As the curtains fall on Mera Naam Yousuf Hai, this drama showcases one of the most exciting partnerships of the year.
Pairing Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar’s filmi andaaz with Mehreen Jabbar’s subtle directorial style managed to strike a delightful balance with the writer's theatrics mellowed by the director’s realism to create an engrossing, fun yet thought-provoking serial.
Khalil sahib managed to conjure yet again, a bygone world influenced by 1970s sensibilities. Larger than life events, characters with interconnected lives, old-fashioned romance as well as the formulaic goons, police beatings, villains, sacrifice, tested friendships and redemption truly made for an entertaining ride.
While the story remains as old as the hills, it was the mix of excellent writing, high caliber acting, stellar production values and strong direction that made for addictive viewing. Yousuf (Imran Abbas), the main protagonist falls in love at first sight with Zulaikha (Maya Ali). However, Zulaikha’s parents are engaged in their own personal power struggle to have their daughter married off to a groom of their choosing. After her groom’s no-show, Zulaikha breathes a sigh of relief though zalim zamana still conspires to keep the lovers apart.
One kidnapping, two marriages, two talaqs, a khula, and multiple beatings later, what began as a lighthearted farce turns into something a lot more ominous. The last few episodes force Zulaikha back to her husband Imran Mugeez (Taqi Ahmed) but she succeeds in winning him over and he sets her free.
Meanwhile, her father Noor Mohammed’s (Waseem Abbas) betrayal of his family and his second marriage creates ripples all around. Wali (Faizan Sheikh), his son, seeks to teach his father a lesson, stripping him off all his material gains, while Afia Begum (Hina Bayat) files for divorce and moves out of her home with her daughters.
Writer Khalil ur Rehman creates chemistry and romantic tension between the leads despite them not sharing much screen time. It is sheer mastery that makes allowance for conservatism
Though circumstances now conspire to bring the lovers together, they seem to want to stay apart. The history of their parents' past informs Yousuf and Zulaikha’s relationship, but now they seem to suffer from some convoluted idea of sacrifice. Thankfully for them (and us) and in a surprising deviation from Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar’s bias towards unrequited love and tragic endings, in the end love does conquer all.
Script to screen chemistry
It is remarkable that Khalil sahib creates such chemistry and romantic tension between the leads despite them not sharing much screen time. It is sheer mastery that makes allowance for conservatism, but doesn’t diminish the ideas of love and longing. The subtext of the dialogues works wonderfully to convey romance and this is his strongest suit. He also managed to turn the historical pairing of these characters inside out with references to ideas of ‘qaid mein pade Yousuf ko kharid kar reha kar diya’ and ‘Yousuf bik raha hai use kharid lo’.
Also the leads infused their characters with pain and pathos. Imran Abbas as the lovelorn Yousuf has a dreamy quality about him and effectively conveyed his heartbreak. Maya Ali too managed to show grit, gumption – even if it was only skin deep – and moments of vulnerability. Mehreen Jabbar deserves credit for sustaining an excellent performance from the leads as well as the ensemble cast.
Khalil sahib also carefully tends to family relationships and friendships. These are never peripheral to the story but unfold as plot points and each character is important in their own way. The senior players Afia Begum, Waji Ahmed, his wife, Noor Mohammed and his sister Kausar Parveen all are portrayed as individuals with motivations and a history long before they became parents. Actors Hina Bayat, Behroze Sabzwari, Seema Seher, Waseem Abbas and Perveen Akbar bring out the best in their characters, channeling anger, resolve, helplessness and insight into skillful performances, even if Noor Mohammed and Kausar Parveen were firmly typecast as villains.
The drama makes important observations about power: in our patriarchal society and its lopsided and unfair ways, people use power to perpetuate their own interests and maintain the status quo
The sibling relations between Madiha (Mansha Pasha) and Taji (Ali Sheikh), Yousuf and Mahrukh and even Imran Mugeez and Tehmina explore different aspects of sibling relationships. It’s refreshing to see all these actors given their due and this is a good reminder to all drama writers out there to create memorable characters, no matter how small the role.
Khalil sahib also makes important observations about power.
No doubt he holds a mirror to our patriarchal society and its lopsided and unfair ways, but in doing so he shows us just how people use power to perpetuate their own interests and maintain the status quo. Noor Mohammed extends his power and control not only over his household but for a price, has the police do his bidding. Yet he succumbs to the power his sister holds over him. The police in turn exert their authority over Waji Ahmed and yield the power of the lathi.
|Has Maya Ali's character finally developed her own voice?|
Though he steers clear of hectoring his audience, his words leave an indelible mark. Thankfully, Khalil sahib isn’t above entertaining us so we got lots of sharpshooting dialogue, along with well-rounded and often humourous observations about life.
