Review: 'Jackson Heights' shines as an immigrant's take on love and loss

Published March 30, 2015
(L-R): Adeel Hussain as Jamshed, Noman Ijaz as Bhatti, Amina Sheikh as Salma and Ali Kazmi as Sikandar.
(L-R): Adeel Hussain as Jamshed, Noman Ijaz as Bhatti, Amina Sheikh as Salma and Ali Kazmi as Sikandar.

Jackson Heights has become synonymous with immigrants, a modern day Plymouth Rock where many ethnicities — Columbian, Hispanic, and South Asian — co-exist with shared struggles and often shared dreams.

To recount these immigrant stories is what director Mehreen Jabbar's Jackson Heights aspired to do.

Jackson Heights still remains a stepping-stone to the great American dream of making it big and then moving on. Mostly across to New Jersey — all least for desis.

Written by Vasay Chaudhary, the drama sought to lay bare immigrants' lives, desperation and hardships and left us — the audience — to decide whether to love, hate or empathise with them.

Jackson Heights stood out amongst the rest

As an idea, Jackson Heights had promise, and it delivered on many fronts. Swiftly leaping over the littered television landscape of mazloom auratain, doosri biwian, saas-bahu domestic dramas and sibling rivalries, Jackson Heights actually presented multiple storylines dealing with the idea of home, survival, love and loss.

It crisscrossed the class divide through its intersecting narrative to show that better opportunities come at a price and that success extracts more than its pound of flesh.

Highlights - What worked and didn't work

  • Theme: Jackson Heights shows us that better opportunities come at a price
  • Characterization: Through Kathy, American women are shown as being far too one-dimensional
  • Relevance: JH could have explored Islamophobia in greater depth
  • Romance: The drama deserves credit for presenting mature romances without being moralistic
  • Feel: For a serial named after one of the most dynamic desi immigrant hubs, there was an insularity to Jackson Heights

A tale of four intertwined characters

The drama takes us into the lives of four central characters often seen strolling through Central Park.

Imran Bhatti, an NY cabbie with a penchant for wearing others troubles on his sleeve; his love interest Salma, a hardworking beautician eking out a life from tremendous physical labour and mental anguish, living much of her life in the service of others. Jamshed, Bhatti’s ‘personal bhanja’, with a newly minted degree in hand and the dreams of the star spangled banner in mind; and Michelle, a bitter restaurant owner with trust issues.

Friends and family that float into the orbit of their lives also gave us in an insight into their relationships and the choices that they make.

Bigger ideas that the drama sought to highlight – with varying degrees of success – were paper marriages, domestic violence, nostalgia and the pull that homeland has on their migrants.

The wrap-up

The drama, which was far too stretched, ended on a happy note for almost everyone except Rizwan who is left hanging in the middle as Michelle leaves for London without him. But before she does that she meets Jamshed who is working at a street stand and hands him an envelope and forgives him.

Learning his lesson the hard way he is later shown opting for better prospects by enrolling in a college. His uncle, Bhatti sahab gives his house to his bhai and bhabi and finally gets together with Salma, who is given divorce-cum-independence as a gift from her daughter Iman via papers signed by Sikandar.

The ever-helpful cabbie Bhatti and his strict wife Kathy

Imran Bhatti was in a Green-card-for-money paper marriage with his American (read white) wife Kathy and her children.

While there is a discomforting truth to the fact that these marriages are the easiest way to permanent residency, it was explored in a rather one-dimensional manner. The lopsided portrayal of American women as blazing balls of fire showering ire and brimstone and constantly harping about money while ignoring her kids and controlling her husband, was very one sided.

Noman Ijaz as Bhatti.— Photo courtesy: Facebook
Noman Ijaz as Bhatti.— Photo courtesy: Facebook

While her character had an interesting reveal later on —a fear of loneliness masking her brusque manner — it was too little too late. The matters on which they differed were either money or morality. In this way, JH pitted the money-minded Western woman against the morally sincere Eastern man – an easy way to win our sympathies.

