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Is Sang-e-Mah an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

A young man hellbent on getting revenge against his stepfather for the death of his father? Sounds pretty Shakespearean to us.
Published 05 Apr, 2022 09:36am

Shakespeare has repeatedly been translated and adapted for stage and screen the world over to ‘fit in’ with and explore relevant issues particular to different cultures and societies. Now it seems that Pakistani television dramas are also being inspired by and using Shakespearean plays as a means to bring forward cultural and societal concerns. I am alluding to the new drama serial on Hum TV, Sang-e-Mah.

Written by Mustafa Afridi, the drama has made waves and is the second in a trilogy, Sang e-Mar Mar (2016) being the first and Sang-e-Siyah yet to come. While some reviewers have picked up on Shakespearean undertones in the plot of Sang-e-Mah, and the idea of a revenge drama, there is less mention of exactly which Shakespearean tragedy is manifesting itself in this drama serial’s plot.

Sang-e-Mah is set in the tribal regions of Pakistan and explores the custom of revenge and ghag found among some Pakhtun tribes. The focus of the drama seems to be the act of ghag, which is an announcement, often dramatic, by a man of his intention to marry a woman, with the added ability to bring social ruin to the family of the woman. Within this cultural context is the character of Hilmand, played by Atif Aslam, who is seeking revenge from his stepfather for his father’s murder. In a flashback scene, Hilmand is shown to overhear a conversation between his stepfather Maarjan Khan (Naumaan Ejaz) and Guru Baksh, the hakim, who reminds Maarjan Khan that he owes him a favour because many years ago Maarjan Khan had obtained a deadly poison from him to kill Nasrullah Khan, Hilmand’s father.

He also reveals that he knows the reason why Maarjan Khan did so: he wanted to — and did, rather quickly — marry Nasrullah Khan’s widow. Any ideas which Shakespearean tragedy is being picked up here? It certainly appears that Shakespeare’s Hamlet has inspired this production.

The characterisation and role of Hilmand seems to be quite Shakespearean in itself. Hilmand is portrayed as a Hamlet-like protagonist, a misfit in society, often speaking in verse, deliberately ruffling feathers (particularly his stepfather’s), asking philosophical questions on life and death and conversing with his dead father at his graveside — an improvisation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost?

The constant allusions by different characters to Hilmand’s ‘madness’ also become evocative of Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’. Putting together all these ideas, Sang-e-Mah certainly seems like an adaptation of Hamlet. And it is appropriate to use a play revolves around revenge to depict how revenge works in some sections of Pakhtun culture.

But if all this isn't enough to convince you, there is the biggest clue of all — in case those who are Hamlet-aware have missed it, in episode 9 Sheherzad (Kubra Khan) switches to English to quote from Hamlet. According to her "there is a method to [Hilmand’s] madness" and "there is something rotten in Laspiran". Sheherzad is pointing to the rationality behind Hilmand’s behaviour. He is, as he divulges to his aunt Zarghuna (Sania Saeed), just hellbent on ‘intekam’, avenging his father’s murder, even to the extent of announcing ghag on his female cousin. Seen in this light, the "something rotten" can be understood as a comment on the act of ghag itself, which, at times used so lightly, has the power to ruin a woman’s life in Pakhtun society.

For theatre-lovers, it should be a real treat to see theatre manifesting itself on Pakistani television screens. There is something decidedly Shakespearean about this production which explores important issues in contemporary Pakistani society.