Problems in telling Qandeel’s life story

If Baaghi was to come with a disclaimer that it was not an accurate depiction of her life, why was there a need to market it as Qandeel’s biopic?

 Problems in telling Qandeel’s life story

Qandeel Baloch’s biopic Baaghi’s first episode aired on primetime TV on July 15 – her brother murdered her on the same day in 2016.

Fouzia Azeem, the name given to Qandeel by her family, has been introduced to the viewers as a free-spirited girl who is not willing to give in to the conservative norms and practices of her village. She is shown dancing carelessly, donning a bright pink outfit at a wedding upon insistence of her hosts – and in that very scene the foundation is laid for the rest of her story.

Bystanders are shown looking at her and talking about her but her spirit remains untouched. Exactly like her life after she became Qandeel Baloch.

But who was Qandeel Baloch? If there has ever been an anti-thesis to the mainstream image of a Pakistani woman, it has to be that of Qandeel.

She first made her entry on our screens, face front, demanding a compliment. Qandeel was supremely confident, and with her atrocious buoyance she continued to expose bits and pieces of her life, and sometimes her body – for millions to see, get amused and, unfortunately, mock.

As with any woman who dares to speak up in Pakistan, Qandeel too had to deal with a fair share of misogynist forces. Sometimes, it was the mullah trying to preach and, other times, it was uncalled for sexism at the hands of TV anchors – male and female. Qandeel became an easy ticket for high TRP for many in the media. But she remained a paradox – so open and bare on camera, and unforgiving and blunt. Yet we knew so little about her. Despite her regular updates through social media videos, we knew only as much as she let on. Throughout her life as a social media celebrity, Qandeel held her agency and was in complete control of her narrative. However, that never stopped any of us from passing a comment on two. 

The one thing that has stood out for me from her videos is her undying defiance and the verve with which she would call out our society’s hypocrisy. “Agar itnay he ghairat-mand ho tou mujhe unfollow kyun nai kar detay?” [Why don’t you unfollow me if I threaten your honour?] she would ask her detractors with a surreal calm that also showed her concealed aggression.

Ghairat or honour, izzat or respect – these grounding factors of our society at once unite us and divide us. Qandeel was scary and gutsy because she challenged the mainstream notions of morality and played with our moral sensibilities. Eventually, this game of fire became the end of her. And the mainstream media that had marginalised her in life started taking interest in her ‘real’ story only after her death. Now everyone wanted to know more than ever who she ‘really’ was, where she had come from and why did she flee her hometown?  Many news channels dug in to find out her life story but as it is with news – the story soon became dated.

Then came Qandeel’s biopic. The same mainstream media that could not accept her in her lifetime was now set to commodify her life’s story.

Importantly, the biopic is only loosely based on Qandeel’s life with some character inspirations and plot resemblance. The creators claim that they have been allowed complete ‘literary leverage’ by her family and that the screenplay is only loosely based on her life.

If the serial was to come with a disclaimer that it was not an accurate depiction of her life, why was there a need to market it as Qandeel’s biopic?

This question is all the more important because Baaghi had presented an opportunity to tell her story from her own lens, rather than perpetuating a reactionary image of Qandeel or simply imposing the creators’ own preconceived notions on her. By not doing so, the show’s narrative, like that of the 24/7 news cycle, renders her devoid of her human agency. And, when it labels her as a ‘baaghi’ (rebel), the show portrays her as an outcast and forces her out of the social space, rather than disrupting this space and making way for the likes of Qandeel.  

And once used for such a show, the title Baaghi ends up reflecting more on the feminism of those who enjoy a certain level of socioeconomic privilege, rather than the actual struggle waged by the likes of Qandeel Baloch.
What has been left out of this initiative is that Qandeel, or Fouzia, lacks the economic privilege and social status to afford the kind of freedom that lets one reclaim the term Baaghi for their cultural productions.

There have been other efforts at telling Qandeel’s story. One such effort is Qandeel Ki Kahani – a Facebook page run by Saad Khan, a documentary filmmaker based in New York.

Through this page, Khan has been circulating snippets of interviews conducted with Qandeel’s family to tell her story in their words. “The Facebook page was created to undo the damage mainstream media has done while she was alive, the damage the media continues to do while capitalising on her story, economising and authoritatively representing her life,” Khan says.

More than a year after her death, many continue to find explanations and justifications for Qandeel’s murder. All we’re left with are questions. Why is killing honourable? Why’re society’s micro-aggressions used to police women, and women only?

Commenting on the biopic, he says, “it repaints her as someone who had the potential to become the respectable woman that we all expect women to be, but was baaghi, was radical, was thus the ‘other’, and an anomaly.”

Hani Taha’s documentary for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is also an attempt at depicting Qandeel’s life that steers clear of stripping her or her family of their human agency to tell stories.

Instead of populating a narrative that looks at her from the eyes of an outsider – an economically and socially superior gaze – we must understand her as an individual with an inherent sense of independence and a defiance to come out of the trajectory of patriarchy so deeply embedded in her society.

Alas! the only way Qandeel is fit for primetime media consumption in Pakistan is when she is caricatured as someone who was so close to being the ideal woman and yet could not be – an image consumable by the middle-class viewers. The same class was responsible for her murder, mind you – the class that mocked her and ridiculed her social media posts.

“There’s an obvious power dynamic that leads to this kind of manipulation, control and entitlement of the media. The media did that to Qandeel because the media is powerful; run by men and she was a poor and a radical woman who called out and fought head-on with the hypocrisy of capitalist hetero-patriarchay represented by the clerics, the middle class and the media,” says Khan.

However, Hani Taha believes that regardless of these criticisms of the biopic it is, at least, bringing the issue in the limelight and starting the conversation. Taha is of the view that Qandeel’s struggle is not unique to her. It is the story of many women who share her social and economic struggles and, hence, the show will educate those who continue to isolate Qandeel’s life as Fozia from her journey, she adds.

Recalling her encounter with Qandeel’s father, Taha says that he seemed devastated by his daughter’s murder and ashamed of his son’s act. She recalls her father asking rhetorically, “Where is his [Qandeel’s brothers] honor now?”

More than a year after her death, many continue to find explanations and justifications for Qandeel’s murder. All we’re left with are questions. Why is killing honourable? Why’re society’s micro-aggressions used to police women and women only? Are we talking about Qandeel, ‘honour’ killing and what it takes to be a baaghi now because Qandeel had to die for us to wake up? As we continue seeking answers, let’s remember to put the blame where it’s due: the oppression of our hetero-patriarchy, its economic and social disparity and, most importantly, the hungry vulture that commercial media have become. 


The writer graduated from Northwestern University in Qatar and is currently an Assistant Editor at Daily Times


Published in Daily Times, September 13th 2017.