From the very first scene of the mega serial Mor Mahal, we are ushered into a historical time that is as cruel as it is glamourous: there's a brutal hanging overseen by Nawab Asif Jahan (Umair Jaswal) in his military escapade, and it's so matter of fact and mundane, the dullness the Nawab's eyes is so apparent, that it's clear he's done this many times before.
With the urgency of war and matters of the state settled, we're shown that Nawab Asif Jahan begins his journey back home to Mor Mahal. The Mahal itself is a buzz with the anticipation of his arrival. News travels fast within the harem — servants, maids, ladies-in-waiting and guards who are often eunuchs form an extensive network of news and gossip, where information is currency. We are introduced to multiple characters, their motivations as well as the masters they serve in an organic manner.
Badshah Begum (Hina Bayat), the Nawab’s mother, hopes the Nawab will consummate his marriage of state with MeherBano (Sonia Nazir) after his long absence. This marriage of convenience was arranged under duress by Badshah Begum, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by either the Nawab or his newest wife.
Meherbano, still reeling from the shock of being coerced into this marriage is unwilling to forgo her earlier love. She refuses all and any overtures to play the blushing bride and plots her escape, leaving her unwilling yet relenting kaneez, Banki (Kinza Hashmi) in her stead.
Meanwhile the Nawab’s other two wives await his arrival as well. His first wife, Wazir Begum Farroukh Zad (Meesha Shafi) is the Nawab’s beloved and she wastes no time in preparing for his imminent arrival dressed in a splendor of jewels, brocades and ornate headgear. His heavily pregnant second wife Surraya (Fizza Ali) in her insecurity has taken to taweez and dum ka paani in the hopes of gaining favour with the Nawab.
This is what we know so far: the Nawab (Umair Jaswal) has three wives. He loves first wife Wazir Begum Farroukh Zad (Meesha Shafi) best, second wife Surraya (Fizza Ali) is currently pregnant and his third marriage to MeherBano (Sonia Nazir) is a marriage of convenience.
As far as first episodes go, this one does a great job of introducing all the characters as well the multiple hierarchies within the harem. Writer Sarmad Sehbai has added a poetic touch to the literary dialogues. While this form of idiomatic Urdu hasn’t been heard on our TV screens in a long time, it serves to set the drama in a historical context and feels very much of that era.
The rhyming rhythms of the eunuch’s speak, the ingratiating tones of the kaneezes, the imperiousness of Badshah Begum and the lush flourishes of Nawab Jahan’s conversation with MeherBano are all steeped in a rich literary tradition.
Beautifully shot and exquisitely styled, the drama is a step back in time to a world of riches, glamour as well as the machinations of power. Ostensibly a fantasy-drama, it still draws extensively from Mughal influences with touches of Egyptian, Greece and Turkish influences. The judicious yet novel use of song and dance also gave cultural flavor to the drama and looks like we are in for at least 25 other thumris in this drama!
Umair Jaswal’s TV debut as Nawab Asif Jahan is remarkable. He imbibes his looks and speech with authority, which reflects his stature as king. Meesha Shafi too, impresses with her confidence and poise.
For now, everything is flush with a touch of royalty, though one has to wonder if some of the clothes and designs were too costume-y.
Director Sarmad Khoosat (Humsafar, Seher-e-Zaat) has a knack for telling stories with great emotional depth. Here too, you can see that he uses visuals to tell the story. For instance, Wazir Begum’s ornateness directly contrasts with the simplicity of Banki’s beauty. The thematic use of the colour red throughout the episode too - in the blood, the flag of the Sultanate, the urusi dupatta, and the production design melds nicely with the narrative. He doesn’t overdo the symbolism nor does he veer towards melodrama, at least not yet.
Khoosat also manages to get remarkable performances even from first-time actors. This is Umair Jaswal’s TV debut as Nawab Asif Jahan and his body language and enunciation is remarkable. He imbibes his looks and speech with authority, which reflects his stature as king. Meesha Shafi too, impressed with her confidence and poise. She also stood tall in clothes that looked like they would swallow her whole.
However, a niggling question remains. With so much emphasis on love triangles and love interests and jealousy and what not, is its historical setting the only thing that separates Mor Mahal from mainstream dramas?
The entire cast is a refreshing ensemble of amateurs, professionals, theatre and TV actors who are all making their marks in roles big or small. The other stand outs include Ali Saleem, Kinza Hashmi and Jana Malik.
This episode ended on an ominous note; there are hints that trickery and deceit will follow. As Banki noted, “Yahan jis kisi ne apne aap ko pehchan liya who is janat se likala gaya” (Whoever seeks to assert oneself is banished from this kingdom).
Still this is just the beginning of a 45-plus episode mega-serial and whether Mor Mahal can maintain its pacing and plot intrigue remains to be seen. The one niggling suspicion that I can’t seem to put to rest is this entire blame of the Nawab’s vulnerability lies on the shoulders of ‘scheming womenfolk in his harem’.
We've all seen the parade of saazishi saas's, manipulating wives and majboor shohars on our TV screens. Granted none of them toppled a kingdom, but is it only the setting then that differentiates Mor Mahal from the current crop of dramas?
Good Pakistani dramas excel at the examining the domestic sphere and human relations. They still however struggle to show a life outside of that sphere. Mor Mahal revolves around a kingdom so one hopes that future episodes will examine more fully the lives of rulers.
For now we can bask in the warm glow of candles casting both light and shadows. Stay tuned, it looks like it is going to be one heck of trip back in time.
Sadaf Siddique is a freelance writer, avid reader, film and drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen, not necessarily in that order.