Why Mor Mahal is proving to be a hard sell to Pakistani audiences
Mor Mahal, the fantasy drama set in pre-industrial times, takes us back in time to the kingdom of Jahanabad and introduces us to the lives and intrigues of the royal palace.
The first episode had all the makings of a classic tale with elements of grand splendour as well as political machinations within the harem to gain favour, control and sometimes just the upper hand.
First, a recap
For those who came in late, the theatrical end of the first episode with Farrukh Zad (Meesha Shafi), the Nawab’s first wife, consuming poison turned out to be a ploy to keep him from his new wife. While the Nawab (Umair Jaswal) offers his ministrations to her, his newest betrothed Meherbano (Sonia Nazir) risks her life in trying to leave the palace grounds instead of serving as a pawn in this marriage of state.
In Meherbano's attempt to escape, we are introduced to the nether regions of the palace with its own hidden pathways, dark secrets and mysteries. The tehkhana and the cemetery where she runs into Badshah Begum’s favoured practitioner of the black arts Akhtari Begum (Sania Saeed), all hint at the hidden, criminal underpinnings of the kingdom. One where loyalty is rewarded and any sign of dissent is met with that imperious refrain, “Off with their heads”.
This access to the dungeons also proves to be her undoing. Meherbano is unwittingly privy to Nawab Asif Jahan’s discussions with his Commander-in-Chief Dilawar Khan as the echoes of their speech reach down the sinuous corridors of the underground dungeon. The heir apparent to the throne seems to be the most pressing matter, with his Commander advising the Nawab to cast favour upon his pregnant second wife Suraiya Begum (Fiza Ali).
The conferring of such an honour sends the harem into a tizzy, with Farrukh Zad gunning for her son Prince Taimur to take the throne and Badshah Begum hoping to halt her son’s intentions by coercing her younger son Prince Shujaat to come out of his stupor of aiyashi to take on the hukummat. The prince, however, has other pursuits on his mind.
In Jahanabad, nothing is as it seems...
At this sixth installment, new characters and deceptions are introduced, which darkens the outlines of their backstories.
Prince Shujaat, played fairly languidly by Shah Fahad, is a charming rake interested in all the indulgences a royal palace can offer. Even Badshah Begum isn’t immune to his charms. Though she chides him, she gently concedes, ‘Dil bhar jaye toh aa jana, hum thumare muntisir raheinge. (When you've had your fill, come my way. I will wait for you.)
Even the earlier introduced characters don’t seem to be who we thought they were. Nawab Asif Jahan may love his first wife, but doesn’t trust her with his life or the kingdom. And he isn't quite the honourable king who gave his pregnant mistress a place of honour. The appearance of the jowari merchant sheds light on how Suraiya actually became his Begum. With this revelation, Suriya’s insecurities assume a deeper shade of helplessness.
The revelation of Asif Jahan’s other spies in the harem was definitely a surprising twist. The King has his own vices, whether justified by a need to control information and power, or maybe just his pleasure. He is as apt at playing the field as he is the game of chess. His shrewd scheming, winning a woman as gambling debt, a cemetery strewn with corpses of dead shehzadis who dared to escape hint at a temperament similar to King Shahryar of One Thousand and One Nights, and not only because every episode ends with a cliffhanger.
A masterful tale
The strength of Mor Mahal lies in writer Sarmad Sehbai's weaving of a masterful tale. Each episode unfolds like complex origami, with each fold forming the foundation of things to come. The echoes in the tehkhana, the appearance of the jowari, the lies and deception now brought out in the half-light and the continued importance of the urrusi dupatta interweave the different strands of the story strengthening the narrative.
For once, we have a drama that is rooted in our history. Framing techniques from ancient texts and Egyptian romances and plot devices like mistaken identity allow the story to feel authentic to those times.
The conversational styles of the harem members and the royal family's taunts are stylized ways of showcasing contempt. The symbolic use of poison, food testers, the dead cat, the empty cradle are all ingenious ways to convey the characters' real intent and make for great visual storytelling.
So then why isn’t the audience hooked?
Complaints about wooden acting, overacting, anachronistic props, lack of lighting get more mileage than the storytelling. It's true that writer Sarmad Sehbai has little regard for how his work gets accepted (or not) by audiences but some of the problem does lies in Mor Mahal's lack of accessibility – the language is archaic, there is no central romance and the audience is unable to relate to the characters.
I feel the acting isn't wooden, it's unaffected. Audiences aren't just used to such performances. For me, a king that exudes gravitas without reducing it to Shehenshah-esque mannerisms is refreshing. Though with dialogues threatening ‘deewar mein chunwa diye jaaoge’ (I'll have you walled in alive), maybe Nawab Asif Jahan's character will take a grave turn.
Mor Mahal falters in its pacing. For audiences used to more contemporary narratives, the distance of time and place is hard to overcome, something director Sarmad Khoosat needs to take into account. This slow pacing distracts viewers and gives them ample time to Google ‘wrought iron in ancient times’ and then complain about the candle stands.
For all the grumblings about dark interiors, when was the last time you saw a tehkhana with strobe lighting? The lighting in that scene as well as the menacing crocodiles was a perfect reminder of a crueler time when people were thrown to the dungeons with regularity. The threat of such a fate was enough for Meherbano to reveal her true identity.
As for them missing central romance, the entrance of Prince Taimur (Umer Naru) hopefully will fill in that gap and give the viewers a couple to root for.
Where Mor Mahal does falter is in its pacing. For audiences used to more contemporary narratives, the distance of time and place is proving to be hard to overcome, something director Sarmad Khoosat needs to take into account. This slow pacing distracts viewers and gives them ample time to Google ‘wrought iron in ancient times’ and then complain about the candle stands.
The audience already has to travel the distance of time to enter the royal realm and believe in their lives. That we are all emotionally distanced and can’t relate to any of the characters too is keeping audiences at bay. So far, the only human character seems to be Shola Jaan (Ali Saleem) whose desire for the urrusi dupatta and playfulness with it made you actually connect with him.
But then again, audiences are just proving that they like to cry foul at the hash they are served but will only continue to watch it. Horse to water and all that.
Aakhir mein, jaan ki aman paon toh kuch arz karon:
Speed up the pacing with sharper edits that bring the threads of 45 episodes closer to 25 will give the whole drama an aspect of a thriller - one that marries fiction, tradition and fantasy into one riveting package.
You even have crocodiles. Now make them bite.
Sadaf Siddique is a freelance writer, avid reader, film and drama enthusiast and sometime drama queen, not necessarily in that order.