The rom-com reality

November 8, 2020

Unraveling as the perfect family entertainer for streaming service ZEE5, Ek Jhoothi Love Story leaves us with one burning question: why isn’t this kind of content being made for TV?

L-R: Furqan Qureshi, Bilal Abbas Khan, Mohammed Ahmed, Beo Zafar, Mariam Saleem, Madiha Imam, Kiran Haq and Mehreen Jabbar tapping into some asli camaraderie for
Ek Jhoothi Love Story.

If Churails was like summer’s torrential rain that pelts down - stirring all six senses into a disruptive awakening – then Ek Jhoothi Love Story, the second original web series commissioned to Pakistan by streaming service ZEE5, is like a smooth and steady drizzle. It falls into place gently and is essentially what you need when you have a steaming mug of tea in hand and some happy de-stressing to look forward to. It begins and 18 episodes later, leaves you with a silly smile on your face.

Written by Umera Ahmed (Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Alif, Laal, Behadd, Daam, Doraha) and directed by Mehreen Jabbar (Doraha, Daam, Jackson Heights, Rehaai, Mera Naam Yusuf Hai), EJLS sees Bilal Abbas Khan and Madiha Imam leading this romantic comedy as Sohail and Salma but it’s much more wholesome than just a romance or social drama.

Ek Jhoothi Love Story is just as much about ideals that society, friends and family help conjure up for us and then reality, the underlying truth of a relationship that always prevails. It’s about family values and sacrifice, stereotypes and anomalies. It’s about fairy tales and true love. If that sounds like everything that we’ve watched and enjoyed since adolescence then that’s exactly what it is. But what sets it apart from most of the overstretched serials on TV these days is treatment. EJLS comes together like a well-knit tapestry, weaving you into the lives of these two families who’re separated by one lane in a lower middle class mohalla.

Salma and Sohail, obsessed with the thought of a better life and an ideal life partner to spend it with, create fake profiles on Facebook to attract the person they are infatuated with. There’s something to be said about the superficiality of life on the internet, aided and abetted by numerous filters and tools that help us create personas that don’t actually exist. There’s an underlying danger to the seemingly innocent pastime. And as luck would have it, Sohail and Salma’s fake profiles connect with one another and thus begins their ‘jhoothi love story’, leading them to inevitable heartache and heartbreak.

The characters in Umera Ahmed’s world, one has to admit, are what hold it together. There isn’t a single character out of place or unnecessary; not a single person that one would have aversion to watching. On the contrary, we finds ourselves getting engrossed in everyone’s life. Heralding this troupe, of course, is the marvelous Beo Zafar, who portrays the matriarchal Nusrat Jahan to perfection. We see the Mohammad Ahmad-Beo Zafar camaraderie come to life, once again, after Cake and this is an amplified version of what we witnessed in Asim Abbasi’s award winning movie. Beo’s Nusrat has comic timing with the precision of a Swiss watch; her chai and biscoot are irresistible.

Their four children include Salahuddin (Furqan Qureshi), the apple of his mother’s eye until she suspects he wants to marry of free will, Shabana (Kiran Haq), the 34-year old who’s a little too old for ideal rishtas but would rather pursue a scholarship opportunity anyway; she’s followed around by a persistent Professor Jahangir who alas, does not interest her in the least. There’s Shazia (Mariam Saleem), who’s constantly told she just needs to lose a little weight to land the perfect boy in UK or US and then there’s Salma, fondly known as choti. Madiha Imam portrays Salma effortlessly and very convincingly; the way she infatuates and blindly follows a dream, gives in to family pressure and then finds her own free will and voice is inspirational in a believable way.

Another compelling character tied to this household is Tanzeel ur Rehman Siddiqui (Fawad Khan, who we also saw in Churails), who is besotted with the outspoken Shazia and has pledged to wait eternally to come around even though she’s made it crystal clear that she’s looking for someone ‘better’. Tanzeel is a cousin who owns the neighborhood fruit shop, thus endowing Shazia with a constant supply of fruit and dry fruit, and isn’t quite the image of successful husband she wants to find abroad.

The inspirational Hina Bayat with Madiha Imam and Bilal Abbas Khan.

Over to the other side, Bilal Abbas Khan nails his role as Sohail, who’s bemoaning his childhood friend Nofil’s life so much that he makes a fake ID in his name, hoping to catch some of his luck. The career in Silicon Valley, the car and the ideal girl is what Sohail was on his way to achieve until his father passed away and he inherited the responsibility of tending after his mother and two sisters. He’s a family man, with a solid set of values, but he’s also a dreamer and gets carried away every now and then. Hina Bayat as Sohail’s mother is one of the wisest women around, the kind that’s rare if not unknown to television. And we have Srha Asghar (formerly seen in Pyar Ke Sadqay) reprise her role as Bilal’s onscreen little sister with as much responsibility as cheek.

