Social networking sites present quite a dilemma. While they tempt many people to project themselves as they would like others to see them — and thereby fulfil a desire that wasn’t gratified in reality — social media has the power to consume us emotionally and, if uninterrupted, create a disconnect with the world outside. The young protagonists in ‘Ek Jhooti Love Story’, Zee5’s latest Pakistani original series streaming now, are navigating a similar path: they are simple, everyday people who are ever so conscious of their ‘imperfect’ lives and seek love on Facebook where they’ve created their perfectly ‘dateable,’ albeit fake, identities.
A string of promotions, featuring Pakistan’s heart-throbs, Bilal Abbas Khan and Madiha Imam, reveal the show’s basic plot that is utterly relatable: Sohail (played by Khan), a jaded computer hardware technician ‘on call,’ and Salma (Imam), a bespectacled, prickly college student, are hostile neighbours in present-day downtown Karachi who unknowingly romance each other’s online personas. In a vintage ‘You’ve Got Mail’ (remember that breezy Hollywood romcom starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?) moment, Sohail and Salma meet on their first date outside of the web. Sparks are sure to fly.
Fun ensues from the fact that the individuals whose IDs they have faked — namely, Nofil and Natalia — are also coupled-up. To add to complications, Sohail and Salma’s folks are most likely to hook them up.
‘Ek Jhooti’ comes on the heels of the taboo-busting and boundary-pushing — not to mention, masterfully crafted — ‘Churails’, Zee5’s maiden Pakistani original that was released amid great hype early this year. Though, the two shows may be too different to even merit a comparison. ‘Ek Jhooti’ is touted as light-hearted fare and makes no claims to setting a creative benchmark. It tells a sweet and funny story that is born of an essentially universal human predicament.
Screenwriter Umera Ahmed, best known for ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’, defines it as “a comedy of errors.” It’s a genre she says she hasn’t attempted before. “I am famous for [writing] tragedies,” she tells Gulf News. “But for this one, I took a leap of faith and stretched myself as a playwright.”
She insists that the series ought not to be regarded as fluff, because “it is saying something important in the context of the subcontinent’s obsession with shaadis [weddings]… Indeed, one of life’s many ironies is that two seemingly incompatible people often jibe well but those perceived as an ‘ideal couple’ don’t!”
Freedom to tell new stories
The 18-episode show is helmed by award-winning director Mehreen Jabbar who has earlier worked with Ahmed on three acclaimed TV dramas including ‘Doraha’ (2008) and ‘Daam’ (2010). No wonder, she’s quite upbeat about their first web show together. “‘Ek Jhooti’ is a departure for both of us,” she says over the phone from New York where she is based.
Jabbar is of the view that streaming platforms offer “the freedom to tell all kinds of stories and the space to experiment with genres. Long before the TRPs system was introduced, Pakistan television gave us similar leeway, but the whole landscape has changed now. TV involves so many pressures and so much micromanagement, but working on the web series, it was absolute integrity to the project.”
Ahmed seconds Jabbar, but adds that this ‘freedom’ is often misinterpreted as an opportunity to show explicit content. “I believe that’s just a matter of personal choice. I for one wouldn’t take up a project that required me to show physical intimacy and/or write dialogue that’s laden with expletives.”
Ahmed, who is currently scripting her fourth series for Zee5, thanks producer Shailja Kejriwal for “not imposing anything that I didn’t believe in.”
For Jabbar, the freedom of choice was reflected in all sorts of matters, including casting: “Unlike the general trend in today’s TRPs-propelled TV channels, the casting [for ‘Ek Jhooti’] was done purely on the basis of who fits the character best. There was no thought about who’s more famous or who’s got greater number of followers on Instagram.
“I feel blessed that I got one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever worked with in the last 25 years since I began in this field,” she declares.
Taking on new roles
‘Ek Jhooti’s’ female lead, Madiha Imam, is a popular TV presenter turned actress whose repertoire includes several drama serials, telefilms, a soap, the Bollywood movie ‘Dear Maya’ and Fawad Khan’s in-the-works home production, ‘Neelofer’. She admits that most of the characters she’s played on screen were “quite dramatic. Salma is my first light role per se.”
