Lieutenant General Nigar Johar’s professional and personal life carves out this extraordinary story of resilience. There is loss, isolation, deprivation and sorrow but the tragedies leave you with a sense of strength as opposed to resignation.
“I don’t want to get there by marrying a General, I want to be a General,” a very young and emancipated Nigar tells her mother, who in turn smiles lovingly and yet knowingly, because no woman has ever risen to the rank.
Around four decades on, in 2020, Lieutenant General Nigar Johar became the first and only woman in the Pakistan Army to reach the rank of a three-star General. Her story, produced for television by Nina Kashif and Mahira Khan, written by Umera Ahmed and directed by Adnan Sarwar, was aired as a telefilm last week and while much of Pakistan’s TV content comes and goes as flotsam, this one left an impression that inspired millions across the country.
General Nigar’s story gives the telefilm its nucleus; her life presents itself as the ideal of how inspirational content needs to be written. A child with dreams and aspirations, who’s supported by both her parents every step of the way. A young girl who agrees to an arranged marriage as long as her husband will not stop her from working and will be engaging enough to have two-hour chats with. “Doa ghantay gup lag sakey,” she tells her father, to which he endearingly replies, “Beta doa ghantay kam nahin hain?” They burst out laughing, drawing one into a priceless father-daughter bond.
There’s the bond she shares with her husband, Johar Ali Khan, normalizing a relationship that is generally so alien on television. We’ve become a nation that is more comfortable with violence, death and destruction rather than intimacy and love, even between a married couple. And television mostly perpetuates the stereotype that men are supposed to dominate and women are at their best when in a pitiable, sacrificial mode. In AHN we see stereotypes shattered and the most reassuring part is that the anomaly rises from the reality of Lt General Nigar Johar’s life.
It’s not just her professional achievements that carve this extraordinary story. It’s seeing her progress and succeed despite navigating through irreparable, tragic losses in life. You see her experience personal loss, isolation, deprivation and sorrow. You weep with the character, and the tears flow frequently, but they leave you with a sense of strength as opposed to resignation.
What binds everything are the performances. Mahira Khan sheds all inhibitions to adapt to Lt General Nigar Johar with complete sincerity and honesty. One can see her modifying her body language to make it 80s-appropriate. She tweaks her smile so that you catch the character instead of the actor. Mahira outperforms herself, especially in the emotional scenes, of which there are many. She’s supported by Bilal Ashraf as Johar; Bilal slips into the role with utmost ease, his physical resemblance with General Nigar’s husband helping him along. It takes all of five minutes to fall in love with the character, partly because of the performance, but mostly because of the man himself who is an exception to every rule we have learnt in the TV-marriage handbook. Bilal Ashraf is at an advantage here; anyone who played Johar would be a cinch to be immortalized as hero of all times and that’s exactly the feeling he leaves us with. Handsome, supportive and sensitive, we see him as flawless and that’s most certainly the way General Nigar wished to remember him, which in itself is testament to the companion he was.
General Nigar’s story gives the telefilm its nucleus; her life presents itself as the ideal of how inspirational content needs to be written. What binds everything are the performances. Mahira Khan sheds all inhibitions to adapt to Lt General Nigar Johar with complete sincerity and honesty. One can see her modifying her body language to make it 80s-appropriate.
The support cast stays mostly in the sidelines, all except Sohail Sameer as General Nigar’s father. Sohail Sameer can be ranked as the most under rated actor of the century and whose skill has just recently been recognised. He’s someone with incredible range and versatility and one hopes he gets more opportunities like Aik Hai Nigar and then Khuda Aur Mohabbat 3 (in which he effortlessly play Nazim Shah) rather than the wastage he’s been put through all these years.
Newcomer Khushhal Khan makes a strong impression as Shahid, General Nigar’s younger brother and comes across as an actor with substantial potential. He has all the trappings of becoming a rising star once the rough edges are smoothened out and given he chooses his projects and plans his trajectory carefully.
Brainchild of both Mahira Khan and Nina Kashif, to make a biopic on a serving General (which is unprecedented) took time ideating and planning and that planning shows in the groundwork. The attention to detail has been micro managed and you easily forget that the drama is inspired by the General’s life and isn’t a documentary with actual footage. The frames, capturing four decades from 1975 to 2020, the costumes and styles, the homes and décor down to the cars and the currency: everything has been recreated to the finest detail. The fact that Mahira Khan as General Nigar does not age as naturally as she would have in 45 years is a minor problem that can be overlooked in the larger scheme of things.
One element that looms large is Abbas Ali Khan’s soundtrack, the two songs ‘Pyar Tera’ and ‘Qabar’ composed and performed by Haroon Shahid and Lalarukh Abbas, that perfectly tap into the sound and sync with the 80s and 90s.
Credit for bringing the producers’ vision to screen belongs to Adnan Sarwar (this being his third biopic after Shah and Motorcycle Girl) and of course, Umera Ahmed for developing the script.
Apparently countless sessions and discussions went into deciding which events of General Nigar’s life would be caught on screen and which not.
There has been some criticism on the glorification of military doctors, especially the one dialogue where General Nigar is shown addressing her students at Army Medical College. “We are not ordinary doctors, we are doctors in uniforms,” she says, a speech that has incited disapproval of ‘ordinary’ doctors and especially front-liners who have risked and lost lives during the pandemic. While the dialogue may have been taken out of context, the context being that military doctors often serve at borders, during battle and warfare, thus putting themselves at additional risk to serve their country, it cannot be denied that if the stakes are higher, then the honours are much higher too.
While it’s commendable that inspirational women like General Nigar are immortalized on screen, their stories inspiring and encouraging millions to overcome shortfalls that life presents, it’s equally necessary to select heroes from within civilian society. We don’t see many of those. As a nation we will always welcome dramas like Alpha Bravo Charlie, Sunehray Din, Ehd e Wafa, and the upcoming Sinf e Ahan as well as the countless films/telefilms like Laal, Aik Hai Nigar, Parwaz Hai Junoon and Sherdil. But we also need to see more Shahs and Motorcycle Girls. It’s just as important for non-uniformed achievers to believe that they’re celebrated too.