Shehr-e-Zaat: A spiritual romance

Published: October 12, 2012

Mahira manages to make what is a very unsympathetic, self-centered and vain character, seem vulnerable and empathetic despite her flaws. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

After “Humsafar“, expectations for any work involving Sarmad Sultan Khoosat were high, and seemingly impossible to fulfil. How does one compete with a phenomenon, especially one you created yourself?

The answer was apparently simple ─ “Shehr-e-Zaat“. This isn’t “Humsafar”, but it is a tour de force in its own right. It is yet another bright feather in director Sarmad’s cap.

The story, written by Umera Ahmad, is a difficult concept to bring to the screen. What might be a deeply insightful work on paper can seem bland and heavy handed on screen. 7th Sky and Hum TV have done an admirable job, the production values are flawless.

This is a serious drama. It demands our attention, pushes us out of easy assumptions and, yes, it can be uncomfortable to watch, yet it catches hold of the viewer just like its beautifully haunting Original Sound Track (OST) “Yaar Ko Humne Ja-baja Dekha” sung by Abida Parveen. You hear the music in your head; the lyrics are unsettling in a strange way and you begin to wonder …What does it all mean?

Mahira Khan essays the lead role of Falak with surprising ease. It should silence her critics, and for those who it doesn’t silence, well, there is little that can actually satisfy them. She has grown as a performer and I am hard put to think of anyone else in this role. She owns it.

Mahira manages to make what is a very unsympathetic, self-centred and vain character, seem vulnerable and empathetic despite her flaws. Falak’s beauty, her wealth and social status have blinded her to the realities of this world. She despises ugliness and cannot see the human beings hidden by the grime of poverty.

Her accidental meeting with Salman Anser is poetic justice. The object of her sudden affections, Salman Anser , is already in a desperate love affair with himself and has little time for Falak. Undaunted, through shameless persistence she cajoles him into marriage.

Mikaal Zulfikar has given a masterful performance in his role. There is very little that can be called heroic about the character he plays, but Mikaal lends a certain charm that Salman hardly deserves. This is nothing new for Mikaal, who seems to excel at playing ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

Apart from the lead protagonists, every actor has given their best ─ Hina Bayat, Samina Peerzada and, of course, Mohib Mirza, who has done a simply outstanding job as Humza, Falak’s best friend and would-be suitor. I simply must mention Mansha Pasha, Falak’s friend Rushna, who is like a breath of fresh air every time she is on screen.

The heart of the story is about spiritual awakening. A sharp contrast is drawn between the Sufi concepts of ishq e haqeeqi, the love of a human for God, and ishq e majazi, the love of a human for another human ─ not an easy accomplishment.

“Aap ne mujh pe zulm keeya hai, mummy,” (you have been cruel to me, mummy) screams a tormented Falak. “Aap ne mujhe Allah se pyaar karna nahin sikhaaya!” (you did not teach me to love Allah!)

This she says after she discovers that the woman her husband is having an affair with is her inferior in every way.

While I could understand the oddly intellectual admonishment given to Falak by a beach side fakir, her naani’s (maternal grandmother) constant preachiness could explain the family’s disdain for overt religious practice.

I wish that had been done better.

In any other story, Falak would be the villainous, spoilt first wife, soon to be discarded in favour of the “miss middle class virtues” her beleaguered husband meets at the office. However, this is a story which defies stereotypes.

Tabinda, the “other woman”, is vulgar and coarse. Now this was a source of confusion for many. Why would the proud, refined Salman be interested in such a woman? However, the brilliant Nadia Afghan has given this a surprisingly comic turn, as the deadpan foil to the elite families. It might have been easier to understand if we had been shown the connection Salman made with her.

Umera Ahmad has insinuated a very feminist idea into this story. Men are like doors, she says, they can open a way for a woman or they can prevent her from going forward; they are not the goal.