“She’s quite unlike me,” Imam says. “While I am a confident person and I’ve a lot of maturity, Salma lacks all that. Naturally, her body language would be different from mine. So, for a character like that, I had to prep all right.”
Bilal Abbas Khan, on the other hand, feels that playing Sohail was a cakewalk. “It’s a very simple character and performing it came effortlessly to me. The lines were a joy to say.”
Khan, 28, is one of Pakistan’s most popular TV actors whose fan following is based not just on his nice-guy good looks (he is famously referred to as the boy with long lashes) but also on his range as a performer. Be it ‘Cheekh’s’ unashamed harasser or ‘Pyar Kay Sadqay’s’ geeky man-child, Khan has delivered a nuanced act every time. Director Jabbar calls him a “powerhouse of talent.” She also speaks of him as a contained and quiet person on the sets who “would retreat to a corner after [giving] a brilliant shot and not waste his energy chatting away.”
Khan, who will soon be seen in another Zee5 Original, titled ‘Abdullahpur Ka Devdas’, rejects the notion that shy and introverted people cannot face the camera: “As far as I am concerned, I’ve always enjoyed acting. In fact, acting provides a sort of an outlet to my emotions that I may otherwise not express.”
When asked if performing for a digital platform was a more liberating experience, Khan says, “I wouldn’t put it like that. I mean, I don’t go to a shoot thinking that it’s for a movie or a TV drama. For me, it’s just another character that I’m supposed to play to the best of my abilities.”
To Imam, however, “It is liberating in the sense that you don’t have this constant worry to please your producer via TRPs. Also, you feel as if you’ve got the leverage to do certain things that you may not be able to do on mainstream media.”
‘Ek Jhooti’ boasts a delightful supporting cast, headlined by Beo Raana Zafar, last seen as the no-filter Amma in the Netflix release ‘Cake’ (2018). Former British chat show host and standup comedian turned actor of note, Zafar lends Nusrat (her character in ‘Ek Jhooti’) her inimitable comic streak.
A multifaceted person, who also has a poetry book to her credit, Zafar says that her forte is “impromptu. I am better live than I am camera, because I am very spontaneous and I connect with my audience. But Umera’s script is actually quite mazeydar [fun], and if I added any cue it was with full permission of Mimi [Mehreen Jabbar].”
Nusrat’s mannerisms and getup may remind the audiences of Ghaseetan Bua, one of the many colourful characters Zafar played in her comedy skit show on TV, ‘Baar Baar Beo’ (2010). Quiz her about it and she says: “Ghaseetan was from an era beyond — she might have been Nusrat’s mother — she wore an old-world gharara and a thin chutiya (plaid), but the ethos is the same: Both are Urdu-speaking and from somewhere in UP. So, I would say that Nusrat is from the same area as Ghaseetan, but a generation lower. She wears shalwar kameez, ties her hair in a little joora, she’s also got makeup and uses little English words.”
Incidentally, Zafar is Jabbar’s “khala” (maternal aunt). Talking to Gulf News about the experience of working with her niece as director, she says: “My experience was peaches and cream. Mimi is so mellow; she just has a personality that you want to please her... The only time she shouts is to say, ‘Cut!’”
Zafar is also all praise for every member of the cast including Hina Bayat, Kiran Haq and Furqan Qureshi. “None of them was a diva. They were all mellow people. Bilal... I had nicknamed ‘Lashes’! You know, his lashes are genuine; I pulled them once,” she says, laughing.
As for Syed Muhammad Ahmed, with whom she is paired again after ‘Cake’, Zafar says, “You know why people think we’ve a great chemistry, because we are both innovators and storytellers. Some actors get flummoxed with me; they are the ones who are too much by the book. But Muhammad Ahmed sahib is innovative. Un mein drama bhara hua hai [he’s full of drama]!”
All the actors participated in a three-day acting workshop which was conducted by Ali Sheikh, who also plays a small part in the series. According to Jabbar, “Since this is a story about families and people connecting with each other, it was important that the actors didn’t come to the sets as strangers. The workshops were a lot of fun, and more so because it’s a fun script.”
At a time when digital streamers are teeming with rated shows, ‘Ek Jhooti’s’ clean comedy promises happy family-viewing.
Don’t miss it!
‘Ek Jhooti Love Story’ is streaming now on Zee 5.