Despite its cynical title, Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat could easily have been a great romance—the kind that bets on a flip of a coin as the characters learn what is truly valuable in life.
However, that would have required at least two of the protagonists to scrape together enough sincerity to actually commit to something or someone other than their own passing fancies.
A story about strong-willed protagonists
Rizwan, or “Riz” played by Wahaj Ali, is a budding YouTube star who runs a Facebook page with three other young men, sentimentally titled 'Mohabbat, Shayari, Geet aur Khuwaab'.
Everyone is smitten by his good looks and easy-going ways, especially his new wife Samiya, played by Ramsha Khan, who describes him as “Facebook ka King “.
Such a career might sound unreal, especially to parents who like to view the internet as a distraction from careers in engineering, medicine or law. However, in the digital landscape where content can be monetised, a successful Tiktok or YouTube star can earn a surprising amount of money.
Getting back to the charm soaked Riz, we see his runaway romance with the strong-willed Samiya begin to fade just as quickly as it flared. While his social media career is still solidifying, Riz spends his time catfishing, that is, trawling the net for lonely housewives and older women looking for excitement and a friendly ear.
Somewhere along the line of favours and money exchanging hands, our hero has a steady income and is able to eat meals in fancy restaurants.
Ali is generally a good performer but he is flawless in this role: his mannerisms and body language are all finely tuned to bring the mercurial, amoral rather than immoral Peter Pan-like Riz to life.
Matching him frame by frame is Khan, who is well on her way to establishing herself as an actress of depth and range by choosing not to play the same generic heroine each time.
In the recent drama Ishqiya, she played a more conservative but morally weak personality. In Kaisa Hai Naseeba she played a survivor of domestic abuse, and audiences have seen her as a selfish young woman in one of 2019's best dramas Khudparast.
Samiya works as a cook in a mall restaurant and supports her family. When she runs away with Riz, her family is disappointed but do their best to accept the situation and start making preparations for a reception to give Samiya’s marriage a more “respectable” look.
The heroine is both character and narrator, confiding directly with the audience as if we were old friends and reassures us that she understands our need for a story that doesn’t drag.
Her past unfolds before us as she muses on the decisions that set her on this path, controlling and pivoting the audience’s attention at the writer’s behest.
Layered supporting roles that are equally important
As with all good dramas, the other characters are not just a supporting cast, but just as layered and important as the leads.
Saba Hamid is a tour de force as Riz’s mother, Sultana Aziz, and her very existence is an antidote to all the two-dimensional mazloom aurat characters parading across our screens.
She wields absolute authority in her household, and treats her husband Naheed, played by Saife Hassan, with all the affectionate contempt most people reserve for a khandani servant they don’t have the heart to actually fire.
In any other drama, Sultana Aziz would rightly lament her early marriage at the tender age of 15 as a part of a painful past but instead, she revels in taunting her daughter for marrying late because of her education and lack of proposals.
Judgmental and suspicious, she has little to no knowledge of the world and the bare minimum in terms of education, she insists on sharing her opinions on everything with the kind of confidence only ignorance can provide.
Author Faseeh Bari Khan is a master at writing such personas, his serials are filled with such self-obsessed creatures, whose Teflon coated egos stubbornly refuse to mature or change but retain the uncanny ability to philosophise and reframe every folly into a virtue.
Their judgements are mostly always devoid of merit or connection to reality but the comedy lies in the absolute self-belief and the world-weary tone of dispensing much-needed grace to the unfortunate object of their attentions.
Not everyone is like Sultan Aziz; Saba Faisal plays Samiya’s more subdued mother but like all the women in this show, she is no fool either.
By a strange coincidence, it turns out that Faisal’s character was engaged to Naheed before she married Samiya's father. Instead of nursing this secret for 10 episodes of tension, before all is revealed and face some kind of ridiculous test of “sharafat” or “agni pariksha” after 20 plus years of stable married life, she sensibly explains the situation to her husband.
After a little reflection, the whole issue is deflated rather than becoming a plot point.
Breaking away from a stereotypical image of women while still typecasting men
Such twists and turns are the essence of this serial allowing it to run on two parallel levels.
The first level is obvious: a mix of comedy and satire; while the second is a sly critique of the way increasingly commercially driven dramas reframe public morality and Pakistani culture with lazy stereotypes and false equivalencies to create easy melodrama for ratings.
The first episode shows the women in Samiya’s family watching a serial where a woman decides to become the hero’s secret second wife and live as a servant in his household while he marries a wealthy woman for personal gain.
Her “sacrifice” is neither noble nor necessary but the women watching empathise, despite taking brave decisions in their own lives which are a direct contrast to this submissive attitude.
Samiya does not think twice about family honour or what people will say when she runs away to marry Riz, nor is she reticent about defending herself when her new sister-in-law, Farhat Parveen, played by Sana Askari, tries to slap her.
Apart from Riz, the men in this drama are gentle, accommodating sorts but perhaps the entry of Farhat Parveen’s smartly dressed father-in-law to be in the shape of veteran actor Shahood Alvi will spice up the blandness.
His response to Aziza Sultan’s empty homilies is to ask in a deadpan voice if she has ever considered being part of those notorious bastions of fake weddings, gossip and ignorance: morning shows.
Needless to say, she misses the sharp end of the barb and revels in the self-perceived compliment. Alvi’s, ice-cool humour, restrained dialogue delivery and strong screen presence are yet another reason to keep watching this show.
While the writer has taken great delight in challenging the images of women as trembling ingenus and permanent victims, it has yet to be seen if he can use the same satirical weapons on the men in his story.
For all his modernity, Riz has turned out to be the typical young husband our dramas present if a woman ever marries a man of her own choice: friendly but weak, captivating but fickle.
Despite his grand gesture of marriage and commitment, he is already ignoring Samiya’s calls and moving on, entranced by a manipulative older woman, played by Arjumand Rahim.
A minor league femme fatal, Rahim plays a female version of Riz, using her looks and ability to fascinate foolish men to game them out of money and property.
Challenge and innovation in the Pakistani drama industry
So far, director Ahmad Bhatti has done an excellent job of containing and curating Faseeh Bari Khan’s sometimes overflowing scripts.
Khan’s genius at writing satire is unassailable but at times, he can get caught up in the labyrinth of amusing caricatures and their foibles, pushing their ability to do the right thing now and then, a little too far into the background.
His previous work, Quddusi Saheb Ki Beva was comedic brilliance but it felt more and more like a series of vignettes or sketches towards the end. Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat is much more defined and controlled, making it a more accessible watch.
With the recent hullabaloo over web-based serials like the addictive serial Churails, Khan’s writing is a timely reminder that web-based serials are not speeding ahead, rather they are catching up to the sense of challenge and innovation that has always been very much part of the Pakistani drama industry.
In between the kind of pulp fiction they are forced to produce for mass entertainment, Pakistani writers have always maintained a radical edge; tackling difficult subjects like sexual assault, the fluidity of gender identity, honour culture, sensitive political and social issues despite censorship and a conservative public viewership.
Faseeh Bari Khan, Faiza Iftikhar, Farhat Ishtiaq, Mustafa Afridi, Saji Gul, Sarwat Nazir, Umera Ahmad and many more have maintained this spirit even in their most unassuming serials.
Ghissi Pitti Mohabbat is a pointed example of this. A prime-time show billed as a comedy it touches on subject matters well beyond its purview.
Khan’s previous works have been master classes in gaining both ratings and merciless humour but this latest work has wider appeal and is more attuned to younger audiences, cleverly using the same old cliches to tell us a new story.