Baaghi, the Urdu1 TV serial that is inspired by the life of Qandeel Baloch, began airing yesterday.
In the first episode, we are introduced to the world of Fouzia (Qandeel's name in real life and in this drama), played by Saba Qamar. We see her powerful will and vibrance ruffle feathers in the conservative village where she lives with her family, consisting of her father (Irfan Khoosat), mother, brother (Sarmad Khoosat), sister-in-law and younger siblings. The episode, which brings up the need for her marriage, also introduces Ali Kazmi's character who will go on to become her husband.
The episode is prefaced by a disclaimer that Baaghi is a "fictionalised" account of Qandeel's life — but will readers be able to dissociate its story from Qandeel's, which has become commonly known as she grew in fame and was ultimately silenced?
Baaghi's writers Shazia Khan and Umera Ahmed clarify that the drama is loosely based on the life of Qandeel. While the main storyline of the drama is based on the events of Qandeel's life (which is faithfully retold to the tee, say the writers), similar stories of small-town girls with dreams of showbiz have informed some of the minor events of the drama.
"There is not one Qandeel, there are lots of Qandeels in Pakistani society," asserted Baaghi's story writer Shazia Khan to Images. "There are many young women who want to model, to act, who we don't see or hear about, but are exploited in the same way as Qandeel. So Baaghi is the story of Qandeel and the many girls like her. But Qandeel is the central character of the play."
The writers say details of Qandeel's life and personality have been largely gleaned from her appearances and interviews in the media — along with the archive of her career's highlights.
"Qandeel did not become important to me after her death. I've followed her for a long time. It's when I saw her being humiliated in so many places — shows like Pakistan Idol, Desi Kuriyan — that's when I began to feel that this girl is different and wondered what made her tick," says Shazia.
The writers also had a resource in Qandeel's family, which has given lengthy interviews about Qandeel in the past. Unfortunately, they were embroiled in complications of Qandeel's murder case in court at the time of the writers' research and were not accessible to them.
"Qandeel's family was not interested in talking about her. When interest in buying the rights to her life story was conveyed, they sent over a lawyer to talk about money with the channel. They signed off the rights, giving the channel complete creative liberty," shared a source.
The writers have had to rely on interviews of Qandeel's parents, brother and husband to build their characters as well — "and it wasn't that difficult given how forthcoming they have been on live TV." For instance, the details of Qandeel's relationship with her husband came to the fore via their back-and-forth on TV. "Her husband said that I wasn't able to give her what she wanted, so she left. Qandeel, in turn, revealed her side of the story - that he humiliated her, abused her, so she had to leave and still cried for her son. We were just covering her main life events, so it wasn't hard to gather material about those."
While the channel's agreement with the family may have made them immune from their backlash, what kind of response of the writers anticipate from the audience at large?
"We live in a society that prefers to brush its ills under the carpet," says Baaghi screenwriter Umera Ahmed. "We're okay with stories of bad men — from Pran to Maula Jutt, our history is replete with their films and they are celebrated. But we want stories of bad women to be suppressed as if those women never even existed in our society."
"But Qandeel had good qualities and bad qualities and we've shown both in this drama. We haven't glorified her — through this drama, we have analysed her as a character. Until we don't try to understand what would cause a regular girl to become a 'bad woman', we can't move ahead in society.
"When a girl has dreams but no resources — no education, no skills, no support — how can we expect her not to use her honour or her body? When parents hone their daughters' minds, they become Arfa Karim. When parents deprive their daughters and treat them like a body to be entrusted to a man at the first chance, they become Qandeel."
While Umera thinks Baaghi holds a mirror to our society, Shazia's hopes for the project are manifold: she sees the drama as a parable of challenging the patriarchy, as an awareness-raising project as well as a lesson for young women.
"We've titled the drama Baaghi because Qandeel committed treason - in a patriarchal society, she was a rebel. Can a woman question a man in our society? Will people applaud you? Not at all. They will question your gall at doing so," Shazia said.
She later added, "Religion has given us a lot of freedoms, but as women, we know none of our rights. Our rights to education, to choose our life partner — are women given these rights? We can make people aware through our stories."
"We haven't glorified Qandeel Baloch in Baaghi — through this drama, we have analysed her as a character... When a girl has dreams but no resources — no education, no skills, no support — how can we expect her not to use her honour or her body?" — Baaghi writer Umera Ahmed
"A man who behaves like Qandeel may be glorified, but we haven't glorified Qandeel at all. In the drama, we have shown girls both right and wrong paths and that a wrong path leads to a bura anjaam. Lots of girls will look at this anjaam and mend their ways. That's the purpose of writing Baaghi," Shazia went on to say.
So Qandeel becomes a complex symbol in the story of Baaghi — at best, her life may be summed up as misdirection of strength and stubbornness. But given the heavy reliance on Qandeel's media appearances as source material in lieu of more authentic accounts, Baaghi the drama becomes less about who Qandeel really was and more about the carefully managed image she projected.
"Baaghi portrays both side of Qandeel — the image she wanted to portray and also the misery she suffered. Qandeel used to cry, she experienced moments of self-hatred, we sometimes used to see her shed tears in public... But we haven't shown anything in this drama that Qandeel wouldn't want the world to know," Umera concluded.