16 Feb, 2022

The winding roads between Karachi and Larkana are scary. Tilting, swerving, narrowing down mile by mile until the double road turns single, and a line of bambooed flags separate the newly cemented concrete road from the sloping ditches on either side.

It is common, I am told by the driver — a genial, accommodating guy named Jamal, who braves these roads back and forth at least thrice every week — to see tumbled trucks and toppled cars.

And sure enough, near Jamshoro, a truck, possibly over-bulked, lay on its side, ignored by the traffic as if it were part of the rocky scenery. Near the mountains outlining Sehwan, a speeding hatchback turns turtle thrice over, a hundred feet in front of our car. The roads at night are much scarier, I am told; the only lights one sees come from vehicles that speed at you.

The cast and crew of the new serial Badshah Begum, set to premiere near the end of the month at Hum TV, have been braving this route since October.

Icon goes on the Larkana sets of Badshah Begum, a fantasy serial about to unfurl on the airwaves. With no mothers-in-law in the story, plenty of ‘grey’ characters and a well-organised shooting schedule, it seems to be an exercise in pushing the boundaries of domestic television. Does producer Rafay Rashdi have something to prove?

A Kane and Able-like Shakespearean epic of a royal family’s embittered sibling rivalry, starring Zara Noor Abbas, Farhan Saeed, Ali Rahman and Yasir Hussain, and set in a fantastical, yet realistic territory called Peeraan Pur, the origins of Badshah Begum go back at least four years.

Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

In 2017, a young neophyte producer-director by the name of Rafay Rashdi — the son of former Sindh bureaucrat and one-time TV anchor Mehtab Rashdi — made a film called Thorra Jee Ley, that invoked the ire of film critics. It was a box-office bomb that shook him violently.

Forsaking what he already knew (professionally, Rafay holds a Masters degree in business systems analysis design from the University of London), he joined Moomal Productions, the production arm associated with Hum Network run by Moomal Shunaid, to gain firsthand experience of the television field. There he administered 15 projects as the general manager of productions, between June 2017 and October 2018.

The idea of Badshah Begum came sometime in between, first as a television serial, then as an OTT production, without any success (it was pitched to every network, including Zee5).

Sometime in 2019, the young filmmaker left Pakistan to expand his mind and learn how stuff professionally happens: he shifted to Ontario, Canada, worked from the ground up, eventually making it into the Film Union Association IATSE (‘The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada’; yes, it is a mouthful). The education was priceless.

Rafay returned to Pakistan because of Covid-19 and, in time, began reworking Badshah Begum. With his development process exhibiting a more ‘international’ approach, Badshah Begum may have turned into a difficult prospect to rebuff this time round. For example: on the show’s Instagram page, one can find early character and costume design sketches that look very similar to the end product. The show’s poster, revealed last week or so, has a very Game of Thrones-ish vibe.

The story got the attention of Momina Duraid and her banner MD Productions — another production arm of Hum Network. She loved the idea, and agreed to produce in a joint venture.

Design by Saad Arifi
Design by Saad Arifi

By February, with some dramatic tweaks, the series, written by Saji Gul (O Rangreza, Hangor S131), was green-lit for production. The shoot started by October, when the weather in Larkana — where Rafay’s vast familial estate lies — would be bearable.

Badshah Begum is an accurate, yet misleading title. It is not about a ‘Badshah’ and a ‘Begum’ (ie. king and queen), nor is it about an empress who takes over the crown (ala the misrepresentation of the title).

The story is about a ‘Pir’ named Shah Alam (Shahzad Nawaz), and the five children of his two dead wives. Shahzeb and his younger brother Murad (Farhan Saeed and Abul Hasan) live as the decision-makers in the fictional state of Peeraan Pur, along with their aunt Hakim Bi (Saman Ansari), the resident ‘Badshah Begum’ who handles women’s affair in the estate.

