Drama Review

Revisiting Shehr e Zaat

Cast:

Falak/Fifi: Mahira Khan
Falak’s Nani: Samina Peerzada
Mehrunnissa, Falak’s mother: Hina Khawaja Bayat
Hamza, Falak’s friend: Mohib Mirza
Rushna, Falak’s friend: Mansha Pasha
Salman Ansar, Falak’s love interest/husband: Mikaal Zulfiqaar
Tabinda: Nadia Afgan

Written by Umera Ahmed
Directed by Sarmat Khoosat

June to November, 2012, Hum TV Network

Episodes 1 through 4.

Recap: It’s a dead graveyard where Falak (Mahira) and Hamza (Mohib) are taking pictures. They are art students who are exploring the Makli site, which is one of the world’s largest graveyards. Falak is enamored by the tombs and Hamza, who doesn’t share her sentiments, is poking fun at her as they spend their time walking along the ruins. Falak is charming and funny. Hamza is slick and intelligent. They have a natural sort of a chemistry that invites you into their story.

Falak is then seen making sculptures during an art class. She has created a bust of a person who she has come up with all on her own. This face becomes real, as she peruses through her Makli photos and spots a man who looks exactly (?) like this man. She chances upon meeting this man again at a party and is entranced by the idea of talking to him and knowing more about him. It is, after all, the man she created. In her head. Through her art. Via her imagination.

Falak’s interest in this man becomes a bit of an obsession. She talks about him with a certain confidence, the kind you reserve for a beloved. Yet he seems distant and uninterested. Falak keeps getting proposals from other families but she rejects them all. One poor “Asad” (guest appearance by Sarmad Khoosat) she rejects because he has a ringtone of a Pakistani drama soundtrack (one of Umera Ahmad’s previous drama, Zindagi Gulzar Hai – sly!). Asad’s family pursues the proposal relentlessly offering her their heart in a platter, but she rejects them. The audience are also made to understand that Falak also has no romantic interest in Hamza, even though he clearly seems to be in love with her. Falak’s own personality is not without problems. She is rude and entitled, typically annoyed at the hired help and street kids, has little regard for other peoples’ feelings and is often self-absorbed and selfish. She seems to be a variant of her mother, who is a beautiful but rich, snobby socialite who wears lots of makeup and designer clothes and is always yelling at her servants. On the flipside, Falak’s grandmother is a religious, pious, simple woman who wears no makeup and always has religious beads in her hands and is always helping out poor people and feeding stray animals.

Review: This characterization and dichotomization rich snobby aunty vs pious religious aunty is gradually becoming the original sin committed by Umera Ahmed in the modern drama age. It is curious to see how other writers tend to execute similar dichotomies unsuccessfully. While Umera’s characters/stereotypes have some semblance of depth and dimension, other drama writers tend to largely rely on the tropey nature of the stereotypes to attract audiences (thereby further lowering the collective IQ of audiences) but fail in producing the emotional and intellectual intensity of the stories and the characters. Umera Ahmed executes her characters’ exposition and journeys through an acute observation of human behavior and philosophizes in depth, the conflicts and the humane struggles of her protagonists. This is why stories like Shehr e Zaat may have a dangerously religious message but still manage to resonate some kind of relatability with audiences in general.

The first four episodes set the tone loud and clear. There will be comeuppance, nothing exists without the color of karma. Be careful what you wish for, God is watching. Treat your fellow people right, because being rich automatically makes you insensitive. The messages, even though horribly dogmatic at times, speak of a certain spiritual journey and the crucial social issues prevalent in our society. One of them being how we treat domestic helpers. Falak and her mother are portrayed as callous and insensitive to the various issues faced by their staff; in one scene we see Falak yelling at one of her servants to switch on the generator in the middle of the night and in another Falak’s mother is yelling at another servant for no actual apparent reason. Hina Bayat reprises her role as unfeeling socialite mom from Zindagi Gulzar Hai, whereas Falak is a departure from Mahira Khan’s earlier role, as Khirad.

The play is based on a novella by Umera Ahmed. It is a group of short stories under “Maine Khwabon Ka Shajar Dekha Hai” which also includes Shehr e Zaat. The text of the original story is not, of course, painted in as much detail as the play which is created for around 19 episodes. In the original text, the story reads more plainly and the story sees Falak more as a raving lunatic giving religious lessons than a girl with real thoughts and ideas and as someone who begins to understand the lesson of selflessness and humanity through experience and effort. The faultlines in the original text and the play are similar though, as some of the platitudes become far too preachy for their own good and the end of the play seems hurried and tied together without enough explanation. The characters of Nani and Hamza have been added for the televised version and while Hamza’s character and portrayal (done delightfully and heart rendingly by Mohib Mirza) add more to the story, Nani’s character serves as the morality teacher of the story. She is also the ‘good’ woman shown in contrast with her daughter, Mehrunnissa (Bayat) who tries to teach Falak the value of Fajr prayers.

