Pyar Ke Sadqay started off with the promise of something different but by episode 20, it looks as if this story is devolving into yet another doosri biwi (second wife) drama.

Abdullah, played by Bilal Abbas, is a simple young man, whose stutter and inability to pass any exam except mathematics makes him look slow and even incompetent.

The drama makers have not clarified Abdullah’s problems apart from saying he is 'simple' or 'innocent' but the way he misses social cues, his lack of emotional intelligence and fear of his stepfather, the imposing Sarwar (Omair Rana) suggest he might be on the autism spectrum.

Even without that diagnosis, it is clear that much of his personal growth has been deliberately stunted. This manipulative stepfather is a dark shadow in Abdullah’s life and determined not to let all the wealth and possessions he now enjoys as a guardian slip away into what he conveniently classifies as undeserving hands.

One dysfunctional family

Sarwar’s schemes are turned upside down when the girl he has fallen in love with ends up married to Abdullah. Abdullah’s equally ‘simple’ new wife, Mahjabeen, is just as inept at understanding the broader picture, but just as Abdullah has the polish of his elite surroundings, she has little more street smart, and a better focus on the smaller issues that directly affect her.

Yumna Zaidi is one of our best young actresses, and as always goes all in with her portrayal of Mahjabeen.

Pyar Kay Sadqay is written as a deadpan almost (but not quite) black comedy and gives Mahjabeen a lot of one-liners. Zaidi often came across as obnoxious rather than sweet, but as the play has progressed it looks as if this too maybe part of the persona.

Mahjabeen's personality comes from the rich literary tradition of the 'wise fool', like the famous Behlul of Baghdad or the court jester in King Lear; she blurts out uncomfortable, disturbing truths but generally escapes the punishment or anger reserved for more sensible people.

Comedy, isn’t easy and Yumna Zaidi misses the mark at times but she excels at capturing Mahjabeen’s quieter, emotional moments. Her interactions with Abdullah and self-assumed superiority are much more endearing than any well-aimed 'zingers'.

Bilal Abbas is an absolute joy to watch, he has played Abdullah with restraint and underplayed the pathos, allowing him to be both vulnerable and kind, but not so sweet that the audience cannot believe he too might have a selfish side, evident from the way he sneaks off to meet Shanzay (Yashma Gill).

Abdullah’s behavior isn’t all that surprising if we remember his character has been surrounded by toxic behaviour since birth. His stepfather has always demeaned him and even assaults him physically. He witnessed the violence and abuse meted out to his mother, Manzoora (Atiqa Odho) by his late birth father and Abdullah has quietly accepted his mother’s blindness to the abuse Sarwar has inflicted on him.

Writer Zanjabeel Asim Shah has artfully layered this story with a dark history of dysfunction and cruelty, that seeps out of every crack in the facade of this family’s life.

At the heart of everything that is wrong in this family are Manzoora and Sarwar. Manzoora is a fading beauty, who married her husband’s much younger assistant in a time of great upheaval, when her first husband died.

To complicate matters further, the ambitious Sarwar was once engaged to her sister-in-law and Manzoora takes a quiet pride in capturing the handsome younger man’s interest. As always, Atiqa Odho is a delight, she is tolerant and kind but once Mahjabeen piques her vanity, she begins to withdraw.

Intriguing characters keep you hooked

Pyar Kay Sadqay is full of fascinating, layered characters, but Sarwar is easily the most interesting. Brilliantly portrayed by Omair Rana, Sarwar is pretty much evil; he sexually harasses Mahjabeen, gaslights Abdullah and manipulates Mansoora with ease. Yet he is human, his longing for the oblivious Mahjabeen almost invokes pity before we see him cross the limits of decency and try to touch her, reminding us yet again that we despise him.

Some of the best scenes in this serial are between Sarwar and his cynical mother (Gul-e-Rana), whom he visits to vent on his own trials and tribulations. I am not sure whether to credit the writer, the director or the actors for the delicious black humor in these vignettes because Omair Rana has said in an interview there were some improvisations and additions made to the script.

Gul-e-Rana and Omair Rana have great screen magic: the son sighs about his love for Mahjabeen, and spins his plans while the mother slips him the kind of taunts Pakistani mothers reserve for underachieving school children. She sends her older servant out in case Sarwar falls in love with her too.

Iss ko budhiya bohat pasand hai,“ she declares, then asks him to get a secret second wife saying, “Tumhay tho char bewafiyon ki ijazat hai.

At the other end of the tawdry love triangle we must have in every other drama is Shanzay, the girl who rejected Abdullah, and set him up to marry Mahjabeen. Yashma Gill plays Shanzay well: an entitled rich girl who only understands how much she hurt Abdullah when her husband Essa treats her in the same condescending manner and tries to erase her personality.

Being a smart girl with a supportive father she immediately divorces the domineering Essa and pivots to the more malleable Abdullah as a crutch to her damaged ego. While this sounds convincing at a superficial level, it wears thin on deeper examination.

A missed opportunity

Why would this 'cool', educated, modern girl, with wealth and options galore care about being labelled a divorcee? Why would she pick an already married man, especially one that cannot string a sentence together without stammering and looking away?

Why would such girl slit her wrists over his refusal, as is evident from next week’s promo? Even more strange is why Shanzay makes some of her most important decisions in her pajamas?

At the risk of reading too much into it, let me hazard the guess that this was to reinforce to the sea of housewives watching (the only audience TV producers care about) that Shanzay is a 'bad' girl. It is hardly a secret that the ability to sell washing powder and dish soap to a particular audience decides the values we see on our screens.

This is the tyranny of middle-class expectations and why we must face a parade of bholi larkiya barely surviving against chalaq larkiya, unfaithful men, abusive men and serial after serial with a second wife scenarios and the latest craze behnoi se affair on our screens.

This produces some interesting skirmishes in the class wars: Shanzay marrying a sophisticated wealthy young man who insists Shanzay get up the day after their wedding to make him a cup of tea despite a house full of servants.

Whereas good girl Mahjabeen keeps offering to make Abdullah tea despite the servants she too has at her disposal now. Then being a 'bad' elite class girl with a lack of values she manages to get a divorce in the space of a day, all in her night suit. Good values Mahjabeen is willing to put up with anything, even sexual harassment, to maintain her relationship and makes Abdullah promise to never leave her.

Having no values also means Shanzay is not worried about iddat of course, or any kind of self-reflection over the breakup of her year long relationship and marriage. Instead she puts on a frilly, off-shoulder blouse and wanders into Abdullah’s office completely unannounced.

Nor does Shanzay ever register Mahjabeen’s status as Abdullah’s wife. For a 'modern' girl, she is surprisingly ready to be a second wife. Despite never passing an exam Mahjabeen is much more intelligent, repeating all the dialogues about values her middle-class mother has taught her about being an obedient wife but actually doing nothing but wander around Abdullah’s mansion.

These contradictions are easily found in all our dramas because producers want to please the audience that makes them advertising revenue. So, despite high hopes for this serial touching on other subjects such as mentally challenged adults succeeding in life despite their difficulties, an exploration of the importance of positive father figures or simply some romance we see it dissolve into a competition for Abdullah.

Director Farooq Rind has done a great job of keeping the audience intrigued. Though there is nothing particularly unique about the story, Rind has kept his cast under the glare of bright lights and given the drama a theatrical, almost pantomime style feeling, but I am not exactly sure how this adds to the story.

The only scenes such stylisation does work are in are the ones with Omair Rana is playing his villainous best. The lighting, signature tune and Rana’s use of camera angles brings some small hint of originality to a story fast losing its freshness.

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