Mah i Mir is an unlikely blockbuster, and its writer Sarmad Sehbai knows.
Directed by Anjum Shahzad, this is a film that follows poet and columnist Jamal (Fahad Mustafa) as he navigates the increasingly commercialised world of publishing and the larger media sphere, refusing all the while to compromise his integrity as a writer in the face of pressure to produce more saleable content.
Jamal loses his regular writing job as a newspaper columnist when he sends in a critical piece about his very influential literary rival Naina Kanwal (Sanam Saeed) on the same day that her interview is being printed on his own publication's cover.
Subsequently, Jamal is unable to find work, as no employer is able to appreciate his literary ideals. So, he finds the time to write poetry - and in a new style, inspired by a chance encounter with a fellow poet (Iman Ali) whom he falls in love with at first sight.
He is eventually lifted out of his difficult circumstances when a leading scholar Dr Kaleem (Manzar Sehbai) offers him a handsome advance for a collection of his poems. Dr Kaleem departs after gifting Jamal his latest work, "50 pages on the madness of Mir".
After long regarding Mir as a dated or irrelevant poet, Jamal finally delves into his work, and discovers many parallels between Mir's predicament and his own.
This is how Jamal's story intersects with Mir's.
Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) was an 18th century Urdu poet, whose ghazals and masnavis elevated him to superstar status. Born in Agra, India, he lived his creative life in Delhi and Lucknow, where he was a regular in the courts. His most famous works are the love-themed Kulliyat-e-Mir and Mu'amlat-e-Ishq. Nearing the end of his life, he had a falling out with his royal patrons.
Just as Mir grew to spurn the court's opulence to write and recite for the common people, Jamal refuses to pander to the demands of what sells.
And so Mah e Mir is a film about obsession, about pursuing your passion, about hearing (and listening to) your inner voice, about staying true to the purest, most honest part of yourself while society around you brays at the gall of your non-conformity.
The making of this film itself embodies this central theme.
After a lengthy four-year production and several delays in release, the highly awaited Mah e Mir emerged as anything but conventional cinematic fare.
It was initially thought to be a neatly packaged biopic of Mir. But instead of staying rooted to the somewhat obscure facts of his life, writer Sehbai imagines the poet's famed 'madness' and isolation and relates it to the woes of the modern-day artist or writer, who is weary of an increasing demand for easily digestible, mainstream art.
The film is thus framed as a damning comment on the commercialisation of the arts and its criticism.
As Jamal entreats his publisher to not underestimate readers, he brings to mind current-day film producers who do the same.
As he lambasts his editor for replacing his column with a fashion report, he brings to mind the dumbing down of content on TV and in print.
As he's advised to switch to novels from poetry, he brings to mind a sweeping preference for the tried-and-tested and a disdain for new (or old) ideas and experiments.
As his fate is determined by those who hold the pursestrings, he brings to mind the commercial interests that dominate the arts.
This makes Mah i Mir a rather prescient work that anticipates its every challenge in the box office, yet refuses to pander to what sells.
With a dialogue-heavy script in archaic Urdu, a two-track story that audience may struggle to grasp, a mostly restrained romance and a deeply philosophical slant, the film has relied solely on the star power of Fahad Mustafa and Iman Ali to draw in the crowds. It may work, but the crowd may not stay. The two-and-a-half hour film tested the patience of its audience on the first day of the film's screening, as significant numbers left the halls at various points of the film.
Many people may not care about the enduring relevance of Mir, but it's a message that Sarmad Sehbai is bent on imparting. In an earlier interview, he talks about how Pakistan has learned to look down on its heritage. Through Mah e Mir, Sehbai is both reclaiming our history, and insisting on not catering to our unfortunately acquired taste for Hollywood and Bollywood formula films.
In a key moment in Mah e Mir, Dr Kaleem, on handing Jamal a set of Mir's poetry, tells him: “You can’t drive without a rearview mirror.” The rest of the film drives this point home; we need to learn from our past mistakes, we need to retain elements of our culture that made us who we are even as we take steps forward. Jamal is able to realise his poetic potential after he stops resisting the old masters and discovering his parallels with Mir’s 'madness'. He is able to do this despite his non-conformity with the standards of the publishing world.
In short, Sarmad Sehbai has told the story he wished to tell, and acknowledged that it won’t please the crowds.
But in doing so, I hope the very important message — that commercial or monetary concerns shouldn't trump important artistic traditions or considerations — isn't lost.