In his classic Manteq-at Tair, translated into English as the Conference of the Birds, the 12th c Persian poet Farid ud-din Attar details the journey of a group of birds who gather together and set out in their quest to seek their fabled, almost mythical king. According to the allegorical framework, the birds fly a little way, and then formally adopt the hoopoe bird as their leader, who tells them that their king – the simurgh – does indeed exist but that he lives far away and the journey to him is hazardous. The bulk of the poem then deals with the journey of the birds that takes them through the seven valleys of Quest, Love (ishq), Understanding, Independence and Detachment (fana), Unity (vasl), Wonderment (haira), and finally Poverty and Nothingness (baqa).
In the valley of the Quest one undergoes a hundred difficulties and trials. After one has been tested and become free, one learns in the valley of Love that ishq has nothing to do with reason, aql. The valley of Understanding teaches that knowledge is temporary, but understanding endures. Overcoming faults and weaknesses brings the wayfarer closer to the goal. At the stage of fana, the seeker has no desire to possess nor any wish to discover. Here, the traveler must be roused from apathy to renounce inner and outer attachments so that he can become self-sufficient. In the valley of Unity, the hoopoe announces that although the seeker may see many beings, in reality there is only one, which is complete in its unity.
As long as there is separation, good and evil will arise; but when the seeker loses himself in the divine essence, he will be transcended by love. When vasl is achieved, one forgets all and is lost in haira. Baqa is almost impossible to describe. In the immensity of the divine ocean, the pattern of the present world and the future world dissolves. It is only after the individual self realizes that it does not really exist, that the drop loses itself in the ocean and finds eternal peace.
Of the thousands of birds that started out, only thirty reach their destination. When the light of lights is manifested and they are at peace, these birds realize that the Simurgh they were seeking is no other than them (also a brilliant play on words, si-murgh means thirty birds in Persian). The Beloved was always within; He only needed the lover to find him. Attar concludes with the admonition that so long as we do not realize our nothingness and do not renounce self-pride, vanity, and self-love, we will never complete the journey from wujood to zaat – shehr-e zaat will remain forever elusive.
The Falak we met today is one of those blessed ones who have found that elusive zaat. Like the si-murgh in Attar’s allegory, she too has successfully traversed this very difficult path and has now recognized that the Beloved she sought was always around her, she was the one blind to all His manifestations. Now she sees His munificence reflected in the verdant trees, the melodious chirping of the birds, the animal quietly lapping away at his milk, and the taste of food – all seem to be lisaan-ul haal, sharing in her joy of discovery of the jaa ba ja yaar.
Just as Falak is beginning to enjoy this new tranquil phase of her life, Salman seems to be stepping into a parallel universe where now he is the one standing in front of the mirror. He finds himself asking pretty much the same questions that Falak has asked of him so many eons ago: Why? How? Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong? The answers, which had been hard to find then, remain equally elusive now.
Another person also standing in front of the mirror is Mehrunnisa. Unlike Salman, who is only now stepping on the path, her daughter’s suffering has shaken Mehrunnisa to the very core of her being. In the past few weeks we’ve seen her grow as well. The process of khud ehtesaabi is very difficult and painful, because it involves facing up to all the bitter truths that we try to hide in the darkest deepest recesses of our minds. As she so very eloquently puts it, it may not be easy to forgive, but it is even harder to acknowledge mistakes and to own up to the error of our ways. Here, we see a very different Falak offering consolation and holding out hope for her mother as she says: Allah se ruju karne main kaisa pachtawa, us ke paas tau guzrey huey kal ke maafi bhi hai aur aaney wale kal ka inaam bhi. Hardships such as those faced by Mehrunnisa are not punishments, rather difficulties of the path, as illustrated by Falak’s story and explained by the poet Attar.
Whether Falak should have returned to Salman or not, is a question I’m still debating. I had originally hoped that once she signed the divorce papers, Falak would never look back. But the way it transpired here, I guess it made sense within the context of the story. That said, I really appreciated how Falak was able to share all her misgivings with naani, who in turn heard her out very patiently and then offered her advice. What I have really appreciated here is the way the adults interact with the younger generation, or rather the writer and director converse with their viewers. There is a genuine sense of a dialogue, never an attempt at imposing views or forcing prescriptive opinions.
The Falak who returned to her house today was a far cry from the Falak who had first come here as a giddy young bride; this was also a different woman from the broken shattered Falak who left the house in an ambulance after suffering a nervous breakdown; and this is also a whole other person when compared to the relatively stronger but still shaken Falak who left the house after her encounter with the lovebirds Salman and Tabinda. This is a Falak who has been to hell and back, and is now entering the house on her terms. This Falak is not a coy girl with stars in her eyes; this is a woman who knows where she’s come from and where she’s headed. Her shattering of Salman’s statue is a significant metaphor for her breaking off all ties to her past, when she, as a besotted young girl, had equated a mere mortal with divinity. Falak’ journey was now complete – she had found her shehr-e zaat.
