The family drama Pinky Memsaab focuses on the story of a young Pakistani woman, Pinky, who leaves her village in Pakistan and migrates to Dubai, where she can work for a wealthy and influential family. In spite of focusing on the empowerment of its protagonist, the film reduces her identity to a mere South Asian girl who must be modernised to be accepted in upper-class Dubai society.
Pinky (Hajra Yamin) is introduced to viewers as a stereotypical Desi village girl—she talks in Punjabi and milks a cow during the initial few scenes of the film. When Pinky is about to reach Dubai and start working for the Chughtai family, the couple who will employ her is shown having a conversation about her. Hassan Chughtai (Adnan Jaffar) asks his wife, Mehr (Kiran Malik), why she needs a Pakistani maid. She replies, “Ahad (their son, played by Ahmed Ali Khan) needs to know a bit of Urdu. She (Pinky) can cook Pakistani dishes, and she will also give me a head massage once in a while.”
Thus, Pinky, who was initially portrayed as a village girl, becomes someone who would assist the Chughtai couple’s son to gain fluency in a South Asian language that he is otherwise not exposed to in Dubai. Mehr’s requirement for a Pakistani woman as their domestic help is limited to things such as Pakistani food and head massages— Pinky is to aid and serve the elite and privileged. In the same scene, Hassan reveals his bias toward a Pakistani servant, saying, “I hope she is toilet trained. Otherwise, your Filipino maid will run away.”
As Pinky Memsaab‘s story progresses, one comes across more clichés about South Asian women in the diaspora and the cultural shock they face when they leave their home countries to settle abroad. This is particularly evident in a scene where Pinky cooks a dish in her Chughtai villa, and Hassan, entering the kitchen, yells, “What’s this smell? Just turn it off!”
A significant shift in the storyline occurs when Pinky travels far from the Chughtai mansion in Jumeirah and cannot make her way back as her phone battery is drained. After rescuing Pinky, Mehr expresses her frustrations about Pinky’s seeming inability to adjust to urban life in Dubai. Pinky responds that she isn’t as “smart” as Mehr. The conversation ultimately leads Mehr to, as film scholar Ashvin Devasundaram puts it, “…undertake a ‘civilising mission'” and school Pinky in “social etiquette, English language and general savoir faire.”
Thus, the Pakistani protagonist must give up her familiar ways and modernise (or “westernise”) herself. As director Shazia Ali Khan mentions in her 2020 interview with Devasundaram, “…anybody who is aware of the South Asian way of life, especially rural South Asian way of life, would know what a culture shock it is when these people get here for the first time. Everything is different, everything is modern.”
Once Pinky is satisfactorily “civilised”, she is transformed from being viewed as Mehr’s inferior to her equal — the latter’s socialite friends from her elite circle confuse Pinky for her sister until she corrects them and introduces her as the Chughtai family’s domestic help. However, unfortunately for Pinky, something else changes along the way, too—Mehr’s relationship with her. Even though Pinky is very clearly harmless and powerless, Mehr begins to see her as a threat and even shouts at her for something as small as her putting yellow flowers in a vase instead of white ones. Over the next few scenes, Hassan confides in Pinky in an intimate yet friendly manner about the inferiority complex he often experiences around his wife.
Mehr sees Hassan and Pinky together and gives, as Devasundaram writes, “…a speech to all the party attendees, announcing that her husband has become romantically attached to the housemaid, who has metamorphosed from a Pakistani village girl to a Dubai Mondaine.” Pinky, of course, loses her job.
Pinky has not only been “modernised” in the eyes of the society she served, but there is change, too, in how she views herself. She seeks a job that would better suit her new persona and refuses to work in a household where she would be expected to wear the South Asian clothes she wore when she first arrived in Dubai. She tells her cousin, Kulsoom (Hajra Khan), whom she is staying with that she doesn’t want to “become a maid” again and asks for help getting work as a beautician instead. Pinky now looks down upon her work as a maid.
Meanwhile, Mehr pays a visit to her father in Pakistan. She sees him treating her stepmother’s domestic help with respect and understands how much she took Pinky for granted. She decides to repent and bring Pinky back into the Chughtai household. Mehr looks for Pinky and accidentally comes across her one day. She even chases her down an alleyway, though fails to catch her.
The last scene of Pinky Memsaab raises questions about the protagonist and her final life choices: Has she finally found her true identity in a foreign land, or has she discarded the South Asian aspects of her existence altogether? Has she decided never to forgive the Chughtais? Or does she believe she can never work as a “lowly” maid again? Pinky writes a letter to Mehr, politely apologising for running away from her. She also explains why she would not return to work in their household, revealing that even if Pinky has finally learned to take a stand for herself, she still believes, in her old-fashioned way, that she owes Mehr respect.
Devasundaram, Ashvin. “”Subalterns and the city: Dubai as cross-cultural caravanserai in City of Life and Pinky Memsaab“. Transnational Screens. 16 September 2020.