In my last post on Mera Naam Yousuf Hai I had commented on the real-world social implications of Khalil ur Rehman Qamar’s filmi glorification of a roadside romeo’s infatuation as a spiritual love story, and had highlighted the negative impact of such representations. I had also noted the writer’s casual normalizing of various words and phrases generally considered impolite and inappropriate, and had questioned the point of a serial which bore more than few passing resemblances to his other recently aired projects.
Seven weeks later, my stance on Khalil sahab’s problematic romanticizing, the familiar frame story, predictable plot-points, and choice of register remains unchanged. It would, however, be churlish to not applaud his insightful characterization and incisive take on the hypocrisies that prevail in our patriarchal social set up, and then within this framework his questioning of whether it is indeed the men who call the shots. Moreover, it is the writer’s sensitive representation of the many faces of societally sanctioned domestic violence, the emotional toll of systematic abuse, and its symptomatic presentation, in not just the abused partner but the entire family, that have compelled me to revisit this serial.
To recap, the bare bones plot is as basic as that of a boy sees girl, boys falls in love at first sight, with her name, mind you, girl with that name is not impressed, boy stalks said girl, tries to convince her of his divinely inspired ‘ishq wala love, girl remains unmoved. That the girl shows zero, zip interest in him and his love does not bother the boy, after all he is the Yousuf to her Zulekha.
Abhi tau Yousuf hadn’t even made it beyond salam dua phase with Zulekha, ke the zalim samaj makes its presence felt, as in we are introduced to two other contenders for our heroine’s hand. From hereon, the hero’s task is twofold: to continue convincing the lady of his love and fight off his raqeebs, one among whom is the girl’s abba’s handpicked choice. We are now at a point where the zalim samaj is doing its bestest to ensure this love story does not have one of those and-they-lived-happily-ever-after kinda ending.
Fleshing out this skeletal, to say nothing of mundane, plot is a rich array of beautifully etched characters. Where I do not give two hoots about whether they end up together or not, and even as my jaw clenches every time there is talk of the sanctity of Yousuf’s love for Zulekha, I cannot help but be drawn into the emotionally turbulent world of the characters that surround these two characters.
When we had first met Afia, Zulekha’s mother, she appeared to be the one whose was the last word in all things family related. She was vivid, full of life, had a sharp tongue, and did not hesitate to call out maulvi Noor Muhammad, her husband, for his hypocrisies and double standards. Maulvi sahab, on the other hand, seemed to be all hot air, a man who commanded respected everywhere else but home, where he had no choice but to listen to his sharp-witted wife poke fun at him and his family. But that was then.
What we are now seeing is quite the obverse. Maulvi sahab is no bheegi billi and neither is Afia quite as in charge as she had first appeared to be. Beautifully woven into the main narrative is the tragedy of Afia begum’s life, one that began with a beautiful, refined and educated young girl’s forcibly arranged marriage to a perhaps older, uncouth, less-educated man. Where she spoke the language of aap janab he inhabit a world where words like munh tor doonga and gala daba doonga were commonplace. He married her knowing she was romantically involved elsewhere but the high that came from owning someone else’s object of desire was reason enough for maulvi sahab. Afia’s facetiousness and sarcasm is not because she rules over the household, it is precisely because she doesn’t.
Afia spent her marital life being systematically abused by her husband. Her doomed love affair, higher education, and tehzeeb, all became effective weapons for him to use against her. His elder sister, probably similarly insecure in front of her gorgeous bhabhi, egged her brother on. It was all about teaching this woman her rightful place in their world. Helpless in a way that most women in our desi society are, Afia can only lash out verbally, her sharp tongue her only line of defense and her protection.
Noor Muhamad and Afia’s children grew up seeing their mother belittled and abused by their father and his family. Wali, the older son, grew up to be a photocopy of his father. From what he saw and imbibed, pulling his sisters’ hair, threatening them with bodily harm, pushing and shoving them, all were socially acceptable, actually desirable, traits for men to posses. The daughters, on the other hand, had in front of them their mother and her travesty of a marriage as their model. Hence Zulekha’s cynicism and questioning of Yousuf’s love, her declared wish to marry a partner of her choice, and her encouraging Hajra to continue studying.
Though they girls might’ve never been physically abused, he said pehley kabhi nahin maara, till the time he slapped Zulekha after her conversation with her phupho, it was obvious that these girls were so used to emotional abuse and the threat of physical violence, that when it actually did happen, it was not as shocking as it might’ve been to someone else. Afia, though, was horrified. Though she had been unable to protect herself she had done her level best to ensure her daughters’ safety. And to see this happening was worse than a body blow.
For her to now want to protect her daughter by coaxing her to run away, pushing her towards a man who she knows will value her as an individual, makes perfect sense, now that we have the context of her life. Afia is not aiding and abetting Yousuf in his quest to get his Zulekha, nor is she doing this to upstage maulvi sahab for personal satisfaction, rather this a petrified mother protecting her daughter the only way she can, ensuring Zulekha’s safety by entrusting her to Yousuf, Wajih’s son.
I have been a huge fan of Hina Bayat’s from the get go, but this time around her Afia has completely blown me away. For those who were as turned off by the earlier episodes as I was, I would urge you to check out episode 13, if nothing else. This is Hina at her best. I don’t think anybody could’ve played this very complex character with as much insight and empathy. The glimmer of tears behind every smile, the strong, confident front, which is actually just that, a front for the very scarred and hurt Afia. Her flinches, the way she visibly crumbles at the first slap on Zulekha’s face, and how it takes a third slap to literally shock her into reacting -all just fabulous!