The last scene, a happy Falak opening the windows of her already well-lit house to let more sunlight in, was a stunning visual harkening back to a scene in the earlier episodes when a very troubled naani had to push aside the heavy curtains and open windows to light up her very dark bedroom in Mehrunnisa’s house. Yes, God does indeed work in mysterious ways and as naani said, if all this hadn’t happened Falak would probably have been leading a life similar to that of her mother’s social lifestyle– constantly running on the hamster’s wheel and getting nowhere.
Watching Falak with her daughter was so very heartwarming. She was warm and attentive, but lovingly firm, as she asked her daughter about her namaaz. Yes, the mistakes of the past are not going to be repeated here. None of the lessons learned during the arduous journey have been squandered. What I loved was that we were left with visuals of Falak making clay figures with her daughter. Yes, indeed, it is the nazar that matters – be it the silly fantasy of an immature girl imbuing a piece of stone with many meanings, or one look from a heartless beloved which can shatter the lover’s heart, or that one benevolent glance from God, that one nazar can and does alter lives forever.
Today’s episode brought an end to one of the most thought-provoking serials in recent times. Embedded with layers of meaning and so many literal and visual connotations, this one challenged us out of our stupor and compelled us to pause, think, reflect and re-visit – concepts that we rarely if ever associate with what is dished out as entertainment these days. Umera Ahmed deserves a huge round of applause for having the heart to make so many changes in her original novella. The fleshing out of existing characters and the addition of new ones added so much texture to an already compelling story.
Looking for Allah or searching for that elusive notion of zaat is a concept hard enough to pen down, but to present it visually and to convey all the nuances of the text and the subtext is a doubly challenging task. This was not an easy story to tell, and to present it in a way that not only preserved its essence but actually enhanced it is a feat few could have managed so successfully. I was a Sarmad Khoosat fan before, but after this am happy to call myself a certified groupie.
Right from the opening sequence, the magnificent shots of the decaying Makli necropolis, each scene has been noteworthy. Just off the top of my head, Falak on her jhoola, Falak on her naani’s lap saying dil ajeeb shai hai naani, Falak, Mehrunnisa and naani’s group hug, both beach scenes, Falak’s breakdown in the bathroom, the mard darwaza hai scene, Falak’s junoon about israaf, her confrontation with Tabinda and Salman, all were special sequences. Along with Sarmad, kudos to Khizar Idrees for his brilliant camerawork. Shehr-e Zaat would not have looked half as beautiful as it did without his efforts. Excellent, excellent job by Sarmad and his team.
In terms of acting, Shehr-e Zaat represents Mahira Khan’s coming of age as an actress. I thought she was a pretty face in Bol, a lost cause in Neeyat and average in Humsafar, and so really wasn’t expecting fireworks here. But, boy oh boy has she made me eat my words! She has been absolutely stellar as Falak. Absolutely loved her here!
Hina Bayat and Samina Peerzada were outstanding- don’t have the words anymore to praise them. Mikaal Zulfiqar was really hot and cool as the loser husband – I’m not sure how he managed that feat, but he did succeed in making Salman a memorable character. Nadia Afgan was the surprise package here – what an absolute delight she is! Missed her terribly in the final episode and wished we could’ve known more about the fights between Tabinda and Salman, but oh well! I do hope though that we get to see more of this powerhouse actress. Mansha Pasha, Mohib Mirza, Seemi Pasha, Munawar Saeed, and Shazia Afgan, all brought that something extra to the table. Not to be forgotten here, another key player, Abida Parveen’s amazing rendition of Hazrat Shah Niaz’s kalaam, added a whole other mystical dimension to the overall ambiance.
The creative and technical aspects remained top notch all along. I just wish we could start moving away from the tendency to overlay each and every scene with music. Perhaps we need to revisit the old adage: khamoshi ki bhi aik zubaan hoti hai, or silence is worth a thousand words. That said, 7th Sky Entertainment and MD Productions deserve acknowledgment for backing this lovely project.
Shehr-e Zaat has wrapped up leaving behind much for us to chew on and reflect. How far along we are in our journey and how much more to go is entirely dependent on us, the mirror has been held up – are we willing to step out of the rat race and pause long enough to see the truth reflecting back at us?
Written by SZ~
Shehr-e Zaat ~ OST