Even after a 19-year-long career writing about the entertainment industry, I guess it’s never too late to learn something new. The lesson, for this writer then, is of exercising patience.

The dilemma is this: on the brink of publication deadline, how does one unveil an exclusive of a hyped, tentpole international drama produced in Pakistan, when one is totally in the dark?

Navigating through one of the most excruciating exercises of fortitude, this writer had very little information about the upcoming mega-series Dhoop Ki Deewar (DKD), premiering at the end of this month on Zee5.

There were only a few bare facts at hand: DKD stars the husband and wife duo of Ahad Raza Mir and Sajal Aly; it is directed and co-produced by Haseeb Hasan of Parwaaz-i-Junoon and Alif fame, and the writer is Umera Ahmed, who penned Alif and Ek Jhooti Love Story (also out on Zee5). The story is about a cross-border romance (there is so much more than that, I learned later). Apart from this scarce information, there is very little to go on.

The upcoming mega-series Dhoop Ki Deewar, premiering at the end of this month on Zee5, started out as a cross-border love story. But, in fact, it’s a social tragedy that stems from the effects of war

With little to no clarity on interview line-ups (both actors were busy on other projects, and getting hold of them was proving difficult, I was told), and no stills or media shared with Icon until publication date, writing about DKD was going to be tricky.

The details came in bits and pieces, after, I assume, passing a series of stringent checks and balances. With the story having strong elements of military and martyrdom, I guess they were a necessity.

But then again, with the show already complete and ready for release, what’s there to worry about?

If you ask me, nothing.

Knowing the sensibilities and approach of the filmmakers and production houses — especially the Motion Content Group (MCG), who financed, developed and produced the project — I assume the execution would be flawless, non-political (as it should be), very much human, and worthy of the time the audience invests in watching the show.

The first piece of the puzzle connects and things start making sense when a document with the story’s overview comes over.

Dhoop Ki Deewar — an excellent title full of creative subtext — is about two young individuals, Vishal (Ahad) from India and Sara (Sajal) from Pakistan, who connect through shared grief.

Losing their fathers — both army men from different sides of the border — Vishal is expected to mature overnight, dealing with his clinically depressed mother, grief-stricken grandmother and twin sisters. Sara, striving to fulfill her father’s dream of becoming a doctor, contends with selfish relatives, takes care of her mother, dyslexic brother and grieving grandparents.

According to the overview: “It’s a story of heart and compassion over hate, and a cross-border tale of love, family and loss that is the same across the world. DKD aims to explore the impact of martyrdom and war on these families, and how they realise that peace is the only answer.”

The story reads like a departure from the norm. The keyword here being: reads. Film and television — and in this case, the OTT streaming platform — is a visual medium. Forget clips, which for some reason are still undergoing clearances, seeing some images from DKD would have been nice.

A quick phone call with Haseeb Hasan brings some clarity.

The project, he tells me, came to him when he was filming Alif for producer Misbah Shafique; like the latter project, this was also Shafique’s baby. Umera Ahmed, who shares great chemistry with Shafique and Hasan, had already written the telefilm Laal and the soon-to-be-filmed action-drama Aan (both Navy stories, by the way) for the director, so it was a no-brainer for them to be working together again.

The idea was to create a story about India and Pakistan, without delving into cliches. Ahmed already had the story, which was set to be released as a novel. However, the interest from Hasan, Shafique and Ateeq Rehman (of the Motion Content Group), put the novelisation plans on the backburner.

For Hasan, it’s a challenge going back to the routine ways of filming. As a director, he wants to spread his wings and tell stories that really matter, he tells me. After Parwaaz-i-Junoon, Alif and Laal, working with cinema cameras and proper sound design feels like the new normal for him, he says.

“I’m not saying no to doing projects for television,” he says, explaining that he’s recently completed a project, and will continue to do so if he gets ideas that appeal to his creative sensibilities, and not compromise on the quality of execution.

Hamdan Films, Hasan’s production shingle, is line producing DKD, so at least that’s a sigh of relief for him, I gather.

“It would be very difficult to do a project such as DKD for television channels in Pakistan,” he explains, citing reasons we’ve explored countless times in Icon — lack of vision, restrictions on the type of genres and stories, and sometimes a combination of the two.

“The intention is to ease tensions on both sides of the LoC [Line of Control],” he continues. “This subject is the need of the time. I think it would be a missed opportunity if we, as filmmakers, don’t present stories that provoke dialogue.

“A small thing can change the dynamics of the relations between Pakistan and India, and build towards friendship. Maybe, after the show comes out, it could trigger conversations at the government level, and start fair trade and the freedom to travel between countries,” he says a bit optimistically, if not unrealistically.

“People with extremist thoughts really need to watch DKD,” Hasan adds. “The flames of hate are hazardous for both sides of the border.”

Another piece of the puzzle fits three days later when I speak to Shailja Kejriwal, from Zee Zindagi.

“I have great respect for the Aman Ki Asha initiative. In fact, the whole brand of Zindagi could be considered that,” she says. “Having said that, the way we go about selecting a story is its relatability, universality and its insight. DKD is all this and more! It deals thematically with what happens to the families of martyred soldiers after the dust of glory settles. This is one aspect that is never talked about. Usually most stories end in victory, glory or martyrdom, and have the point-of-view of whichever country the story is being written from.

When Umera Ahmed was approached to write an Indo-Pak love story, she told the producers that she didn’t have one. “I have a hate story. Maybe it would be more real and honest. Love is never honest,” she says. “Typically, the hero of the story is the man from the story’s native country and the girl is from the other country. In Dhoop Ki Deewar, it’s the other way round, and it completely changes the way the narrative unfolds.”

