Sohail (Bilal Abbas) and Salma (Madiha Imam)
Sohail (Bilal Abbas) and Salma (Madiha Imam)

On the face of it, there might not be anything new in Zee Zindagi’s new web-series Ek Jhooti Love Story (EJLS), written by Umera Ahmed and directed by Mehreen Jabbar. The duo have previously collaborated on emotion-heavy hit serials Malaal, Daam and Doraha. The question, however, is: should there be something different, and if so, in what specific way?

In the trailer, a young man Sohail (Bilal Abbas) befriends a high society girl named Natalia Sheikh through a fake Facebook account. Unknown to him, Natalia is also the fake internet identity of a girl who lives just blocks away from him. Salma (Madiha Imam), a bespectacled, slightly insecure daughter of another lower middle-class family, dons the guise of Natalia to escape the routineness of her daily life. But don’t let the trailer — or the basic premise fool you, I’m told — there’s ample seriousness in the story…just not in the way one is expecting.

Umera had already written a few episodes of the series when Mehreen was brought on board to direct; there was ample uncertainty before she began reading the script, she tells me (there are quite a few weddings in the series, I’m led to believe).

“Initially, in my head, there was this thought that I was going to do a story on rishtas — and then I started reading it, and saw a really refreshing take on something that is so familiar in our society. That’s when I saw the versatility of Umera. It’s not a vacuous, superficial comedy — even when comedy happens. It’s actually a commentary on a lot of things that happen, regarding marriage, relationship, class, but the language and the way she’s handled it is full of levity and lightness of touch,” Mehreen tells me over the phone.

Directed by Mehreen Jabbar and written by Umera Ahmed, Zee5’s upcoming web series Ek Jhooti Love Story is an experiment in telling a well-worn story in a light-hearted way, say its creators

EJLS was fun for her, she continues, because neither she, nor Umera had done this genre before. “I may have done a telefilm, but never a serial,” she adds.

“People don’t expect this type of a genre from either Mehreen or me,” Umera tells me when we talk. “It’s always going to be hard-hitting social commentary. It was a conscious decision to try something different.

“In our subcontinent, we tend to like tears — humein aansoo barray pasand hain [we really like tears]. So, for a change I thought, baat wohi kartay hain, bus hans ke kar laitay hain [let’s tackle the same subject in a lighter way].

“I’ve worked with as much freedom and independence in India as I get from Pakistan. I have been one of the fortunate writers who get to choose what they want to do,” she says. After EJLS, Umera’s next serial, Dhoop Ki Deewar, is also in Zee Zindagi’s line-up, she tells me.

This brings me to a question that I’ve been meaning to ask. Recently, there have been quiet grumbles from the entertainment industry in Pakistan, about Pakistani writers exclusively working for Zee. Since Umera — one of the country’s premier writers — is penning series after series for Zee, is there any legitimacy to the grumblings, I ask?

“Fear is not a good thing for a creator,” Umera starts. “If somebody targets me intentionally, then it would not hurt Umera Ahmed — but it would impact the future of other writers [who may write for international platforms such as Zee]. After 15 years in the business, after making your name, when you get to a level, your priorities change. You want to build a legacy and create avenues for the new generation,” she says of availing an opportunity that could only do good for the talent of the industry.

Umera confirms that she had finished penning a feature film, written one project for Geo, is lined up to write two serials for PTV, one for ISPR, so there is no validity to the resentment. The only thing limiting her is the human capacity for writing good screenplays. She used to, and is still, writing three projects a year, she says.

Madiha Imam, Mohammad Ahmed and Beo Raana Zafar
Madiha Imam, Mohammad Ahmed and Beo Raana Zafar

Ek Jhooti Love Story is an experiment in light-hearted storytelling, Umera says — and she’s thankful to God Almighty, that none of her experiments have turned out for the worst.

The combination of Umera and Mehreen is still fresh in my mind when I speak to Shailja Kejriwal, the Chief Creative Officer of Zee Zindagi, the next day, who shares an enlightening anecdote.

“In a way, you can say Umera and Mehreen were the reason for me to launch Zee Zindagi,” Shailja starts. “My entire romance with Pakistani shows started in October 2012.” It was raining hard, and Shailja was stuck at home, trying to finish work, she elaborates. “Back then, Netflix and Amazon hadn’t appeared on the scene, I was bored of everything on TV, and I happened to come across Zindagi Gulzaar Hai [written by Umera Ahmed] on Youtube. I don’t know how it popped up — I think you can call it fate because the last Pakistani content I saw was Dhoop Kinaray [years ago],” she says.

“I put aside all my work and started binge-watching it like a crazed person. When I finished, I went to Wikipedia, wrote down the name of the actors, noted the name of the writer, searched the writer and found out about Daam — which was Mehreen and Umera’s collaboration. By December 2012, like a maniac, I may have watched every good Pakistani series dating back to 2007,” she says continuing the story.

