Love and longing in 'Jackson Heights'

Updated January 31, 2015

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The stellar ensemble cast of Jackson Heights.
The stellar ensemble cast of Jackson Heights.

Romance is in the air in Jackson Heights and in good old desi fashion, marriage is not far behind. From proposals, one accompanied by a ring and the other in veiled sub-text, the cast of Jackson Heights seems to be enveloped in a romantic haze right in time for Valentine’s Day.

With each character's story moving along and each of their motivations established, it becomes easier to dive into the narrative. You can see why director Mehreen Jabbar and writer Vasay Chaudhry took their own sweet time to establish the characters. Perhaps mixing in plot progression with these revelations could have helped alleviate the drag factor which weighed the drama down initially.

The first of the couples struck by Cupid’s arrow in a late stage teenage romance – complete with blinkers and statements such as “I am going out with Jamshed”, is Michelle (Marina Khan). She continues on the gullible track headed towards more heartache and devastation falling for each of Jamshed’s (Adeel Husain) carefully spun stories.

Her own Tanhaiyaan-inspired back story — with a property hungry chacha and tense marriage — lacked emotional angst and served merely as an outline instead of solid foundation for her steely manner in general, and lack of trust in desi men in particular.

Jamshed, who has manipulated his way into her heart, head and managerial job, continues to pile on the guilt while playing the victim card. In his own twisted way, he constantly paints himself as the wronged party. That chip that he had on his shoulder has wormed its way into his brain and ballooned to dangerous proportions. He is getting too big for his breeches and pulling antics such as kicking out paying customers, getting Adnan fired, countering the wait staff and presenting the bill to Rizwan.

Read also: Jackson Heights: Zooming into South Asian immigrant life

That evil grin however, was not needed. His role would have been stronger, if the audience was left guessing about his manipulations.

Rizwan (Adnan Jaffer), is back in New York and surprised at the developing relationship between Michelle and Jamshed. Though he can see right through Jamshed, he is still willing to make an effort as he is rightly cautious and concerned for Michelle.

The complicated relationship developing between Salma (Aamina Sheikh) and Bhatti sahib (Nauman Ijaz) has to be the highlight of these last few episodes. From the revelation of Salma’s past, Sikander’s (Ali Kazmi) erring ways, Bhatti sahib's tussled feelings and Kathy’s (Monsoon Bissell) need for control, there is the quiet blossoming of more than a friendship between Salma and Bhatti.

From coming clean about her marital problems and explaining away her situation with “mayoosi gunna hai” to finding the courage within herself to tell off Tai ji and Sikander, Salma has been through a steep growth curve. For Bhatti sahib too, his own realization of his love for Salma and trading his sham of a marriage for something real, he finally (half) admitted his true feelings.

Their scene in the salon was sweet and full of quiet questions and sub-text. Though if she was threading his eyebrows rather than his cheek, it might have worked better not to mention had the potential to be a tongue-in-cheek (rather than thread-on-cheek) take at the perfectly arched eyebrows of our male stars these days.

While Salma and Bhatti sahib share similar expereinces, Salma and Sikander share a crackling chemistry. The scene where Sikander and clan confront Salma and he has her in a terrifying chokehold was shot with directorial precision and such bare emotions that you felt you were witnessing it right before your eyes.

Sikander already stressed under bookies threats, a botched mugging, and Bhatti sahib’s retaliation thereof, snaps when he finds out about Salma’s ‘boyfriend’. This seems to have turned the last screw in his already screwed up head and has notched him all the way into psycho with a gun territory.

Divine intervention has other plans for him however and Salma ends up ever the dutiful wife looking after him, even as she charts out her new life. As for the other deal-bound wife, Kathy, she can see her marriage crumbling before her very eyes.

She has lost even the semblance of control she thought she had on Bhatti – even the dangling carrot of immigration status seems to no longer interest him. Their marriage deal, which was immigration status in exchange for money, was not a surprise really, so it wasn’t much of a revelation for an audience who knew this at the get go.

The thread holding Jackson Heights together lies in the acting. Marina Khan gives such candid and natural performance that you really want to give her a good hard talking about Jamshed’s intentions. Adeel Husain plays Jamshed with enough indignation and confidence and you want to see him in roles shaded with more black than white. Adnan Jaffer, suave as always, makes his point with pursed lips and a quiet body language, which begs the question: why we don’t see him more often?

As for the others, though I still think the earlier Salma was played with a certain placidity, there is no denying that Aamina Sheikh grows into the character, and has shown some stellar acting chops. The star of the show Nauman Ijaz never disappoints and his interpretation of this character – warts and all – looks effortless. Ali Kazmi gets under the skin of his character and impresses as the unhinged Sikander.

A shout out to the supporting cast – Ahmad Razvi as Javed Bhatti’s ‘left hand man’, Taimur Syed as Kash, Meher Jaffri as Aliya, Taimur Qureshi as Adnan – giving good performances that make for enaging viewing.

While the writer-director duo have a hold on the emotional arcs of their characters, there is a tenuous hold on life in the US – the whole medical insurance, for instance.

Here was a chance at actually talking about a serious issue in an informed way but it only showed the writers lack of knowledge with the way things work in America, a gap that unfortunately the director was also unable to fill. Unfortunately, this harks back to my problem with placing the drama in Jackson Heights. There is little colour and flavour of the place, let alone an insider’s perspective on a place that South Asians and other immigrants call home.

While the writer and director have focused on the struggles of immigrants, it all seems a very bleak and humourless picture. As the series wraps up in the next few weeks, let's all hope that there are at least a few happy endings.


Sadaf Siddique is freelance writer, drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen not necessarily in that order.