Mor Mahal ..an Invitation to the past
Geo Tv has been giving us tantalizing glimpses of their Magnum opus, Mor Mahal for few months now and the first episode has been just as fascinating, showing us a world lit by fire and a palace full of intrigue. This serial was originally conceptualized by Imran Aslam and written in 2004 by poet and acclaimed author Sarmad Sehbai (writer of Funkaar Gali and the upcoming Mah e Mir). It is directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat (director of Humsafar, Sheher e Zaat and Manto) and produced by Baber Javed for Geo entertainment and PTV home.
Nawab Nausha Asif Jehan (Umair Jaswal) is introduced to us in the starkest way possible, ordering the execution of a prisoner with the lift of his hand .He radiates power and authority; siting in the shade of a chariot drinking blood red wine as his soldiers obey his command. The Nawab’s return to Mor Mahal or the Peacock Palace puts the residents on high alert. Three princesses and a queen watch for his arrival. His mother Begum Sarwat Jehan (Hina Bayat) is waiting for him to consummate his marriage to a new wife, Mehar Bano (Sonia Nazir); a woman forced into marrying him for political gain. Another wife Soraya Jehan is heavy with child, longing for his company and constantly afraid. Of all his wives, Furukhzad (Meesha Shafi) is the most happy and excited at her husband’s return, immediately preparing herself like a royal bride, because she knows that she is his favourite .
The palace is so named because a Peacock supposes itself to beautiful until it sees its feet. Behind the beautiful façade of wealth, manners and poetry lies the darker side, the ruthless use of absolute power. This story is a fantasy set in the reality of a time before the colonization of the Indian subcontinent by the British and relies on both Turkish, Mughal, and according to the makers Greek and even Egyptian influences. After the phenomenal popularity of Mere Sultan which charted the fortunes of the Ottoman royals, this serial promises to give the public an authentic as possible taste of our own history. Much of how we view our past and the rulers of the pre-colonial era is seen through the orientalist lens of the British. This lens has distorted the image of many a historical figure as foppish, wastrels and ineffective rulers. According to the writer Sehbai, it is time we broke free from this paradigm and rediscovered our past.
Director Sarmad Khoosat is fresh of his triumph as Manto and has handled this serial with his usual creativity and visual flair, but his real strength lies in the way he captivates the audience’s attention. No matter how grand a story or extravagant the set, the audience must be able to connect with the characters they see on the screen and this is something Khoosat is an expert at. The episode opens with a violent spectacle, fizzing down to a mother and son meeting and negotiating the typical grind of domestic life. Nawab Nausha may decide life and death outside the palace but within his household he must bow to his mother’s wishes. This simple act once more raises the stakes as one wife flees leaving her hapless, trembling servant girl in her place, while another drinks poison in despair at his rejection. These are not distant figures but well written, living, breathing, layered characters that have all the normal hopes and fears except that they might be a little more ambitious than the average housewife.
With costumes designed by Ali Xeeshan and shoots at Lahore Fort, this is one of the most expensive television serials made in Pakistan and the result is authentically lavish. This serial has a large ensemble cast, including the talented Sania Saeed as Akhtari who deals in Taveez and black magic, Jana Malik as a Farukhzad’s dependable kaneez and yet to be seen protagonists played by actors Umer Naru, Shah Fahad and Mehar Bano. Music seems to be have become an essential part of every serial these days and Mor Mahal gives us its own special twist with a beautiful song and classical dance by Suhai Abro
Rock singer Umair Jaswal is an unlikely fit for Nawab Nausha, his heavy, muscular build is that of a warrior overturning the stereotype of the usual lithe poets we think of as Nawabs. Though it is hard to judge from one episode, Jaswal manages to carry of this debut role off with great confidence and his screen presence is not to be ignored. At times he does seem stiff and his Urdu seems ever so slightly forced especially in his scenes with the unfortunate bandi left be his runaway wife; but that may be because our ears are no longer used to the flowing cadences and intricacies of the flowery Urdu of the time. Meesha Shafi is magnificent as Furukhzad, displaying every shade of arrogance, desire and pride, all strangely mixed with vulnerability. Hina Bayat makes a strong impact as the Badshah Begum, a cold, proud woman, just as ruthless as her son. Then there are the palace servants or bandis and the eunuchs who run the royal household, each of their characters has also been carefully etched to give a faithful depiction of the period.
From the first episode at least Mor Mahal has managed to make a strong impression and looks to fulfill the promise of the hype of its promotions. The only drawback might be if the balance between domestic and outer spheres of life is not maintained, then this will end up looking like the usual Geo theen aurtein, theen kahaniya, where the women fight it out over a man, except this time it’s in a palace .The women of Mor Mahal are its true strength, despite the restrictions of the time they make their mark and forge their own ways through life. This was a time when a woman’s worth was through her relationship with her husband, father or brother yet these women are fiercely independent and know their own worth. How unlike the mazloom saints and bholi larkiyan that populates our contemporary dramas, the ones who spend 24 episodes trying earn their right to the most basic forms of respect. So far Mor Mahal looks like a must watch , a reset button for a past often presented to us as if we were looking through a biased glass darkly .
This also appears Express Tribune