She reminds us that marriage is sometimes like other material things of this world ─ a distraction. There is also a message of deep compassion for the victims of infidelity. Human beings may be cruel to one another; they may devalue and make a mockery of their relationships and promises, but Allah the Eternal, always values us.

From every billboard and movie, from our Facebook pages to business strategy books, we are told to follow our hearts, to listen to our feelings. Perhaps we should pause and think: is what our heart desires actually the right, the principled thing to do?

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Sadaf Haider

Sadaf Haider

A graduate in Biochemistry from UEL. Writer, drama fan and international woman of mystery. She tweets @Tomtomatoe (twitter.com/tomtomatoe)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    Watched a little bit of this and got the feeling that I was watching Humsafar all over again and that put me off. Possibly it’s too soon after Humsafar for this to come out.Recommend

  • http://www.myfrequentranting.wordpress.com Farwa

    Nice review. Personally I’m in love with this serial and don’t understand why people are so critical of it. The concept is understandable even it’s uncommon, it’s not the typical love triangle. The actors have done such a brilliant job that their expressions convey more than words can. Mahira’s expressions when she sees Tabinda are enough to explain Falak’s change of heart, her realisation that she has been ignoring her Creator. She didn’t have to say anything out loud. It is a brilliant blend of acting, direction and production. Recommend

  • http://mezaajedeen.blogspot.com Tribune Reader

    What world do u live in, this is a very ordinary drama, why should there be much empathy for falaks character, rewind to earlier episodes, her marriage to Salman was out of her childish persuation whenthe guy clearly showed no genuine interest in her. as far as Mahira’s acting is concerned, she comes from a similar socioeconomic background, so shes probably being herself or following character absorption from a friend of hers.Recommend

  • http://www.risingkarachi.blogspot.com Nouman Ahmed

    This drama is…….simply the bestRecommend

  • Ms. Ras

    I ave been keenly following Shehr-e-Zaat and am truly in agreement with the writer of this blog that this was a challenging idea for screenplay and Sarmad has done the job wonderfully.

    I really admire the dialogues specially thsoe by Naani and Falak.They have utmost depth in them and are jolting in many ways. They are like piercing wind in deep silence. So simple yet so complex.

    I want to share my understanding of why Salman is seen to desperately love Tabindah despite her being so caorse and nothing compared to her wife.

    I think Falak s early portrayal as a pretty ,dying -for- love- of- Salman type of girl, her ignorance of her Naanis preachign of Allah is acutally a signal of her personality whcih is shown of as woman who thinks that if she can get her love , her life is complete. Actually she made salman her God in a way , her life revolved around him. She couldnot imagine that the world existed without him.She almost forgot that there is Allah running the whole damn show in this world and each of us are merely puppet in his hands.

    Salman is shown to fall in love wth such a miserable character to give the message that its Allah who puts a humanslove in another human`s art. A man is nothing. A man is not capable of being loved to the extent Allah shoudl be loved. The message is that our hearts are under the control of the Superme Power called Allah like the rest of our bodies.

    Looking at Salman`s love from Tabindah from this angle may clarify the plot of the drama perfectlty.Recommend

  • http://www.dramapakistani.net Faraz

    Sadaf: i think you have expressed Shehr e Zaat beautifully! your take on SeZ has done complete justice to the wonderful Drama.. looking forward to see more posts from you :) Recommend

  • Sadaf Haider

    Thanks one and all for reading the review. @ Tribune reader, I have to respectfully disagree and say that this is a rather unusual concept for any drama let alone Pakistan. This kind of high quality ,cutting edge work has caught the imagination of viewers across three continents.It is popular in Pakistan, if I speak to family and friends in Europe they are following it on line and it is among the first topics of conversation across the diaspora in North America.As far as Mahira’s acting goes perhaps we should move beyond personalities and consider a person’s work alone.
    @Ms Ras thanks for that very lucid comment and your clarification is something I myself considered before writing the critique. Dramas are obviously a highly visual medium and sometimes what is inferred by dialogue alone can be lost if not reinforced by a visual cue. You can catch me DramaPakistani Blog.or on twitter @Tomtomatoe .Recommend

