The queen, a crowned, bejeweled Meesha Shafi, stares you in the eye haughtily. From the set of her elaborately ornamented shoulders to her pursed scarlet-painted lips, she exudes power; visceral, vicious and deadly.
Conceptualized by Imran Aslam, scripted by Sarmad Sehbai and directed by Sarmad Khoosat, Mor Mahal may be yet to air on Geo TV but its initial teasers symbolize the fantastical realms it means to traverse.
There are definite hints of grandeur, of an epic journey dating back to many centuries ago, of twists and turns replete with magic, mystery, romance and its malevolent counterpart, revenge. Umair Jaswal is Nawab Asif Jahan, resplendent in royal hues, jewellery sits with a glistening sword and shield at hand.
As his wife, Wazir Begum, Meesha is the strikingly beautiful leading lady.
For fashion aficionados, Meesha’s powerful first images also bring someone else to mind: Ali Xeeshan. He’s the firecracker designer from Lahore with a taste for festive drama, a predilection for the ostentatious and a prowess over craft, color and structure.
Who better than him to depict the many shades to Meesha’s mercurial queen? The makers of Mor Mahal thought so too.
“We’re all fans of Ali’s work and Meesha especially wanted him to design her costumes,” explains Sarmad Khoosat. “It’s a drama that extends over 40 episodes and as one of the central characters, Meesha required an extensive wardrobe. Sehbai sahib, the scriptwriter, is definitely the creative force behind Mor Mahal and all the designers on-board, including Ali, would send sketches to him which would often get rejected. Then, new versions would have to be sketched out."
He adds: "Ali has created all the head-gear used by the various characters and at one point in time, he even volunteered to design the entire wardrobe for the series. We just felt that it would be too much of a burden for a mainstream designer to take on.
Of course, anybody familiar with Ali Xeeshan’s signature knows that designing the ornate costumery of Mor Mahal was a job right up his alley.
“The catwalk is often too small a platform for me,” smiles the designer, who prefers making vivacious statements to toeing commercial lines. "Mor Mahal allowed me creative freedom to delve into fantasy and embellishment. Meesha has a pivotal character and there are so many nuances to her personality. I have modulated color palettes to suit her moods; dark shades for when she is aggressive, brighter ones for times of celebration.”
“There is a lot of ‘jashan’ in Mor Mahal,” he continues, “celebrations for shab-e-baraat, for a child’s birth and so on. The image of Meesha in the drama’s first poster is from a very grand celebration and we wanted her to look distinctively over-the-top. She’s wearing a turban encrusted with jewels and a Shanghai canary-yellow gown that looks a bit Oriental. I also etched a white tattoo around her eyes.”
Mor Mahal is essentially rooted in fantasy and deliberate efforts have been made to disassociate it from any one culture or design ethos. “We’ve merged different elements together; Mughal motifs with Hindu, Greek, Turkish and Oriental inspirations,” describes Ali.
“Some of the outfits have been worked with sacha gota to give a vintage feel and I created an assortment of separates that could be mixed and matched to create new looks. The silhouettes also vary, never distinctly resembling any one culture.”
“There is also a marked difference in the wardrobe Meesha wears within her harem and what she wears outside. In her private quarters, her garments are free-flowing and organic. Outdoors, she covers her face with veils but her garments are very structured and striking,” says the designer.
Shoulder-pads are added to give Meesha authority, an intricate crown with 30 different appendages lend her an imperialistic countenance and feather detailings, heavily-bordered veils, high-collars and a complex mix of bling and matte textures add a surreal air – the fantasy queen holding court in an enchanted mythical world.
One doesn’t have to see the wardrobe in its entirety – although we’re looking forward to it – to know that it’s going to dive deep into flamboyant, fanciful fashion.
After all, a host of very illustrious, creative names is at its helm: Sarmad Khoosat, with his obsessive eye for detailing, Meesha Shafi, with her innate style and Ali Xeeshan, the designer with a wild, enthralling streak.
“Farrukh Zaad, aka Wazir Begum, is someone who uses glamour and grandeur to her advantage. Her adornments establish her power and influence and she is well aware of this,” observes Meesha.
“Sarmad and I both agreed that Ali Xeeshan would be the perfect choice to create the young queen’s costumes. He is a real showman and completely understands what ‘larger than life’ looks like. He is also an unapologetic risk-taker which is exactly what we needed,” she continues.
“The challenge was to create attire that had volume and movement and would not restrict my performance. The costumes had to be an extension of my body. They had to complement and enhance my character rather than consume it,” she says. “The great thing about Mor Mahal was that Sarmad Khoosat allowed us so much room to play. Neither the actors nor the art directors or costume designers had limitations when it came to influences.”
In Pakistan, TV dramas have long reached far and wide, establishing style icons and starting off trends. Ali’s creative splurge in a drama as highly-anticipated as Mor Mahal may just boil down to business, allowing him to reach to masses that may not enjoy the anglicized exclusivity of a fashion week but who enjoy getting lost in the splendor of an epic gala.
It could also be exactly what fashion needs right now: creativity rather than mere marketability, and fashion for the love of it — edgy, out-of-the-box, deliciously grandiose.