Akhri Station is slowly picking up speed in episodes 2-4, as the women journey towards Karachi.
The mini-series features seven passengers bundled in the women's compartment of a Lahore-to-Karachi train, each with their own story to tell. By the second episode, they have settled into companionable conversations that gradually eases them into each other’s company and each other’s story.
If the first episode set the tone for shedding light on social ills, the next few episodes continue to prod the audience with uncomfortable questions.
In episode 2, Gulmeena (played by Amara Butt) is uprooted from her home in Waziristan as a result of constant fighting, making her – and many like her – refugees in their own country. Along with her husband and in-laws, they make their way to one of the many refugee camps to escape the indiscriminate shelling and gunfire that has unsettled the region.
A very pregnant Gulmeena must endure even more hardship in the squalid conditions of the camps, where medical facilities are lacking and her mother–in-law's diktats make life difficult. Fortunately, her loving husband Yusuf gets help despite family disapproval, though she ends up giving birth in the house of a good Samaritan.
A sense of displacement pervades everything – from relatives refusing to house them for fear of being labelled terrorists, their temporary accommodations, their inability to trace their family, not knowing what the future holds for any of them – all echo the feel of endless waiting.
Director Sarmad Khoosat makes an interesting choice to have the characters speak in Pashtun with Urdu subtitles. With the lack of voices of these internally displaced people in the mainstream, this representation in itself feels like an act of resistance.
Yusuf’s sudden death leaves Gulmeena at her in-laws' mercy. As is the case with most widows in our patriarchal society, she is merely seen as a burden. She is married off to a widower, old enough to be her grandfather, who never fails to remind her that her good fortune of three square meals a day, and a man to keep her, is little price to pay for leaving behind her newborn. The emptiness in her heart, the constant showering of verbal abuse coupled with her own disquiet lead her to leave his home and seek out her child.
Director Sarmad Khoosat makes an interesting choice to have the characters speak in Pashtun with Urdu subtitles. With the lack of voices of these internally displaced people in the mainstream, this representation in itself feels like an act of resistance. It is to all the actors' credit that they are able to convey their turmoil without the need to understand the language. While the first two episodes offer more than just social commentary, the next two episodes are more uneven.
In episode three, the passengers learn what prompted a young woman with a straight A education and respectable job to leave everything behind.
Farzana (Malika Zafar) married her college sweetheart Sajjad (Shah Fahad) despite the better judgement of her family and friends. Sajjad, who suffers from a persecution complex the size of Texas and a barrelful of insecurities, takes them out with sharpened barbs perfectly aimed at his wife. Isolating her from friends and family and keeping up the psychological and emotional put-downs, Farzana remains in denial and perhaps the crippling fear that she made the wrong choice keeps her frozen in place.
Malika Zafar effectively conveys the dilemma of a wife who can’t pinpoint why her marriage is in shambles despite her best efforts to keep the peace.
With zero nuance or redeeming qualities, Sajjad is someone who is easy to hate and distance yourself from. Portraying him as an incarnation of evil does a disservice to understanding the cycle of domestic violence.
Shah Fahad, on the other hand, is handed a role with escalating levels of viciousness so has little to do but amp up the evil. Even the birth of their first child does little to amend Sajjad’s ways and transforms him into a shaki shohar who leaves no stone (or here, it’s actually a bone) unturned to humiliate and belittle his wife. Farzana for her part bears all the scars and only leaves when he gets physical.
While the script is successful at depicting her psychological damage, it fails to address the cycle of abuse within domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence suffer abuse, get respite during the honeymoon phase of repentance and regret and continue to be embroiled in the invariable repetition of abuse that follows. Women need to understand these stages and the signs of abuse and control very clearly. Dramas such as Kankar presented an accurate picture of both the perpetuator and victim as well as societal norms that ensure this topic is mostly swept under the carpet.
Granted that Akhri Station is more vignette than full-blown drama, but a well-timed phrase, or even a moment of tenderness in Sajjad’s character would make him more credible and recognisable. With zero nuance or redeeming qualities, he is someone who is easy to hate and distance yourself from. Portraying him as an incarnation of evil does a disservice to understanding the cycle of domestic violence.
For Farzana, her financial independence gives her the confidence to leave with her infant daughter. Despite having a family and supportive in-laws, she refused to get drawn back into an abusive relationship. While family ties here defied convention, the same can’t be said of Rafia’s (Farah Tufail) story in episode 4.
Rafia’s husband Pervez becomes addicted to drugs and sells off his meagre possessions to get his fix. Rafia suspects something but is quickly shut down by his enabler mother who stands in to defend and cover up his faults. Pervez, however, has moments of self-realisation and attempts to rehabilitate himself, but the hold of this vice proves stronger than his ability to fight it. He contracts HIV and possibly AIDS through contaminated needles and the disease gets transmitted to his wife.
Rafia’s in-laws blame her for his downward spiral and even for contracting the disease and kick her and her daughter out of their home. She finds shelter and sympathy with her sister and is able to eke out a living, though she still conceals her illness. Once the secret is out, and Pervez succumbs to his illness, Rafia is forced to reckon with the fact that unless she seeks treatment, death will always haunt her in the shadows.
Amna Mufti realistically depicts the abandonment of drug addicts by both the family and the state and highlights NGOs' efforts to rehabilitate them. Yet, the blame and misinformation fly fast and furious with little clarity to separate the two.
Farah Tufail shows a lot of range as a helpless mother and daughter-in-law with shades of guilt for being unable to help her husband. Amna Mufti realistically depicts the abandonment of drug addicts by both the family and to an extent by the state and highlights the work NGOs do to rehabilitate them. Yet, the blame and misinformation fly fast and furious with little clarity to separate the two. With the amount of ignorance surrounding HIV/AIDS, this episode does little to differentiate myth from fact. One hopes that this is addressed in the upcoming episodes.
Sarmad Khoosat’s attention to visual storytelling is commendable – the blurred and hazy moments of Pervez’s addiction, white bottle capped prescription drugs sold as casually as glasses of chai, the use of grills and gates and reusing that motif to show Safia’s plight in the shadow of cane jallis hint at each character entrapment.
Also of note is the visual metaphor of closed doors that interlink all the stories. The need to keep these issues hidden, behind closed doors, tucked away in a corner out of view of neighbours, and in the latest episode closing the doors of empathy and compassion by one’s own family is heartbreaking. Other stories are yet to unfold with Tehmina’s flashbacks bearing witness to her mother’s suicide and the introduction of two new faces, one etched with worry and the other hidden by a chador.
While Akhri Station succeeds in taking us behind these closed doors and baring these stories, it is less successful in showing the spectrum of human experience. The weight of these women’s stories is a heavy burden to bear, but playing everything in a strain of despair fails to see and show traces of hope and humanity that help lighten that load.
If you have ever ridden in the women’s compartment of a train, therein lies a microcosm of life in all its bleak moments with shades of lightness, snatches of humour, song, the joys of a shared meal and camaraderie. In leaving out the resilience of these moments, Akhri Station misses out on the interplay of life captured in both light and shadows.