Mawra Hocane's Sammi is a slow unravelling of one of Pakistan's darkest truths
Hum TV’s new drama Sammi starts off with a bang, turning what should have been the beginning of a fairytale romance into a nightmare scenario of tragedy and loss.
After Rehaai and the recent hit Udaari, Sammi is another Hum TV serial about female empowerment. The channel has found a new partner in John Hopkins University for this project. The TV serial also marks the return of one of Pakistan’s most eminent writers, Noor ul Huda Shah, from channel executive to drama writing.
Sammi opens on the eve of Sammi (Mawra Hocane) and Pervez's mehndi. In the middle of the celebrations, Pervez is shockingly killed by Sammi's brother Waqas over an argument about Sammi's haq meher. And Sammi ultimately has to pay for Waqas's crime.
Not only will Sammi shed light on social customs like vani (or exchange brides) but also on how women are forced to continuously bear children till they produce a son. The author has said in a recent interview for Hum TV that her story will show the psychological effects of this preference for male heirs on daughters who are considered 'duds' till a child of the desired male gender is born, as well as the financial strains and the health risks faced by mothers and children.
Sammi opens on the eve of Sammi Jutt's (Mawra Hocane) mehndi/nikkah. She is marrying Pervez (Mirza Baig), a friend of her older brother Waqas Jutt (Haris Waheed) and is excited about her nuptials. But her happiness is short-lived. In the middle of her mehendi celebrations, her would-be groom is shockingly killed by Waqas over an argument about Sammi's haq meher (a gift given as a mark of respect to the wife at the time of marriage by the husband). And Sammi ultimately has to pay for her brother's crime.
The events are made even more shocking by the fact that it’s clear that Sammi idolises her brother, and in his own way he is kind to her. He is an obvious foil to her manipulative and greedy father Riaz Jutt played with relish by the incredible Irfan Khoosat, a father who refuses to attend the Nikkah unless his son demands a hefty meher from the wealthy Chaudhry family.
There is a battle of wills raging behind all the negotiations: who 'owns' Sammi? Is it her brother who would marry her off without consulting her (if it wasn't for the groom’s insistence on her consent), or is it her father who feels it’s a matter of prestige to extort money from the groom's side?
Sammi’s value is ultimately decided by a twist of fate as the innocent girl pays for her father’s avarice and her brother’s hot temper. Chaudhry Nawaz Baksh (Rehan Sheikh), uncle to the slain groom and a powerful man in their village, demands that the Jutt family give Sammi to the groom’s father Paa Fazal (Noor ul Hassan) as compensation for his son's murder. Sammi is thus a vani or exchange bride.
How effective is Sammi's treatment of its tricky themes?
Such stories are familiar news headlines and a sad illustration of the way women are used as commodities to pay off debts and resolve feuds between men in such rural societies.
Despite having the same director (Saife Hassan), Sammi neither has the raw, restrained authenticity of Sange Mar Mar (another Hum TV serial dealing with this issue) nor does its characters jump out to make the instant connection with the audience like those in Udaari did. This is a very different serial and so far there is no attempt at addressing the root causes of practices such as vani or the pressure to bear a male child.
The preference for male children is not just historical or an arbitrary whim, it is about economic survival for many. Hopefully writer Noor ul Huda Shah will address these issues in later episodes. However, one point on which Shah should be congratulated is the eloquent way she has pointed out the importance of true consent for a Nikkah to be valid, an important fact that is often brushed aside.
The strangest part of this story is the complete lack of feeling for Sammi from either her father or mother. In episode two, her mother is heard congratulating herself for winning back her murderous son and declaring she would sacrifice seven more daughters for him if need be. The lack of nuance made their abandonment seem contrived and hollow.
Parents in such cases are often forced into compliance by the jirga or local council, and yet these two don’t seem to care about what happens to their daughter, whether she is raped, murdered or sold into slavery. While a mother may be happy to save her son, the lack of regret or reflection made both parents look cartoonish and implausible, detracting from an otherwise compelling story.
Actors keep Sammi watchable
What might be this serial's strongest recommendations are the solid performances by the actors. Though a little filmi in parts, both Mawra Hocane and Noor ul Hassan give the audience convincing portrayals of the shock and misery suffered by their characters, especially in episode two.
Humera Ali is fantastic as the mother so deranged with grief; she throws all convention aside and eventually manages to infuse her gentle husband with the courage his son’s death leeched out of him. There were also some good performances from Madiha Rizvi, Rehan Sheikh, and Seemi Raheel.
Adnan Siddiqui gives the opening shots in what promises to be a memorable performance as the Chaudhry’s enforcer and loyal retainer Rashid, who is married to Salima, played by Saman Ansari.
Salima conveys all the pain and misery that women are obliged to endure for an unending cycle of pregnancies till they bear a son. Salima and Rashid’s relationship and Salima’s dynamic with their eldest daughter -- robbed of her childhood, forced to take care for an unending line of siblings -- were some of most engaging parts of the story.
Another standout was Haris Waheed who is definitely an actor to watch out for. His portrayal of the ignorant, confused, weak brother Waqas Jutt was one of the anchors of the show. Mirza Baig’s guest appearance as the more progressive and kind Pervez also provided a fine contrast to the regressive Waqas. According to the promos, the cast will also include Sania Saeed and the exciting addition of fresh new face; Ahad Mir, son of iconic actor and perennial favourite Asif Raza Mir.
Overall, Sammi has gotten off to a good start, capturing the audience’s interest from the first episode and not wasting time on a winding build-up to the pivotal events. This serial has all the potential of being an entertaining and compelling watch for viewers if it can achieve the nuance and layered storytelling that makes social commentary such a popular genre among Pakistani drama audiences.