In times where an overwhelming majority of our serials feature female-centric stories, that women might have zero agency therein is a whole other story, A-Plus’ latest offering Bhai comes as a much needed breath of fresh air. Set in the picturesque muhallas of inner-city Lahore, Bhai is written by Afifa Muhammad and directed ‘n produced by Shoaib Khan. Aptly titled, this is the story of Ashraf, who is not only bhai to his four younger siblings, but is also the de facto bhai of the muhalla, complete with a retinue of small-time local ghundas who look up to him as their gang leader.
The serial opens with a panoramic view of the city of Lahore zooming in on one particular rooftop where Ashraf, a local councillor, is busy feeding his birds. That he has so many already is not the way this man thinks, for him it is not about the bird in hand it’s always about the other two in the bush. His thrill lies in the hunt; the hapless bird perched on the ledge never stood a chance as the experienced hunter swooped down on his prey. Reveling in the joy of ownership as he clips the wings of his newest possession, Ashraf adds yet one more bird to his collection. Intercut neatly are shots of Jawad, his righthand man, criss-crossing the busy inner-city streets of Lahore as he comes up to tell Ashraf that a certain property of his has been unlawfully occupied. On hearing this news there is no holding back Ashraf and both set out purposefully to teach the occupant a lesson. Locating Ashraf geographically and situating him contextually this fabulous opening sequence sets up the premise of this story brilliantly.
Ashraf is the eldest son of Munir and Shakila. From all that has transpired so far, it is clear that Ashraf is very much his father’s son, taking over his father’s affairs after Munir suffered a stroke. Now with Munir paralysed there is no stopping Ashraf as he expands his ‘business’. Shakila has little or no say in the affairs of the father and son, and can only stand by and watch in despair as she sees her older son wreak havoc not just outside the house, but also on the inside. Khadija’s recent divorce is a prime example of her helplessness, where she could do nothing but watch as a silent bystander as Ashraf cornered Sufiyan, goading him on to the point where he got mad and break off his nikah.
Apart from Ashraf, Munir and Shakila have four other children, none of whom are remotely like their uncouth older brother. Khadija, Rubab and Saira are very close and the younger one, in particular, wants to study further, an ambition fully supported by her mother and brother. Hammad is highly educated, a quiet man who takes after his mother, possessing adab and shaistagi, qualities which seem to have completely bypassed Ashraf.
Like the birds whose wings he’s clipped, Ashraf sees the women in his family too as caged birds: without any free will, who should do things only when he decrees them and step out of the house only when he deems it appropriate. He has no regrets about his role in breaking off his sister’s nikah and sees no reason for Saira to attend college. Given this equation between them, it is no surprise then that these women look to the other man, Hammad, as their source of support. Try as he might, he carries no real clout in terms of household affairs but still his presence offers hope and a possible way out in the future.
As male siblings with completely opposite natures, it is but natural that there be jealousy mixed in with envy, and exist it does. Ashraf’s constant attempts to put Hammad down, making little of his accomplishments and education, betray the fact that bhai has issues and insecurities but so aggressive is his demeanor that it is almost impossible to get a confirmed read. Hammad, in comparison, has a softer personality and is somewhat unassertive. This contrast in their personalities has helped maintain an uneasy truce in the household, one that has held up for all these years, but now with Ifra’s entry in their midst things seem to be stirring up pretty fast.
Ifra is like no other woman Ashraf has ever seen. The ones he knows are those in his family, compliant and scared. That he forced them to bend to his will, by brute violence if necessary, is a bitter irony that escapes him. Ifra is the complete opposite. Beautiful, bold and confident, Ifra is the only daughter of a college professor. The very qualities that he abhors in his sisters are the very things he professes to admire in Ifra- auraton ki Ashraf is how he dreamily describes her to his crony Jawad. But too much of her boldness and much like that free bird on the ledge Ifra has now turned into a challenge for a hunter like Ashraf. The more she refuses to succumb the more attraction she holds for him. This is no longer about his love for her – it is now about clipping her wings and caging her.
Where Ashraf’s clumsy attempts, to woo her, have failed miserably, Ifra finds herself very taken with Hammad’s quiet ways. Her father, Hammad’s senior colleague, too is very fond of him and trusts him implicitly with his daughter. As for Hammad he too declares himself in love with her, something his mother warns him can only lead to destruction within the family. With both brothers interested in the same girl things are shaping up to get quite ugly. Who blinks first is yet to unfold.
With a male protagonist at its center, the story reads very differently. We rarely, if ever, get to see a father son relationship from a male perspective where they talk about things other than shadi, pyar and biwi. Also interesting is the dynamic between the two brothers, a sibling rivalry poised on the brink of something dark and dangerous. The camaraderie between Ashraf and Jawad, they share a master-apprentice equation, imparts a different kind of flavor to the narrative. And because it is male-centric, the story also moves out of the inner sanctum of the chaar-diwari and we see busy bazaars and narrow bylanes and hear about business dealings, all from the viewpoint of a man who demands the respect of those around him.
Five episodes in, it is to director Shoaib Khan’s credit for maintaining narrative pace and tension right from the get go. Cinematography by Shehryar makes Bhai a visual delight; the outdoor locations are captured beautifully and add a lot of grit to the onscreen narrative The editing is generally okay, but at times, particularly when the scenes are intercut, between the outside and the inside, the transition becomes very choppy. The sound editing seems to be equally clunky, particularly when bhai’s signature tune is intercut with silence or some other music. In the latest episode, the theme song came on at the right time, but it was not only too loud but started and ended very abruptly as well. I hope the editing people will take a serious look at these issues and sort them out ASAP. Another problem is the overdone makeup; I don’t get why Saboor needs to have fully made up eyes 24/7. Lighting is another issue, particularly with Affan Waheed; he has either turned into a strange zombie-sh shade of grey/white with bright red lips or the lighting needs to get better.
These technical irritants aside, if for nothing else Bhai is worth a watch just for the heavy duty lineup of actors, some of the best in the business. Salman Shahid, Nouman Ijaz, Simi Raheal, Adnan Shah Tipu, all of these actors are in a class all by themselves and to see them together is an absolute treat. Hard though it is pick one favourite among these, Nouman Ijaz in particular is outstanding as bhai. Affan Waheed is very good here and is very well-suited as Hammad. Maha Warsi continues to grow as an actress and she’s come a long way, I am looking forward to seeing her character evolve. The three sisters, Zoya Malik, Ayesha Khan and Saboor Ali are doing well and I enjoy the bonding between them.
Tackling the issues of patriarchy, male honor, societal hypocrisy and double standards, so far Bhai has turned out to be a great watch and I, for one, am hooked and looking forward to seeing what happens from hereon forward.
Finally, as I sign off, my one big request to A-Plus would be to please upload their original videos online in a timely manner. So far their dailymotion page has uploaded only the first three episodes, leaving me no choice but to watch poor quality videos on other forums. Could someone please look into this matter? Thanks!
Written by SZ~
Bhai ~ OST sung by Javed Basheer, Akbar Ali & Beena