If Kathy’s character had more depth and nuance woven into her constant screaming, there might have been more to the idea that these marriages exist and even work on many levels of cultural respect and shared values, not just undone chores or pending bills. Even Bhatti’s money leeching relatives back home were painted solely in zalim shades of black.

Yet Bhatti, was the only fully realised character — sincere, helpful, constantly looking out for people around him but in no way naïve. His street smart ways as well as an oily obsequiousness were well brought out and he was written with humour and pathos. There was a gentle understanding of his dilemmas even in the shattering of his dreams.

A lot of this worked because of Noman Ijaz who played Bhatti with the right amount of country bumpkin good will that smoothed over his patriarchal mindset. He was able to infuse this character with warmth and his talkiya kalaam will be remembered for a long time to come. Whether he was consoling his nephew, helpless at Kathy’s dictation or expressing his feelings for Salma, there was never any bout of doubt about his sincerity.

In this regard hats off to Noman Ijaz — he is an actor in a class of his own inflecting his trademark phrase Hayan? Hain—with as much substance and meaning as a flicker of his eyes. He was truly the linchpin holding the interest level in Jackson Heights even when the pace was flagging—which was fairly often.

Jamshed — the one with aspirations

Bhatti’s nephew Jamshed (Adeel Husain) like many of our youth today is obsessed with the idea that he will have it made once he makes it to these hallowed (Jersey) shores. With much uncertainty surrounding his visa and stuck in the no man’s land of security clearances and background checks, this was a realistic take on the hurdles Muslim men face in a post 9/11 era.

While Jackson Heights touched on this theme with immigration interviews, throwing out an odd line about being branded terrorists, and the one scene on xenophobic violence desi cabbies face, it is a real pity this idea wasn’t explored in depth.

Adeel Hussain as Jamshed— Photo courtesy: Facebook
Adeel Hussain as Jamshed— Photo courtesy: Facebook

Jamshed’s rude awakening to life in the US included uncovering the façade of his mamu’s tall claims about his non-existent business and happy family life. The unpleasant realities of everything hinging on his visa status, to bearing the brunt of every man for himself, leaves him feeling bereft. From a confident and brash young man he plummets to the depths of cloying desperation – to do anything to stay on in the US and he does.

Bhatti’s paper marriage serves as inspiration for Jamshed who almost manages to pull it off his own little manipulation with a heady mix of charm and indignation to sweep his boss Michelle off her feet. Their romance was tinged with mystery and manipulation though no funny business please, we are desi, after all, we will settle for lots of chai and nashta together.

Worming his way into a job at Michelle’s restaurant, Jamshed sets his sights on a upwardly mobile social climb, quickly rising the ranks from busboy, to manager and finally Michelle’s fiancé. Unfortunately for him, Michelle’s close friend, confidant and not-so-secret admirer Rizwan, (played adeptly by Adnan Jaffer) is on to him and Jamshed’s house of cards comes crashing down.

Mehreen Jabbar and Vasay Chaudhary handled this budding relationship wonderfully and kept the audience unsure of Jamshed’s real intentions but still rooting for a happy ending. Good on Adeel Husain for choosing to play a negative character because in his last couple of outings (Shukk and Mohabbat Subha Ka Sitara Hai) he was getting type cast as the go-to good Samaritan and saviour.

This is why is it important for actors to branch out and grab roles however few, that actually challenge them and in Jamshed’s journey, there was guilt and remorse and an understanding that sometimes shortcuts in life just lead to dead ends.

Too hard to please — Michelle

Marina Khan who plays Michelle, is always to pleasure to see on the small screen. In fact Jackson Heights gives a subtle nod to her earlier plays with dialogues reminiscent of Dhoop Kinarey and a backstory inspired from Tanhaiyaan. Unfortunately these didn’t stick and seem to be missing her emotional angst which would explain the walls surrounding Michelle and her inability to trust people.

Marina Khan as Michelle
Marina Khan as Michelle

She manages to play gullible and vulnerable better than her dour and humourless persona as a restaurant manager. Still in the end, rejecting both her suitors, she was a self-aware character able to make her own decisions without necessarily sticking it to Jamshed or Rizwan.

