Dushman-e-Jaan may well be the sleeper hit of the season.
This sharp, well-plotted serial uses a lot of the familiar motifs that can be seen in Pakistani dramas; the problems of working women, rishta culture and poverty.
Where it differs is the a dark tinge of guilt, revenge and murder that cuts through the usual sweetness of sentimentality.
Our introduction to Hathim Kamal (Mohib Mirza), shows us an arrogant, suspicious man at work. In short, a nightmare of a boss who has a deep contempt for working women in particular.
Convinced that everyone can be bought, Hathim believes that anyone who resists is just raising the stakes to drive a harder bargain.
He is attracted to the efficient Ramsha (Tooba Siddiqui) from the moment they meet but she refuses to be viewed in any way other than as a responsible employee. A middle-class girl with a lot of responsibilities, she has a sick younger brother in dire need of a kidney transplant, a disabled father, and a younger sister, Rabab (Madiha Imam) to take care of.
She is respected and valued for her professionalism by her immediate boss, Uzair (who also happens to be Hathim's partner and friend).
Thriller done right
This is where the story should take a predictable route. Hathim was neglected as a child by his workaholic parents and finds it very difficult to trust or bond with other people. Now that he has met the practical, brave Ramsha, she should be the answer to his emotional problems - but she is not.
Mohib Mirza gives us a wonderfully layered portrayal of Hathim, the angry, adolescent hurling resentment at his callous father, the passive aggressive child sparring for his mother’s attention and a vulnerable man driven by his deep-seated anger.
Mirza is a fantastic actor and carries all of his character’s angst and cynicism without completely alienating the audience. While he infuriates us in many scenes, we can also hold on to a shadow of understanding as we remember how he became this way.
The only flaw in the portrayal may be that Mirza looks a little older than the Hathim’s behaviour reflects his character would be. This is another tyranny our dramas force on actors, where every story seems to be about a boy in his 20s, and talented actors need to be ridiculously cut off for not forever 21.
This is where styling helps, but unfortunately, very few actors, even from big productions like Ehd-e-Wafa take it as seriously as they should.
Tooba Siddiqui is an absolute delight as Ramsha, the kind of honest and unpretentious female character that we wish we could see more of on our screens. She is hard-working, loyal, loving and practical.
However, Ramsha is no saint. Often desperate, she is tempted to take advantage of Hathim, stepping back with the realisation that such games never turn out well.
As the story progresses, Ramsha begins to understand Hathim, even like him a little, but Hathim’s insecurities are not so easily conquered.
Writer Sarwat Nazir lavishes this well-written, fluid script with detailed characters and an astutely structured plot that ensures the narrative does not lose any momentum, from the first episode to the approaching conclusion.
A lot of the credit also goes to Amin Iqbal who has a talent for making thrillers and has built up tension with each episode, eliciting some solid performances from his strong cast.
Multi-dimensional characters and stellar acting make Dushman-e-Jaan memorable
There are some interesting portraits of working women too. Ramsha is the classic acceptable model of a working woman struggling to help her family survive. Hathim’s mother is a highly successful business woman consumed with guilt, who receives no affection or respect from husband or son.
Then there is the prickly Rukhsana, an independent working woman who is outspoken and refuses to compromise or respect traditional authority.
Despite the obvious stereotypes and the negativity around Hathim’s mother and Rukhsana, the audience is at least shown that like everyone else, there are all kinds of women that work outside the home and the notion is nothing out of the ordinary.
Balancing this out are also two versions of an average housewife. A naïve young Rabab, whose strength of character belies her years, and Nighat Mamani whose poisonous thinking is unfortunately not rare and often acts as a convenient plot driver. As always, Saba Hamid does more than justice to her role as a regretful mother.
Imran Pirzada as Hathim’s angry materialistic father Kamal, is a little one note but still more believable than the quiet monster that is Ramsha’s father, played by perennial favourite Irfan Khoosat.
Superficially, Ramsha’s father is loving and kind but most of his decisions are flawed and the pressure he puts on both his daughters is ultimately very damaging.
While Ramsha struggles under the weight of his financial expectations, Rabab is emotionally blackmailed into accepting three different grooms by the end of the play, with little to no consideration of her personal feelings.
Madiha Imam gives a surprising strong showing as a stock “good girl “ character, adding a lot of charm and feistiness to what might have been a bland personality that obeys everyone.
Dushman-e-Jaan has a slightly dated look maybe because it was made slightly more than a year ago but the quality of writing, direction and acting should hold viewers in its grip. ARY Digital’s wise decision to put on air episodes daily shows they recognise this.
Hathim’s fleshed out personality shifts the centre of gravity slightly towards the male perspective, balancing out the usual mazloom angle, extending the reach of this serial further than the usual victimisation that producers rely on for ratings.
Dushman-e-Jaan is a classic example of why people turn to Urdu language dramas despite the vast array of options available. Entertaining, relatable and authentic; this serial hits all the right notes.