17 Jan, 2022

By the time you’re reading this, the cat will already have sprung out of the bag. The cat being Atif Aslam in his television acting debut, worthy of his stature as a pop icon, and the bag, the Momina and Duraid Qureshi-produced epic drama Sang-i-Mah, which debuted last Sunday on Hum TV, and whose second episode you will likely see on television (or maybe YouTube) today.

The title’s meaning may baffle you. Sang-i-Mah is a make-believe term whose meaning was clarified by director Saife Hasan during a late night phone call. The words refer to ‘stone’ and ‘moon’ — or rather, moonstone; its closest Arabic equivalent being hijr-i-qamar.

The title’s uniqueness suits the tale, for this show is a welcome departure from the norms of television: a tale of familial intrigue and conflict in the shadow of a pertinent social and cultural issue, set in a picturesque location in the hills and valleys of northern Pakistan.

Now that I think about it, Sang-i-Mah doesn’t sound all that different — we’ve seen shows with similar elements before. The actual distinction comes from its writing (Mustafa Afridi, who wrote Superstar’s dialogues and the screenplays of Sang-i-Mar Mar and Ehd-i-Wafa), the execution (Saife Hasan), the all-star casting (Sania Saeed, Samiya Mumtaz, Noman Ijaz, his son Zaviyar Noman Ijaz, Omair Rana, Hania Aamir and Kubra Khan), and of course, the quality of production.

One can see Atif Aslam’s dedication on screen as the presumed antihero Hilmand in his TV acting debut. But newly launched serial Sang-i-Mah is much bigger than the pop star-turned-actor who, as he himself confesses, is now bitten by the acting bug

The amalgamated weight of this sheer prowess overcame the patronising congregation of entertainment reporters, critics and bloggers who attended its premiere at Nueplex DHA, where roughly an episode-and-a-half from the show were cut into a nearly 62-minute long ‘cine-cut’ (the episode airing today will have 15 or 20 additional minutes of story).

The long-presentation, with sobering colours befitting a cinema release, felt more filmic than most motion pictures made in Pakistan. The only thing that gave away its television roots was the unremitting use of the show’s main background score.

Putting the technical and artistic merits of the presentation on one side, members of the journalistic fraternity had their attention gripped by Hilmand, the character played by Atif Aslam. A noted female journalist even gushed her sentiments out loud during the brief Q&A session, overwhelmed by the acting prowess of the new leading man.

It was the “I told you so” moment I had foretold Atif when we had had a long telephonic conversation a day before the event.

From the snip-bits of the many promos that primarily feature Hilmand — Sang-i-Mah’s principal selling point — one can see Atif’s allure, his screen presence and the inkling of the nuances he employed when acting the part out.

“I hope it’s not just the trailers,” Atif responded over the phone — and yes, it’s not.

One often expects singers and pop icons to take up roles that cash in their vocation in their acting debuts. Atif — or rather his debut in the Shoaib Mansoor-directed film Bol — already did that in 2011.

“I wouldn’t call that acting. That role was just a value addition to Bol,” Atif said. “There was a lot of editing as well, a lot of my scenes weren’t included in Bol. The role wasn’t really fleshed out, given the subject of the story,” he explained.

Now, Hilmand is a different story; a sharp, young man who lives a dervish’s life in the confines of a graveyard, who dances around fires, but stands against injustice (the second episode homes in on Hilmand’s astuteness during a jirga).

“I love the fact that people are calling me a villain. I’d like to keep the character’s real character a mystery. Let people switch on their TV sets and wait [for the character to spell itself out],” he said. “I was in the role for a good 45-50 days. Actually, I stayed Hilmand even after the shooting wrapped up.”

The shoot started on August 13, 2021 and finished by December 6. The entire series was shot in 77 Days in villages around Bughadh Mang and Sumn in Azad Kashmir, including a 12-day shoot in Islamabad.

Did Atif take up any acting classes for the roles, or were his experiences of doing music videos enough to take on such a diverse character?

“I was actually watching a lot of Netflix. When everyone was hit by Covid-19, there was nothing else to do,” Atif replied.

It’s a strange way to attune one’s senses as an actor, but to each his own, I guess.

“The fact that I didn’t adopt any acting pattern is what made me act naturally as Hilmand,” Atif elaborated.

The script made it quite easy for him to get into the role, he said. “When I write lyrics and vocalise them into songs, they’re very poetic by nature. Hilmand’s manner of speaking is also very poetic. There is a rhythmic tone to it,” he said.

“I know it’s a very cliched line that ‘I was waiting for the right script’ but this was absolutely the right script I was waiting for all these years,” he said, embracing the cliché.

Those who have the luxury to choose scripts prefer sullying their hands on television and then, after exercising their acting skills, jump on to films. Is that the reason he took Hilmand and not the film roles he is often approached to do?

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe in these things. In fact, I didn’t even know that I would one day become a singer!” Atif responded with a slightly dismissive tenor in his voice.

“Kya chhota parda, kya barra parda, kya chhota gaana, kya barra gaana, kya film ka gaana, kya pop gaana! [What small screen or big screen, what small song or big song, what film song or pop-song!]. What I know is that whatever endeavour you put your heart into connects with the audience,” he said.

