With close to five hundred episodes, and over ten mostly uninterrupted years on-air, the popular sitcom ‘Bulbulay’ is Pakistan’s longest running TV show. It is usually shot in a single location in a suburban middle class home, with four recurring characters, keeping its budget low. Its ratings are high, gags repetitive. It is easy to make. In short, it is the gift that keeps on giving; financial reward to its creators, and entertainment to its sizeable and loyal fanbase. And yet, to put it mildly, not everyone is a fan.
In my experience with the Pakistan entertainment industry, ‘Bulbulay’ is universally descried as a terrible show, a slap in the face of ‘serious drama.’ Critics of the show, who I will – for fear of shaming – not be naming, but of which there are plenty, usually, and in my opinion speciously, claim that the show is popular because it is bad. They assert that its popularity is a testament to the fact that the masses of Pakistanis deserve and can digest only the simplest and most juvenile forms of entertainment, that the high drama of more sophisticated shows is not for them. But there is obviously more to ‘Bulbulay’ than such off-hand, holier-than-thou dismissals would suggest. What this is, is worth investigating.
‘Bulbulay’ does a lot of things right. In fact, some of the things it is criticized for are the very things that make it work. And it does one thing exceptionally well, breaching a major taboo of Pakistani society in the form of its most popular character, ‘Momo,’ played by an actor perfect for the role- Hina Dilpazeer. And yet it challenges and breaks that taboo so subtly, so playfully, so light-heartedly that most people miss it, though its right under our noses. It is this subversion created by the character of Momo that is the key to the show’s massive appeal. But first, to set the groundwork, it is important to look at the other factors that make it work.
Repetitiveness as reliability:
The characters of Bulbulay never change. Their circumstances may occasionally change, such as them becoming richer or poorer, but the characters themselves never change. Even if they rarely do undergo some minor change by the end of an episode, by the time the next one rolls around, the reset button has been hit, and we are back to square one. This does break a cardinal principle of some types of drama, which demands that characters change through the course of an episode, at the very least. But it doesn’t break the principle as it applies to the pure TV series, such as Columbo, which routinely showcase recurring protagonists, who tackle a new problem every week, themselves never changing as a result, remaining as they were the previous week. Here this is at play, tapping into its audience’s need for security. We are living in a time of great economic, political and social unrest. Unemployment, corruption, the political situation, in fact most areas of life are in a state of rapid flux, inconsistent, unreliable. This is where the ritual of drama still provides much needed stability. Whatever else may happen, you know that Momo and the gang will remain the same the next week as they were this week and the week before. You might not be able to trust your own brother to keep his promise, but you know that ‘Bulbulay’ will. The audiences know that they will get to watch the same gags, the same catch phrases, the same comedy routines, over and over again: Nabeel cartoonishly shouting “hain!?” Mehmood Sahib acting with his hands, Momo forgetting the other characters’ names, and Khoobsoorat playing the straight woman to foil and balance these caricature-like ones. This, far from driving people away, is what attracts them to the show. Criticized as the show’s weakness, is in fact a strength. Predictability can have amazing appeal when the world you inhabit it patently unpredictable. We have an innate desire to have our friends and loved ones live forever. Drama has, since ancient times, tapped into that desire by recasting actors in similar roles throughout their careers. Shah Rukh Khan is a great example of this. He plays Shah Rukh Khan in every movie he stars in. And his movies don’t sell in spite of this; they sell because of it.
Ordinary people don’t turn to the entertainment industry for fine character acting or a masterclass in the minutiae of screen direction; they turn to the entertainment industry for… wait for it… entertainment!
Entertain, not sermonise:
A video recently went viral on Facebook, a video of a man calling for the boycott of the television industry on the basis that it addresses taboo desires, a father lusting after his daughter-in-law, a sister lusting after her brother-in-law and so on. These, the maker of the video insists, are not a part of ‘our culture.’ He is, of course, patently wrong. For one, fathers lusting after their sons’ beaus and vice versa are rife in our culture, one prominent example being that of Anarkali, a courtesan who was famously desired by the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, as well as his son, the prince Saleem, better known by his later title of Jehangir. But he misses an even more vital point, the purpose of drama.
The purpose of drama is to entertain, nothing more. The more it entertains, the better the drama, whether in the form of movies or TV or film. Drama that seeks to send a ‘message,’ is known as propaganda, or agitprop, and is rarely, if ever, successful. Audiences don’t flock to movies and stages, or pick up a novel or turn to online streaming platforms because they want a lesson in morality. For that they have their churches and their mosques and their temples or whatever source they derive their morality from. If you’re deriving your sense of right and wrong from Maula Jatt, that’s your problem, not the movie’s. The movie never claimed to have been made to preach to you; only to entertain you. This is another issue which people criticise ‘Bulbulay’ for, that is has no ‘message.’ To them I say, it has something better: it’s entertaining!
