With a multi-layered storyline and intelligently developed characters, Team Alif deserves a standing ovation

Alif is one of the most artistically pleasing dramas to grace our screens in years

With a multi-layered storyline and intelligently developed characters, Team Alif deserves a standing ovation.

Updated Mar 18, 2020 12:36pm


What begins with a story of a little boy, Qalb-e-Momin (Pehlaj Hassan), writing letters to Allah and looking for his missing father, ends with that same little boy growing into a man and instead, finding his mother.

Alif, a recap

When we first meet the adult Qalb-e-Momin (Hamza Ali Abbasi), we can see that he is a deeply unhappy man and the root of much of his resentment, hedonism and especially his arrogant treatment of women, is his deep anger at a mother he refuses to even acknowledge in public.

His mother was Husn-e-Jehan (Kubra Khan), an actress and a dancer who was a star during the heyday of Pakistani Cinema but left everything to marry Taha Abdul Alaa ( Ahsan Khan ), the son of a famous Turkish calligrapher.

Kubra Khan as Husn-e-Jehan
Kubra Khan as Husn-e-Jehan

Like Momin, at first, Abdul Alaa, Momin's grandfather, despises Husn-e-Jehan and sees her as a vulgar dancer who has stolen his normally obedient son away, infecting him with a more worldly lifestyle that Taha is ill-prepared for.

Taha loves Husn-e-Jehan but he too is very aware of his family's heritage of worship and his own “pure” connection to Islam and Allah. Abandoned by his father, Taha struggles to maintain his family.

In desperation, Husn-e-Jehan sells the paintings that her husband has made of her through her old makeup artist and friend, Sultan Shah. When Taha finds out, he leaves her in a fit of anger since he saw those pictures as something private and intimate between them. It is later revealed that he dies in an accident.

Related: Kubra Khan feels that Alif was godsent for her

The child Momin can only see part of the reality of these events and assumes some betrayal on his mother’s part. After his father’s death, Husn-e-Jehan takes her son back to Pakistan to earn a living the only way she knows how, but she is exploited once again by her own greedy and cruel family.

This only fuels Momin’s hatred and insecurity more while also longing for all the normal trappings and pleasures of childhood that their lack of resources has kept out of his reach.

Finally, Husn-e-Jehan sends Momin back to his grandfather while seeking her own escape from her abusive family.

The other protagonist

Sultan’s daughter Momina is the other protagonist, played by the incredibly talented actress, Sajal Aly.

Sajal Aly as Momina Sultan
Sajal Aly as Momina Sultan

Desperate to save her brother Jehangir, Momina auditions for a role in the arrogant Momin’s new film, but he throws her out in a fit of petty rage.

As with many of Umera Ahmad’s heroines, Momina weathers the worst crisis she could imagine, losing her brother, till fortune finally smiles on her and she becomes an international star.

In a humbling reversal, it is now Qalb-e-Momin who is desperate to cast Momina in his new film, Alif.

Momina accepts the role because she recognises her family’s connection to Husn-e-Jehan, even reaching a point to where she softens enough to forgive and love Momin.

However, Momin retains his anger at his mother till all the characters in the story come full circle and he realises that the real villain in his parent’s story wasn’t another man, but himself. His mother put aside her promise to his father so she could give him all the things he craved.

Redefining 'self-fulfilment' of women

Alif doesn’t end on the usual happy note of lovers united with all issues resolved, if anything it ends on a rare, higher note, acknowledging Qalb-e-Momin’s need for time and growth, while allowing Momina to find her way to him instead of immediately abandoning her successful career.

Marshalling such a difficult multi-layered storyline with so many characters deserves a standing ovation in itself. As with anything touching on religion and spirituality, there is a grave danger of sermonizing but happily, Hassan has walked that edge very carefully avoiding many pitfalls.


The parallels between Momina and Husn-e-Jehan are obvious, as is the courage of Momina to not follow her heart and fall into the same trap of self-abasement and denial that Momin’s mother did.

As I noted in my earlier review, Umera Ahmad has often played to the traditional gallery with dramas like Zindagi Gulzar Hai, but if we define feminism as the self-fulfilment of women as individuals, then Ahmad’s work certainly hits the mark here.

Read: Alif is reminiscent of an old Pakistani drama but maybe that's what makes it work

Too often our dramas characterise women as fools or martyrs for love, who suffer misfortune and the untenable demands for purity and absolute fidelity that society and the men in their lives place on them.

How revolutionary then that Ahmad’s heroines find success on their own terms: that Husna, doesn’t shatter and disappear because her son cannot forgive her or her husband abandons her but she ultimately marries a compassionate man who treats her well before she dies.

How revolutionary that Momina learns to respect her craft instead of despising it. She too suffers an earlier loss in love, when Faysal (Osman Khalid Butt) wants her to abandon everything for him with the same condescension Taha showed Husn-e-Jehan, but each time Momina steps back and decides her own worth.

There is a wonderfully played scene where the now-married Faysal calls Momina to congratulate her on her success, his tone and the insinuation is that of a door being left open for the kind of dependency that a weaker woman might fall into.

Thankfully, this writer’s heroines are never fools; they know their self-worth is intrinsic, unearned and Momina closes the door on all the painful sentimentality of past dreams with a firm stance.

