Mor Mahal is great creative effort but not Sarmad Khoosat’s best work
You know when Jon Snow (although he knows nothing!), stands at the edge of the great wall looking down at the steely snow filled north, he is actually glaring at the camera. Duh! But he is not standing inside a studio. It is Iceland. It is a brutal -35˚C out there.
Why go to such extreme lengths, you ask?
It is all about authenticity.
The Pakistani fictional production of the ‘Mor Mahal’ is a great creative effort by the brilliant Sarmad Sultan Khoosat as a director, but several things stand out to question its authenticity. The set designs are exquisite with perfect colour hues of red, gold and black but glass mirrors in rooms and wrought iron candle stands are a misfit in the original context of a 200 year old palace. That being said, it is a great attempt at creating a compelling combination of love, deceit, glory and power in the backdrop of traditional eastern culture.
Some would say the Nawab Asif Jehan (Umair Jaswal) is the central character around which the entire story revolves. It also seems to be true as all efforts are being directed at his appeasement for favour, love and also control. What actually lies in the subtlety of the direction and writing is the true influence of the women in the story. The mother, the wives and the mistresses, are all masterful at the fulfilment of their ambitions. In short, ‘Mor Mahal’ is a tale of feminism with utter disregard for rules and moral values.
From Badshahi Begum (Hina Khawaja Bayat) as the mother to Farrukh Zaad (Meesha Shafi), the favoured wife of the nawab, women rule this kingdom confined within the bounds of this ‘mahal’. The very walls of their palace are laced with malice and contempt. Guarded and entertained by the eunuchs, the royal palaces of the past were cold harsh places with little regard for human life. The nawab has three wives and one mother – who plan with conniving fervour to gain his attention. Any means of protecting and maintaining their stature in the palace is acceptable to these women of power.
The help around the castle in form of exotic Kaneezain and gossiping eunuchs makes up for another exciting aspect of the story. Sarmad Sehbai portrays through his writing of ‘Mor Mahal’ how the less fortunate people in these settings are instrumental in toppling the majestic empires of the privileged rulers. The servant and sorceress Akhtari (Sania Saeed) is the perfect example. She looks like a debased slave of the Badshahi Begum yet her foreboding eyes exude a dangerous power. What is being used as a weapon of sabotage against the nawab’s wives may also be used against Badshahi Begum one day. Even so Akhtari lives to serve. But if she is crossed by someone someday, her murmurings could reduce the palace walls to dust within seconds.
Farrukh Zaad is the first wife of the nawab but not your typical wife. She is a conniver of extreme proportions with all makings of being a proper ruler herself. Her garb of a scarlet robe, her magnificent head gear and her graceful height are all complimentary to her scheming disposition. Her rival the Badshahi Begum, has been quite active in her attempts to thwart her. But Farrukh Zaad is a worthy opponent. This makes for an excellent tug of war between the two leading ladies of the household.
Meesha Shafi looks radiant and perfect as Farrukh Zaad, but her acting and dialogue delivery have been somewhat mechanised for the audiences that are used to villains of vibrant expressions. The poor pregnant wife of the nawab is Surraya Jahan (Fiza Ali) who has quite skilfully portrayed the role of a beaten down woman who is desperate for her husband’s attention. But her soft demeanour is no match for the hardened women of the ‘Mor Mahal’ who scheme and plot behind closed doors.
Overall, the production is a fascinating piece of work with grand costumes, but there is certainly great room for improvement. The veteran actors have handled their performances with their usual poise and grace; however, the newbies are a bit stiff in their display of the splendidly written characters that they have been assigned.
The two ‘Sarmads’ have managed to pull off a fictional panorama of history and culture, but the pace of the story could be picked up and the cast could pour some more life into their depictions. Collectively it makes up for an entertaining time in front of the television, but so far it is not the best work by the very competent, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat or maybe my judgement is clouded by the magnificent Manto.
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