But for all the things that Khalil sahib gets right, there are a few things that rankle. While he lays bare the double standards, hypocrisies and challenges that women face, his claim about portraying strong women falls flat. This idea doesn’t stretch beyond the veneer of colourful language and a lot of posturing. Afia Begum and Zulekha were prime examples of all talk no action. Instead of taking control of their lives, they were content to let events unfold as they may and only made decisions when forced to by circumstance, stripping them of any semblance of agency.
In an age when more and more women are choosing to leave home to study, work and contribute to society, why are most of our dramas only interested in shutting them back indoors and showing us women in the domestic domain?
Though he toys with the idea of class, he also firmly entrenches his characters in the status quo. This class divide was definitely more acute in Pyarey Afzal. The sisters Farah and Loubna were upper middle class girls who could come and go as they pleased in chauffer driven comfort. There was also a semblance of aspirations other than marriage. Afzal, a lower class boy, falls in love with an upper class girl, and despite his ill-gotten gains to move up the social ladder, and finally breaking down the imperious Farah’s resolve, Afzal’s death meant that that class divide didn’t have to be overcome.
If all that a drama does is reiterate the choice of marriage being the only option for our girls, it does a disservice to the incredible potential and creativity they have and restricts the lives they can aspire to
In Mera Naam Yousuf Hai, both protagonists are firmly situated in middle class environs of train journeys, modest homes, Vespa scooters and white collared jobs. Yousuf gives up his youthful dreams of being a musician to a presumably hold a better paying office job. Zulaikha and Hajra are confined to their homes with little hope to revive their education let alone seek a life outside of marriage. Their mother Afia Begum seems least interested in securing her daughters' future in anything other than a good match. She herself only gains her freedom once her son hands her the financial reins. So much for lessons learned.
We turn to fiction to show us ways of other ways of being, of challenging the status quo and seeking to inspire change in our lives. If all that a drama does is reiterate the choice of marriage being the only option for our girls, it does a disservice to the incredible potential and creativity they have and restricts the lives they can aspire to. This was a total lost opportunity.
Still, the two most empowered female characters were Madiha and Hajra. Madiha’s rather see-through plot was to get the two protagonists together. She had too much self-respect to settle for being second choice and confirm Zulaikha’s assumption about Madiha’s intentions. Madiha was a level-headed girl from the get go and though she was in love with Yousuf, she was more the wiser to let him go. Mansha Pasha shone in this role.
Hajra on the other hand, had the most clear-eyed view of everything despite being the youngest one around. Her objectivity, demand for action and plea for agency over one’s life and choices was time and again foiled by both her mother and sister’s inaction. One gets the feeling that if she were the central protagonist; the story would have turned out very differently. Mizna Waqas breathed a lot of life and youthful exuberance into her role.
|Masha Pasha as Madiha and Mizna Waqar as Hajra - Photo courtesy MNYH Facebook page|
Despite these failings the story was a visual treat made even more wonderful by the excellent cinematography. DOP Qasim Ali Mureed’s train and vérité shots, the careful use of interiors, lighting and props all add a visual layer to the story and heightened the experience. The top-notch production values, care in the choice of locations and set design were stellar. The attention to detail in his drama is worth mentioning. For instance, in the last episode Yousuf’s black sherwani matches Zulaikha’s black dress and the roses of his garland echo in the red of her lipstick all hinting towards their ultimate union. The OST also complemented the story perfectly.
While an out-and-out romantic drama might be stepping out of Mehreen Jabbar’s comfort zone, she succeeds quite admirably. Her style of underplaying melodramatic moments added an air of gravitas to some rather filmi situations. Tempered with this realism, the plot lines somehow were more believable. Brownie points too for creating moments of tension with a non-linear narrative and not bucking to the trend of 25 plus episodes!
However, there are trademark Mehreen Jabbar signs which fans of her work will find missing. From her earlier successful dramas such as Vasl, Daam, Doraha, Kahaniyaan, Maat-e-Jaan, Coke Kahani and Rehaai, her work includes progressive storylines, independent women, a shared sisterhood and perhaps and most importantly women who lead by action and less talk. Her last outing in Jackson Heights, both Michele (Marina Khan) and Salma (Aamina Sheikh) were independent working women who end up making their own decisions and not bowing to convention.
Of course the director is guided by the script and there is no doubt Mera Naam Yousuf Hai had Mehreen Jabbar’s stamp all over it. This is precisely why this diametrically opposite pairing brought such amazing results.
The biggest surprise perhaps was that Khalil sahib allowed the lovers to reunite, however not without a near death experience! If he’s willing to turn the tables on us, let’s hope in his future projects he allows his women to step out of the gharelu dyara and find their rightful place in the world at large.
Sadaf Siddique is freelance writer, film and drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen not necessarily in that order.