This show was SO GOOD! But I think I might like Humsafar better? Just personal taste, Humsafar was kind of cleaner and simpler. This one had all these layers and perspectives and complications and different philosophies and feminist statements and all of that and it just MADE MY HEAD HURT!
Humsafar was kind of a classic soap. Or novel. Good heroine, good hero, evil relatives, adversity, confrontation, triumphant happy ending. Zindagi is something a little different, more of a character study than a soap opera. There is no real beginning and there is no real end. And the “point” is never explicitly stated. It only becomes clear way way at the end. Or maybe even after the end, I kind of had to sleep on it after watching the last episode before I saw it.
Our hero and heroine both have major underlying issues. Issues that are never explicitly stated but which drive everything in their lives. In ways that aren’t obvious. And at times it seems like their issues are overcome, and then it comes back up again.
For Kashaf, the underlying issue is so simple, I kind of can’t believe it took all the way to the final episode for it to become apparent to me: she is carrying with her the guilt of being born a woman and thereby destroying (as she sees it) the lives of everyone she loves. And her greatest fear is once again letting down someone she loves. She has massive inferiority and insecurity and low self-esteem and all kinds of issues over the simple fact that she was born a woman. This underlies everything she does, she doesn’t feel able to let herself make a single mistake since she has already made every “mistake” allowed her through being born. She never lets herself get truly close to anyone, because she doesn’t deserve love. And she extra cautious around men, not because she is nervous about them letting her down, but because she is nervous about letting them down.
(If only her father had loved her, and taught her how to wrestle! Instead of ignoring her and leaving her mother)
For Zaroon, it is slightly more complicated. But not really. He needs to prove to himself that he can earn the love and respect of a woman. His mother never really took care of him, his sister never respected him. His girlfriend Asmara never seemed to really think about him either. He wasn’t looking for shallow easy love like he got from Asmara, he was looking for something deeper than that, something that he felt like he had earned. The key is in an early scene where he talks about how he wants to struggle in life, to feel like he has achieved something. I thought it was setting him up to be similar to Kashaf, who also struggles. But now, it was setting him up as the perfect pair with Kashaf. She is the challenge he is looking for.
Okay, now that the key is unlocked for both of them, how does this play out as the show goes forward? In the beginning, Kashaf has gotten the first “good” thing in her life. After being born a woman, leading to her father ignoring her and loving her less, her two younger sisters coming along and adding to the strain, her father leaving her mother for another woman who could give him a son, her mother and herself and her two sisters living in progressively increasing poverty and difficulties, she has finally gotten something good when she wins a full scholarship to a high quality university. And, of course, she distrusts this good fortune. She is ready for it to be taken away from her, for her new classmates and her teachers and everyone else to decide she isn’t “worthy” of being there. And she covers it all in a coating of anger and resentment.
Zaroon has his own thing. While Kashaf is always beaten up by the world but loved and respected at home, Zaroon has been able to just coast through life “outside”, but never really felt like he had a place in his own home. His younger (or older? I’m not sure) sister doesn’t consider his opinion, and his mother not only doesn’t consider his opinion, but doesn’t seem to really “consider” him at all. Leaves town without bothering to tell her family she is going, never checks his meals or when he is coming home at night or does any of those “caring” things that parents are supposed to do. After a lifetime of finding his validation from outside successes, he is thrown back when, for the first time, he is challenged in that arena. By Kashaf’s ability to beat him in the classroom.
(Totally reminded me of Anne of Green Gables! I’ve got to re-read those books. It’s been 18 months, so it’s time again)
It feels like a love story between a feminist and a misogynist. But it’s not, really. It’s a love story between two complicated damaged messed up individuals who can find the unique cure for their issues within each other.
Zaroon, for Kashaf, represents all the men who have had an easy life, who are unaware of their own privilege. And, at the same time, everything she wants for herself. Which sounds bad, like that regressive penis-envy thing. But Kashaf has always resisted the joys of being a woman, facing the world like a man. And if she actually had been a man, than she could have stayed in her father’s house. She could have more easily finished her schooling. She could have better protected her mother and sisters from all the problems society put on them. And here is Zaroon, same age as her, as smart as her, but just skating through life with no obstacles in front of him. And so she reacts aggressively to any approach he makes, with anger far out weighing his behavior.
And Kashaf, for Zaroon, represents every woman in his life who has disrespected and ignored and rejected him. And therefore, the one woman he MUST conquer. And again, that sounds horribly regressive. But it’s not a statement about how women don’t love men, or how men have a natural need to conquer. No, it’s about this one particular character. Who has trained himself to be charming and confident and successful, because he feels like that is the only way to get the attention he needs from his family. And now he has, for the first time, met someone outside of his family who isn’t falling for that easy charm, who gives him a new possibility of validation.
