Mrs & Mr Shameem, the next web series to release on OTT streaming platform ZEE5, is an unconventional love story between two individuals torn apart by society’s cruel stereotypes.
“Look at him carefully…does he look like a boy to you?” Umi asks the warden who objects to a boy picking her up from the hostel. The warden takes one look at Shameem and gives her permission to leave, dismissing him with a nonchalant, “Oh, haan”. Shameem is no threat; he isn’t your average, conventional boy. In fact, he’s not even considered boy enough.
The first question you ask after watching the Mrs & Mr Shameem trailer is this: what’s the orientation of this guy named Shameem? In the long list of alphabets now used to define the non-binary community, we’re left wondering which alphabet Shameem conforms to. As a society we’re so used to labelling, boxing and inadvertently judging human beings that being human is no longer enough. When an individual exhibits trait that aren’t all conventional, we’re eager to find a label, and in this case, a letter to describe him best. LGBTQ+ … the list goes on.
Saba Qamar and Nauman Ijaz play Shameem and Umaina in Mrs & Mr Shameem, the next web series to release on OTT streaming platform ZEE5. It’s unfortunate that people in Pakistan will not be able to stream or watch the series; a clamp on the channel subscription restricts it. But fortunately, it’s not a story that is limited to Pakistan. It’s an unconventional love story between two individuals that defy gender stereotypes: The Alpha Woman and the Effeminate Man.
“This is an idea that I floated 13 years ago and no one wanted to touch it,” says Nauman Ijaz, an actor that stands unparalleled in the entertainment industry today. “Shameem is a character that everyone comes across but is quick to dismiss. He’s the only boy in a family of several sisters and has picked up traits that make him gentle and sensitive. We all know such boys who are mocked for being ‘sissy’, as Shameem is. The story isn’t about his orientation but about emotions. It’s just a beautiful portrayal of emotions. It’s just very intense.”
Mrs & Mrs Shameem is the story of two social outcasts. Rejected by the man in her life, Umi is socially disgraced and turned away by her family when she finds solace and safety in Shameem’s friendship. He may not be the man of her dreams, but he’s the one who steps up to pick up the pieces when she’s broken. “Tum mard Shameem ki jooti kay barabar bhi nahin ho,” she shouts at a roomful of people mocking the other misfit in this relationship.
“We all look for Alpha Men in our lives,” the exceptional Saba Qamar explains, “and maybe, on a personal level, a woman wouldn’t mind being with a man who was different. But then society lays the rules for what is acceptable and what isn’t. We live to fit in but we need to accept differences and respect them.”
Saji Gul, a writer known for writing unconventional characters, shares how close Shameem was to him.
“As a sensitive man, I feel I’ve faced a lot of problems in life,” he says. “There’s always pressure to ‘man up’. But all men aren’t confrontational. Why is aggression always the solution to every problem? This is the irony of life. Why is a man crying a problem? What do people mean when they say, “Larkiyon ki tarah mat ro.. (Don’t cry like a girl).”
“Gender specific stories inspire me,” he furthers. “We tend to stereotype male characters but we need to show men as gentler too, like Qasim (played by Bilal Abbas Khan) was in O’ Rangreza. I have issues with stereotyping.”
Shameem’s orientation is questioned several times in the story, Saji adds, but he also reiterates that that’s not the focus of the story. This story is simply about a man who is perceived as effeminate and how difficult it is for him to exist and survive in society. The story plays with role reversals. It isn’t even love as you’re used to seeing it. It’s an exploration of what all love means and what it can’t be restricted to.
“We’ve become so used to seeing stories in black and white that we’ve stopped seeing the greys altogether,” adds Kashif Nisar, director and captain of this ship. Established as a name that creates magic on TV, Kashif Nisar is credited with award winning dramas such as Dumpukht - Aatish-e-Ishq, O Rungreza, Ranjha Ranjha Kardi, Inkaar and more recently Raqeeb Se and Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahin.
“We wanted relief from the stereotypical narrative,” he says. “Take Nauman’s character, for example – haven’t we type casted those characters? We add them for comic relief; we ridicule them. Why is mardaangi (masculinity) only seen in muscles? Why is the woman only accepted as a sati savitri? We doubt the intellect of the viewer, I feel. People are feeding on junk because that’s what they’re being fed.
“We’re telling the story of two people and the love between these two people. It’s about relationships and I want to see more men like this. I think Shameem is my hero.”
How challenging was it to portray this hero, though, one wonders. As Kashif Nisar says, we’ve often seen the ‘lesser man’ character on screen but he’s always relegated to comic relief or mockery. It’s very easy for the effeminate man to become a caricature. Kashif explains how important it was to maintain the balance and thus the dignity of the character.
“I had clarity on what I wanted to say but still, creating it was like walking a tight rope,” he says. “Credit goes to Nauman. Our image of Nauman Ijaz is so manly. He’s the conventional, Punjabi mard. Even the characters he plays are always dominant. So, we wanted to challenge him. And he did it effortlessly. He’s daring; he’s a true artist.”
“I had no problem transforming into this character at all,” Nauman laughs off the suggestion. “It is never about changing the appearance. A character has to come from the soul. And Shameem did.”
“For a man like Nauman to play a character like Shameem took a while to get used to. Initially I felt it would be awkward,” Saba shares. “But he was on-point. I would forget my lines when I’d watch him perform.”
Was it any easier playing Umaina?
“It wasn’t easy to play Umi either,” she agrees. “There were too many layers to the character. In the story I initially connect with Umaina – when she is carefree and young – but then she completely shifts. Her relations, decisions, her baggage keeps adding complex layers to her personality. The one constant is Shameem’s love for her; it’s unconditional.
“Umi is a young to old character and it was a challenge to stay in character and keep in continuity,” Saba adds. “This is a character I’ve never done before and I’m dying to see it myself. I’m very critical of my work but I feel I’ve done well. I realized that during the dubbing sessions.”
“I have immense respect for Saba as an artist,” Kashif Nisar adds to the conversation. “The kind of dedication she gives, you’d think it’s her first project. She immerses herself in her work. There was a scene between Saba and Nomi, in which they’re crying. I was so engrossed that I forgot to ‘cut’ it.”
It took over two years to film this series; the Covid-19 pandemic posed the biggest challenge as filming kept going into lockdown. At times the director felt they would lose the magic. But they didn’t and having seen the trailer, it does seem that the 20-episode series has the power to engross. Contrary to first impressions and opposed to the shock value that web series like Churails or Qatil Haseenaon Kay Naam aimed to deliver, there is no shock value here. The only shocking fact is that even today, such a story wouldn’t be acceptable on television.
It’s not just the story but also the treatment and presentation, Kashif adds. He feels the OTT audience – having exposure to so many different kinds of programs – is slightly intellectually more advanced. “It isn’t easy to fool them,” he laughs. “OTT is a tougher medium to work in.”
Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative Officer at Zee Entertainment, is delighted with Mrs & Mr Shameem and the fact that the series came to her. She’s hopeful that the government will realise the potential this content has to help the entertainment industry grow and will lift the blockade. There are 70 OTT channels operating in India, she says, and they have helped content creation in all ways.
“When we presented the idea 13 years ago, no channel was interested in taking it,” concludes Nauman, also delighted that he has finally managed to put the dream together. “Now they’re all interested.”
Maybe Mr. Shameem’s story will headline some sort of change after all.
– Mrs & Mr Shameem will available for streaming on ZEE5 on March 11.