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Umera Ahmed’s writing itself is an aggravating blend of brilliance and cognitive dissonance. At one point where you will see the heroine making perfect sense and construing absolutely spot-on arguments – in the following scene, you can well expect her to be relaying a dangerously fundamentalist message and diving headfirst into a religious monologue that probably has little to do with logic and the story. In the first four episodes, for example, Nani is shown as someone who practices “Islamic humanism” of sorts. But her ideology is confusing. She hates sculptures but is okay with dogs. She treats her servants and her poor relatives with kindness and compassion but also harshly judges her daughter for wearing ‘modern’ clothes. She prays and reads the Quran and insists everyone do ‘astaghfar’ for their sins but also encourages a faqir who sings devotional songs. She says a girl’s will must be paramount in the decision to her wedding – but also pressurizes Falak to marry Asad because Asad and his family like her a lot and this should be reason enough to marry someone. She claims ‘make your God happy, not your husband’ and forgets that similar guardians of faith teach women to obey everything their husbands tell them to, almost given them god-like status. It seems that Ahmed’s writing is filled with cognitive dissonance of faith and practicality. She understands the complexity of human emotions and relationships well but she soon turns it into a religious sermon and hence loses and confuses her audiences who hadn’t come to watch a play for a jummay ka khutba. The audiences are riveted to a character, not an ideology. Ahmad often forgets the difference and thence her female protagonists, especially, seem to be in as much conflict as she herself.

That is not to say that Ahmad isn’t brilliant at what she is able to write and execute with dexterity. There is a small monologue by Mehrunissa in which she self-reflects about her lifestyle and the lessons given to her by her mother, wondering about the relationship between ‘heritage’ and ‘progress’ vis a vis past and present. That little insight is not just clever, it holds a deep and existential meaning for many parents and adults who have traversed through the pitfalls of social mobility and embraced social change. Another positive element in Umera’s depiction of Nani could be how Nani believes in empowerment in terms of marriage and lovingly listens to Falak when Falak tells her she has fallen in love with a boy. So maybe the message is – not all religious people are hardcore nuts who want to kill the girl over showing just a tiny bit of spine? I hope so.

Mohib’s portrayal as Hamza and Zulfiqaar’s portrayal as Salman made me wonder if it would have been better if the actors had been reversed for the roles. Mohib has a darker, mysterious and at times slightly sinister quality that enables him to be loved and hated at the same time – which is exactly the kind of emotion the team of SeZ could have expected from the audience. Zulfiqaar is a man with standard good looks, a kind face and a soft voice – someone who could have played the left-behind best friend beautifully and evoking a lingering empathy from the audiences.

Mahira Khan has a childlike appeal to her brattiness and while it seems like the role was written as that of a narcissist and not endearing at all – Mahira’s inherent charisma and naturally beautiful looks make her less artificial and superficial and more tangible. Instead of seeing her as some mafauq ul fitrat haseena (an impossible beauty) we see her as one of those girls we encounter every day – privileged, beautiful and annoyingly entitled. Her choice of clothes also help – while she is dressed like a ‘modern’ girl, she chooses pastels and colors that highlight her natural aura. Her flyby hair become a character. When she is distressed, they fly and whirl around her like a storm. When she is calm and steady, they stay on her shoulders like obedient aides. She is superb with the little nuances, the micro expressions and the minute interactions that make her character someone you and I could know in our lives instead of a fairy tale princess. The role seems to be written for her – and she gives herself to this character in full.

Read Shehr e Zaat review of episodes 5 through 10

Read Shehr e Zaat review of episodes 11 through 15

Read Shehr e Zaat review of episodes 16 through 19

Shehr e Zaat, the novella.

Watch episode 01 of Shehr e Zaat

Watch episode 02 of Shehr e Zaat

Watch episode 03 of Shehr e Zaat

Watch episode 04 of Shehr e Zaat

Watch episode 05 of Shehr e Zaat

To Be Continued…

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3 comments on “Revisiting Shehr e Zaat

  1. Pingback: Revisiting Shehr e Zaat, part 2. – Patakha TV

  2. Pingback: Revisiting Shehr e Zaat, last part. – Patakha TV

  3. Pingback: Revisiting Shehr e Zaat, part 3. – Patakha TV

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