  • mystreeman

    The drama is totally pathetic. A tirade by middle class mentality writer against upper class. Characters do not represent a family. How could the daughter of such a religious lady be a super modern. Totally absurd idea. Recommend

  • Mona S

    Amazing review to a wonderful play. I watched this play since the 1st episode & feel in love with it. Mahira Khan owns the character of Falak. Mikaal has done a very good job as Salman Anser. I was really impressed by the new girl playing Rushna. Overall a wonderful effort by the entire team.Recommend

  • Bhooooo

    This drama is WAY better than other crappy dramas which revolve around typical saas-Bahu-nand-shohar fights.
    Well,it depends on the viewer whether he/she wants to take a lesson outa it..I did!Recommend

  • Marriam

    i had great expectations frm this play.. bt after watching it im not satisfied.. the story was,no doubt, very powerful bt the way it was treatd cant be justified.. the sufferings of Falak could be shown more effectively, the imperfection rises frm the fact tht u always knw whts going to happen next.. u see, the sublime nd spiritual theme of the play could hv been managed in the more striking manner to catch as much viewers as HAMSAFAR did..Recommend

  • Fahad

    @Parvez: In hurry you made two mistakes: first, by just watching a bit of this drama you concluded that you were watching another ‘Hamsafar’ – Wrong – , second, even if you had made a judgement about genre of this drama, you should not have so quick to leave your ‘opinion’ on this page – again wrong.

    This is a totally different drama. So, once you have cooled down, again watch it with an open mind and you will know how wrong you were. Recommend

  • ayesha waraich

    i have read novel as wel ………its quit beter thn darma character of falak is jst amazing…….novel has its own feeling umera ahmed i like u very mch peer e kamil is also gud…….Recommend

  • Raheela

    Sherezaat was just an above average show if u ask me. The story is moving at a snails pace, the scenes are too long & dragged out,, & the dialogues are never ending.
    I’ve read the short story. If the producers had made a telefilm or a long play of it , instead of becoming greedy & making it a 17 episode serial, it would have been much better.Recommend

  • Tassadduq H. Zuberi

    Sherezaat Drama is a good lesson for those burger families who are day by day adopting western culture and giving no awareness to their children resulting which they are day by day attracting the meanness of that society. Umairh Ahmed has written another novel on this touching topic and I also appreciate the artists who are acting in this serial specially Maira Khan acting.Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Fahad: You’re most probably right. Will give it another shot. I have to conceed that our TV dramas are very well constructed. My apolologies for being impulsive.Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    Beautiful and masterly review, very well written indeed.

    However I feel play is just above average. no comparison to Humsafar. Mahira khan is getting better but her long scenes are at times bit taxing for the viewers.

    Mysticism/ Sufi theme has been masterly addressed by dramatists like late Ashfaq ahmed and renowned Bano Qudsia.. Such drama need touch of surrealism which seems to be missing here.

    Long play or mini- series would have been a better option. Now the story is just dragging on.Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    @Sadaf Haider:
    Nice review very well written. However theme isn’t ‘unusual’ as various playwrights have given superb treatment to this theme. We love Mahira khan, but she is trying very hard and one can clearly see this. I think it is just an above average play.
    Enjoyed your write up though.Recommend

  • G.A.

    In the beginning it was not much interesting but now as the story went to some climax in regards to the protagonist, its quite realistic. One can associate oneself with the protagonist in regards if it had or have an idealistic approach towards life and how a totally opposite reality seriously wounds a person when it founds that idealistic world of oneself do not or cannot exist, whether that world be a justified one. At this stage that person feel no one a real consoler for itself, except Allah, if one finds out, and that faith provides strength to face reality, as is the case going till now in this drama.Recommend

  • Sadaf Haider

    @Anwer Sohail, Thank you for your comment,the last part of which made me laugh despite myself. I can see your point about the subject matter , but let me refine the distinction: though not rare ,it is an unusual topic and the treatment is fresh. Yes ,Mahira is trying hard and has more screen presence than many more experienced performers. Recommend

