Saife Hassan on location with the cast and crew of Zard Patton Ka Bunn
Saife Hassan on location with the cast and crew of Zard Patton Ka Bunn

On a winding, bumpy road in Dera Bakha in Bahawalpur District, a camera crew steadied itself during a tracking shot, focusing on a petite actress intently trying to ride a rusty bicycle. She is one of Pakistan’s biggest stars — Sajal Aly — but most wouldn’t know that at first glance from the way she tries to manoeuvre the bicycle, her hair braided, wearing a simple shalwar qameez.

As the camera rolled and Sajal began her bike ride, a boy ran behind her, entrusted with the job of catching her should she fall. Despite this, Sajal fell from the bike at least three times and got hurt badly while shooting for her currently on-air drama Zard Patton Ka Bunn (ZPKB).

“The bicycle was tall for me but the actual problem was the battery attached to one side of it, which would disbalance it,” Sajal recalls. “Once we figured this out, we would take out the battery before I rode the bike. The first time I fell, I got hurt quite badly, and I remember that I started laughing, while the team around me was aghast!”

This is one amongst the many behind-the-scenes stories I have heard from the set of the drama, which was mostly shot outdoors in Dera Bakha — come rain, come shine, come harsh summer, or a fog-laden winter.

Khurram Sohail and Sajal Aly
Khurram Sohail and Sajal Aly

ZPKB is a Kashf Foundation initiative, airing on the Hum TV Network, helmed by writer-director power-duo Mustafa Afridi and Saife Hassan, and featuring a star-studded cast that includes, aside from Sajal, Hamza Sohail, Samiya Mumtaz, Rehan Sheikh and Adnan Shah Tipu, among others.

Just a few episodes in, you can’t really declare the drama Zard Patton Ka Bunn a masterpiece — only time will tell if it develops into one. But it’s certainly off to a strong start. Its movers and shakers talk to Icon about what went into its gruelling production

When I meet Saife Hassan at a special event to mark the launch of the drama, he tells me that the star-studded cast was a breeze to work with. Tackling the elements of nature was their real challenge.

“The cast was great,” said Saife. “Samiya would be dizzy from sleep but would still shoot till two in the night. Sajal, despite her [star] stature, is extremely hardworking and very passionate. Hamza is relatively new and I found it funny that, while he was nervous about performing with Sajal, she was also similarly anxious! And when they did start shooting together, they became great friends.

“The crew would sometimes get exhausted, because of the harsh weather and the demands of shooting outdoors for 16, 18 hours, but the actors were very cooperative.”

He continues: “We shot in extreme winter and summer, without a heater or air-conditioning. It would make things tough. We would be travelling from the city of Bahawalpur to the village and, in winter, there would be so much fog in the morning that visibility would only be till about 10 feet. Even though the call time would always be early, at seven in the morning, we would only end up shooting around 10 or 11am.”

A scene from Zard Patton Ka Bunn
A scene from Zard Patton Ka Bunn

I was reminded of similar stories that I have heard from Saife in the past; of shooting in the dusty terrain near Multan for his drama Jhok Sarkar, or being out of cellphone reach while filming up in the mountains for Sang-i-Mah.

The director invariably finds himself in far-off locations, weathering sun, wind and rainstorm along with his cast. I mention this to him and he laughs.

“A lot of this has to do with the scripts written by Mustafa Afridi, since we are usually working together. When I read the story, a certain scenario builds up in my head and that’s what takes me to different regions for shooting. And in all honesty, while I have shot in cities as well, I enjoy shooting regional stories the most.”

Mustafa Afridi chimes in at this point. “A tree can only flourish if its roots are deeply embedded in the earth and this is true also for storytelling.

“We tell stories of the soil that we live on — the closer our stories are to reality, the more we will connect with them and so will the audience. We don’t believe in showing dreams. We believe in depicting realities in a way that we make people think.”

Zard Patton Ka Bunn recording in progress
Zard Patton Ka Bunn recording in progress

True to the writer’s and director’s quintessential styles, local colour plays a pivotal role in the initial few episodes of ZPKB that have just aired. The eye is drawn as much to Meenu — Sajal’s character — dancing to the dhol [drum] with her father on having aced her exams as it is to a village cockfight, where thousands are wagered, and the expansive green fields where the characters have profound conversations.

The tubewell gushing out cold groundwater, the thin lanes threading through the village, the unassuming village homes and the tiresome bicycle are just as much characters in the story as the actors themselves.

“I can’t make myself enact the same typical characters anymore,” confesses Sajal Aly. “A story has to be meaningful. We are already fighting against toxic environments in real life, we don’t also need to bring the same scenarios to the screen. I am consciously trying to do work that is unique and I feel that all actors feel that way.

“I actually feel bad for the ones who are still trying to make do with the usual ratings-oriented storylines. We have some very talented actors in Pakistan but, unfortunately, good scripts are very few. Most dramas have the same plots, the same toxic elements — in-laws, a cheating husband, domestic abuse…”

She adds: “I am proud of Meenu and I am proud of being part of a story that entertains while also giving out some very important social messages.”