“Yes, it was a challenge, and I won’t say I was ready for it. I was anxious. There was anxiety. Kya hoga, kaisay hoga. Director kaisa hai, loag kaisay hain. Saamnay jo actors hain, woh kitnay barray barray giants hain, loag kya kahengay [What will happen, how will the project pan out. What is the director like, what are the rest of them like. How will I perform in front of giants of the medium, what will people say],” he said, listing off his apprehensions. “And then, you know, there would be inevitable questions such as ‘your singing career is still in its prime, why would you take the panga [unwarranted challenge] of acting’?

“But playing Hilmand of Sang-i-Mah wasn’t a panga for me. I wanted to do it, and I have thoroughly enjoyed doing it,” he said. “Actually, it was very easy for me, because everyone made me comfortable. I had heard a lot of things about Noman [Ijaz] bhai being difficult to work with and all that. I found him to be a thorough gentleman. He complimented me a lot, and told me to continue acting. He has been acting for years now, so coming from him that’s something.”

Noman Ijaz wasn’t available for comment when Icon approached him for this piece. In fact, given the hectic run-up to the premiere, most of the actors either weren’t in the mood to comment, or couldn’t be lined up for interviews on time. Kubra Khan was not in Pakistan and didn’t respond back to messages; Hania Aamir, too, couldn’t be traced.

Samiya Mumtaz, however, was more than accommodating. She was supposed to fly to Karachi for the premiere, but something or the other prevented it.

Samiya plays the all-important role of Zarsanga, Atif Aslam and Zaviyar Ijaz’s mother. There were some points the actress couldn’t divulge because the story pans out in the first few episodes, she told me over the phone.

Explaining whatever she could of the role, she says that what makes her character different is that Zarsanga is not submissive, and is questioning of why certain rivayaat [cultural practices] exist and how people are being affected by them.

“Zarsanga isn’t the kind of passive mother who just lives as part of the children’s lives,” Samiya elaborated. “Her own life defines her children’s lives — especially Hilmand’s,” she said. “Because of his mother, he is driven to bitterness, and wants to get even with the world.”

The focus of the show, however, is not just on Hilmand’s character, Samiya said. “All characters are central to the story in a way. They’re all a little quirky. They all have unexpected personalities and unconventional ways of thinking and behaviour. Nobody is living a stereotypical role. They all have a sense of humour too. Their relationships define their decisions,” Samiya explained.

Like Atif, Samiya was in love with the script. Apart from the uncliched take on the story, she says that there is genuine humour to be found in the scenes, if one is looking for it.

“Mustafa [Afridi] is very funny in his own subtle way. His sense of humour reflects the way he thinks. It’s very tongue-in-cheek, in a way that, if you get the humour, you’ll love it but, if you don’t, then you’ve not missed out on much.

“The script is very reflective of Mustafa’s personality, because he is a multi-faceted person himself. He has an interest in music, literature and history and through his characters, he’s brought a lot of himself out.

“Since Mustafa hails from [the north], it’s not as if it is an outsider writing about an unfamiliar story or territory, so the material has authenticity,” Samiya said.

Samiya told me that she has known Saife Hasan for years, but this is the first time they are working together. What’s even funnier, she said, is that this is the first time she is working with Sania Saeed as well.

Saife is a very unstressed but involved director who communicates very well with the actors and knows the material inside out, she said. “Us ne ghol kay piya hota hai [He has literally consumed it]. There are times when we are there learning lines, and he prompts us with the right dialogue without a script. This doesn’t happen with most directors.”

Saife, of course, is all this and then some. We connected time and again for short bits of conversations; as an actor, he is in high demand. We finally talked the night before this interview was sent to print. The time was past 2:30am.

In a detailed conversation, he told me that ‘Ghagh’ — a cultural practice of forced marriage, where a man fires three shots in front of a woman’s house, claiming her for himself — is a crucial point in the story (it’s the high point of the cine cut).

Ghagh’s practice was outlawed by the government in 2012 but, in 2016, some 100-odd cases were reported, he said. It was then that they — Momina Duraid, Mustafa Afridi and himself — started thinking about the idea.

Saife has been involved with the project since the get go, explaining the origins of a script called Daasi which became Sang-i-Mar Mar, that’s set in the same tribal background and how that led to the idea of doing three stories in the same setting. Sang-i-Mah, he confirmed, is the second with a concept by the title of Sang-i-Siyaah being the eventual third in the series.

Sang-i-Mah is an original idea that took Mustafa Afridi years to finish. There was a lot of back and forth, writer’s blocks and rewrites, Saife told me. “But that is the way [Mustafa] writes,” he said.

“Hilmand was a bit of a novelty as a character, so we were not looking for actors one often sees in television,” Saife said.

Casting eventually settled on Bilal Ashraf, but the production couldn’t start on time and Bilal had other commitments. Then Momina came up with the idea of Atif Aslam doing the role, he said.

When they first met, Atif told Saife that he knew of the director’s amiable nature but that, when it came to his performance as Hilmand, Saife should be as blunt as possible, if need be.

Atif is a very concerned actor. In fact, he is still hounding Saife to dub a scene he may have fumbled in. Saife can’t recall the scene Atif was referring to as we speak.

One can see Atif’s dedication on the big screen — but Sang-i-Mah is bigger than Atif Aslam, the pop star-turned-actor who, as he himself confesses, is now bitten by the acting bug.

It’s a message, a story (that thankfully doesn’t drag), a showcase of across-the-board excellence in performance, and production quality. And yet still, it’s something bigger than all of that.

It is — from what I’ve seen so far — a drama, in the way dramas were once made during the golden age of television. It’s entertainment that, despite all of its high-brow preachings, promises to be primarily that: entertainment.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 16th, 2022