Muqabil review; ambition left wanting

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Last week, ARY digital released the final episode of its uber-dramatic television serial ‘Muqabil’, and I have some things to say about it. If you’ve kept abreast with the gossip, then this is the second recent, mainstream Pakistani serial to have child sexual abuse at its centre. The former of course was the widely lauded ‘Udaari’.

And while I had issues with Udaari, but by and large I accepted it. Since it was co-produced by the not for profit Kashf Foundation, it was able to intertwine socially relevant commentary into its midst without confusing the message. However, Muqabil’s origins were not as didactic, and perhaps because of this it left much to be desired.

 

Now, I will have to elaborate on specific aspects of the series that bothered me, so consider this your spoiler alert.

 

A snapshot of the series is that it revolves around a young woman named Parisa (Kubra Khan) who was raped by her mother’s manager, Mehmood (Asif Raza Mir) when she was a child. She has developed into a reserved woman and harbours ill-feelings towards all men, and is protective towards children. She has an estranged relationship with her parents (Saba Hameed and Saife Hassan) particularly her mother, who is introduced as a self-made and self-centred socialite.

Parisa’s mother is irritated by her lack of interest in society galas and events, and wants to get her married off to the most eligible bachelor. As she is high-society’s crown jewel, this shouldn’t be a problem. Only, Parisa has other plans. She doesn’t want to marry a rich somebody with a foreign passport.

Enter Armaan (Mohsin Abas Haider) a gentle man who is Parisa’s childhood friend and also Mehmood’s son. He piques Parisa’s fancy, surely in part because of his relationship with Mehmood, but also because he seems genuine and kind. Against everyone’s will, even Armaan’s, she manipulates and ultimately convinces her family to let her marry Armaan.

The focus then shifts towards Mehmood and his family, and the power politics that come into play with Parisa and Armaan at the epicentre of a dysfunctional household hiding a harrowing secret.

And, to be fair to the production team, and actors, there was a lot that I liked about the serial.

Firstly, the acting deserves a lot of praise. Kubra Khan is a little unconvincing in the early episodes, but eventually she eases into the shoes of Parisa, simultaneously a victim and vindictive. And once she does, she has the audience in her palm, at once achingly sympathetic yet capable of Machiavellian schemes.

Mohsin Abbas Haider continues to be my favourite leading man, equal parts unconventional and endearing. After proving his mantle as a talented comedic host (Jutt, Butt and Yoh and 4 Man Show) film actor (Na Maloom Afraad) and singer (Coke Studio) he has waltzed into the world of television via a solid performance.

Saba Hameed carries the role of a complicated matriarch, with more cons than pros, with the skill of a veteran.

But by and large, the single most stellar performance is Asif Raza Mir’s Mehmood. Ahsan Khan won a lot of accolades for his portrayal of a child molester in Udaari, but Asif Raza Mir’s performance is even stronger. What makes his take on a pedophile all the more horrifying is that Mehmood isn’t a quintessential villain. Seemingly he has all the flaws and, dare I say, virtues of most men. He is a hardworking employee, a hero for both his son and daughter, dutiful in his husbandly ways.

But despite all of this, he is capable of and responsible for shattering the innocence of a child, and obscuring a woman’s view of the world. He could be anyone, which makes him all the more realistic, and hence more unsettling.

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The production values are also commendable. Clearly the team have appreciated the visual nature and specific needs of the small screen.

Parisa’s character has all the fairy-tail qualities that her name suggests (‘Pari-sa’ translatable to ‘fairy-like’). These are played up by the set design of her beloved garden, and ample use of back-lit shots, often using natural light. Together with close-ups of Kubra Khan’s delicate face, they work to create a woman engrossed in her own world.

In contrast shaky camera shots of Mehmood sitting on a swing in his veranda, a rosary in his hand, add layers to his character.

Finally, I have to commend them for what they have tried to accomplish. Nothing is one dimensional in this production. I have already mentioned the nuances injected into the character of the villain, but unlike Udaari, the story isn’t a clear-cut hunter versus hunted saga either. Parisa’s character isn’t content with silently accepting her situation; she wants to inflict at least some iota of suffering on those who have wronged her. Perhaps a measure of how many grey shades exist in the series is that in a country where victims of sexual abuse maybe expected to kill themselves to restore some twisted sense of ‘honour’, it is the predator who commits suicide in Muqabil.

But its greatest weakness is that it digs up far too many skeletons for its own good, so that when it ends the viewer is confused, unsatisfied and left wanting.

The perfect example of this is Parisa and Armaan’s relationship. In early episodes, it is clear that Parisa, although charmed by Armaan, sees him as a means to an end. The shot of her smirking while Armaan struggles to convince their families that he has never had a relationship with her is pure gold.

But then the script falters, and Parisa looses this determination even implying that her actions ‘just sort of happened’. When she exposes his father’s crime to Armaan, and by accident his mother and sister as well, the story could have given us an unhappy yet thematically satiating ending, where they part ways because of a past that they cannot resolve. And yet, the script feels the need to resolve it. Ending with a clichéd ‘happily ever after’ that is infuriating given the context. Parisa and Armaan are not dealing with the typical ‘misunderstandings’ of married life, hence it makes little sense when the series ends on a typical note.

Simultaneously, while television can be a great medium to start a discussion about child sexual abuse, yet it is limited in where it can take said conversation. Here this means that while the failures of Parisa’s family are highlighted, yet the failure of the state which lacks assistance for victims of such abuse is completely overlooked.

When we were watching the finale, my mother remarked, “they have touched on a story so complicated that they are unable to give it an ending.” Which is basically why Muqabil while a commendable effort is an unsatisfying watch.

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