By Maliha Rehman
A fleeting glance at the trailer of Sevak – The Confessions, the original biopic action thriller that has just begun streaming on fledgling OTT platform Vidly.tv, leaves you a bit incredulous. The story is very obviously set in India and the actors may be Pakistani but they are speaking lucid Hindi.
Why would this Pakistani cast and crew be working on a series that looks like it’s been filmed in the streets of Delhi? Why not concentrate on the many colors and cultures indigenous to Pakistan? We have enough Indian content available to us through various OTT platforms. We don’t really need a Pakistani series to masquerade as an Indian one.
When you see Sevak – the first two episodes are now available for streaming – you begin to understand why. Bollywood has always churned out a fair number of productions that are aligned with certain very specific purposes. Strong political guidelines quite obviously influence certain storylines, narrating a historic incident from a particular outlook, persuasively showing one side to a story. These stories have predominantly retold incidents from Pakistan and India’s colorful, bloodied past. There have been umpteen times when the villain has specifically been a Muslim, or an evil spy has turned out to be a Pakistani native.
The citizens of India and Pakistan will tell you that the divide between both countries is merely political. Far from our barbed borders, you see Indians and Pakistanis often spending time together, united through their common food, language and history. There are, nevertheless, politics in filmmaking and certain factions have often used Bollywood’s considerable power to rewrite history and highlight communal differences.
Sevak, then, tries to rewrite history from the opposite perspective. Ricocheting from the past to the present, it focuses on the Hindutva ideology, the belief that the Hindu religion and traditions need to be protected from adulteration, and connects it to some of the saddest episodes in Indian history, for instance the massacre in the Golden Temple and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Both incidents laid bare the religion differences rampant within India’s multiracial domain and newspaper archives reveal terrible stories of how minority religions were persecuted.
In Sevak, Hajra Yamin plays Vidya, a news reporter committed to carrying her father’s legacy forward by telling stories that are true. Following the death of a famous Punjabi Sikh singer, Jeet Singh – played by actor Mohsin Abbas Haider, who has so far only been seen momentarily in the first episode – Vidya receives an anonymous call declaring that the death was in fact a murder. The caller promises to provide evidence and Vidya’s curiosity is piqued. On the other hand, her brother, who co-owns the newspaper with her, is blatantly skeptical.
Vidya continues to talk to the caller and manages to trace his location and meet him face-to-face. Mannu, played by the brilliant Nazar ul Hassan, reveals horrific details from Jeet Singh’s past in their very first meeting. Vidya is convinced that this is a story that needs to be pursued. She asks her brother to provide her with security guards because she fears for her safety as she begins to investigate further.
The narration is very interesting and director Anjum Shahzad and writer Sajjad Gul have to be credited for this. It is only rarely that you are left confused, wondering at certain dialogues or events. So far, as the plot unfolds, the confusion gets dissipated.
The first two episodes are dominated by Hajra Yamin and she does a fine job as the investigative reporter hell-bent on finding out the truth. Her familiar curly mane replaced by a sleek bob, speaking in a very believable Hindi accent, Hajra’s Vidya is focused, brave and a bit of a sentimentalist. This series is testament to how Hajra is underutilized as an actor. If only more local productions would dabble with unconventional storylines, actors like Hajra would have more chances to prove their mettle
Nazar ul Hassan, a well-respected name, has surfaced in a few scenes but it can be assumed that a major chunk of his scenes are going to follow in later episodes. Other members of the cast – namely Adnan Jaffar, Amara Malik, Nayyar Ejaz and Mohsin Abbas Haider – are yet to surface or have only made brief appearances so far.
A motley crew of character actors are visible in small roles; the patriarch of the Sikh family which falls into ruins at the hands of extremists, the Sikh woman who commits suicide, the Hindu pundit agitating for the creation of the ‘Ram mandir’. They are all believable in their performances – as indicated by the trailer, you would assume the actors to be Indian had you not known that Sevak was a Pakistani production. The first two episodes have traversed two different historic events. It is expected that as the plot deepens, more historic events will be alluded to.
History, though, can always be told from varied standpoints. One community’s hero is another community’s villain. Every religion, sect, ethnicity can recall tragic stories of persecution in its past. Sevak: The Confessions, very clearly tells its story from one particular viewpoint. The hero – India’s minorities – are victims of ruthless torture; the villain – the Hindutva extremists – is heartless and evil.
But history is never simply just black or white, although storytelling can certainly be so. It remains to be seen whether Sevak, like many other such projects, will be a clear-cut one-sided account or if it will delve into the grey areas where good and bad overlap. It may be argued here that Bollywood productions hardly ever make the effort to narrate history in a balanced way. Notwithstanding this, a story well-told will always be nuanced and well-rounded.
Beyond the trappings of history, the series has a riveting pace so far, maintaining suspense and swerving in some very interesting directions. It is still odd to see the streets of Rawalpindi and Pakistani actors Indian-ized so realistically. Once you get over this, you start enjoying the twists and turns.