall in rhythm with Murtasim’s while he clears the path for her to thrive within the family.
One of her best moments is when she internally makes the decision to marry Murtasim after days of fighting against it. Her adoptive parents abandon her with the Khans and goes back to Karachi without a proper goodbye. Even though she’s hurting from the years of lies, she still asks Murtasim to take her to them so she can see them one last time before returning to the mansion where she is to live. Waqas and Aneela do not open the door as part of the concerted effort by the elders to corner Meerab. Murtasim tells her that they won’t open the door and Meerab pleadingly asks, “Then, where can I go?”
Yumna’s delivery gives a far deeper interpretation of this simple statement. Her eyes say, “where do I belong then? What is my identity? Who am I?” And Murtasim’s simple answer, “You come to my home” is the most pivotal moment in this series thus far. He doesn’t say you come to us or you can be with us. He invites her to be under his protection and, understanding this, Meerab agrees to marry him.
None of her decisions are rooted in her weakness but in a depth of understanding about how a woman makes her space in this world. She takes his protection but bristles when having to accept her full identity as his wife. She even has him sign a contract that forbids him from touching her without her consent, which he agrees to and honors.
She fears losing herself altogether, a stranger to her professional dreams from a few days ago. And yet, she slowly accepts her responsibilities with grace and exhibits a sense of fairness worthy of the landlord’s wife. Starting her journey with the desire to make everyone else’s life difficult, she cannot help but exhibit her compassionate personality, gently guided by Murtasim. And it is the repeated demonstrations of her sense of justice and integrity that builds a picture of an intensely passionate woman who has come to love her husband deeply, whether she accepts it yet or not.
The personality traits are not that unusual in strong female protagonists. What sets Meerab apart is her growing understanding of the power she holds over Murtasim and the sexuality she expresses with modesty and charm. Flirting with Murtasim or standing firm on her convictions when needed, she is a woman who protects her personal boundaries even when pushed in unreasonable ways by him. And, in turn, Murtasim also learns to honor and cherish her for who she is.
Kudos to Yumna for capturing the breadth of subtle expressions and mannerisms required to portray Meerab’s dynamic journey.
Progressive Male Lead
Murtasim is the quintessential romantic hero in the likes of Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Burdened with all the responsibilities of the estate and family decisions from a young age, Murtasim appears as the stereotypical arrogant, forbidding, and often ruthless feudal lord. A scene where he slaps Meerab when she is throwing a temper tantrum he didn’t understand, seems a slap on feminism. He starts his journey in the mold of a toxic male hero who expects his women to be subservient to his needs.
Immediately repentant for using violence, his demeanor changes when he learns the truth about Meerab’s circumstances. He is quietly supportive of her journey as she desires a trip to Karachi to meet her adoptive parents, is there as a pillar of strength when she wants to stop at a mosque after she is spurned.
When she surprisingly agrees to marry him, his last bit of resistance rests on his assumption that she is unhappy about this life choice. When she explains her reasons and he understands that she is seeking his protection, he immediately agrees and asks her to stop crying. From hereon, through Wahaj’s ability to speak through his eyes, we understand how Murtasim begins to fall for his betrothed, never blind to her wounds.
Meerab’s rebellion continues to get her into intended and unintended consequences. Each time, it is Murtasim who paves the way for her to reclaim her space as a respected daughter and bride of the house. When his domineering mother slaps her, he puts a stop to that. When she gets thrown out of the house while he is unconscious in a hospital, later he says, “Even if she kills me, you cannot throw her out.” He stands tall for her character, taking the blame on his shoulders again and again, establishing in no uncertain terms that his wife receives respect because she is now his respect. Her distress bothers him and his possessiveness over her reflects the trust she put in him by marrying him. He wishes to give her the sense of identity she lost.
These choices, and the way Wahaj executes them with flair and finesse, has created an admirable male protagonist who has the strength to kill in the name of protection, the integrity to honor both his mother and his wife fully, and the softness to fill a room with flowers to appease an angry wife. Underlying it all is a restrained desire for his wife as he waits patiently for her to breach her own contract, and give him the right to be her husband in all its meaning. The resulting understated sexual tension that ribbons through their scenes is very well done within the modest constructs of a Pakistani drama.
Wahaj’s portrayal has received deserving accolades, even garnering words of appreciation from Indian publications. His star meter is on a meteoric rise after a number of years in the industry, and rightfully so.
