Clever, manipulative girls or 'chalaq larkiyan' seem to be a perennial favourite with Pakistani drama writers and this season seems to have an abundance of such wicked women.

They are easy enough to recognise: well groomed with freshly manicured red nails, they are often found perched on well-made beds while their bholi larki victims toil in the kitchen. Despite their crowd-pleasing theatrics, Sila of Khasara, Rushna from Ishq Tamasha and Anji from Ghar Titli Ka Par have proved themselves to be small fry when compared to the latest contender for the crown of most manipulative of them all, Nigaar of Balaa.

Writer Zanjabeel Shah has always given us complex characters and her stories are so meticulously well written that even a cliché becomes fascinating.

ARY's new drama Balaa tells the story of Nigaar (Ushna Shah), a spoiled, self-centered young woman whose personality has been stunted less by her actual disability than by others' reactions to it. She has a congenital defect that makes her walk with a limp and seems to live a life of splendid isolation with her adoring father (Sajid Hassan) and weak-willed brother Junaid (Asad Siddiqui). Her father is a harsh man who has no compassion for anyone except his daughter whom he constantly refers to as his lucky charm.

Nigaar’s personality has been warped by her father’s coddling and she has learned to control others in her own quiet way. There is nothing outrageous about Nigaar, she isn’t rude nor is she loud but she understands human psychology just a little too well and has no qualms about pushing anyone out of her way.

The usual chalaq larki of our dramas is a materialistic, middle-class girl, trying to steal a lifestyle she can't afford. Nigaar is very different; she already lives in wealth and comfort with all the attention and compassion of her family. What she seeks is love in the shape of her reluctant cousin Taimoor (Bilal Abbas Khan).

Despite the obvious female-centric bias of our dramas, it is rare to see such a powerful, highly developed female character on our screens. Ushna Shah has always had the kind of raw energy and screen presence to get her noticed even before her famous stint as Rudaba in Zanjabeel Shah’s previous magnum opus Bashar Momin, but her underplaying of the ruthless Nigaar shows what a huge leap forward she has made in solid acting skills.

Her Nigaar is completely believable: the sideways glances of amusement at the predicaments of her victims, the moues of disdain and the complete lack of empathy for anyone. Her nuanced performance builds a picture of near-psychopathy that has not been seen on our screens since the frightening Malik Wajahat of Mera Saeein.

This is not just some spoiled, flighty girl, just like the magnetic but evil Vadera (played so brilliantly by Noman Ejaz). Her personality shows control and intelligence mixed with just a little charm to sweeten the poison. The one complaint I have is that Ushna Shah’s hair seems to be hiding under some rather bad wigs and extensions. Otherwise, this may well be a defining role for her.

Ushna Shah has always had the kind of raw energy and screen presence to get her noticed even before her famous stint as Rudaba in Bashar Momin, but her underplaying of the ruthless Nigaar shows what a huge leap forward she has made in solid acting skills.

Director Badar Mahmood has kept up the tension in the story and done justice to this well-written script, eliciting some excellent performances from his already talented cast. Bilal Abbas Khan gave an excellent performance as the much put-upon Qasim in last year’s Hum TV drama O Rangreza and hopefully he will be allowed to go beyond the 'sharif admi in a difficult situation' persona we have seen so far.

Bilal Abbas Khan as Taimoor in Balaa
Bilal Abbas Khan as Taimoor in Balaa

As Taimoor’s mother and sister, Samina Peerzada and Mehwish Qureshi provide interesting foils to Nigaar’s twisted persona — simple, sweet and comically too God-fearing for their own good, they are easily taken advantage of because they always want to believe the best. Mehar Bano as Taimoor’s younger sister is a much more practical personality but so far she hasn’t been given much to say.

Asad Siddiqui has finally ditched his usual low-key style of acting and puts some energy into his role as Nigaar’s brother to good effect. His broken relationship with Zeba (Amara Chaudhry) is another casualty of their dysfunctional family dynamic.

Although Nigaar has a minor disability, that is not the focus of the drama. The way differently abled people are treated is highlighted in a few scenes when Nigaar attends a family event. She silently cringes at the loud comments of dismissal made by older women, “pyaari hai par langri hai”. As a culture, we tend to emphasise the flaw rather than look at the whole person and what they are actually able to do. We need to learn to accept people for who they are rather than looking for how short they fall from certain ideals.

In any other drama, Nigaar would be a mazloom, bholi larki waiting to be rescued but her negativity makes her strangely more powerful and that may be the key to some of her choices. She seems like a character that would rather look on in contempt than be looked down at with pity. It would be wonderful to see Nigaar’s character grow and change from the insecure, cruel person she has become but there is little sign of that yet.

So far Balaa has been an entertaining six episodes with some tight direction and intriguing characters. Hopefully, the writer and director can give us enough twists and turns to keep us watching until the end.