Jackson Heights was thankfully not preachy

Jackson Heights deserves credit for presenting mature romances, without being moralistic. After all these are situations, which are unconventional: a younger man wooing an older woman and two married people falling in love. For Bhatti and Salma, of course it helped, that both the spouses were painted in unflattering light thus making it easier for the audience to root for them.

Never at any point did any of these budding relationships seem out of sync with the characters. It also gave them the space to examine the shifting contours of their lives, while simultaneously accepting them as well.

For Bhatti sahib, Salma was a breath of fresh air he needed to re-examine the rut his life had fallen into. Salma, a working class gal pulling in odd hours at the salon to make ends meet had all the makings of a mazloom aurat writ large: a violent and abusive felon of a husband, her sharp tongued mother-in-law (I guess some things remain a staple) and the demands of bringing up her step-daughter, but slowly but surely Salma finds her footing and her voice thereby reaching out and grasping the life she always thought unattainable.

Bhatti and Salma
Bhatti and Salma

Both Bhatti and Salma were mirror images of one another and while Bhatti sahib waited on circumstances to force him into making decisions, Salma, true to her sacrificial nature, had to wait till her step-daughter set her free. Given the similarities of their situations, their coming together felt natural and preordained.

Salma essayed by Aamina Sheikh didn’t quite cut it as a working class tough as nails gal but she hit all the right notes in her character’s growth and gave a solid performance. The chemistry between her and Noman Ijaz was lovely as well.

Ali Kazmi as Sikander.— Photo courtesy: Facebook
Ali Kazmi as Sikander.— Photo courtesy: Facebook

If she gave a good performance, Ali Kazmi as her layabout wastrel of a husband, was practically electric. His energy radiated from the screen as the unhinged and mercurial Sikander and despite the all too neat wrap up of an abusive husband minus intervention, he even managed to pull off the remorseful and guilt ridden reformed husband without it seeming to be too much of a stretch. Here’s hoping we see more of him!

Even the supporting cast boasted of good performances that should be acknowledged: Rida Isfahani as Asma, Naghma as Nani, Ahmad Razvi as Javed Bhatti’s ‘left hand’ man, Taimur Syed as Kash, Meher Jaffri as Aliya, Taimur Qureshi as Adnan were outstanding and reminders that even the supporting cast needs to be well chosen.

As a journey then, did Jackson Heights succeed in telling us something about pardes mein chota sa desh?

The lows

For a serial named after one of the most dynamic desi immigrant hubs, there was no flavor or colour of Jackson Heights. Forget a look at intermingling and co-existing with different ethnicities, there was certain insularity in which desis only dealt with their own. For a place which is such a mixing pot of cuisines and cultures, this exploration was sorely lacking.

Core issues remained superficial

Vasay Chaudhary was able to deftly interweave these different narrative threads and sprinkle them with much needed humour. His light and dark moments shadowed one another and his one-liners are his strongest suite. Jackson Heights was chock-a-block with good ideas — the limbo visa state, tenuous threads of immigration laws and racially charged environment, do number wala kaam — underhand dealings paying less than minimum wage, undercutting competitors, domestic violence — but these ideas appear fleetingly and remain superficial without any real exploration or depth.

The pacing also suffered in the earlier episodes with repetitive scenes that bring with them predictability and boredom. It did pick up midway with plot progression intermingled with character development. If only this had been spaced throughout the series, it would have made for more compelling viewing rather than weighing it down. Tighter editing too would have helped the sluggish pace

Urdu 1 the channel which broadcasted Jackson Heights like every channel these days has to justify commercial viability which means 27 plus episodes are likely to be the norm not the exception and productions houses need to accept that as their framework and deliver accordingly.

Sharp differences in the setting of *Jackson Heights*

Where there were some missteps in the narrative, which could be ignored initially, the later plot holes were just too incredulous to look past. Vasay Chaudhary, the writer has never been to Jackson Heights and it shows. Basic facts however are readily available at ones fingertips as well as actually talking to Pakistanis who have traveled to the land of milk and honey.

