SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for the drama serial Raqeeb Se
Say you are a drama producer. What do you do when there are at least three channels vying for the same precious chunk of evening prime time drama slots? Especially when writers, actors and directors do not form a large enough pool to provide credible differentiation across various projects? You keep churning out the same sagas with the same characters, similar story arcs and build upwards by spending more and more on production.
Or... you flip the script.
Lately, we have seen a wave of serials which have confounded viewer expectations. Dunk is a prime example; however, its key plot twist was quite idiotically given away even before the start by its superstar producer. Chupke Chupke, a Ramzan-exclusive serial, also dared to challenge stereotypes. The main characters slowly evolved from run-of-the-mill hunks (and hunk-ettes) to deeply layered characters with quite a few shades of grey. And these shades multiply into a million when looking at the Hum TV drama, Raqeeb Se. This drama is a mould breaker in several respects:
• It is wilfully, deliberately slow paced
• It is devoid of verbal fireworks
• The colour palette is unconventional and the drama has a kind of dreamy, serene tone in terms of cinematography
• Dialogue is sparse and often cryptic
• Each role is rich, nuanced and stunningly assayed
• The storyline moves slowly and unexpectedly right until the end
The drama is a breath of fresh air because it is explicitly not designed as a blockbuster wannabe. It has its own cadence and clearly comes across as a carefully crafted labour of love from its producers.
The story starts when a mother (Sakina) and a daughter knock on a door in the middle of the night. The man (Masood) opening the door lets them in; he is the former beau of the mother, their breakup a result of a decades old feudal dispute around the murder of his younger brother. The man returns to his bedroom and his wife (Hajera) looks at him, instantly guessing who has finally landed in the house.
Sakina has escaped from her husband’s household in the village in fear that her abusive husband will harm her daughter. Meanwhile, Hajera is living a life of devout servitude with Masood, forever grateful to him for marrying her and knowing full well about his first love. They have a daughter, Insha, who is constantly angry at her father for not valuing her mother enough and her love life has a tragic story arc of its own.
The serial proceeds once the mother and daughter adjust to Masood’s house. Hajera, portrayed as a woman of dignity, welcomes them with open arms, both due to their relationship with her husband and as a fellow human. The story travels through a lot of twists and turns and the characters evolve. Sakina grows into someone who can chart her own life. Her daughter, from being a young woman whose favourite hobby is teasing and ridiculing her mother and her situation, is infatuated by Masood before falling in love with another young man who is tragically killed, mirroring the death that caused her mother’s heartbreak. She eventually goes back to her village and moves in with her father. Masood is shown to be a split soul, keeping it together through patience and fundamental virtue, before eventually recognising Hajera’s true value in his life.
And Hajera – she faces it all with a smiling face and kind eyes, before finally putting her foot down and claiming her place in Masood’s life. Insha marries her love who turns out to be a little too ambitious; she seeks a divorce and goes to serve as a doctor in a rural area.
The serial is not meant for everyone. It does not have fast dialogues, splashy set designs, big story swings, sensational story beats or, for that matter, loud reactions. It is understated and subtle, deliberately paced; all the better to give the cast room to breathe and deliver outstanding performances. The camera hovers around the faces, so much so that it is sometimes claustrophobia-inducing. The drama has the feel of old-school PTV serials, where dialogue and acting was the main focus.
Why air it though? What is in it for the actors, the producers and the channel, especially if there is no chance of it being a blockbuster? First of all, one never knows what may strike a chord with audiences. The episodes have scored steady views of over one million on YouTube and are increasingly peppered with soul-crushing, ambiance-destroying ads.
In my opinion, Raqeeb Se has been a success; it raised the bar for other dramas, gave its cast something meaningful to work on and the host channel a degree of credibility versus its rivals, which are clearly employing sure-fire tactics to score commercial hits while ignoring quality. Hum TV showcased this work of art while being sustained by routine commercial fare, like Netflix showcasing hidden gems from around the world financed by blockbusters, or Porsche building a vehicle like the 718 Cayman while bankrolled by the Cayenne SUV. Giving punters what they want, ironically, also enables giving those with sophisticated tastes something to chew on as well!
Here is hoping 'flipping the script’ becomes the norm for Pakistani television in the coming years; we may return to the glory days where our dramas were a standard for the world. Or, at the very least, we can hope that within a spate of money spinners, channels have the conscience and artistic aspiration to showcase something similar.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. firstname.lastname@example.org