Rafay returned to Pakistan because of Covid-19 and, in time, began reworking Badshah Begum. With his development process exhibiting a more ‘international’ approach, Badshah Begum may have turned into a difficult prospect to rebuff this time round. For example: on the show’s Instagram page, one can find early character and costume design sketches that look very similar to the end product. The show’s poster, revealed last week or so, has a very Game of Thrones-ish vibe.

Shah Alam, having had his fill of his stature, had shifted to the city long ago (his reasons pan out in the series), where his other children, Jahan Ara, Roshan Ara and Shahmir (Zara Noor Abbas, Komal Meer, Hamza Sohail), are raised. Soon, the city dwellers are forced to return to their roots, and the two sets of children, who don’t get along, clash hard.

Two other important characters join the fray: one is Yasir Hussain’s Qaisar, a cousin to the brothers and sisters, and once the elder in line for the Pir title; the other is the city boy Bakhtiar (Ali Rahman), whose lovestruck nature lands him smack in the middle of this family feud.

The story – which Icon will not spoil – is an epic, but Rafay doesn’t like the ‘Shakespearean’ tag (the makers of Sang-i-Mah didn’t like the reference to the Bard as well).

The show is directed by Khizer Idrees, a well-known director of photography who has now graduated to directing dramas (he wrote and directed Laapata and lensed Manto, Verna and Superstar).

The cast was staying at Rashdi’s renovated haveli, which also doubles as the series’ royal household. Everyone else was stationed at the poshest hotel in the city. During their five-month long schedule, and the close-quartered stay, the cast became a family — and it showed.

“It took a lot to get here”, Rafay tells Icon when we finally sit down at a dinner table late one night. “As a filmmaker, you can make a film, put it out in cinemas, and expect box-office results, but in the medium of television there is a process that has to be followed. At the end of the day, this is all business, and you cannot just make a product and keep it for yourself,” he says, explaining the necessity of pre-selling a serial.

The young producer blames himself quite a bit on his past failure, and often thanks God Almighty, and then Momina, in the same breath. He also shrugs off questions about his cultural upbringing inspiring the setting of the story.

“This is a fantastical story set in a fantastical setting,” he reiterates time and again. Although he doesn’t say it, the Rashdi family share a similar royal stature as the family in Badshah Begum.

A day later, Momina Duraid echoes her producing partners’ responses. “It is all about the story,” she says. “For a change, there is no ‘saas’ [mother-in-law] in the drama. There is an aunt – but no saas,” she laughs, as we talk about the “risks” of this drama.

“Risk,” by the way, is the other repeated word I’ve heard time and again on set. The first one is “grey”.

“There is a general impression that the masses will not digest anything other than mainstream stories — that it would not get TRPs [Television Ratings Points],” Momina says. “And in stories like this, there is a thin line between being commercial and non-commercial. Walking that line is a challenge,” she exclaims.

With Parizaad and Sang-i-Mah, the network seems to be tilting towards stories that feature a more balanced approach to gender. While Badshah Begum may be deemed a female-centric drama because of the title, it is actually an ensemble piece, Zara Noor Abbas tells me sitting at the same dinner table the next morning.

“There are, at least, 10 lead characters who become intertwined by their actions,” she says. “Almost all of these characters are grey,” she explains, being as cryptic as she can.

This is a role she wouldn’t have been able to do four years ago, when we first met at the set of Parey Hut Love, she admits. Badshah Begum is the first project Zara signed after taking a year off since the heartbreaking loss of her child (Zara delivered a five-month-old baby boy, she discloses). Somehow, she is not the same bubbly Zara, she tells me; she is much more mature, and perhaps that strength and calmness has helped her craft Jehan Ara’s evidently sober character.

“I don’t have the craving to do movies anymore,” she tells me; it should be about the role, what she’s doing with it, and not the medium.

