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My Sister Wife (1992)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of My Sister Wife (1992)
BBC, tx. 23/2/1992
90 min, colour
DirectorLesley Manning
ProducerRuth Baumgarten
ScreenplayMeera Syal
From an idea byAsmaa Pirzada
PhotographyChris Seager

Cast: Meera Syal (Farah Khan); Shaheen Khan (Maryam); Paul Bhattacharjee (Asif Shah); Rashid Karapiet (Tariq); Harriet Bagnall (Poppy)

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The competing affections of a Pakistani man's two wives lead to a series of attempts by each to annihilate the other in order to be his only wife.

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Meera Syal was studying English and Drama at Manchester University, when her stage play, One of Us, came to the attention of the BBC. Syal was commissioned to write her first television script, on the subject of Pakistani marriage. She relished the opportunity, pointing out that "the pleasure of writing as an Asian woman is the pleasure of exploding stereotypes". The resulting feature-length drama, My Sister Wife, was joint winner in the TV Drama category of the Commission for Racial Equality's Race in the Media Award.

The film revolves around Muslim ideals of femininity. According to the Koran, a man is legally entitled to "possess" up to four wives. Farah and Maryam are engaged in a cruel battle to win the commitment and love of their husband, Asif. Maryam emerges the 'winner', as the woman who retains her sanity. Farah's descent into madness is attributed by her advisor, Fauzia, to her adherence to Western values, which equate sharing with weakness.

The women's reversal of roles testifies to the authority of the traditional Pakistani husband. Frighteningly expressive in her silence, and wearing a dark veil covering half of her face, Maryam at first carries out her duty as obedient wife and servant with precision. But when Maryam gets a job and starts to wear Western clothes, make-up and jewelry, Farah becomes withdrawn and subdued. Housebound, pregnant and pale, she takes to her bed, usurping Maryam's role as abject ghost-figure of the haunted house. In their periods of silence, Asif's two wives are equally desperate to understand their confusing position in this Western-Asian world.

There are moments of extraordinary visual poetry, notably a scene where Maryam, after Asif goes away, offers Farah a hand (literally) in friendship. The camera cuts from a close-up of the two women sitting on the stairs - their faces engulfed in shadows - to a high-angle shot of the pair partly obstructed by imposing wooden balustrades. Their facial expressions are no longer readable; all we see is Maryam's illuminated palm reach out to Farah, who grasps and holds it in her own hand. For a moment, the gesture seems genuine. It is all the more disturbing that, in the ensuing events, any chance of female solidarity is abandoned as the women murderously compete for their husband's devotion.

Shalini Chanda

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Video Clips
1. Family viewing (1:44)
2. Two halves, one ring (2:46)
3. Who are the others? (1:21)
4. Suffering sisters (1:44)
5. You are a mirror (1:33)
6. Madwoman in the attic (0:26)
Syal, Meera (1962-)