Growing up, my siblings and I would sing the theme songs of Pakistani dramas (which mostly consisted of crying!) to my mom and grandmother to annoy them. But over the years, a lot changed.
When I graduated from high school, I suddenly found myself secretly streaming Pakistani dramas online because I missed hearing them as background noise at home. And it wasn’t until I caught my roommate in freshman year secretly watching a show I liked that I finally admitted I too enjoy watching Pakistani serials.
Pakistani dramas are no longer my secret, guilty pleasure. I now openly embrace the fact that I like them, better than American television even. Pakistani dramas have been seriously on point lately, from breaking stigmas of mental health and divorce, to addressing and covering marital abuse and LGBTQ+ issues, Pakistani dramas are becoming woke and I am totally here for it.
Here are my top 13 picks you should binge. Not only do they have strong storylines but also soundtracks you’ll fall in love with.
Warning: some spoilers to follow!
1. Udaari (2016)
Udaari. meaning to fly in Urdu, broke various barriers and stigmas with its premier, especially with its focus on tackling child abuse. It depicts the lives of multiple characters with varying stories touching upon issues of social class, economic marginalization, abuse, and following unorthodox career paths such as singing. The story contrasts between urban and rural life, centering around two neighboring families in a village as well as four friends in the city of Lahore, highlighting the fractures present when it comes to navigating pressing issues like sexual assault and the like.
2. Jackson Heights (2014)
With migration and immigration to the United States being at an all-time high in the 1990s and early 2000s comes Jackson Heights, a drama based on the ethnic neighborhood in Queens, New York City. Jackson Heights is known as a South Asian neighborhood with a high South Asian population in New York the show leverages this to show the transition and struggles many face when moving to a new country. It revolves around four main characters who struggle with relationships and survival. It reminds Pakistanis that moving abroad does not solve financial issues and that those who move do not live a Hollywood or glamorous lifestyle.
3. Kaisa Hai Naseeban (2019)
This show, which loosely translates to “different types of one’s fate”, focuses on marital abuse. Mariam, the main character, is married to her cousin, the son of her father’s sister. As she married within the family and now lives abroad, her father assumed she would be treated well. However, Mariam faces abuse and battles with her fear of leaving her marriage because it would hurt her father and label her a divorcee. With divorce being a huge stigma in Pakistan, the show focuses on this taboo being used as a mechanism of power and control within a marriage.
4. Baaghi (2017)
Baaghi, or rebel, is a dramatic show based on the controversial and famous Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch. Baloch was killed in an honor killing by her brother in 2016. The show sheds light on this issue and focuses on the struggles and hardships she faced to provide for her family and what her life was like behind her online persona. Within a week of its launch, Baaghi became the most-watched Pakistani drama being viewed by Pakistanis globally on YouTube. It is known as one of the most controversial and talked about shows ever produced in the country.
5. Alif Allah Aur Insaan (2017)
Alif Allah Aur Insaan revolves around five different people from five different backgrounds and their different views on faith. The show’s name meaning “A, Allah, and Human” highlights what religion is alongside what hard work and determination can achieve. It focuses on different issues within faith such as honesty, trust in God, and doing what is right. While the show received positive reviews from viewers it also received harsh reviews from critics on its length for being one of the longest Pakistani dramas with 44 episodes. Critics argued audiences would lose interest if the show dragged on the lives of its characters, yet Alif Allah Aur Insaan was a crowd hit.
6. Cheekh (2019)
This crime and suspense-filled drama focuses on the corruption within the criminal justice system of Pakistan. Cheekh (Scream) revolves around a woman speaking up against injustice and the consequences that follow. The heartwrenching drama shows us the reality of why many women do not speak up against abuse and the unfortunate truth that money can buy out justice in many cases. Saba Qamar, as the lead character Mannat, does not disappoint as an example of a strong and determined advocate for truth and justice, despite the costs.
7. Hania (2019)
Another show on marital abuse, Hania focuses on the life of main character Hania, a very simple girl married to a con artist. She faces domestic violence but is afraid to speak up not only because of her husband’s influential and criminal background but in fear it will affect her sister’s marriage prospects as well. It addresses the stigma of divorce and the cultural stereotypes of how a wife “should” behave and be loyal. The story is meant to shed light on real-life situations on how girls like Hania handle abuse and are victimized. It depicts not only marital abuse but the trauma, depression, and PTSD that follows. Hania is not for the faint of heart and can be triggering for survivors of abuse.
8. Khaani (2017)
Khans are notorious in Pakistan to be headstrong and brave of heart. This drama centers around protagonist Sanam Khan, nicknamed Khaani by her family. A tragic incident separates Sanam from her twin brother Sarim and brings her face to face with Sarim’s murderer, rich brat Mir Hadi. The show depicts the bravery Sanam possesses in staying true to her values and morals, despite the threats and intimidations Mir Hadi brings, in her pursuit for justice.
9. Beti (2018)
Beti, meaning daughter in Urdu, focuses on the harsh reality that many still believe, that having a daughter is a burden. Beti follows the tale of Maryam, a university student raised by a single mother, who falls in love with her classmate Azhar and they both hope to get married. However, Azhar comes from a conservative family who does not value women, he warns her of his tyrannical grandmother and how his family is nothing like hers. Despite this warning, Maryam marries Azhar and is put to the ultimate test when she discovers she is pregnant with a girl.
10. Bhool (2019)
Bhool, meaning mistake, focuses on the harsh reality that people never forgive or forget mistakes made by women in society. It addresses the “what will people say mentality” and the idea that women are the honor of a family. The story revolves around protagonist Aiman who runs away from home on her wedding night to marry her classmate, only to come back days later divorced and pregnant. She faces the hardships of raising a child on her own and being constantly reminded that she made a mistake. Years later, her “mistake” begins to affect her daughter’s future as people question her legitimacy.
11. Malaal E Yaar (2019)
Malaal E Yaar, loosely translating to a “regretful or remorseful frienship”, is a drama based on the feudal system of Pakistan. It focuses on the tribal tradition of early arranged marriages at birth. The main character is promised to a cousin at a young age which makes her mother leave the family and raise her two daughters alone. Years down the line, when fate reconnects her with her familial roots she is unknowingly forced to marry to uphold family rituals. The show depicts the patriarchal system of many tribal areas where women are given no right to their own bodies.
12. Ruswai (2019)
According to Ruswai’s director, Rubina Ashraf, the purpose of the show is to address the issue that we raise sons, but as a country, we do not always raise good men. Ruswai, meaning stigma, begins with what you would think is a typical “watta satta” storyline or when two siblings marry two other siblings. It takes a turn when tragedy hits both families days after a wedding. Sameera who was to marry Salman, her sister-in-law’s brother, is kidnapped. She then returns days later, beaten and traumatized. The family refuses to take her to a hospital and Salman has yet to come to see her. This is another show focused on a woman being considered her family’s honor.
13. Rishtay Biktay Hain (2019)
Although laws have been passed in regards to dowry over the years, it still remains a prevalent issue in many South Asian cultures. Rishtay Biktay Hain (Relationships Are For Sale) addresses the issues of dowry and marriage as a means to climb the social ladder. It focuses on one family with three sons all interested in marriage only to further their own agenda. It depicts the harsh reality that many parents are even willing to sell themselves in hopes that their daughters will have a happy married life.
What are your favorite Pakistani shows?