In Eastern cultures, where arranged marriages are still prevalent, sexual intercourse is treated as a marital right and consummation is expected between two strangers who may be meeting for the first time on their wedding night. In contrast, watching an arranged marriage unfold where they fall in love first is pleasing.
I have watched a handful of Pakistani dramas but this is my first where the sensuality between the couple goes beyond a couple of suggestive glances or the perfunctory playfulness between a young couple yet to be married. Murtasim, who is obviously and irrevocably in love with Meerab while her growing feelings remain unstated, often pulls her leg, is flirtatious and will say, “I don’t want to lose you under any circumstances”.
At the same time, he honors the contract fully and does not do anything to cross the line. Against this pillar, watching Meerab’s sexual awakening to Murtasim is really well done by Yumna. A young girl in her early twenties, with no prior relationship experience, her growing possessiveness over him, awareness of her budding desire, and learning that she has power over him, is unfolding masterfully.
The craze for this chemistry between the pair mirrors the global adoration for the same in Turkish dizis and K-dramas. Large swathes of Western audiences also enjoy this style of storytelling. Countless studies have revealed that the predominantly female audience likes the slow burn romance and the depth of the relationship dynamics as opposed to the instant gratification of graphic sex scenes pervasive in Western media. This cinematic approach gives due importance to the sexuality of a relationship but it values building the relationship first.
True to this strain, Tere Bin has inserted a maturity in this love story without it seeming crass or hasty.
Yumna/Meerab and Wahaj/Murtasim chemistry masks obvious flaws in the script and supporting cast, many of whom pale in comparison to the finesse displayed by the lead pair. In their second collaboration together, the actors display an ease and a mutual respect that translates into a natural flow in their scenes together. Nothing seems forced.
On screen vs off screen camaraderie
Yumna and Wahaj flawlessly breathe life into Meerab and Murtasim, as two characters who have known each other since childhood and learns to redefine their relationship in a seemingly obligatory marriage. Kudos to writer Nooran Makhdoom for writing their growth in a nuanced fashion, captured across several discrete events and circumstances.
However, the customary interfering third wheel elements – in the form of delusional Haya who always fancied herself as Murtasim’s wife and the deranged Rohail who thinks Meerab is waiting for him to rescue her – are so outlandish against the realism of evolving dynamics between the leads, it is meme worthy.
Despite the cliches and lazy plot setting, the lead pair continues to draw in audiences. This is true in the Turkish dizi world as well, where stories meander with a litany of villains and poorly defined supporting characters but a sizzling lead pair can keep audiences engaged for many weeks.
The cinematography, costumes, sets and music selection is wonderful. Director Siraj ul Haq has done well in drawing out the emotions in the lead pair, making good use of the given spaces and creating aesthetic camera angles. Murtasim’s flowing shawl, often worn with his ethnic clothing, is a prop in and of itself.
The versatility of his personality is well demonstrated with the versatility of his clothing choices as he is shown to be equally at ease across all. It’s the man who makes the clothes in this case and Wahaj carries them all with poise.
Pakistani dramas still have issues with sound equipment and quality, scene and plot continuity, but these technical details and issues are easily overlooked when the main story holds attention. And Tere Bin is doing this well for the reasons I highlight above.
United In The Arts
As a native of Bangladesh, which used to be East Pakistan before its liberation in 1971, the Arts provide a way to remain connected to my roots. The South Asian culture is familiar and watching the social issues unfold is comforting. Despite political tensions in the region and a shared bloody history, it has been beautiful to see the show trending in India, Bangladesh, Tunisia and many other countries around the globe. A number of my international followers have started to watch as well, with friends hailing from Latin America, Europe and Australia in addition to fellow Americans. A love story, told well, unites hearts.
Across nations, languages, stories, actors, I find it empowering that the predominantly female audience for these shows are becoming increasingly vocal about gender issues through their viewing choices, and willingly support flawed female protagonists. It is liberating to see the dissipation of expectations that the female lead must be perfect while enduring suffering of untold proportions, usually defined by the male narrative. Even if the outcome for the female characters in these modern tales isn’t a complete victory, the fact that these bold stories are willing to upend or challenge stereotypes is a kind of silent rebellion that I wholeheartedly support.
The Arts makes lasting statements that shift how we think. I thank Tere Bin for doing so through their atypical protagonists.
If you are are interested in watching the series, it is available on YouTube with English subtitles here:
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