Their first coming together, they both need too much from each other, and from themselves. Zaroon puts on Kashaf all the pressure to prove that he has value in his life, that he can be loved. Without really thinking through why he needs this from her. And Kashaf makes Zaroon into a test of her strength and endurance, her ability to remain true to herself and care for herself. Not to mention the massive class issues, his class privilege and her class resentment.
(It was like this, but with class issues thrown in. And less hideous costumes)
And they had so much else happening in their lives! Things which just served to exacerbate their problems. Zaroon’s sister’s marriage was falling apart due to her inability to consider her husband’s point of view, and his mother’s encouragement to her to go down that path. And both of them ignoring Zaroon’s opinion on it. At the same time, he was pressured to be engaged to Asmara. Which combined his sense that women do not respect his opinion, with his sense that the women who come easily to him have no value, because they are not like his mother and sister. And then Kashaf’s father is letting her down more and more, while the pressure is increasing on her to succeed. Every moment of joy in college, especially those moments when Zaroon briefly breaks through her reserve and gets her to smile, feels like a moment stolen from her family responsibilities.
Every step forward just ricochets back to be an even worse step back. When Kashaf gives him, she loses respect for herself and hates Zaroon for weakening her. And he hates her in that moment as well, for proving that she can be won over, for giving in to his shallow advances and taking away any sense of true accomplishment or challenge he could feel from winning her over. And so as the stress ratchets up at their homes, it finally explodes in college. When Zaroon is teased by his friends for spending time with her, and feels the need to minimize Kashaf to being just another girl he flirts with. And Kashaf overhears, and lets him know once and for all that she is not that girl, and he shouldn’t think she is.
(It was like this, but with a verbal slap instead of a physical one. And better pants)
Humsafar first half ends with a massive realignment of loyalties and secrets and schemes and revelations. Zindagi has a quieter transition. Things happen and time passes and people grow up and situations change without one big moment.
Both Zaroon and Kashaf begin to get into better situations, situations which will let them come together again more as equals with less pressure put in the situation. Firstly, they are both able to find career validation. Both of them are selected for the prestigious government service. Zaroon, finally, feels like he accomplished something on his own without his family support. And he is able to get out of his house and into the world, focus selfishly on himself instead of worrying about staying awake until his father comes home, watching over his sister, and trying to convince his mother to stay home more. Kashaf has always been sure of her own worth, but nervous about how she was perceived by society. Now, she has joined the one service where all are equally respected. She has a servant, a car, and a house all of her own.
And their family situation has changed as well, while Kashaf finally has less responsibilities, Zaroon finally has the validation of being given responsibilities. Kashaf’s youngest sister is away at school, and her middle sister is married to a good man (see the Sunday Speculative post). She can be free, she doesn’t have to constantly have the pressure of needing to take care of everyone. And Zaroon’s sister is back home, depressed and regretful following the end of her marriage. She, and his mother, for once are willing to listen to him and give value to his opinions. He doesn’t need to make the way he is treated by every other woman in the world a test for how he is treated by those at home.
And after these little re-shufflings, suddenly Zaroon can understand how he sees Kashaf. It only takes a few meetings, a sudden thought of her as the one woman who never acted immodestly by his standards, and suddenly he is in love. He wants her attention, he wants to spend time with her, he wants the challenge of getting her to see him.
From Kashaf’s side, she can now see Zaroon in his proper weight. Not as a symbol of everything wrong in her life, but just a guy she used to know in college who is suddenly in her life again thanks to a random meeting. She used to obsess over him, now she just kind of forgets him once he leaves the room. Which, of course, just makes her more appealing to Zaroon. Someone whose respect he wants to earn.
(It’s this, but way less silly)
Their decision to marry, which seemed so impossible before, comes about in an almost dull way. They meet a few times through work and coincidence. He confesses his feelings to his sister, with whom he has now become close and gotten to understand her and she understands him. And finally, he asks their old principal from college to broach the subject with Kashaf. Who eventually agrees not because she cares much one way or the other, but because her father is refusing to confirm her younger sister’s engagement until Kashaf is married.
Their life post-marriage, starting with their first night, reminded me so much of Alai Payuthay/Saathiya! Or any of those really good Ratnam style character studies of a marriage. For him, it is all about romance and feelings and gifts and “winning” her. But for her, now that she has made the commitment to him, it is so much more than that. It’s about getting to know his family and planning her day around calling him and being always there and loyal and respectful and strong for him.
