One nose, two eyes, two ears, two arms and two legs – we humans are all the same. Beyond the basics, however, there are differences galore. Each of us walks through life on a path uniquely ours. Destiny has and does play a big role in starting us off, but so much of who we are what we become and where we end up depends as much on the choices we make as it does on those whom we meet along the way. Hence even as life is a personal experience it is informed and shaped as much by the person living it as it is by those around him. Conversely, despite the individual nature of the journey, the destination for all of humanity is the same: a return to the Creator.
It is these esoteric concepts – intertwining of fate and free will, intersectionality of individuals’ paths, the overlaying of the personal journey with that of the collective – that form the crux of Qaisera Hayat’s novel Alif Allah Aur Insaan.
Adapted for screen by the novelist herself and directed by Aehsun Talish, MD Productions’ serial Alif Allah aur Insaan is one I had been eagerly anticipating. Boasting a hat ke plot, an experienced director at the helm of affairs, a popular cast, and last but not the least all the MD bells and whistles… matlab ke this one had blockbuster written all over it. And so I started this one with great expectations.
Alif Allah is the story of Nazneen, Shahzeb, Nigar, Rani and Shammo, five very different people whose paths intersect for but brief moments in time, but such is the power of these encounters that none of them remains the same thereafter. For Shahzeb its his first glimpse of Nazneen’s face, Nigar’s life changes forever after meeting Shahzeb, Nazneen’s arrogance pushes Shammo to introspection and stars find a permanent residence in Rani’s eyes after a chance encounter with Nigar.
As the story unfolds some of what happens to these characters can be chalked up to destiny, but free will plays a big role in how they respond to situations and how their choices then end up altering the direction of their lives. If the combo of fate and free will were not enough to make mischief we also see here the impact others – well-wishers and the not-so-well-wishers – have on our principals’ actions, decisions and choices. For Shahzeb, baba ji is a mentor who explains to him the larger purpose of life, Nazneen has her chichori friends whose inane chatter leads her to see Basit in a new light, Shammo’s life takes a 180º turn when first the kindly ustad Jamal and now Seema steer him in a new direction, and Nigar has Chaman begum who thrives on stirring the pot in her kotha.
Story wise there is a lot here to reflect on. Aehsun Talish does a commendable job in keeping the various tracks separate yet connected and there is a . I am also enjoying his visual narration where there is a significant shift from the patented MD style – tight closeups and beauty shots, static frames, tourist brochure type landscape shots, absence of dust and grime – and brings in movement and wider open shots and you feel hustle and bustle of small town bazaars, the lush serenity of open fields, and you actually see a main character looking less than perfect. The director has also done his homework with regard to understanding his characters and their motivations, and has for the most part been successful in conveying his vision to his actors.
So far so good. The problems, and there are many (!), arise when what looks great on paper does not transition quite as smoothly on to the screen. For starters, I get that this is a complex story, but once the decision was made to televise it why then the need to dilute it? And that too to the extent that all that made the story special in the first place is essentially rendered meaningless? Was it not deemed enough that the opening episode set up the basic premise (didn’t quite buy into that scene with the teacher but the writing worked), that we need the subtext turned into the text and hammered in repeatedly with baba ji’s scenes and voiceovers? Surely there is a reason why the subtext is called just that and is different from the text.
Also lost here is the difference between a written text and a visual narrative. There is way too much talking, over explaining, and different scenes keep repeating the same idea over and over again. Case in point Nazneen and her friends’ shopping trip with Basit in this latest episode. Not only was the acting beyond mediocre and the dialogues inane, but that one cringe-worthy outing basically lasted through the episode. And this brings me to the issue of time. Why does time move differently for different tracks?
Last week Shammo moved to the city and within a 30 minute span became the hottest thing since sliced bread, but then this week Nazneen’s outing didn’t seem to want to end! And this time travel happened with Rani too as she underwent what seemed like a Fair & Lovely sponsored transformation. Gone were her blackened rotten front teeth (although to be fair they came and went at will earlier too) and gone was the overly tanned bhikaran and what we got in her stead was every desi saas’ dream of a chand si bahu. Had it been any another serial I would’ve wondered if this was the director taking poetic license with time, as in how it stands still for some but seems to race for others, but here, where everything is spelled out to the nth degree, I don’t think that is quite the case.
Of the actors and their characters, Imran Ashraf as Shammo is hands down the pick of the lot here. Yes, his character is endearing in its writing but more than that it is the actor’s whole-hearted commitment that serves them both well. Sana Fakhar is a great choice as Nigar and her filmy persona fills the shoes of this smitten tawaif really well. In many ways, Nigar brings to mind Sunheray from Mumtaz Mufti’s brilliant short story Samay ka Bandhan.
Kubra Khan’s Nazneen suggests another comparison, but one not as flattering; Falak as played by Mahira Khan in Shehr-e Zaat. Falak was flighty and arrogant but had a sense of vulnerability, a naiveté about her that added an interesting depth and dimension to her character. Here, Nazneen lacks any kind of nuance whatsoever, leaving us with a cardboard cut out of a shallow self-centered girl. And her OTT makeup and hair is not doing her any favors either. Even if it wasn’t so in the script, I wish the director had played with this one a bit to keep it interesting. She is the weakest link here.
Ushna Shah’s Rani, however, is a fab character. Here, we get not only depth and dimension but also nicely defined arc which gives the actor a lot to work with and she tries to do just that. Unfortunately though Ushna’s efforts didn’t always pay off, particularly in the earlier episodes where in her beggar’s avatar she tried too hard and ended up alternating between really bad and good with alarming frequency. Her makeup too seemed to come and go at will. It is pretty clear that by now makeup artists have perfected the art of making actresses look like valimey ki dulhans no matter the requirements of the scene but the art of playing it down remains elusive. That said, now that Rani is Reena begum I do like her bare look and thankfully she is no longer required to “act.”
Mikaal Zulfiqar has not had much to do so far, but I do like the thehrav that he brings to Shahzeb. There are depths to this man, his arrogance shone through in his rejection of Nigar’s izhar-e muhabbat, but will have to wait to see more from this character. And this brings me back to my biggest problem with this serial.
While the written text has depth and nuance sadly the visual version has none and I don’t know if I can make it through however many plus weeks of heavy-duty in-your-face philosophizing, particularly when the story is doing a perfectly decent job of illustrating the said falsafa. Hence even as I am intrigued by arcs for the main characters, they talk too much for my liking, there is way too much repetition and the scenes far too long for me to stay interested.
Needless to say I am disappointed – I had higher expectations from this MD + Aehsun Talish combo. Going forward I shall keep an eye on this one to gauge its progress and see where the story goes but for now Alif Allah aur Insaan is off my weekly must-watch list.
What about you all? Looking forward to reading your views on this one!
Written by SZ~