The story is all about the characters and every character has an arc and a conclusion. In 18 crisp episodes, Mehreen Jabbar manages to introduce, evolve and tie up every loose end in the lives of these nine central people. There are no flashbacks and no monotony; nothing drags. There is no endless misery, oppression and depression; no deaths, sister rivalries or the one tool no Tv drama is complete without these days: the slap. At times things do get a little too placid but then that’s the only antidote to the melodrama we’re served on a regular basis.

There’s a refreshing feel-good factor attached to Ek Jhooti Love Story, refreshing because it’s such a rarity to find something as honest and simple on TV these days. Not every story needs to have a purpose or deeper meaning, not every story needs to be a happy ending. But then every second story also doesn’t need to be the caustic, toxic level of storytelling that people are receiving in the guise of most dramas these days. One hopes that content creators and production houses will watch Ek Jhooti and look for the bar to raise.

The million dollar question: why isn’t this kind of content being made for TV anymore? We asked Mehreen Jabbar and Umera Ahmed…

Mehreen Jabbar, director

“I feel that a genre like Ek Jhooti Love Story used to exist in our drama industry some years ago but recently, because of this irrational and very not forward thinking on the part of channels and producers, which feel that unless a serial is firstly, not shorter than 26 episodes and preferably more, as many more as possible, then if it’s not peppered with high melodrama or twists and turns at every point, on every breath, and if you don’t take a certain kind of actor or actress or star, you won’t get that dreaded rating. So they have stopped trying to take risks and they are pretty much churning the same kind of story lines in different permutations day in and day out. They feel that is what the audience wants and either they don’t want to or they are not that imaginative to try and experiment with something.

“That, I feel, is one of the reason. And TV, obviously, has become a super commercial medium and by that I don’t mean that ‘everything is commercial’ because it has to be and you do want your project to be seen. My point is that the emphasis that these channels and productions put – and I’m not talking about everyone – is less to do with the story and how to make it glamorous or appealing or masalaydar. When you take away the focus from storytelling itself and you’re not sincere to it and your aim is to outshine the next channel with a TRP then you’re basically compromising that project itself. With Ek Jhoothi I feel we went back to the original strength of our industry, that’s how we started, which is honest, realistic, accessible storytelling. It’s local, it’s relatable and you cast people according to their characters. It’s a collaborative effort that you put in and it’s not that you are rushing from 500 sets. You’re focused on this project and that’s how all these actors were and how the crew was dedicated to this particular thing. All the energies were on Ek Jhoothi. Therefore the rehearsals happened, the camaraderie happened. The effort was not on getting to five other dramas or juggling dates or worrying about how they’re looking or social media and all those other things that take away focus.

“I do hope people like Ek Jhoothi and people in our industry reclaim what our strength is and used to be. I’m sure our audience wants to see a different genre apart from the regular fare of family dramas where everyone’s miserable and horrible things are happening to them.”

Umera Ahmed, writer

“That’s because content heads at various channels in Pakistan do not know how to identify a good story for solid family entertainment. I don’t blame the channel owners for targeting TRPs as channels are a commercial entity. What I blame them for is hiring incompetent content heads who have neither the professional expertise nor the relevant experience as scriptwriters. How can they then differentiate between good and bad content?

“In recent years we had Anwar Sajjad, Hasina Moin, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Noor Ul Huda Shah, Shakil Adal Zada as content heads of these very channels and look at the variety of themes and subjects that they worked on with commercial success. They all had one thing in common. They either had relevant qualifications or had an illustrious portfolio of blockbusters. Compare it with the portfolios of our current content heads and editors at three major channels. Unfortunately, they have neither.

“Even if they have any TV projects as scriptwriters, it’s only after becoming script heads. With this limited skill set they can’t gauge a story’s potential, its impact or its audience. They can’t have the guts to think out of the box or anticipate changing trends. They don’t even know how to edit a story to make it suitable for family viewing. All these plays that have been banned in recent times could have avoided the ban if these had been edited well at the editor’s table. EJLS doesn’t have an exceptional storyline, and yet Shailja was able to gauge its potential. That’s what expertise and skill set does. If our channels won’t have that kind of skill set, then you would have to resort to the same thoughtless handling of the formula plays which would invoke public lash-back in the end.”

The rom-com reality: Ek Jhoothi Love Story leaves us with one burning question: why isn’t this kind of content being made for TV?