Domestic violence does not happen in a vacuum. Given the context of our patriarchal desi culture, in many households this is a socially acceptable way for a man to behave. Here we see the older sister pushing and encouraging her younger brother to keep his wife under his control. The same woman cannot stand it when Noor Muhammad slaps Imran Mughees, or snaps at her daughter, but all is kosher when comes to the “other woman”and her children. Were Zulekha to have come in to this family, she too would have undoubtedly become another Afia, the abused wife of a weak-willed man used to blindly following a strong woman’s diktats.
Like Imran Mughees, Noor Muhammad and his son, Wali, too are fundamentally weak men. Tough looking, with heavy beards, bulging eyes, and hulking physiques, nobody looking at this father and son duo would question their mardangi and sakht tabiyeet, but put them in a room with Bushra and Tehmina and they turn into dribbling, drooling babies, with just as much sense. And this is where Khalil-ur Rehman’s understanding of human psychology shines through.
An important question raised is whether it is still valid to call our social set up a patriarchal one when we see how easily women like Kausar, Bushra, Tehmina make men do their bidding. Khalil sahab’s answer, as I read it, is as simple as it is complicated: Patriarchy exists and thrives because men and women participate equally in this process of preserving perpetuating outdated ideas and ideals. At its very basic, patriarchy is nothing more than a set of traditional social structures, ghar, khandan, biradari to illustrate the case here. Hence, khandan ko jorey rakhna, khandan ki beti, khandan ki izzat, ghar i bahu, all become equated with a shared sense of honor; to preserve this honor and ensure its unsullied reputation is an implicitly stated responsibility incumbent not only upon the men but women as well.
Hence we see Zulekha always conscious of her abba ki izzat, Afia constantly mindful of her husband’s honor, and Wajih telling off his son for dishonoring Zulekha. At the same time we also have the likes of Kausar who deriver power from their position as the khandan ki bari and manipulate the notion of khandan ki izzat to settle their own personal rivalries – in this case to neecha dikhana to Afia by whatever means possible.
This is Mehreen’s fourth full-fledged serial in a row (Mata-e Jaan, Rehaai, Jackson Heights and Mera Naam Yousuf Hai) which highlights the issue of domestic abuse. Managing this deceptively simple love story, making these written intricacies come alive on screen, ensuring the subtleties all shine through is a feat only a director as experienced as Mehreen could’ve managed so beautifully, and making it all look so effortless to boot. Not only does her expertise come through in terms of the silken smooth visual narration, but also in the performances she’s managed to extract from her entire cast.
Maya Ali is a revelation, her dialogue delivery has improved by leaps and bounds and she’s looking stunning here, so wish she’d carried this forward into Diyar-e Dil as well. Imran Abbas is another one who has really impressed, it’s been a while since he’s been this actively engaged with a character. Mansha Pasha seemed to have gotten lost for a while with all the mundane serials she was doing, but here her Madiha is a class apart. Waseem Abbas, Behroze Sabzwari, Parveen Akbar, Farah Nadeem, Mizna Waqas, Taqi Ahmad, Ali Sheikh, Azam Khan, and the rest of the supporting cast all shine in their respective roles.
Adding that touch of class to this beautifully executed package is the editing and sound – techies responsible please take a bow! The sound design, the background sound, the choice of songs playing in the blackground (Noor Jahan’s hamare saanson mein aaj tak hina ki khushboo when Wajih entered Zulekha’s house – wah!), the judicious use of the OST – all fabulous! I would HIGHLY recommend that an episode of this serial be used for training sound people.
Mera Naam Yousuf would not be the serial it is without Qasim Ali Mureed’s cinematography. Every single scene, every individual frame is beautifully lit and captured, The slice of life scenes, play of shadows on walls, a splash of color in even the darkest [narrative wise] of scenes, all make this one such a visual delight. And as in every MJ serial, there are little, little things that make a huge impact on the overall scene. For instance, in one of Yousuf’s various jail scenes, where he is talking to a policeman (if I remember correctly), his cell mate is busy cleaning his ears – a minute detail, but it went such a long way in balancing out Yousuf’s lines about his ‘ishq and what not.
Yes, I’m happily back on board this Khalil sahab and MJ led rail gari wala safar. Having seen other similarly serious stories fail to grab eyeballs, I see why this issue-based serious story had to be penned under the guise of a love story, easier marketing etc, but I sincerely think that the writer has undermined his own writing, doing injustice to the story by drawing on familiar plot points and filling in preexisting older characters sketches with new colors. Had there been fresh framing and less emphasis on Khalil sahab’s favorite romantic trope I would’ve been less inclined to switch off.
Would it have been anybody else but Mehreen J and Hina B, I would’ve never bothered to look back, but because it was them I kept checking sporadically, till I happened to catch the scene where Zulekha was slapped by her father and Afia’s reaction to it, and that was that. Where the rest of the awam is busy debating the likelihood of Yousuf and Zulekha’s happy ending, I am interested in seeing how the writer bring’s closure to Afia’s character – she to me is the real hero of the story. Too often we’ve seen brilliantly written stories fall apart at the ending, dekhen yahan kya hota hai….
Written by SZ~