In one of the two brief scenes she performs (her schedule was all but done), she talks with a slow, composed voice. Zara tells me that she is speaking from her stomach; the technique comes from theatre, and it is one of the many things she’s done for her role — including, learning how to load and shoot a gun.

Zara is all praise for her cast, but there are three names she drops constantly: Abul Hasan, Komal Meer and Hamza Sohail (actor Sohail Ahmed’s son). The last two play her younger siblings — a clean-cut, forward-thinking brother, and the very much “grey” sister.

There are many physical and ideological confrontations in Badshah Begum I’m told and, sure enough, an hour later, Farhan Saeed and Ali Rahman are standing face to face against each other in the courtyard of a mosque.

“I didn’t do the character I was offered. I wanted Shahzeb. This is a very edgy character with shades of grey that I wanted to explore as an actor,” Farhan asserts. There’s that ‘grey’ again.

“I’ve played the family guy, the romantic guy — not that I’m done with those characters — but when I was reading the script, Shahzeb pulled me towards him.” Farhan liked the character so much that he read scripts of the entire series twice.

“I honestly think that whatever he is doing is not wrong — and if I don’t believe it, I won’t be able to do it,” says Farhan. “How he may go about his actions is debatable, and how people will perceive him, I cannot say, but let me tell you this: the first time I did a romantic role, I had the whole field open to me. Then it narrowed when I did it a second time around. Now, with this character, the whole field is open to me again.”

Contrary to Farhan’s role, the perception of Ali Rahman’s character wouldn’t incite debate. He is the only ‘pure white’ character in this dark saga.

According to Ali, Bakhtiar is a “forward-thinking, casual and funny guy from the city, to whom ideas of culture and town life are very alien. He’s an emotionally intelligent person, in an intricate story. He’s the aashiq — the romantic. He has nothing to do with all of this, yet he does have a stake in this — but that’s all I am going to say,” Ali says.

A day later, I see Ali and Farhan’s characters at a funeral procession, facing off against Yasir Hussain’s presumed villain, Qaisar. The look certainly gives Yasir away: he sports dark sunglasses, beaded necklaces, a double-barrelled rifle, and a snide villainous smirk.

Doing a villain right after Javed Iqbal is coincidental, he tells me. Badshah Begum was originally offered to him before he did his critically acclaimed villain in Baandhi (coincidentally, also Rafay’s production). “Qaisar would have been my first negative character,” he says.

“There is a reason behind his negativity,” Yasir explains. “Once you get that, you might understand his actions — but at the same time, maybe not agree with them.

“I’m only interested in characters that have margins for exploration, otherwise I wouldn’t do them.” In his 14-year career, this is his fourth drama serial, he tells me. “I don’t see the number of scenes my character has. Only what the character is about.”

The following day, most of the cast were packed and ready to leave for Karachi. Four actors — Farhan, Yasir, Hamza and Shaheryar Ghazali, who plays Farhan’s friend in the series, were left to film an action sequence between Shahzeb and Qaisar. Azam Bhatti, the enthusiastic choreographer who staged the action for films Tich Button and Chakkar, was brought over from Karachi.

“The script originally didn’t have any fights, but I wanted a dangal, so I had one especially written,” Rafay whispers on the set.

Cars had lined up in a circle in the middle of nowhere. As the production set up shop, powering drones, Khizer, the director, paced the open field with one hand holding the other at his back. On his head was a makeshift headscarf that gave him an Arab look (“Here walks the Lebnani director,” he joked).

The cast huddled together under the shade of three mattresses propped up by light stands and their hands. An hour later, despite a small wound in Yasir’s hand, and his claims of “I can’t do this anymore”, the fight was on. The shoot ran all day.

While the drama is about Badshah Begum, there is much more here than meets the eye. What we have here is an exercise in pushing the boundary from within the system. Of utilising international practices — this is, by far, one of the most organised, schedule-abiding drama shoots I’ve seen. And, in the particular case of one Rafay Rashdi, of trying to prove himself.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 13, 2022