  • Fayaz Dar

    I am back in Pakistani dramas after a very long time. Humsafar and now Sher-e zaat, simply outstanding.Recommend

  • Uzma

    I hate to burst your bubble but no, in any other drama, Falak would not have had an unsympathetic portrayal because the first wife rarely does-she is always the victim. making the second wife seem “vulgar and coarse” is just another stereotype. yes, in a few it may be the other way around, but that’s not really doing things differently either, because that’s still giving the message that where there are two wives, one must be good and the other must be bad. it is impossible for both to just be human. and bringing Allah into it..how does that make this drama different from the other hundred on television (and spiritual-seriously?). you wont find a single pakistani drama or movie that does not have God and religion inserted somewhere on the other a million times. Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    @Sadaf Haider:
    Thanks for reply ma’am. To be honest topic isn’t unusual. The theme is being drummed into our heads since Zia era, in all forms and shapes. Characters may be classy but lacking any depth. I’ll reiterate that review is pleasant and well written. Regards.Recommend

  • Dua Khan

    Ameera Ahmed is an Extremist. Life is Not Always that Extreme..!!!Recommend

  • Zalim Singh

    why SUFI everywhere?Recommend

  • Sadaf

    I am so glad that this drama has caught the attenion of so many and again I am greatful that anyone took time read my own humble opinion on it. @ Uzma I can see your point and I cannot deny having the same thoughts myself,it’s always the woman .Either she is too pretty or not pretty enough or she is too smart or not smart enough.I personally am not a fan of overt relligious symbolism but we have to be wary of the opposite extreme where material things become our objects of worship. That is one of the strongest take aways I got from Sheher e Zaat. Recommend

  • Nexus

    I agree, the drama is eye opening. Maybe we get wrapped up in the world around us that we overlook the most important reason why we are here – to love Allah and ultimately everything and every action directs itself back to Him. I usually avoid dramas, but this one pulls me and frankly is a big message in its own. The acting by the cast is superb, presented well and though its going turtle at the moment, its still worth watching. Recommend

  • Ms. Ras

    @Sadaf:
    Certainly agree, The theme of this play has a different central idea and you have summed it up. Recommend

  • JM

    While Mahira’s portrayal of the haughty and self-obsessed Falak doesn’t really strike a chord with me, I do find that her transition to the God seeking woman is hauntingly beautiful in its pathos.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    The writing is nothing but drivel inspired by the religious right which holds that anyone who does not pray five times and day or is not constantly going on and on about religion can not possibly be a good kind human being and thats how all the non religious characters in this drama have been portrayed.

    The drama was interesting and obsorbing until they introduced the character of Tabinda…the character is designed for the sole purpose of eliciting sympathy from the viewer for Falak who until that point had been a throughly unlikeable character with few if any positive characteristics to enforce the above point.

    There is just no way in hell that in the real world some one like Salman falls for some one like Tabinda…the concept is interesting that how some one with none of the physical, financial and social strengths of Falak is able to be more important to Salman.

    It would have been a facinating to observe how Falak’s realization that all these are not enough leads her to relook at her life and become a more mature and well rounded human being from the self self obsessed brat that she is.

    But the writers went the easy route and completely squandered the potential and great set up of this drama by making Tabinda a character with no redeeming characteristics to explain Salman’s attraction and Falak comes off as a mentally unstable person who is unable to handle rejection and is incapable of coping with life’s trials and moves from one extreme of the spectrum to the other extreme.

    This is all preachy BS which can be condensed into one sentence – she was not religious that is why this is happening to her.