One can give him a pass at desi cabbies stopping for lunch at table clothed restaurants with liveried service instead of the seedy self-serve dives they are likely to frequent but cutting and pasting hyper-local scenarios such as selling ones jewelry to pay hospital bills, securing macho restraining orders while keeping the women at bay and away from the police, all mar the strength of the story and its credibility.

Medical insurance is a fraught and much discussed subject and despite its failings, there is a safety net that most Americans can access. After all, Americans are known to offer service with a smile and cripple you with debt later. Also in US, no man’s word is taken at face value unless the police speak to the person — in this case, the woman, registering the case.

However, diasporic writing is always full of cultural disconnect and never really fitting in, of missing the familiar cycles of life. But, it is also full of new experiences and an enjoyable and comfortable life. Not all diasporic life plays out in black and white dreary tones.

There are bursts of colour and celebration, of kitsch and quirky fusions – Kabab King eatery ads, halal pepperoni, and blinding bling (usually a decade old) that pops up in places like Jackson Heights.

Religious intolerance should have more room

Pakistani dramas come from a long standing tradition of being able to showcase the macro issues plaguing society with a deft and witty hand and the ability to wring pathos and sarcasm in equal measure. There was a golden opportunity with a character in Michelle, a Christian who, with the current climate in Pakistan could have had a stronger back-story and a link to the larger issue of religious intolerance.

We have had writers play out personal stories without ignoring the backdrop of larger social issues so are we so starved of good content that something different is good enough for us to withhold critique of its content?

Can Pakistani dramas actually portray life outside Pakistan?

We’ve had Kuch Pyar Ka Pagalpaan (ARY) with Turkey palmed off as America, which just got laughingly entangled in its own mess. Other more recent dramas such as Firaaq (HUM TV) and Zid (HUM TV) show palatial houses, four course meals and tea service when everyone knows teabags and electric kettles (or heck Stabucks!) are de rigueur.

There are some serials that have managed to capture American life with all its travails of the working class and one successful one was Bilquees Kaur (HUM TV). Set in similar circumstances – a restaurant owner, an NY cabbie, a desire for upward mobility, and even interaction with other ethnicities (ok ok, just Indians) , it served up a more believable slice of NY life than Jackson Heights managed to. It also revealed at crucial points, the motivations of its protagonists thereby sustaining viewer interest.

Even director Mehreen Jabbar’s oeuvre has stories based in NY and her dramas Pehchaan (HUM TV), Mata-e-Jaan (HUM TV) and NY stories managed to evoke more of NY look and feel even if it was more Upper West Side than Jackson Heights.

In Pehchaan, the cramped hair salon, the uniquely desi store where her character worked, the stuffy NY apartments where they lived, allowed for the story to unfold more successfully than in Jackson Heights.

The generic, bland and spacious interiors sanitized the settings effectively taking away from the grit and reality of the characters and their messy lives.

Fault in its direction

The direction too was very disjointed. There was a great scene with Salma and Sikander where we finally see the violence he inflicts on her. This was staged perfectly and managed to pull in the audience making us feel we were witnessing it in the moment. However, such scenes were very few and far in between. In some of the other scenes the writing and execution on screen were completely disconnected.


Then there was a lovely scene with Salma and Bhatti sahib full of quiet sub-text and some very good dialogue which gets lost when she begins to thread his cheek. Yes ladies and gentlemen we are a hirsute nation but this treads a fine (hair) line.

There was a total lack of visual story telling which is surprising considering Mehreen Jabbar has a knack for it. The camera was distant, with perhaps only one or two perspective shots that allowed you to identify with the characters.

Save a few shots — of Adeel walking in light and shadows, the rooftop exchange- everything was terribly generic from the shots of NY to the salon, the restaurant. The camera rarely moved and focused in on the characters, their homes, their messy internal lives.

The verdict

In the end, Jackson Heights felt half-baked. It’s tantalizing gold mine of interesting stories and perspectives that we don’t often see was enticing but everything from the plot, characters and the details needed to be on a slow simmer to meld together into a flavorful end result.

One hopes that at least it will manage to make other writers, directors and channels think of stories other than the run of the mill fare they have been offering.

Our appetites are whetted yes, but satiated? Not quite.

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



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