For Sarmad Sehbai, films like Mah e Mir seek to subvert Pakistan's contempt for itself
Sarmad Sehbai's oeuvre as poet, author, playwright, and scriptwriter has always reflected the intersection of art, culture and literature.
As writer of two of the most anticipated works of the year– the film Mah e Mir and the drama series Mor Mahal, he has us enthralled with dialogues of substance.
Along with mega serial Mor Mahal as well as the newly-released movie, Mah e Mir, we see his imprint on our cultural landscape more visible than ever.
We spoke to him recently and tried to uncover the creative process behind these fascinating projects and emerged with a rediscovery of our traditional poetry, literature and music.
The creative spark
Sarmad Sehbai reminisces about what led to him writing these projects: Mah e Mir oscillates between the past and the present while Mor Mahal is set in a mythic past. When he began reading about the pre-colonial period, he came across Macaulay’s (a British politician in the 1800s) letters, where he says... "we have to convince the natives to look down upon their own culture. Consider it low, passé, dated and static.”
Orientalists began propagating stereotypes and exotica of the East — such as jungle boys, saboos and Mowgli. This began to taint the Urdu literary tradition as exotic but very exaggerated. “In my view they couldn’t understand the whole symbology of literature of this part of the world” he explains.
Though some attempts were made to fight modernity by some poets and writers, he believes that had nothing to do with the culture. Sehbai claims that the idea to portray Mah e Mir and Mor Mahal, is an answer to this orientalist view. “I want to make them alive, in the present,” he says.
On Mah e Mir
Mah-e-Mir's trailers have been tantalizing audiences since 2014. The making of the film has been a long drawn out process beset with funding and technical concerns delaying the final release. The film is finally out now, with its Karachi premiere held just yesterday.
To me, he says, “Mah e Mir is literature on screen” and while the dialogues seem like they are unusual, he believes people will understand them. We couldn’t agree more as his dialogue in Mah-e-Mir, “Hum yeh tau nahin kehtey kay ghalib kehta tha ya Mir kehta tha, hum tau kehtey hain, Mir kehta hai” (translation: We never say that Ghalib used to say or Mir used to say, we say Ghalib says, Mir says) reflects Mir’s historical presence that is still relevant today.
Sehbai hopes that the audiences can embrace the rich nuances, brilliant philosophies, and feel the pleasure, beauty and elegance of that time alive in the present.
Sarmad believes the tragedy is that our own elite, the intelligentsia, behave like orientalists. “Therefore,” he claims, “we have not been able to produce any brilliant period play."
“I am not interested in Mir ghareeb tha, unki bachi mar gayi.. (that he was poor or that his child died) everyone goes through that kind of suffering. This is about his vaishiayat, his madness. I am not interested in historical characters per se, I get inspired by what they do, what they think, what they do. Kisi ke andar kya hai, (what is inside someone) that fascinates me,” he elucidates.
The film is about poetry, ek khaifiat hai (a feeling), it is a film of moods. “There is no traditional story here, there is no plotting intrigue, it is quite opposite to Mor Mahal” he admits.
On Mor Mahal
Mor Mahal is a power play with different archetypal male and female figures — how they control and destroy along with the beauty and elegance of the time. He wrote it 10 years ago, when Indian programming had invaded TV through Star Plus.
“Indians have their mythology behind their soap operas and the channels were really intimidated. Like they were intimidated by (the Turkish drama) Mera Sultan,” he remembers. At a meeting, Sehbai advised them not to look at India because India owns their traditions and culture.
“But we didn’t own Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh whose Parikhana , a cultural institution, has turned into Bollywood today. His whole contribution towards literature, towards music is amazing and we discard him as a eunuch and a dancing king,” he says.
The tragedy, he believes, is that our own elite, the intelligentsia who behave like the orientalists. Even now they look at these things as exotic, static, dead. “Therefore,” he claims, “we have not been able to produce any brilliant period play.”
Everything he maintains is reduced to stereotypes. Mir is remembered as a poet of melancholy, Ghalib is portrayed as with ‘a tea cozy bigger than his head’ while Ranjha constantly ‘has a flute struck to his mouth’.
Of Mor Mahal, Sarmad says, "it is a fantasy in that it is not anchored or situated in a particular period. This is how I define the period,” he clarifies.
Even the refined courtesan culture was reduced to women harlots rather than being independent women. Their poetry was steeped in the historical context and political context of the time and touched on many things. There is eroticism in Mir, and there are many other things in Mir.
Is that why Mor Mahal has Mughal influences?
“We can’t reproduce an era or a period. I also worked as creative consultant and in the design I didn’t want Mughal turbans and exact Mughal libaas, dress or design. I thought that there was a lot of influence from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, from different civilizations. So we designed things with those influences” he states.