Writing characters that grow

This serial is full of outstanding vignettes and scenes. Kubra Khan and Ahsan Khan do full justice to their roles bring out the dysfunctionality but also the strength of the bond between Momin’s parents.

Ahsan Khan portrayal of Taha is flawless and layered, he is a good, but ultimately weak man, who, despite his devotion to religion, is unable to govern this anger.

Kubra, in particular, has given us an outstanding performance, proving herself again as a versatile and skilled actress. It really helped that she looked stunning in all those seventies get-ups too.

The entire serial is studded with fantastic performances from the subtle manipulations of Osman Khalid Butt as the not quite hero, Faysal to the gentle, compassionate fidelity of Master Ibrahim (Saife Hassan) and the powerful edge that Manzar Sehbai gives to Momin’s grandfather.

Too often our dramas characterize women as fools or martyrs for love, who suffer misfortune and the untenable demands for purity and absolute fidelity that society and the men in their lives place on them . How revolutionary then that Ahmad’s heroines find success on their own terms.


Haseeb Hassan has brought out the best from each character and its hard to ignore a single actor but a special shout out to Saleem Mairaj who put in the work for Sultan Shah and gave us a tour de force. Similarly, Fareeha Raza and Musadiq Malik deserve so much praise for playing the kind of friends everyone needs with such authenticity.

Last but not least, we cannot forget Momin’s house help Shakoor, who manages to reveal every secret his domineering boss would like to keep with the kind of pitch-perfect deadpan innocence that made me want to laugh out loud.

Hamza Ali Abbasi plays Qalbe Momin
Hamza Ali Abbasi plays Qalbe Momin

Of course, the stars of this show are Hamza Ali Abbasi and Sajal Aly.

It might have been easy for me to dismiss Abbasi’s role as an easy take from his own life but the actor’s hard work and sincerity to his craft shows in the excellent definition he has given Qalb-e-Momin.

Abbasi has made a deep impact on this role which will not be easily forgotten. Momin isn’t a particularly likeable character, displaying the full range of misogyny, toxicity and the worship of materialism that defines an alpha male in our dramas of late.

The difference with Ahmad’s writing is that none of these characteristics are romanticised, nor do they in any way endear him to the heroine Momina or to the other women in his life.

Sadaf Kanwal as his manipulative ex, and Yeshma Gill as the equally slippery opportunistic actress were a pleasure to watch, and apart from using Momin’s foolish actions and lack of self-control, they had little affection for him.

Momina only forms a connection with Momin when she finally sees some evidence of vulnerability and kindness when he returns calligraphy to her. Umera Ahmad is not known for writing love stories but with director Haseeb Hassan’s expert help and Sajal Aly’s perfectly restrained performance, these were scenes to remember.

Aly is a supremely-talented actress, playing every note in Momina’s life from the heart and connecting to the audience in a way none of the other characters could.

Behind the lens

As a director, Haseeb Hassan has set a new standard for himself, with this beautifully shot, highly evocative serial.

Marshalling such a difficult multi-layered storyline with so many characters deserves a standing ovation in itself. As with anything touching on religion and spirituality, there is a grave danger of sermonizing but happily, Hassan has walked that edge very carefully avoiding many pitfalls.

While I am happy to call Alif a rare work of art , I wish Hassan had defined past and present more clearly with some visual clues such as lighting. The soft filters or cameras used gave a faded, sentimental sheen to even the most dynamic scenes and that is something he should definitely reconsider in his future work.

Just like the period piece Angan, Alif lost out on the rating game at times because of this.

Haseeb Hassan is one of our finest directors but he does have a tendency to be inspired by other dramas, there were several scenes that brought to mind iconic sequences from Humsafar towards the end, such as Momin crying and looking in a mirror a little too much like Asher.

Hassan is a very creative man himself so I am hoping it was sheer coincidence.

Like Umera Ahmad’s previous work Shehr-e-Zaat, this story has a strong spiritual message, that has not been lost in some grand romance, rather it replaces the ephemeral spirit of worldly love with attachment to the divine.

Neither Momin nor Momina’s strength to get through the challenges life throws at them because “mere pass tum ho “. Instead, they learn to rely on their developing spirituality, which asks them to rise above the base emotions of anger and jealousy and instead to nurture forgiveness, compassion and generosity of spirit within their personalities.

Umera Ahmad is an incredible writer and she has given us an extraordinary script. It would be fair to say that a little dialogue pruning wouldn’t have hurt, and maybe an episode or two less might have kept the dramatic tension on a tighter string.

Overall, this is one of the most refined and artistically pleasing dramas we have seen on our screens in years.

A word of thanks to producer Sana Shahnawaz who produced such an intricate project so well and even more thanks to TV channel Geo for having the courage to pit what is obviously not an out and out commercial venture on primetime.

Actually, let's take a moment to congratulate not just Geo but Hum and TV One, all three channels have provided us with some artistic projects which build on the grand literary and storytelling traditions of our culture, while ARY seems to have a death grip on purely commercial projects that are popular but soon forgotten.

Team Alif needs to take a bow and sit back and revel in the glow of all this praise; it's well deserved.