As an executive producer, Shailja tells me that it is her job to push the filmmakers to do something different — especially if they have been stereotyped into very specific moulds.

“It’s about matching sensibilities of two different mindsets, to make something extremely different. Mehreen has an international outlook. She is a politically-aware, gender-conscious person. Her way of looking at people — and not just women — is with a lot of dignity. When I match her mindset with that of Umera [who carries a variation of the same sensibilities], but is very rooted, very value-driven, philosophical — it is like mixing oxygen with hydrogen. I’m not mixing oxygen with oxygen, or hydrogen and hydrogen,” she says.

The story, like their last venture Churrails, is layered with significant subtext; the drama doesn’t overpower the tone of the show — rather, it supplements it. “The focus remains on storytelling, and what you need to do to tell that story well, as opposed to one needing to produce 25 episodes to make one’s money back,” says Mehreen. “[The conventional thought to] stretch a 13-episode story to 25 episodes — that’s currently television’s problem — it wasn’t always so.”

This brings the topic to one key difference between shows made for television and the web: the duration and span of the series. “Working on EJLS those shackles were lifted jis mein aap ne kahani ko khenchna hai [where you have to unnecessarily stretch a story],” explains Mehreen. Whether it is 20, 30 or 40 minutes, any duration that does an episode’s story justice is okay, she tells me. Also, there was zero pressure on casting. “It was a khuli chutti [freehand].”

Mehreen continues: “The experience took me back to how work used to happen in Pakistan — even till 10 years ago. Now scripts are being churned out in a factory-mill.” She is obviously irked by the state of affairs on television. “There is no real desire, apart from a couple of producers, to make anything out of the box. The realism, which was the forte of our dramas, has all but vanished — apart from a very few places.”

The liberation to tell the story her way was nostalgic, she says; she hasn’t felt like this in the last 10 years.

Comparing the experience of working in a web-series with that of television, Madiha Imam, the show’s lead actress, tells me that the constant over-exposure to overwrought dramatics have numbed the audiences. “It’s not that the shows we do on television aren’t realistic, I wouldn’t say they’re not, but eventually they become too dramatic [as the episodes roll by].”

Madiha says the problems Sohail and Salma face are universal. On the surface, the difficulties may look as if they’re restricted to the lower and the middle-class families, but in actuality they carry a far-reaching message that applies to all classes of society, she explains. “It’s about people who aspire to become someone they’re not.”

Explaining her character, Madiha says that Salma gets hand-me-downs at home, so she has a level of insecurity and lack of confidence. “When she looks at herself on the screen, she’s not able to tell herself that she’s actually pretty, okay to look at.”

Isn’t her character akin to that of a Disney Princess, I ask? “It is,” she laughs.

Having previously worked with Mehreen in a telefilm, Madiha says that one can only gauge so much of a director’s ability during a four-day shooting stint. “By the time you start enjoying the process, you’re done with the shoot.” If anything, even in those few days, she says that she realised the directors’ professional, particular way of approaching stories, characters and especially actors — even if their way of working stands worlds apart.

Mehreen Jabbar (left), Bilal Abbas and Madiha Imam (right) on the set
Mehreen Jabbar (left), Bilal Abbas and Madiha Imam (right) on the set

Madiha is a director’s actor, while Bilal, her lead, is spontaneous she tells me, leading to a story from the set. “This was the first day of getting together — before the rehearsals — we sat down and opened our scripts. Mine was littered with notes, while his was markless,” she says of the difference in their approaches.

“I’m not a director’s actor. I love to improvise,” Bilal concedes when we speak. “For me, it’s about experiencing the character. I’ve always been extremely choosy. I’ve always been looking for characters that are out of my comfort zone, whether it’s Cheekh or Pyar Ke Sadqay. I’m not running a race. I just want to explore my capabilities, and this is all I know. If everything comes together, then that’s one of life’s excitement for me,” he goes on.

Bilal purposely brought a “Karachi-wala boy’s element” to his mannerism, he says. “When you see Indian content, you see immediately see the difference between someone from Mumbai and Delhi and that was the nuance I was after,” he explains.

“For Sohail, I kept a rawness to the character, which isn’t that prevalent in dramas. The characters [in television] are often either black or white, but rarely gray,” Bilal adds. “It’s an extremely positive character, but it’s not one-dimensional, he further interpolates.

The role is completely different from Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, another series he’s headlining for Zee Zindagi.

Telling different stories is a part of Zindagi’s prerogative, I understand.

“Essentially, it’s about the way one looks at life,” Shailja says. “For projects we undertake, my question is never about what we’re making. The question I ask is why we are making it. It’s the point of view [of approaching stories] that makes the difference.”

Ek Jhooti Love Story, seemingly full of the same storytelling norms we know, yet showcased in a different tone, begins streaming on Zee5 on October 30.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 18th, 2020