“Sarmad Khoosat, the director, says it is a fantasy but to me is just pre-industrial. It is a fantasy in that it is not anchored or situated in a particular period. This is how I define the period,” he clarifies.
Sarmad on... Sarmad
Sarmad Sehbai hasn’t held back his ire at the interpretation of his works by many TV directors, but he was impressed with Sarmad Khoosat’s interpretation of his play, Jal Pari.
“It is true that my scripts are not very well interpreted and the nuances are missing. They just try to reduce everything to a straight story. We had extensive discussions between Sarmad and myself and I worked with the whole crew for about three months” he reflects.
The team created an understanding of how the story should be approached and what it should look like. Mor Mahal has 25 thumris — the female style of signing based on an understanding of the soul of the music of those times and then making it more contemporary.
Earlier promos of Mor Mahal though powerful were a little cryptic. The newer promos, seem to be veering towards the commercial and hint at a daytime soap style. Was this done to attract audiences or it that style the essence of Mor Mahal?
Sehbai dismisses these concerns as marketing attempts, “The market can create glamour and gloss and attract the audience but then there is a feel of the glamour, which has tremendous relevance and is linked with the whole thematic center of the serial,” he says.
Central themes in Mor Mahal
The concept revolves around the intrigues of the palace called the Peacock Palace - Mor Mahal. The title too is deliberate he reveals, “A peacock is very beautiful but the feet of the peacock are very ugly so when he looks at the feet, he cries.”
Under the peacock palace is a dungeon, a horrifying world. Where there is glamour and beauty there is also a haunting shadow. “The peacock, the beauty, the glamour, the whole razzle-dazzle and underneath, is the horror” he says.
Sehbai sahib had us at horror. He elaborates that the dark side exists from the beginning. However, promoting your work is another matter. He alludes to the film Bol where Hakim the main character is not projected in the posters, it is the girls. Similarly in Mah e Mir, the courtesan is given prominence.
Did he then try and subvert all that in some way?
“When you can’t confront, you subvert. Subversion is very invisible” he says, intriguing us. Despite the time period Mor Mahal is set in, he believes that in the thematic juxtaposition through adulteries, power plays and hierarchies will reflect the modern world.
Nawabs and actors
Political leaders of the time were kings, politicians, administrators and the serial hopes to explore the power structures and lives of these rulers. With over 45 episodes, airing both on Geo and PTV, Mor Mahal is slated to run for over a year.
The casting of the serial too has a mix of old, new, theatre and TV actors, the only criteria being that the actors could understand and interpret their characters. The whole cast had many rehearsals and workshops with experts to perfect their mannerisms and speech.
“Many of the actors couldn’t understand the language as it is not very simple. It is very loaded, with lots of literary flavor and is extremely poetic,” he elucidates. Language too, is part of the design, and speaking with idiomatic flair was the way people spoke in that era.
With these two diametrically opposite works how does Sarmad Sehbai think people will receive his work?
He concurs that Mor Mahal is written like Alif Laila and in the tradition of old Egyptian romances which is very different technique from Mah e Mir. Mah-e-Mir too doesn’t confirm to ideas of mainstream cinema but as to how people will respond, “I have no idea because ye kala ilm hai. Film is a kala ilm (film is a black art),” he reflects.
Though initially reticent at making a film about Mir, Sehbai says his friend and producer Badar Ikram convinced him to change his mind. Any success of the film would be the success of Pakistani cinema, a new way for people to think, he claims.
Pakistani cinema needs to grow to accommodate every vision – from commercial projects to comedies as well as films that challenge audiences.
Sarmad Sehbai agrees: “The audience is taken for granted by these marketers. That’s the tragedy. because they underestimate the audience. They don’t know the audience has changed.” While he isn’t dismissive of song and dance formulas he hopes that audiences can explore worlds beyond that.
“People enjoy these films and then forget but something has to stay with you when you leave the cinema. You have to have something that remains with you for quite some time."
What are his inspirations?
What inspires him to keep to make these alternative films?
If someone approaches with an idea that inspires him, he works on it. Sehbai hopes to create a tribe of people interested in the intersection of art, literature and culture to come together and exchange ideas.
“Let’s change the aesthetics of cinema and television, change how we look at things, expose people to something different, warna kya fayda (otherwise what's the point)?” he asks.
We couldn’t agree more. We look forward to seeing Sarmad Sehbai’s works on both the big and small screen. Here’s to grand openings as well as opening a few closed minds.
Sadaf Haider and Sadaf Siddique are pearls of a pod, fellow freelance writers and drama buffs. Find more at sadafsays.com