As important as what it does right is what ‘Bulbulay’ doesn’t do wrong. It doesn’t try to send you a ‘message,’ doesn’t try to tell you how to live your life. It allows you simply to give up the burden of your consciousness for twenty odd minutes, live vicariously through the antics of its innocent if flat characters, and leaves you with no prescriptions for how to conduct yourself in daily life. And that is why it gets away with challenging and subverting one of the great taboo subjects of our society-the role of women.
Momo the Iconoclast:
There are no two ways about it: Momo is, hands down, the most popular character on the show. Her introduction to the show after the first twenty five episodes is what catapulted it to the meteoric heights of its popularity. She’s a brilliant character, portrayed with quirky effervescence by Hina Dilpazeer, and written as a refreshingly free and rebellious soul by Ali Imran and Saba Hassan. Yet if you look at her physically, she defies all the qualities that a female lead is supposed to embody in ‘our culture.’
She is middle-aged, chubby, wears glasses, speaks cartoonishly, nothing remotely sexy or physically attractive about her, at least not in the conventional sense. Then what is it about her that attracts audiences to her so? What hidden part of the Pakistani psyche has she tapped into? In order to understand this, it is important to briefly go back to the question why drama portrays taboo subjects. If the purpose of drama is to entertain, why not do it with socially acceptable subjects? What is it about taboos topics that entertains us more than their inoffensive counterparts?
The phenomena of drama tackling taboo subjects is not limited to Pakistan. It is something that has happened all over the world throughout history. Oedipus, the hero of Oedipus Rex, kills his father and marries his mother, an incestuous parricide and regicide. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in return for success in said war. He himself is later murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who in turn is murdered by her son, Orestes. Shakespeare’s Macbeth kills his king, his Othello his wife, his famed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, themselves. In more recent memory, Game of Thrones portrays incest between brother and sister; children are fed to their father cooked in a stew; in Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson, a woman is raped by her father and has a daughter by him. He now wants to rape the child, his daughter/granddaughter. Why do these taboo subjects, much like ‘Bulbulay’s’ central cast, continually recur throughout history? One explanation is offered by modern psychology. When human beings realised that we could not survive without living in groups, things changed for us dramatically. We could no longer act on our impulses to steal, rape, kill and the like without compromising the very existence of our group, or equally worse, our place in the group. We had to sacrifice our instincts to give rise to ‘civilisation.’ Therefore civilisation was concomitant with the suppression of those of our desires that group-living no longer allowed us to act upon, desires now considered ‘base.’
Freud termed this phenomenon ‘civilisation and its discontents.’ Drama is one of the key mechanisms that helps us cope with this suppression by allowing us to live taboo lives vicariously through fictional characters. It purges us of these socially unacceptable desires that lurk hidden deep within the recesses of our being and unites us through the shared experience. And Momo owes her popularity to exactly this dynamic.
The female in our society is extolled primarily as mother, sister and wife. It is no coincidence that when a man utters something disrespectful, particularly in front of a woman, he is asked, “is there no mother or sister in your home?” Women are, unfortunately, also often equated with ‘honour,’ a glib word to describe men’s attempts to control women’s sexuality. These are the roles and expectations that a majority of women are burdened with. But Momo isn’t.
Momo often appears not to know who her husband is, calling him by the names of different men. This is, tellingly, one of the major tropes of the show. This idea, if you think about it, is quite considered scandalous by Pakistani standards. The sexual implications of calling your husband by a different man’s name unavoidable; doing it repeatedly, unallowable.
Yet when Momo does it, we laugh. Mehmood Sahib always reacts in the same indifferent way, getting irritated, reminding her of his real name, only to have her bungle it again, this time with a different male name. But it is not only the role of wife that she subverts. She subverts every role that not only a woman, but any adult, male or female, is traditionally supposed to perform.
The name itself, ‘Momo,’ appears to mock the idea of ‘Ma’ or ‘Mama,’ or ‘Amma.’ Momo often appears not know anyone’s name, or her relation to them. She has no responsibilities. She is able to throw off the burden of duty that civilisation imposes upon adults; and doesn’t have to bear any negative consequences. The kind of freedom she enjoys, the complete abdication of all responsibility, is not only desirable to women, who are the primary audience for television in Pakistan, but also for men. Who doesn’t want the yoke of the pressures of daily living removed, even if for a short while, every week? This abandoning of the demands of living in the group, and yet being able to enjoy the benefits that the group provides, as embodied by ‘Momo,’ is what accounts for the success of the show. Momo is who we all secretly wish we could be, and, for the time that we watch the show, are. She is an iconoclast, free of the shackles that bind the audience watching her. But while we watch, we also are free.
Other Pakistani shows lean into female stereotypes, such as the oppressive mother in-law, or the victimised daughter-in-law, first established by ‘Hum Safar.’ ‘Bulbulay’ avoids them altogether, and captures not who we are, but who we wish we could be instead. The critics can rant and rail and denigrate all they like. But the fact remains that this show, whether by conscious design or intuition, satisfies us in a way that we need right now. While we watch it, we are ‘Momo.’