What does one do when one’s own parents are engaged in a game of one-upmanship, placing one’s freedom and right to choose in jeopardy?
This is the central dilemma faced by Zulaikha (Maya Ali) as main protagonist Yousuf's (Imran Abbas) love interest in Mera Naam Yousuf Hai.
The story so far:
In the first episode, the 'Yousuf' in Mera Naam Yousuf Hai bumps into Zulaikha on a train and it's pretty much love at first sight. The problem is that Zulaikha's parents are already lining up suitors for her and the families aren't quite a match.
In episodes two through five, the story has maintained a pretty good pace. It also manages to bring into its fold a supporting cast which is given ample screen time which helps move the story along. The latest additions: Bushra — an older divorcee hoping to marry Zulaikha’s father; Madiha — Yousuf’s friend’s sister (who also has the hots for Yousuf), and Tony — another old school fellow and fortuitously Zulaikha’s neighbour. These characters all have important roles to play in unfolding of the plot.
The plot thickens:
Zulaikha’s father (Waseem Abbas) promises her hand in marriage to his sister’s son, Imran Mugeez, while Zulaikha’s mother, Afia Begum (Hina Bayat Khwaja) makes her own move by asking her sister Kulsoom to show up with her son, Ali Hamza, to woo Zulaikha. Clearly, both parents are trying to get their way without much thought to their sacrificial lamb of a daughter.
Meanwhile, our dreamer Yousuf is hopelessly in love and trying to get his (as yet one-sided) message of mohabbat across to his lady love through various channels — by showing up at her door himself, asking his childhood friend Madiha to convey his feelings, requesting a meeting and finally, throwing caution to the wind and landing up in Zulaikha’s room to confess his love and stay (or at least stall) Zulaikha’s impending nuptials (groom TBD).
For now the one-sided love stories are adding up —Yousuf’s love for Zulaikha, Madiha’s love for Yousuf and heck, even Tony’s youthful “I love you” scrawled on Madiha’s school notebooks! Madiha, played with charm by Mansha Pasha, is ever hopeful that Yousuf will come around. She has been hopelessly in love with him since their school days and is willing to help him in anyway, despite her own heartbreak.
So far it’s been one-way traffic, so then, what of Zulaikha?
Zulaikha is well aware of her parents' jung, and isn’t above playing her parents against each other. Even though her mother says otherwise, it is a sobering fact that even in 2015, there are still enough fathers 'joh betiyon ki saas keech lete hain'. In some way Noor Mohammed, Zulaikha’s father, still has control over his daughters — one who is not allowed to complete her education and the other who must marry as per his will.
Even though Yousuf has made his way into her dreams — in a great scene with their roles reversed, Zulaikha still has to make up her mind. She seems strangely disinterested in the fact that she is about to get married in weeks’ time, no less, to a person not of her choosing. She won’t stand her ground and actually say no but remains hopeful that her mother will fix things.
Despite sister Hajra’s pleas to wake up, smell the gunpowder and fire, all she has to show for her defiance is some posturing and unclear plans. If she seems unsure of her own motivations, how can she inspire confidence in the audience? She is annoyed at Madiha’s suggestion that she meet Yousuf and appalled at Yousuf’s bravado, but what does she really want? As a character, she hasn’t come into her own.
Mercifully though, at least here none of the other characters are idiots and unaware of others' intentions. Hajra doesn’t buy Madiha’s ploy of being Zulaikha’s long lost friend, nor is Afia Begum unaware of her husband's intention of taking Bushra as his second wife. At least there are some self-aware women here.
Script and direction:
Khalilur Rehman Qamar’s writing sparkles with wit and clearly "unke kamaan pe bahut se teer hai". The way the story and each of the characters is revealed adds something new to the plot progression and builds on each characters back stories.
Still, there is something that feels like we have seen this before.
A spiritual love story and skeletons in the family closet and family power dynamics has been explored in Sadqay Tumhare while a sparing sibling relationship has been explored in the Farah-Lubna duo from Pyare Afzal along with a lovelorn Afzal.
What is really impressive about Mera Naam Yousuf Hai is Mehreen Jabbar’s strong directorial hand which pays attention to detail, and extracts strong performances from its cast.
The camera too uses interesting perspectives along with mirrors and reflection to add to the visual story. The wall of small square mirrors in Madiha’s room focusing in on her vulnerable moments and hints of nostalgia bottled and served up as train rides, old songs on the radio, painted armories and a bright blue Vespa add to the setting as well.
So if one is still watching, it is really to see how this age-old story unfolds. For now, the ball really is in Zulaikha’s court and hopefully the coming episodes will shed light on her motivations.
Let’s hope that Khalil Sahib’s Zulaikha gets more of a sympathetic portrayal than just a chastened seductress trapped in a traditional role.
Sadaf Siddique is freelance writer, drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen not necessarily in that order.