Pakistani television plays, which enchanted viewers decades ago, still evoke nostalgia among an entire generation. The characters, with their provocative idiosyncrasies and heartwarming stories, had an ability to connect with viewers who ended up becoming a part of the make-believe world of these stories.
Famed director Haissam Hussain's latest offering Aunn-Zara which is based on Faiza Iftikhar’s novel Hisaar-e-Muhabbat, has the same old school feel of simplicity and poignancy. In this day and age, a play that is not banking on needless melodrama, melancholy or a repetitive plot, surely stands out and Aunn-Zara in that respect can be touted as path-breaking.
Suffice to say, the story has substance. Writer Faiza Iftikhar has delved into a script that goes back to our cultural roots of rituals and family ties, yet it doesn't subscribe to regression. The strong female characters in this serial are a testament to that and stand as a complete antithesis to the patriarchal dogmas which most of our television plays unsparingly glorify. After all, the protagonist lives in a matriarchal home that is presided over by women. Some of the female characters such as Aunn’s mother and aunt have broken marriages but they are independent and feisty; a progressive plot indeed.
The story of Aunn-Zara revolves around a painfully pampered boy named Aunn, who is dying to break out of the shackles of his overprotective and overbearing family members. One day while venting to his best friend Manzar about his stifling family set up, he concludes that marriage would perhaps be the most convenient route to his much needed independence. At a wedding he bumps into Zara, a headstrong and vivacious girl who is the daughter of an uptight army officer and in contrast to Aunn, lives in a house where she is the only female member of her immediate family. Sparks fly when the two come face to face in their first encounter which eventually culminates into a marriage of convenience.
The evolution of their conjugal relationship, their journey of self-discovery and the mad hatters in Aunn and Zara’s family form the crux of this potpourri of entertainment that brims with hilarity and tender moments that touch you.
Haissam Hussain surely knows how to reinvent himself with every project. He dealt with a story about marital woes in Durre-Shehwar, a period drama in Dastaan, a fairytale romance in Aik Nayee Cindrella and now with Aunn Zara, he continues to live up to his reputation of being a seasoned director who dares to experiment with each play. He is also known for his artistic eye when it comes to framing shots and this play too, embodies a unique style that stays true to the setting of the play. The show might not have the visual grandeur of Haissam's earlier productions but that is only because it is about a middle-class family and their basic way of living which is most authentically portrayed through the furniture and pastel walls of Aunn’s old-fashioned residence.
It is interesting to see a rarely used directorial technique of some of the characters speaking to the camera which makes the actors address the viewer directly. The music and montage sequences blend in beautifully with the vibrant characters and moments. They accentuate the palatability of the serial and make it even more lively and entertaining.
Aunn-Zara gives us an alternative narrative to the perils often associated with a joint family system. While mainstream television drama often depicts evil family members and conniving in-laws, Aunn Zara for a change, shows family members who are insanely in love with each other. It makes us reflect over life's simple, yet meaningful pleasures that we often take for granted. For example just sitting together with family members and playing antakshari under the starry night or listening to fascinating stories told by grandparents.
The dynamic and multifaceted Osman Khalid Butt has come a long way from his television debut in Ek Nayee Cinderella. The character of Aunn is a far cry from that of Cinderella's stiff and solemn Mayer. Aunn is emotional, boisterous, expressive and confused, with a bit of a childish streak in him.
Osman's theatre background appears to come in handy in his character development of the effervescent Aunn. His role could have ended up being a caricature but the maturity of Osman's acting lies in his ability to intelligently make this over-the-top character real and human. Despite the histrionics Osman lends a certain restraint and depth to the role.
Aunn undergoes an interesting evolution in the play during which Osman holds on to the reins of his role tactfully. What he brings to the table vis-à-vis Aunn is remarkable and so convincing he is in his inimitable portrayal that it seems like no other actor could have pulled it off with the ease and sincerity with which he has.
Maya Ali is a complete natural. She is undoubtedly one of the most promising newcomers of the television industry and dons the role of Zara with great spontaneity. She too has improved immensely from her performance in Aik Nayee Cinderella and has toned down her expressions for the better. Maya sensitively plays the sassy and fiery Zara who deep down is love starved. Her comic timing and expressions are to be commended and the nuances she adds make her performance worth watching.
Together the two phenomenal actors are like firecrackers on television and compliment each other wonderfully. They share some tantalizing moments of deep romance, the kind rarely seen on Pakistani television. Osman and Maya emitt the intensity of seasoned actors in the said sequences and are magical in their passionate interplay where they speak volumes through their eyes and gestures. Romance in dramas usually follows a very expected graph and is bedeviled with superficiality and clichés. Aunn and Zara's romance on the other hand is unique, especially because it develops post their marriage. Their initial awkwardness that culminates into concern and the little moments of intimacy they share, result in a simmering romance. A husband-wife's initial honey-moon period is captured by the team of Aunn Zara like never before; quite earnestly and beautifully.
Hina Bayat Khwaja acts as beautifully as she looks. She plays Aunn's doting mother, a somewhat battle scarred woman having undergone a painful separation. There is an elegance and warmth about her. As Aunn's mother she is the perfect fit both in terms of her appearance and the visible emotional connect of her character with that of Aunn.
Veteran actress Nasreen Rehman plays a loud Punjabi woman who is sure to leave you in splits with her well written, witty comedic lines and expressions. She is the life of the play and as Aunn's paranoid grandmother, drives him up the wall in many of the rib-tickling scenes.
Mukarram Kaleem as Aunn's best friend Manzar shares a great chemistry with Osman. This NAPA trained actor enacts the role of a calculating, shrewd and manipulative man with aplomb and shows great potential as a performer.
Some of the other supporting cast members include the very talented Sabreen Hisbani, Adnan Jaffar, Yasir Mazhar, Mahira Bhatti and Irfan Khoosat. The chemistry between the actors, the uniqueness that they bring in their respective parts and their power-packed performances, ensure that every character, no matter how peripheral, is special.
The track between Aunn's aunt and father-in-law is quite endearing. The two have contrasting personalities yet Zara's brooding father is drawn to the bubbly Nighat, whose free spirit fascinates and charms him. This again speaks volumes about how progressive the play is, as a romance between an older couple is usually considered taboo and hence rarely shown on TV. Aunn Zara implicitly touches upon issues such as divorce and courtship between older individuals with a garnish of comedy. Moreover it does so within the setting of a traditional, middle class home rather than a 'debauched and rich' household. It boldly takes a giant step in presenting society’s evolving thought process without passing a value judgement, to impressionable viewers who are generally fed by television, warped ideas of morality and shame.
One of the strongest points of Aunn-Zara is that the scenes are punchy and fast paced and viewers are thankfully spared of the boredom that usually accompanies over-stretched and mundane sequences. The director and writer thus manage to grip the viewer's attention throughout the episodes.
Though laced with subtle innuendos, Aunn Zara is hardly risqué; a wholesome family entertainer is what it is and a charming one at that. In the stagnant pool of morbidity that Pakistani drama tends to be, the sparkling ripple of entertainment spells out as Aunn Zara. A must watch for all television buffs!
- Text by Abbas Hussain/Photos by Omar Butt