Mor Mahal- The Art of lies and deception
Mor Mahal the fantasy drama set in preindustrial times takes us back in time to the kingdom of Jahanabad as introduces us to the lives and intrigues of the royal palace. The first episode had all the makings of classic tale with elements of grand splendor, opulence as well as multiple political machinations within the harem to gain favour, control and sometimes just the upper hand.
For those who came in late, the theatrical end of the first episode with Farrukh Zad, the Nawab’s first wife consuming poison turned out to be a ploy to keep him from his new wife. While the Nawab offers his ministrations to her, his newest bethroed MeherBano would rather die trying to leave the palace grounds than be a pawn in this marriage of State.
In her attempt to escape, we are introduced to the nether regions of the palace with its own hidden pathways, dark secrets and mysteries. The tehkhana and the cemetery where she runs into Badshah Begum’s favoured practionier of black arts Akhtari Begum, all hint at the hidden, criminal underpinnings of the kingdom. One where loyalty is rewarded and any sign of dissent is met with the imperious refrain “Off with their heads”
This access to the dungeons also proves to be her undoing. MeherBano is unwittingly privy to Nawab Asif Jahan’s discussions with his Commander-in-Chief Dilawar Khan as the echoes of their speech reach down sinuos corridors of the underground dungeon. The heir apparent to the throne seems to be the most pressing matter, with his Commander advising the Nawab to cast favour upon his pregnant second wife Suraiya Begum.
The conferring of such an honour sends the harem into a tizzy, with Farrukh Zad gunning for her son Prince Taimur to take the throne and Badshah Begum hoping to halt her son’s intentions by coercing her younger son Prince Shujaat to come out of his stupor of aiyashi to take on the humkummat. The prince however, has other pursuits on his mind.
At this sixth installment, new characters and deceptions are introduced which darkens the outlines of the backstory to the characters motivations.
Prince Shujaat, played fairly languidly by Shah Fahad is a charming rake interested in all the indulgences a royal palace can offer. Despite his weakness for women and wine, even Badshah Begum isn’t immune to his charms. Though she chides him, she gently concedes ‘Dil bhar jaye toh aa jana, hum thumare muntisir raheinge.’
Even the characters who appeared before don’t seem to be who we thought they are. Nawab Asif Jahan may love his first wife, but he doesn’t trust her with his life or the kingdom. Neither is he is quite the honourable king who gave his pregnant mistress a place of honour. The appearance of the jowari merchant sheds light on how Suraiya actually became his Begum. With this revelation, Suriya’s insecurities assume a deeper shade of helplessness.
The revelation of Asif Jahan’s other spies in the harem was definitely a surprising twist. The King has his own vices whether justified by a need to control information and power, or maybe just his pleasure. He is quite apt at playing the field as he is the game of chess. His shrewd scheming, winning a woman as gambling debt, a cemetery strewn with corpses of dead shehzadis who dared to escape hint at a temperament similar to king Shahryar of One Thousand and One Nights, and not only because every episode ends with a cliffhanger.
The strength of Mor Mahal lies its story telling. Writer, poet and author Sarmad Sehbai has woven a masterful tale. Each episode unfolds like a complex origami with each fold forming the foundation of things to come. The echoes in the tekhkhana, the appearance of the jowari, the lies and deception now brought out in the half-light and the continued importance of the urrusi dupataa interweave the different strands of the story strengthening the narrative.
For once, we have a drama that is rooted to our history. Using framing techniques from ancient texts, mistaken identities, Egyptian romances as well as the use of language, traditional song and dances the story feels authentic to those times.
The conversational styles between the different members of the harem as well as the taunts used by the royal family are stylized ways of showcasing contempt. The symbolic use of poison, food testers, the dead cat, the empty cradle are all crafty ways to get across the characters real intent and make for great visual storytelling.
So then why isn’t the audience biting?
Complaints about wooden acting, overacting, periodically inappropriate props, lack of lighting get more mileage than the storytelling. It is true that writer Sarmad Sehbai has little regard for how his work gets accepted (or not) by audiences but some of the problem lies in the accessibility – of language, the lack of a central romance as well as the inability to relate to the characters.
Acting that seems wooden, is actually something that audiences haven’t seen before. A king that exudes gravitas without reducing it to Shehenshah-esque mannerisms and dialogues we are used to seeing in blue-blooded kings is refreshing. Though with dialogues threatening ‘deewar mein chunwa diye jaaoge’, maybe things are about to take another turn.
Akhtari Begum’s exaggerated mannerisms too fit into the bounds of her character. If anything, she comes across as ineffectual as the kaneez’s abduction and subsequent escape shows.
The sharpest mind actually seems to be of Farrukh Zad who not only seems to have a good hold on the political maneuvers being played out but can counter attack with equal stealth and foresight. Though she clearly points out, “Farroukh Zad kissi ki khushamati nahin karti”, as episode six revealed Shaista Khannam her (not so) trusted kaneez is the one truly pulling the strings.
For all the grumblings about dark interiors, when was the last time you saw a tehkhana with strobe lighting? The lighting in that scene as well as the menacing crocodiles was a perfect reminder of a crueler time when people were thrown to the dungeons with regularity. The threat of which was enough for MeherBano to reveal her true identity.
As for them missing central romance, the entrance of Prince Taimur (Umer Naru) hopefully will fill in that gap and give the viewers a couple to root for.
Where Mor Mahal does falters is in its pacing. For audiences used to more contemporary narratives, the distance of time and place is proving to be hard to overcome, something director Sarmad Khoosat needs to take into account. This slow pacing distracts viewers and gives them ample time to google ‘wrought iron in ancient times’ and then complain about the candle stands.
The audience already has to travel the distance of time to enter the royal realm and believe in their lives. That we are all emotionally distanced and can’t relate to any of the characters too is keeping audiences at bay. So far, the only human character seems to be Shola Jaan whose desire for the urrusi dupatta and playfulness with it made you actually connect with him.
But then again, audiences are just proving that they like to cry foul at the hash they are served but will only continue to watch it . Horse to water and all that.
Aaakir mein, jaan ki aman paon toh kuch arz karon:
Speed up the pacing, sharper edits that bring the threads of 45 episodes closer to 25 will give the whole drama an aspect of a thriller – one that marries fiction, tradition and fantasy into one riveting package.
You even have crocodiles. Now make them bite.
(A musing Muslim aka MM)
An edited version first appeared here.