Five weeks in, Mor Mahal with its delicious blend of fact, fiction and fantasy is shaping up to be a seriously fun ride- serious because it is intellectually engaging and fun because of its intelligently done humor. Be it the regal manipulations of Badshah begum or the passive aggressive politicking of nawab nausha, Wazir begum’s underhanded games, nawab Shuja’at’s easily beguiled heart, Meher Bano’s ill-advised escapades, Shola Jan’s cat and mouse shenanigans or Akhtari’s shady voodoo, needless to say while the doings of the denizens of the Peacock Palace may never solve the socio-political problems plaguing society they are definitely good for the full on entertainment they provide.
Penned by Sarmad Sehbai, Mor Mahal is a tale of political intrigue and subterfuge, a story of ambitious and avaricious people. Residents of Peacock Palace are men and women not merely power hungry but the kind who actually relish the games they play in the process. Nawab Asif Jahan’s harem is not for the meek or the weak of heart, it is infact a place where only those with the sharpest of wits can survive. Poetry is eloquently quoted and phrases of love frequently employed by the nawab and his lady loves, but at the end of the day, however, words remain just that – words. Lineage is of utmost importance as are looks and money, all important weapons in the arsenal of those looking to move up the food chain. Marriages are merely tools, handy for mergers and alliances and fidelity is for the foolish. Mor Mahal is all about power and control.
While stories of kings and queens and their lust for power are neither new nor novel what makes this one an interesting watch is that this is not a vertical narrative; what we get in this horizontal mode of storytelling, which encompasses all classes of residents of Mor Mahal, is a fascinating perspective not otherwise accessible to the general audience: the view from the margins. In Mor Mahal we see the royals not just as they perceive of themselves but also as they appear through the eyes of those who surround them. Take for instance the matter of the uroosi kinari dupatta and the different reactions engendered by its disappearance. What was an issue of conceivable depth and gravity for the begums became a source of much mirth for Shola Jan and his friend, and by extension for viewers as well.
An important aspect of this inclusive mode of storytelling is that it serves as much needed corrective for the commonly held perception that women were merely decorative objects in the harems of yore. What we see unfolding here is a story of women who though beautiful enough to light up their surroundings can never be mistaken for lifeless decoration pieces.
Badshah begum is as sharp and as shrewd as they come – her hold on her realm (Mor Mahal and its residents including her son) is absolute, or at least she would like to think so. Wazir begum, on the other hand, has no problems envisioning herself as stepping into Badshah begum’s shoes, after all her son is the heir apparent. While the focus here is primarily on the struggle for power it is a well-established historical fact that several Mughal queens were shrewd businesswomen who engaged in their own dealings with foreign traders and some even had coins minted in their own names.
Quite unlike the contemporary saas bahu or doosri/teesri biwi fights which revolve around wanting the man’s attention, there is in fact a fascinating factual context to the power struggle going on here, where the stakes are much higher than merely desiring Asif Jahan’s undivided attention – for this they have their kaneezes.
On the issues of kaneezes and their relationships, it is again a fact grounded in history as to how much of an impact a wise maid/advisor’s counsel could and did have on how many events shaped up for posterity. Hence apart from the checks and balances kind of a relationship shared by Badshah begum and her sons, we see Shaista and Farrukh Zaad share a very close bond as do Banki and Meher Bano, there is not much that is hidden from these otherwise historically invisible figures.
The relationship that Badshah begum shares with Akhtari is almost symbiotic in nature, both needing and drawing strength and comfort from each other in ways that perhaps even they do not recognize consciously. Similarly the relationship between Asif Jahan and Dilawar Khan, his musheer. In moving these otherwise marginalized figures to the center of the narrative we get a fuller understanding of the mediation of authority and the distribution of power. Hence even though there have been figureheads throughout history there have seldom been lone figures who have wielded absolute unmediated power and authority.
Juxtaposed against this historical context the fantastical story takes on a lot more meaning and the crazy antics of all the kooky residents of Mor Mahal become even more amusing. Wazir begum and Badshah begum’s not-so-silent war of wills is gaining strength with every episode and I am looking forward to seeing how far these two strong-minded women will go in their effort to show the other up. Caught up in their crossfire is Banki, whose mistress though young and foolish shows herself to be of royal blood when she refuses to listen to her maid’s pleas and commands her to take her place in Asif Jahan’s life. One can only begin to imagine all the hell that will break lose when the switch up is finally discovered. Suraiya’s past was revealed in this latest episode and in a very smartly done move we were also made privy to Asif Jahan’s plans to drag her in to the ongoing power struggles in Mor Mahal.
Imbuing life into these very colorful characters is a great lineup of artists. Hina Bayat and Sania Saeed are great fun and together they are a riot. Though her Badshah begum is not ostensibly funny there are occasions where her serious lines are delivered just so that it is hard to not giggle. Sania’s Akhtari is off the wall mad and I always look forward to her scenes. Meesha Shafi and Jana Malik are the other pair who are fabulous together – their nakhras are a match made in heaven – and they share great chemistry. Umair Jaswal is doing well as Asif and Ali Sheikh as Dilawar makes an impression. Ali Saleem is absolutely fantastic and Shah Fahad made quite an entry in the previous episode. Kinza Hashmi looks pretty but her acting is very raw and it shows, the two mirror scenes in particular did not leave any kind of impact. Sonia Nazir is yet to leave an impression and Fiza Ali has not had much of an opportunity.
A special shoutout to the choreographer for making the dance sequence so very effective and and to the editors for not letting the narrative stall. Also kudos to Ali Xeeshan the other dress and jewelery designers for the overall sumptuous look of the project. The cast and crew and the rest of the technical and creative team have all put in a lot of effort and it shows. Finally, for pulling the textual and visual narrative together so very beautifully a huge round of applause for the hero of Mor Mahal – Sarmad Khoosat.
Looking forward to seeing the rest of this story unfold.
Written by SZ~
Meesha Shafi live in concert ~Jugni Tour
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to see Meesha Shafi here in Boston and I must to say she was great! Not only did she sing beautifully but she looked stunning as well… apni Wazir begum impressed and how! Here’s a sample for you all!