    If this is true to the published story on which this is based then that story is also sub standard.Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    @Ahmed:
    Million thanks for putting it so eloquently. I agree with you 100 percent.
    There is absolutely nothing new in the plot. This theme is being rammed down our throats since General Zia’s time.
    Falak was a self centered spoilt brat who wasn’t religious and that’s why she is suffering.
    I’m dismayed to see how seemingly educated people call it a difficult and UNUSUAL idea!!!
    As we know the central idea now, how on earth will they drag the story for so many more weeks. I won’t know as I have stopped watching it from now onwards.Recommend

  • Aisha

    @Anwer Suhail ,thanks for your comments I really enjoy reading them. You seem to have thought a great deal about this and I would love to hear your opinion on the opposite end of the spectrum. We all know of the perniciouse effects the Zia regime had on Pakistani culture and the rise in ignorant fundamentalism but what about the rise in materialism and as you quite rightly describe Falak, the “brattish” ‘me me me me ‘ culture of indefference to humanity that is also the target of this drama ? Let us not throw out the baby with the batwater .
    You can catch me on Twitter @tomtomatoe or lurking on the review pages of WWW. Dramapakistani . Net Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    I don’t condone materialism just as I don’t approve fundamentalism. What’s wrong with universal human values irrespective of creed and race, and moderation! Recommend

  • http://sanimir.blogspot.com Sania

    very well written article Sadaf! I agree, this drama is a breath of fresh air among many other dramas which highlight the typical social issues of Pakistan. They took a very common topic of a rich girl falling in love w a guy and yet turned it into a very deep message of self reflection and soul searching. I am eager to see how it all turns out. I’d like to share my personal blog where I actually wrote about this drama episode. Hope you guys take a moment to read my writing.

    http://sanimir.blogspot.com/2012/10/to-citizens-of-self.htmlRecommend

  • mansi

    i loved the way you have described the theme of the show in few lines. I loved the show. And though i realised it quite recently that the love of god is bigger than love of human, I could totally connect to the show and especially the last few episodes. I am from India and a fan of pakistani dramas. Thanks for putting up such great shows!Recommend

  • Sadaf Haider

    Thanks for replying Anwer Sohail, point taken , analysed and agreed with.
    Thanks for the link Sania, very well reasoned and written!
    Wellcome Mansi , I am glad you like Pakistani Dramas and have taken the time to comment.
    You can find me lurking around the pages of http://WWW.DramaPakistani.Net or on twitter @Tomtomatoe.Recommend

  • ABBAS

    nice play but humsafar was best . Mahira’s acting is nice.Recommend

  • abdul rashid behlim

    “Aap ne mujh pe zulm keeya hai, mummy,” (you have been cruel to me, mummy) screams a tormented Falak. “Aap ne mujhe Allah se pyaar karna nahin sikhaaya!” (you did not teach me to love Allah!) A very good reminder loving Allah is loving the whole mankind. Recommend

  • Sundas

    the concept/adaptation is too good. It gives you food for thought.
    however, ill disagree on a point here. mahira did a great job, but still lacked in many very important scenes, where her acting didnt do justice to the character i feel. Recommend

  • pareesa

    @Tribune Reader:
    you might feel it ordinary but Shehr e Zaat is very special and Mahira is totally out class as falak. Sarmad’s best after humsafar.Recommend

  • Abdulah

    Mahira is too good and very attractive woman, in other ways, i only watched the show because of her. Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    “it has been an special, unusual and outstanding serial”!!!!? Brilliantly acted by Meryl Streep of Pakistan ie Mahira khan!!! Didn’t watch the last two episodes due to overdose of sermons by Dadi and Falak. I’m THOROUGLY pleased and relieved that this is finally over. Won’t miss the hype.Perhaps now we can concentrate on ordinary plays like Ashk, Tanhaiyaan without having to do with superlatives.Recommend

  • ABBAS

    nice play Recommend

  • Afia Qazi

    Just saw this Sadaf- As always, very well written! How do you guys do it?
    SeZ was a great journey, made us think about our own selves….and I will think some more about your this statement : ) : her naani’s (maternal grandmother) constant preachiness could explain the family’s disdain for overt religious practice. The nani is blamed for preaching too much and mom for preaching not at all- hard to get the right balance!Recommend