Like much of Umera Ahmad’s work, Alif begins on a melancholy note.
A little boy played by the adorable Pehlaj Hussain is writing letters to Allah, praying for his father to return. The little boy lives in Istanbul with his mother, who's also hoping and waiting till she breaks down and finally writes to her husband’s father.
Sadly, the excitement of the grandfather’s (Manzar Sehbai) arrival is short-lived as no one knows where the little boy’s father has gone.
Poetically named Qalb-e-Momin (Hamza Ali Abbasi), the little boy has grown up and like his mother, Husn-e-Jahan (a famous actress), he is also part of the movie industry except that he has become an acclaimed director.
He flaunts his achievements and is ruthless in maintaining his hard-earned status, but behind all the studied hedonism and arrogance is a childhood filled with pain and separation.
Momina (Sajal Aly) is another wounded soul, a young woman seeking a better connection to God; she feels like a misfit in the highly competitive entertainment industry she works in. The daughter of a makeup artist and a small-time side female actor, despite her acknowledged talent, she cannot seem to make it ”big” because of her unwillingness to make the “compromises” required to get the right roles.
Her first meeting with Momin is a clash of values, which her increasing desperation for money leads her to regret. While Momin recognises her talent, he too refuses to cast her because the role is for a vamp and she will not uncover for the kind of glamour required. “Agar itni sati savitri bana hai toh jao ghar ja kay burqay main beto,“ he shouts at her .
Alif has an old-fashioned, even dated feel to it which hasn’t dissipated after three episodes. However, the dialogues and the story move at a sharp pace, thankfully avoiding the lengthy speeches and scenes that sink a lot of serials with a more philosophical bent.
We can give director Haseeb Hassan a lot of the credit for that and even more credit for managing to run two different timelines in one story without confusing the general audience.
While Hassan’s skillful weaving of past and present has saved Alif from turning into a tiresome melodrama of contrived misery (where no one but the much put upon Momina has a decent thought), a starker, less sentimental approach might have made it even better.
When I say this, I am thinking of Umera Ahmad’s most insightful stories like Man-o-Salwa, Daam, Qaid-e-Tanhai and Maat that explore the random tests that life sometimes throws at us.
The casting is another unlikely coup for the director who has brought together a surprisingly fresh combination in Sajal Aly and Hamza Ali Abbasi. Both actors have proven him right; not only are they excellent as individual players but their chemistry is noticeable even if they have shared just a few scenes.
Two people living parallel lives barely touching each other’s existence, but unwittingly holding the keys to each other’s happiness, Momin and Momina are at the beginning of a journey.
Hamza Ali Abbasi has an overwhelming star presence in the Pakistani media industry. Starting with Pyarey Afzal, his few but well-chosen projects are wildly popular and his recent on-screen images in Parwaz hai Junoon and now Alif can only bolster his off-screen persona as a traditionalist and very public patriot.
He has again landed on his feet with Qalb-e-Momin, a character which some think may reflect some aspects of Abbasi’s own spiritual trajectory.
Putting public hearsay aside, Abbasi has effectively brought on the full force of his charisma and talent to this role, giving us a nuanced portrait of unhappiness in the full glare of success.
One memorable scene from episode three shows us a conceited Momin giving an interview where he classifies criticism as pure jealousy, the sheer, uninhibited, relish with which Abbasi pronounces those words may well make it one of Alif’s most iconic scenes.
Cruel, arrogant and insensitive, yet Momin still elicits a sliver of sympathy every time he thinks about his mother Husn-e-Jahan. Even when he denies any connection, we can see it is not Momin the film director but the vulnerable little boy Qalb-e-Momin speaking.
Sajal Aly is a powerful young actress and holds her own in front of any performer but post O Rangreza, her performance in Alif is even more controlled and effective. She hasn’t let the role overwhelm her and swims through the sea of dysfunction surrounding her without drowning the viewer in self-pity.
Caring and generous, constantly evaluating, struggling inwardly and outwardly, we can all identify with Momina. Like any classic heroine, she suffers from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but because this is the Umera Ahmad universe, no one is allowed to laugh or find relief in something positive, however small.
Instead, the parade of Dickensian characters that populate Alif and their unending follies provide all the sly humour required. Whether its Husn-e-Jahan’s cartoonishly malevolent family, or the way Momina’s family is lost in their own petty conceits, the indictments are clear and easily recognisable in ourselves and those around us.
So far, we have had just a few scenes of Osman Khalid Butt and nothing but fleeting images of Ahsan Khan. However the rest of the cast does make its mark. Sadaf Kanwal as Momin’s dress designer girlfriend and Yashma Gill as a desperate actress are a pleasure to watch, showing us all the women vying for Momin's fame and money.
Kubra Khan as Husn-e-Jahan is absolutely perfect, bringing on all the pathos and charm required for a person remembered and loved by so many people in the story. Saleem Mairaj as Sultan is the connection between Momin and Momina and plays his role of obsessive fan and makeup artist with exquisite detail and authenticity.
Alif purports to be a deeply spiritual story, reminiscent of Ahmad’s previous serial Sheher-e-Zaat and just like the latter, many on social media have accused Alif of being “judgmental” calling out the sordid description of the media industry in particular.
Umera Ahmad’s work is often the subject of intense debate partly because she does write about hard topics that most of us would rather brush aside but also because she doesn’t hesitate in evaluating people or situations through what is frankly a highly conservative lens.
The media industry is too often painted as a den of iniquity but it is like any industry, where good and bad people co-exist. With harassment scandals rocking universities, workplaces and even our homes, no place is immune to the vagaries of human nature.
While there is a lot of truth in the assessment that Ahmad advocates and maintains traditional social structures in her creations, she has managed to write some challenging, almost subversive ideas into her scripts.
Who else would write a tale of compassion for a grass widow who tries to marry her husband’s friend, as in Qaid-e-Tanhai? What other writer would say men are an obstacle to a woman’s ultimate connection with Allah, as in Sheher-e-Zaat?
Alif may well end up shocking many who expect a traditional outcome while those who have read the novel will tell you that this might be Ahmad’s most progressive work to date. Producers Sana Shahnawaz and Samina Humayun Saeed have chosen a strong project which is outside the usual circle of commercial and ghareloo dramas and Geo has wisely picked it up for their primetime viewership.
This is a great drama harking back to the classic dramas that made Pakistani serials a watchword for excellence, my hope is their investment in quality pays off.