Khurram Sohail and the ZPKB team
Khurram Sohail and the ZPKB team

True to her prowess as one of the country’s finest actresses, Sajal effortlessly slips into Meenu’s skin on screen, veritably becoming her. I comment on one scene in a recent episode which had been memorable: where she danced with abandon, without any unnecessary graces, to the beat of the dhol.

Sajal smiles as she remembers. “Mustafa Afridi had written in the script that ‘Meenu should not dance like Umrao Jaan Ada, she is a village girl so she just has to move her hands and feet.’ The script made it easier for me to understand what was expected of me.”

Saife Hassan reveals that Sajal had been his and Mustafa’s first choice for the character of Meenu. Had Sajal also agreed to be part of the drama immediately?

“I actually agreed to be part of [ZPKB] even before I had read the script,” she tells me. “Mustafa Afridi and Saife Hassan make an amazing combination. Also, one of my favourite characters from my own dramas — Chammi from Aangan — was written by Mustafa Afridi. How could I allow myself to miss out?”

Sajal Aly in a scene from the drama
Sajal Aly in a scene from the drama

The drama’s leading man — Hamza Sohail, who may be relatively new to the TV landscape but already has a slew of hits to his credit, including last year’s Ramazan sensation Fairytale — similarly signed on to ZPKB without reading the script.

“I hadn’t even heard any noise that I was being considered for this role and, suddenly, it was offered to me,” says Hamza. “I heard the director and the writer’s name and the phenomenal cast that I would be working with and I told Saife sahib that I would be doing the drama for sure, and all I needed to hear was a one-liner on what the story was about! It didn’t matter to me what my character would be doing or how much screen time he would be getting.”

Hamza continues: “Honestly, I was being offered scripts after Fairytale and, if 20 or 30 scripts came my way, 99 percent would be following the same kind of storyline. I was searching for a story that would either touch my heart, or would at least justify my craft by serving a bigger purpose.

“There is more to being an artist than just entertaining. Zard Patton Ka Bunn isn’t your usual drama, guaranteed to bring in TRPs, and kudos to Kashf Foundation and the Hum TV Network for putting their faith in the project.”

Kashf Foundation’s projects have aired on multiple major TV networks over the years — are channels really that unconcerned regarding ratings, setting aside a prime time slot for a drama with an unconventional storyline, in order to initiate social discourse?

Sultana Siddiqui, CEO of Hum TV Network, observes, “If a story is told well and serves a good purpose, we’ll air it on our channel without worrying about whether it will get us viewership ratings.

“But the team behind the drama needs to be a strong one — for instance, Saife Hassan has worked with me over the years and I trust his expertise. Social messages need to be told in a sensitive, intelligent way.

“For example, the drama Udaari was also a collaborative effort between Kashf Foundation and the Hum TV Network. Once it became successful, many more dramas aired, tackling the topic of child abuse, but many ended up sensationalising it rather than creating awareness.”

While ratings may not be guaranteed in a drama that does not follow typical tropes, Kashf’s dramas have often been showered with awards, accolades and critical acclaim. Roshaneh Zafar, founder and managing director of the Foundation states that the primary goal is to bring about change.

“The accolades and awards are the icing on the cake but our true achievement is when common men and women come to us and say that they have seen our drama and it has made them think about an issue,” says Roshaneh. “We go to great lengths to ensure that the stories we tell are relatable, working with top writers, directors and actors and having an editing committee that scrutinises every dialogue.”

I pose a similar question to Saife Hassan and Mustafa Afridi — are they ever pressured into prolonging certain emotional scenes or adding a bit of masala to a story with the aim of hauling in more ratings? “We haven’t really been pressured, ever,” says Mustafa.

“I think we’re lucky. Channels don’t really interfere while we develop a script and work out how the story will be told,” adds Saife. “There is rarely ever any intrusion and, if there is, we manage to convince them to see things from our perspective. Other dramas can bring in views — I think channels have given up on us worrying about getting them ratings!” He laughs.

But the mass TV drama audience is a tricky behemoth. While there are certainly some rather toxic storylines that tend to appeal to them, they also often gravitate towards an unconventional story told well.

ZPKB is airing on weekends, around the same time as some other very star-studded dramas on other channels. It is not a glamorous drama, certainly, but based on the initial episodes that have aired, its beauty lies in the raw terrain where the story unfolds.

Eschewing grand sets, flashy styling and dramatic dialogues, the camera focuses instead on a young girl, walking barefoot through a field where the grass stalks are as tall as her, clutching her books as she makes her way to college.

The drama navigates the titular zard patton ka bunn — a phrase from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, likening a forest of yellowing leaves to the waning fortunes of the common man — that encompasses the life of Meenu and those around her. And to its credit, an exceptional cast delivers its dialogues and emotions flawlessly.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 9th, 2024

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