Untold stories from the past

February 6, 2022

Jo Bichar Gaye, which airs on GEO TV every Sunday evening, with its sensitive storytelling,nuanced characters and standout direction, is a gripping watch.

Untold stories from the past

To find a story ambitious enough to go beyond a woman’s chaadar and char diwari is a rare occurrence in Pakistan’s television ambit these days. In the 80-odd serials made annually, the focus still lies mostly on shallow family dramas that hammer down on both sense and subtlety. Amongst the few dramas that have ventured beyond toxic relationships and their unfortunate affiliates in the past one year is Jo Bichar Gaye, a political thriller wound around circumstances that led to the Fall of Dhaka in 1971. Jo Bichar Gaye, which airs on GEO TV every Sunday evening, with its sensitive storytelling and standout direction, is a gripping watch.

One of several projects made on the subject last year (Nabeel Qureshi’s feature film Khel Khel Mein and Ehteshamuddin’s poignant mini-series Khaab Toot Jaatay Hain on Hum TV being two other prominent projects), Jo Bichar Gaye catches attention for a number of reasons. Based on Bichar Gaye, Colonel ZI Farrukh’s memoirs of 1970 and 1971, the drama plays back on events that led to the separation of East Pakistan. The political commentary borrows from history and has been recreated very well but it’s the tier of human relationships between the people of East and West Pakistan that weaves emotion into what could have been a dry war saga.

“I realized that we hadn’t made much content telling our side of the story and I just wanted the other side to be documented,” Haissam Hussain, the acclaimed director who’s also responsible for award-winning period play on partition, Dastaan, spoke to Instep about the making of this serial. “Jo Bichar Gaye has started a conversation on the subject.”

It wasn’t as simple or straightforward as adapting Colonel Farrukh’s memoir for screen. An avid reader and researcher, Hussain shares that years of study on the subject had brought this story to life. He shares how informed perspectives from Dead Reckoning by Sharmila Bose as well as Of Blood and Fire: The Untold Story of Bangladesh’s War of Independence by Jahanara Imam, with countless other books on the subject were referenced for a holistic and somewhat neutral view.

“I wanted Jo Bichar Gaye to be written with a researched, well-informed and unbiased perspective,” says Hussain. “We needed state approval, of course, but I was clear when I took on this project that it couldn’t be biased.”

The characters and actors cast in those roles bring this visually arresting drama to life. Household names Wahaj Ali and Maya Ali, as idealistic revolutionaries Rumi and Sonya, ignite a gentle love story drenched in opposing political ideologies. Then there is the central character of Colonel ZI Farrukh, that has allowed Talha Chahour a breakthrough with his nuanced performance. He is a simple, unfussy man; sincere in both professional responsibility and relation.

Untold stories from the past

It’s not just these central characters but an entire ensemble of talent curated through tireless auditions that has brilliant actors such as Usman Zia (Professor Ajeet), Umar Cheema (Shill) and Zaheer Taj as the beady eyed Major Ghiasuddin … all brutal conspirators. Ahmad Abbas, Umer Darr and Rana Majid play Pakistan army captains Kabeer, Siddiqui and Salahuddin respectively. Loyal in their friendship and doomed in their positions as soldiers, they easily win both admiration and affection. Also amongst the young actors, Fazal Hussain as Haroon Anwar delivers a memorable performance.

Nadia Jamil aces her role as Mrs Anwar ul Haq, Sonya’s elitist Pakistani mother, who measures Captain Farrukh’s interest in her daughter by his rank and lineage. She’s the perfect representation of the entitled rich, the perfect hostess who likes her afternoon teas and evening walks. There is a scene where mutiny in Dhaka is at an all-time high but while her Bengali husband and neighbour are passionately discussing politics and policy, Mrs Anwar – a cheeky euphemism for West Pakistan - is sleeping and snoring away in complete ignorance.

The characters don’t all belong to the book. Shafi Imam Rumi, for example, was purposely created for the drama. “Rumi was a very important character for the project,” Hussain says. “If we didn’t have him, we wouldn’t have the other point of view. A student, the educated youth. To have that informed point of view from that side was important. Rumi was a very difficult character to write because he had to make perfect sense.” Played to perfection by Wahaj Ali, Rumi has complete public sympathy as he’s devastated to find his political allies taking inqilab to baghavat.

Several things had to be changed from the book but, Hussain shares, they worked with Colonel ZI Farrukh’s tone, which was neither harsh nor judgmental. His tone was genuine. “And he wasn’t at all a shallow or frivolous character,” the director elaborates. “We adapted his character and some political incidents from the novel; we’ve retold all that.”

The way in which the story unfolds on screen also serves its purpose very well. Filmed at various historic locations in Lahore, mostly at the Government College University (a seemingly mirror image of Dhaka University), the cinematography perfectly depicts the mood of the narrative. It is grey and misty at is helps the characters navigate through the story. The seventies have been represented very well, as Talha Chahour shared in a recent interview, “I stayed in costume for all the time we were filming and people wondered why I was wearing bellbottoms”. There is careful attention to detail, from costume to cosmetics, and the frames are both artistic and poetic, a pleasure to watch. This level of technical sophistication is hard to find on television.

One would think that a project so impressive would ring in big numbers, but such has unfortunately not been the case with Jo Bichar Gaye. It has picked up critical acclaim but not ratings, which fortunately doesn’t bother Haissam Husssain much. He’s content with the views and the feedback it’s getting.

“To be honest, I didn’t even think that this project would run on satellite TV,” he says. “Jo Bichar Gaye is a political thriller. It has a tiny audience and that’s the reality. It is a small audience but it’s an audience that matters. People who are watching are appreciating it. I also feel JBG is a timeless story. It’ll matter and be watched even after 20 years.”

People who have read the book or have watched Colonel ZI Farrukh’s interviews online are wary of the tragedy that is bound to strike lives of all popular characters. Can one expect some leniency or change in the real to reel depiction?

“It’s heading towards catastrophe,” is all Haissam Hussain concludes with.

Hopefully, the silver lining will be the scope of story-telling and the production level that we’ve seen in Jo Bichar Gaye. It’s evident that sophistication can be achieved if heart and soul is put into it. As far as the narrative goes, there’s always a side that is left untold. That is unavoidable. But what we’re left with is room to discussion and hopefully the door to that room has been opened.

Untold stories from the past