By Maliha Rehman
The boy and girl’s eyes meet while angry neighbors pelt stones over walls. He impulsively draws her aside to save her. The camera zooms in for a charged close-up. The very romantic title song begins playing. The love story has just begun in a clustered, ordinary neighborhood in Hyderabad, where a good-looking smart alec has bumped into a distressed young girl. It’s a beautiful beginning, bolstered by music, imagery and the sort of storytelling that you’re more likely to see at the movies.
You’re left wanting to see more when the closing credits come in. A drama, rolling out its pilot episode, couldn’t ask for more.
Pehli Si Muhabbat, IDream Entertainment’s multi-starrer drama airing on ARY Digital, gives you a whiff of a good old fashioned cinematic romance. The lead pair Sheheryar Munawar and Maya Ali had lately been working primarily in films and in fact, both had been seen together in their last cinematic release. They look just as gorgeous on TV as they did on the silver screen.
Sheheryar is Aslam, the street-smart hero, a bit of a brat and quite the charmer. Maya is Rakhshi, the sweet-natured girl next door, grappling with the pain of her widower father surprising her by bringing home a new wife, a beautiful young woman of suspicious background. Being neighbors, Aslam and Rakhshi know each other but haven’t met for a while. He has just returned from Karachi, where he was studying for several years and his parents have planned out his betrothal to his cousin. The neighborhood is in turmoil around the time that he returns, aghast at the dubious woman to have been brought into their vicinity. In a fit of righteousness, they begin pelting Rakhshi’s house with stones.
This is when Aslam and Rakhshi meet – and they’ve only just met, not really talking, just allowing us a peek into a romantic fantasy which promises to unfold. What a magical lead pair. And they both act so well; Sheheryar, quintessentially boyish, and Maya, beautiful, a bit heartbroken but strong-spirited.
The ensemble cast is also well-rounded: Shabbir Jan plays Maya’s father, Faizullah, and Rabia Butt, crimson-lipped, her hair let loose and a disdainful look on her face, plays his new wife, Nargis. Designer Hassan Sheheryar Yasin (HSY) makes his acting debut as Aslam’s strictly moralistic brother. The role is a far cry from his statements on the catwalk and red carpet – Shero, always suited and glamorous, is now Akram, wearing a shalwar kameez and a praying cap and delivering lectures on ethics. Sometimes, his speech does get a tad anglicized but it will be interesting to see how he carries Akram onwards into the story. Nausheen Shah is Akram’s wife and Saba Faisal is Aslam and Akram’s mother.
Anjum Shahzad’s way with the camera is impressive: capturing the gritty, narrow alleyways of the neighborhood, the facial expressions, the little pauses. The coronavirus may have wreaked havoc on lives and debilitated cinema all over the world but it has inadvertently done Pakistani drama a huge favor by making it a focal point for directors and actors. Turning away from the allure of films, they have zeroed in whole-heartedly on TV. Pehli Si Muhabbat, as mentioned early, has a fresh cinematic feel to it, something that is usually missing on TV dramas.
Faiza Iftikhar’s well-conceived script helps things along and like any good first episode, this one leads up to questions that will build up and unravel over the next few weeks. Will Rakhshi accept her new mother? How could Faizullah assume that his daughter would easily adjust to this new change in their household? Is Nargis truly going to be as evil as the neighborhood expects her to be? What will happen to Aslam’s engagement to his cousin, who is smitten with him, now that he seems to have fallen in love, at first sight, with Rakhshi? What havoc will Akram’s narrow code of ethics wreak on those around him?
Nevertheless, a story centered around a neighborhood romance blossoming under a conservative mindset is nothing new although to be fair, Pehli Si Muhabbat may have its unprecedented twists and turns in later episodes. What will set the drama apart apart is the way it is treated, the acting, the pace the story sets. Far too many promising TV dramas tend to go downhill after an initial successful run, falling victim to long, repetitive drags. Should Pehli Si Muhabbat also do the same, it may not be able to grip its audience despite wielding plenty of star-power.
For a first episode this was such a good one and one does love a good romance.
Also, that title song by Ali Zafar is just so hummable!