To combine the literary and the entertaining is not an easy task
Last year was tough for the Pakistani drama industry. Not only were shooting schedules disrupted due to the pandemic, but there were also mediocre scripts, haphazard direction and terrible editing; a case in point: Zebaish. The drama had a perfect cast but did not live up to the viewers’ expectations because there were numerous continuity issues and the characters were almost caricatures.
In the last quarter of 2020, when the same network rolled out Mushk, the drama opened on a promising note. The characters appeared to be well rounded, the script was intriguing and the direction, by Aehsun Talish, had a refreshing edge to it. More than twenty episodes in, the characters have made progress: some have found new love interests and others have concluded that they will never find true love. In the world of Mushk, from a knight in shining armour to a villainous feudal, a damsel in distress to a self-reliant devious young woman, a runaway bride to women in bad-marriages and child-marriage, every character and plotline is purposefully written and shot.
Then why has watching actor Imran Ashraf’s (of Ranjha Ranjha Kardi fame) debut screenplay become so tedious over the last few episodes? The answer lies in the complex, riddle-like, overly-philosophical treatment of everyday conversations and the unnecessary redeeming of inherently flawed characters.
Mir Adam, the fictional village, is a far cry from real life. The inhabitants are village-dwelling Grecian philosophers, Elizabethan playwrights and Romantic poets. Every character, irrespective of their background, social status, age and other determinants of social behaviour, speaks the same way. In a scene where something as important as consent is being discussed, this style comes in handy. In fact, it adds to the impact of the moment. Through a neatly written sequence, the characters manage to discuss consent and harassment in a few frames, which is a major feat considering that many Pakistani dramas end up glorifying forced marriages; Muqaddar, starring Faisal Qureshi, is an example.
Mushk, too, features a Muqaddar Khan, who in the earlier episodes was portrayed as a terrifying feudal, who forces his nephew to marry his pre-teen daughter to keep his land. The delusional rants of the self-serving landowner trying to justify child-marriage end up reminding the viewer of similar parental speeches from old Bollywood films.
Pakistani dramas are known on the other side of the border for their carefully scripted characters and their beautifully crafted scripts. The Urdu language has an innate subtlety and poise – a sweetness reminiscent of fragrant paan. Urdu’s pleasantness coupled with effective screenwriting makes for worth-watching TV. There are several examples from earlier dramas to cement that thought. In a recent interview for an online platform, Ashraf admitted that he intended to highlight Urdu language through his screenplay. The Mushk writer went on to say that he wanted to create a novel-like drama for television. Perhaps, this is why the viewer has to read between the lines in every other scene, as literary fiction can be interpreted in various ways depending on the reader or, in this case, the viewer’s personal opinions, experiences and perspective.
In the past, there have been dramas based on novels that left an indelible mark on viewers, both here and abroad. Humsafar, Dastaan and Zindagi Gulzar Hai, for instance, enjoyed immense success and popularity in Pakistan and in India. All three were based on equally acclaimed Urdu novels. What made them memorable were good casting and screenplays ingeniously adapted to suit the sensibilities of television audiences. Over the last decade, the lines exchanged between Khirad and Ashir, Bano and Hassan and Kashf and Zaroon have remained etched in viewers’ memories.
It is difficult to say if the same will be said for Mushk‘s main characters. Every time Guddi and Adam interact, the wordiness of their conversations overshadows any romance developing between the two. Ashraf’s first stint as a writer is certainly novel. However, the idea of writing a novel for a screenplay is a tad difficult to digest.
To combine the literary and the entertaining is not an easy task. Drama writing is an expression of creativity, which is subjective. There is no doubt that the characters, whether it’s the respectable saviour Adam, the suave charlatan Dr Rana or the fiery Guddi, are all quite charming in their own ways. It is the language spoken in the land of Mir Adam that can sometimes take away from the experience of watching Mushk.
The writer is a staff member