“Anytime is a good time for a story like this to get made. From time immemorial, nations have been in conflict and glorified martyrdom,” she answers as we talk about the timing of the product, when seemingly (seemingly being the key word here), inter-country relations are calmer than before.

“Misbah Shafique had narrated the concept to me and, several months later, dropped the scripts in my inbox as I was boarding a flight. The flight was long and there was no in-flight entertainment, so I decided to read them. I’m not much of a crier but the scripts were so moving that I made quite a spectacle of myself that day. You know you have a winner when the written word can make you feel so intensely,” Kejriwal tells me.

“I think taking creative risks is not such a bad thing,” Ateeq Rehman tells me when I visit the MCG offices.

Looking at the big picture, he explains, “We [in Pakistan] can make products like this. Capability is not an issue. Whether we have the intention to do it or not, now that’s a separate issue. If you talk to five different people, you would get five different reasons as to why it’s undoable,” he says.

“The challenge comes when you start looking at something from a business angle.”

Sitting in the office of MCG’s parent company, a group known for their creative and financial strategies in the media business, this came as a shock.

As it turns out, there is a misconception about the company. MCG is an independent production unit like any other production house, and it’s willing to take those risks in storytelling because it’s not bound to the restrictions of local television.

“Currently if you look at the type of content being made in local channels, the stories might be different, but the flavouring [the treatment] is exactly the same,” he says. “To see some change, at least 20 percent of what we broadcast has to look and feel different in terms of treatment, otherwise Pakistani producers will never be able to tap audiences that are slowly developing the appetite of watching content on digital platforms,” Rehman explains.

“This is exactly the reason why we’ve not gone after the run-of-the-mill content,” says Shafique stepping in. “We’re dealing with topics that were never done before and, at the same time, targeting beyond the two billion Urdu-Hindi speaking audiences of the South Asian diaspora,” she says, pointing out the universal nature of DKD’s story.

As we talk about casting decisions, Shafique tells me that they weren’t trying to cash in on casting trends; in fact, that’s never really the case. It is foremost about the story, and then about casting decisions.

Speaking of actors, I realise that we’re back to square one. With hardly a day to finish this piece, this writer still hadn’t spoken to either of the actors. Although it is preferable to, at the very least, speak to an actor about their role, in this case, even voice notes to questions would do.

In Sajal Aly’s case, even that seemed like a lost cause. She was apparently extremely busy shooting another project and could not even take out five minutes to answer questions. The earliest I could expect an answer was a day after this article went to print.

Ahad Raza Mir, also in the midst of shooting in South Africa, was more accommodating.

“I think there was a lot of miscommunication, especially with the different time zones,” he tells me as we begin talking on the phone.

Despite the quality of the long-distance communication being problematic, I learn the actor’s entire approach to a character changes depending on the way it’s written on the page. “Before I approach the character, I look at the overarching theme, and about what my character is going to teach people. We want the two nations to relate to both of these characters. We don’t see it as two sides, we see it as two people going through the same struggle.

“So my biggest challenge was to be authentic. How [the grief these characters share] affects people in the long-term, how it changes them, how it affects their point-of-view in life, how people move on, and how some people don’t move on. You also have to be precise on [whether or not you’re portraying] stereotypes.”

The struggle, in other words, was not to perform characters as if they’re caricatures of Indian or Pakistani people; for example, look at the way Indian movies portray Pakistanis and vice versa. “We wanted to show something that feels real to the Indian people,” he says.

The actor’s point-of-view is further clarified when I dial up writer Umera Ahmed.

Despite all the statements, with no visual cue at hand, the only way this writer could make sense of the soul of the series was by having a one-on-one conversation with the screenwriter.

As it turns out, the call was right on the money.

When Ahmed was approached to write an Indo-Pak love story, she told the producers that she didn’t have one. “I have a hate story,” she says. “Maybe it would be more real and honest. Love is never honest.” The story builds from that premise into something unexpectedly unique, I’m told.

Adapting her own yet-to-be-published novel, she says that her approach was different from the get go. “Typically, the hero of the story is the man from the story’s native country and the girl is from the other country. In DKD, it’s the other way round, and it completely changes the way the narrative unfolds.”

From the way I understand it, Ahmed’s inspiration has been building up for years. “It’s about perceptions, and how that matures with time,” she explains.

“All through my teens and 20s, I wanted to conquer India like any hot-blooded youngster,” she says. “But now, when I’m in my 40s, I don’t see why we cannot just talk things over.

“We cannot expand borders by fighting. For Pakistanis, the Indians are the enemies. For Indians, we’re the enemy. That’s the immediate reaction we’re bred with, isn’t it?” she asks me before connecting to an event from her past.

Hailing from Sialkot, Ahmed, when she was young, often saw regular army postings near the Line of Control. Seeing martyrs became a routine affair. Although, she says, blood did boil in that age, her perception changed dramatically one day when she visited a friend’s house whose elder brother had just passed away.

“There was a picture of the young martyr in every room of the house,” Ahmed says. When Ahmed bid her condolences to the grieving mother, she could see the loss of a loved son in her eyes. “The family doesn’t forget.

“This is not Aman ki Asha,” Ahmed says. “DKD is a social tragedy that stems from war. It’s a social commentary on war.” However, she tells me that she’d rather not call the series an anti-war statement. “It’s far too diverse for that,” she tells me.

Perhaps it is.

Chances are, by the time you read this article, teasers of the show would have been released.

By then, I guess you, the readers, would be in a better position to judge how well — and how different — the story’s approach is. From what I gather, it’s going to be something to look out for.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 13th, 2021

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