(This song would fit perfectly in one of their fights)
One of my friends described Yash Chopra’s films as following an “emotional chronology”. That is, you are never quite clear on how much time has passed, but you don’t care, because you know it has been long enough for them to fall out of love, or into love, or grow up, or something else that makes emotional sense even if it doesn’t make sense by time. This show has “emotional geography”. Post-marriage, Kashaf and Zaroon begin an awkward maneuver towards sharing space. A few days at Zaroon’s parents’ house, then a few days at Kashaf’s, and then they both return to their government postings, hours apart. And, after months of phone calls and brief meetings in their family houses, Kashaf is finally transferred to be close to Zaroon and they are living in the same house.
Through out this whole thing, we are seeing them slowly getting closer emotionally in rhythm with how they get closer physically. Zaroon continuing to “woo” Kashaf. Kashaf at first irritated and bored, but putting up with it as part of her duties as a wife. But she comes to rely on it. And, slowly, she comes to rely on Zaroon. And he is attuned enough, and needy enough, to notice. To start to count on their relationship. The first little bump in the road is when he learns that his friend Osama had briefly considered marrying Kashaf as well. It’s about his insecurity, not with Kashaf, but with his mother who never seemed to really love him.
But that is just a dress rehearsal for the real issues that come up in the last few episodes. When their individual insecurities, which have been running into each other for their entire relationship, finally have a massive pile-up that almost destroys them. Through the very natural and non-soap opera stress of pregnancy.
Zaroon is thrilled, of course, as anyone would be. But Kashaf is stressed and crying and can’t tell him (or herself, for once we are without a voice over from her diary or letters) why she is so unhappy. Finally, she finds evidence on his phone that he has been meeting his old girlfriend Asmara and not telling her, and she uses this as an excuse to leave him and return to her mother’s house.
When I was reading the wikipedia synopsis before I watched the show, I got to this part and thought “well, that sounds like random created stress to end the show in a crisis”. And it is random created stress, but not created by the writers, created by Kashaf. The real problem is that, ever since she got pregnant, she has been terrified she would have a girl and her husband would stop loving her. But she can’t admit her fears to herself, because that would be admitting the insecurity and guilt she has struggled with her whole life over being born a girl. And it would be admitting that she has come to care for her husband and enjoy his love, something she doesn’t feel she deserves (again, because she was born a girl). And now this discovery of his secret meetings with Asmara, which she might have laughed off earlier in their marriage, becomes the superficial excuse she can use to leave him before he can leave her.
(It’s the reverse of Chalte Chalte, where Shahrukh is the one with the insecurities and class issues. And he drives Rani away, before she can leave him)
From Zaroon’s side, his issues have been less and less the longer they have been married while Kashaf’s have increased. He has seen how she is taking care of him, and his family. How she clearly does care about and respect his opinion. With every fight they have gotten closer and closer. Her leaving brings it all back, his sense that she doesn’t care about or respect him, that no woman will ever truly love him the way he wants to be loved. This was inevitable, he picked the one woman in the world who it would be a challenge to win over, and she picked the one man who might be able to soften her. But before they could finally come together, they needed to get everything out in the open. He needed to see that she does love and care for him in a million small ways, and she needed to know that he would never leave her, that she doesn’t deserve to be left.
And so the end resolution, which seems so small, just a phone call and they are back together (no revelation of hidden secrets, Humsafar style), comes about because they have both down the work individually to figure out their issues. He has discovered all the small ways she eased his life around the house. Supervising his food, cleaning up their shared bathroom, sending his suits to be cleaned, everything. Once she is gone, his life gets harder in dozens of ways. And it doesn’t feel like he is suddenly “appreciating” her. He always appreciated her. No, it’s a sudden awareness that she does love and care for him in the way he has always desired a woman to love him, the love he never got from his mother. But he didn’t even realize what she was doing it until she was gone. Now he fully understands how much she loves him, even before she calls. And she fully understands how much she loves him, by how much she is missing him.
But the big problem, the big over-whelming problem of Kashaf’s life, has always been gender birth preference. And so the magic key that unlocks all her misery is when she learns that she is having twin girls and finally brings herself to call Zaroon and tell him, sure he will immediately leave her. And he doesn’t! He is thrilled to have girls, it makes no difference to him. And, finally, she is able to believe in his love and the promise of a happy life and let him know how much he means to her. And, unlike the other women in his life whose love came so easily that it felt worthless to him (Asmara), or whose love never really came at all (his mother), Zaroon finally finds someone that he can believe as well.
(And, bonus, we end on a flash-forward that goes far enough to show they only want the twin girls, and never ever try for a boy)