As the whistle blows and the train pulls off the platform at Lahore station, the jolt and rhythmic lulling of the train sets into motion the mirrored lives of the seven women bundled together in the women’s compartment.
Akhri Station, the seven-episode mini-series produced by Kashf Foundation, frames the journey as part of the narrative through inspired stories of real women and the unfair burden they must bear.
Having previously leveraged drama as a medium to question societal issues such as sexual assault (Udaari) and child marriage (Rehaai), Kashf Foundation has roped in strong writers and directors who offer more than just social commentary. Here too, writer Amna Mufti (of Ullu Baraye Farokht Nahi fame) and director Sarmad Khoosat (currently both on and behind the screen in Manto) take on taboo and hard hitting subjects. If the first episode is anything to go by, the audience is likely to be sucker punched at least six more times.
With lovely vérité shots of bustling railway platforms, Tehmina (Sanam Saeed, traveling exceedingly light for such a long trip) makes her way to her seat and tries to initiate friendly conversation with her travel companions, only to be met with more suspicion than smiles.
The story shifts into high gear through the introduction of the smallest of details. Furiously chipping away at the electric blue polish on her fingernails, Yasmin (Eman Suleman) seeks to scour more than just paint on the surface; she is trying to erase the suffocating memory of betrayal. Her impoverished life in androon shehar back alleys of old Lahore showcase her, and by extension other, bleak poverty-ridden lives where children are lulled to sleep on an empty stomach. Her husband Waqar’s (Adnan Sarwar) addiction to gambling have laid bare the house of any possessions and he sells the last of his wife’s jewellery to feed his addiction.
Having exhausted even that amount, Amna Mufti then pushes the script into darker territory. The husband's fellow ruffians encourage to him to see his wife as his personal property that they are willing to pay a price for. Egged on by their monetary promise and devoid of a single shred of decency, he forces his wife into prostitution.
Director Sarmad Khoosat shoots this entire episode as a build-up to a thriller. The blinking red lights of the billboard, the bare ramshackle house, leading up to the moment of the worse kind of deception, grip your insides with terror. In the morning after, Yasmin lying on the floor with silent tears as her daughter joyfully drinks milk, speaks to her depths of betrayal and desperation of her situation.
Meanwhile, her husband is brimming with new energy and treats of halwa-poori for the whole family. Placating their hunger, the gullible in-laws believe the smooth lies of a new business all too easily, no questions asked.
Yasmin meanwhile can’t shake her somnambulistic state even as she tries to patch her dignity by settling her debts with the local bhajiwala and doodhwala. She is still stunned as her husband brings lipstick and nail polish for her to entice clients. He seems most excited by the prospect of pimping his daughter. "Log iska itezaar kar rahe hain (They are eagerly waiting for her)," he says.
These words coldly spoken finally awaken Yasmin from her stupor. The moment she leaves, draped in her new red dupatta, fiercely holding her daughter's hand, you release the bated breath you were not even aware you were holding in. The stellar writing and direction is that taut.
Even as Eman Suleman’s internal performance portray her anguish and despair, she turns the tables on her husband with quiet determination. As refreshing as her portrayal is, Adnan Sarwar is merely asked to regurgitate the worst of all drama shohars in our daily soaps. He is a unidimensional all-round evil man without an iota of nuance. Addiction is a serious illness and drives many (him included) to vicious acts of violence or worse. Depriving his character of any guilt or remorse makes him all too easy to hate and less easy to recognise among us. One hopes that other male characters will shape up differently in the upcoming episodes.
Future episodes portend stories around issues of domestic violence, the stigma of mental illness, displacement, economic hardship, acid attacks and HIV/AIDS. This melancholic line-up makes for tough viewing and the ability to sustain an emotional wallop each time remains to be seen. Despite the bleak outlook, there is light yet at the end of the tunnel. Every journey starts with a single step, and all these women have taken the first step on their own towards empowerment and transformation.
Stay tuned, this one is definitely going to be a gut-wrenching ride.
Akhri Station airs every Tuesday at 9pm on ARY Digital.