Jackson Heights review: On way to resolution

Updated 27 Aug, 2015 11:47am

Sadaf Siddique

Halfway through the series, we have a fair sense of each of the characters' motivations and back stories

The cast of 'Jackson Heights'
The cast of 'Jackson Heights'

At a little past the halfway point, Jackson Heights has picked up on the story as well as the pacing. Its look at these interwoven lives in the diaspora and tales of hardship in the minute mundane details of living offer a respite from the usual fare of mazloomiat we are fed in the name of dramas.

Jackson Heights is enjoying the novelty of telling well-integrated stories with a seasoned ensemble cast, backed by good writing and solid direction. It also however waxes and wanes presenting complexity of ideas and performances on one hand and one-dimensional sketches on the other.

The part that is smooth sailing, although it is a bumpy ride, has to be the Jamshed-Michelle track. Jamshed (Adeel Husain) has the right amount of easy charm and depth of life experience to make Michelle (Marina Khan) wonder about him. He pays compliments and backtracks with enough ambiguity to keep her (and us) guessing.

With each interaction you see Michelle stand a little taller, see herself a little different, dare to wear brighter colours and even make up. Slow transformations that solidify into a decisive moment for her and here even the pacing is just right.

Adeel Hussain with Marina Khan. - Screenshot from an episode of Jackson Heights
Adeel Hussain with Marina Khan. - Screenshot from an episode of Jackson Heights

Mostly this works also because of the actors playing these roles. Though we suspect Jamshed of less than noble intentions, Adeel Husain injects such believability into his character that we want to be proved otherwise. His initial refusal of Michelle's offers of help and his clever manipulations are subtle and little things such as still wearing Asma’s gift and that heated exchange with Nadir let on to his true feeling and intentions.

Though she has built a wall around herself, Michelle’s steely exterior, actually conceals a softer and an unfortunately gullible person. After so many years of being in a position to truly make a difference to someone's life and feeling wanted as a woman once again, Marina Khan’s internal performance is so revealing of the subtle changes that watching her is a real pleasure.

Also nicely done was that homage to Dhoop Kinarey with Anji’s advice to Zara presented here as Rizwan’s advice to Michelle to “think with your heart”. While this might backfire for Rizwan (again) it is what Michelle needs to hear.

For now, this unlikely couple has stirred things up.

The other hornet’s nest being stirred up is Salma (Aamina Sheikh) and Sikander (Ali Kazmi). They share a complicated relationship with cycles of abuse and periods of calm. Salma is on tenterhooks awaiting that one event that will incite violence. Domestic violence in the desi community is a serious issue that usually gets brushed under the carpet comes as it does with financial dependence, emotional scarring and often denial.

Aamina Sheikh - Screenshot from an episode of Jackson Heights
Aamina Sheikh - Screenshot from an episode of Jackson Heights

Even though Salma is the bread winner, her maternal ties to Iman make her a prisoner of her own hope. Though she has a confidant in her employer Alia, Alia’s (and the audience’s) constant questioning of why Salma just doesn’t get up and leave is too simplistic an understanding of domestic violence. Worse, it shifts the blame unintentionally back to Salma.

Salma’s situation is a realistic portrayal of women stuck in abusive relationships and though she is slowly but surely standing up to Sikander’s demands, she is still trapped. Kudos to writer Vasay Chaudry and director Mehreen Jabbar for giving room for those thorny ideas to prick us a little and explore the complexity of her situation rather than merely dialing 911, packing her bags and thumbing her nose at Tai-ji.

Ali Kazmi, Noman Ijaz and Aamina Sheikh behind the scenes. - Photo courtesy: Dailycitytimes.com
Ali Kazmi, Noman Ijaz and Aamina Sheikh behind the scenes. - Photo courtesy: Dailycitytimes.com

Ali Kazmi as Sikander has that unpredictability in his performance that you are never certain when he is likely to fly off the handle. He even seems genuinely remorseful, making breakfast and buying chocolates even though there is gharelu sazish in the air.

And here is where things take a more expected turn into the land of the zalim shohar and saas tag team. His poker-playing lazy-layabout characterisation and scheming mother neatly box both characters into the bad category with little redeeming features.

As for Aamina Sheikh, maybe it’s just that she is too good looking, but she appears miscast. Her placidity, calm and not a hair out of place don’t lend themselves to a character supposedly on the edge. Whenever she does ‘involuntarily flinch’ you see her acting. Also not helping is her drab clothing and hairstyle (the 1980s called and they want that side plait back).

Imagine seeing her a tad dishevelled, jumpy and raw and later understanding where this nervous energy stems from would have been far more revealing of Salma’s character.

Also lost is a virtual visual playground of images of a woman’s salon. Especially one in Jackson Heights. While there is an attempt at sound design with the fun (often Nazia Hassan) soundtracks they could have so nicely tied into that era that most desi parlours are still stuck in. I still peg this down to their attempt to upscale a working class story.

Finally, playing the western and eastern clash of ideas are Kathy and Imran Bhatti (Noman Ijaz). Kathy is often reduced to a fireball of rage constantly counting her pennies, ignoring her kids and decreeing Imran to cough up his share. Imran also gets annoyed at his wife and stands up to her time and again – often on moral grounds.

Noman Ijaz with Marina Khan. - Photo courtesy: Dramasreview.com
Noman Ijaz with Marina Khan. - Photo courtesy: Dramasreview.com

This is unfortunate as far as representations of desis marrying Americans goes not to mention mere one note depiction of Americans. More often than not these marriages are relationships of mutual respect and cultural understanding. Their underlying green-card marriage is alluded to and seems to be a controlling measure for Kathy and the hidden truth that hurts Imran.

While Kathy’s insecurities of Imran packing his bags and leaving once his green card comes through surface, perhaps a more nuanced depiction of their marriage (not to mention a stronger actor in Kathy) would have lent some credibility to her fears. Right now she too is boxed into the bad/serves her right category.

Halfway through the series we have a fair sense of each of the characters' motivations and back stories and see all of them beginning to come full circle. While there were tantalising hints of exploring other issues that working class desis face, I think it is safe to say at this point that they were merely that – hints and nothing more.

The seasoned ensemble cast of 'Jackson Heights'
The seasoned ensemble cast of 'Jackson Heights'

As far as resolution goes, let’s hope that each character is able to come to peace with their decisions and that it ends well for all of us involved.


Sadaf Siddique is freelance writer, drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen not necessarily in that order.