Watching ZEE 5’s Kaafir was like watching a portrait being done. An elaborate process that is meticulous, exquisite and brings about a disconnect from the constant chaos that your mind is used to.
Used to shows with pace that sends my brain in frenzied hyper activity, I initially doubted Kaafir’s ability to keep me engaged. However, by the end of the crafty first episode, I was sold on the experimental approach this show was most likely going to take.
The script banks on the concept of stillness, much like the protagonist, Kainaaz, a Pakistani woman , who feels frozen in time after spending seven isolated and tumultuous years in an Indian jail because of an unfortunate twist of fate.
The story rolls when Vedant Rathod , a top journalist, who also happens to be an ex lawyer with a lot of personal baggage against Pakistanis, stumbles upon her story by accident and discovers his humanity all over again.
Vedant is from a family of army men and his life also, has been standing still for seven years, since the moment he had discovered that his brother was killed in a terrorist attack. An attack carried out by a boy , for whose release, he had fought a case, believing him to be innocent. Since then, he lives with a guilt that is amplified by a bitter father who refuses to forgive him.
By the end of the first episode , as a viewer you are cleverly pulled into Vedant’s silent pathos. As he stumbles on Kainaaz’s case, you know his breakthrough has begun.
What works for the storytelling, is the non linear approach. Not everything is revealed in sequence. The story keeps going back to reveal important details at key moments, delivering surprises when you least expect it. Half way into the story, when you are convinced about Vedant’s selflessness, a slightly shocking revelation lies in wait. He is not fighting Kainaaz’s case out of empathy alone, it’s also because of his own redemption. Seven years ago, in a weak moment of hatred, he had egged some BSF officials to arrest a semi conscious woman who had been carried across the border by a river. As soon as he interviews Kainaaz, he realizes its the same woman and the empathy turns into a haunting guilt.
Kainaaz’s six-year-old daughter is symbolic of the proverbial silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud that surrounds the murky world of cross-border distrust. Even though born out of rape by an Indian constable, she represents Kainaaz’s strength and her agency even as she was imprisoned.
She is portrayed beautifully as a quiet girl who has kept her innocence, and bonds naturally with Vedant, capable of trusting his vibe, even before her mother does. She may have fewer dialogues but has a strong screen presence and a critical role in highlighting the crux of the show: Hope is important.
In a memorable scene, when their shelter is attacked by a frenzied mob because of an unrelated terrorist bombing, and the people are throwing slurs at them for being Pakistani, she shuts them up with a show of defiance: I am an Indian. This is a fact she is made aware of , after multiple visits with officials who refuse to let them go back to Pakistan, claiming that Kainaaz may be a Pakistani, but her daughter is not.
Kainaaz is embittered and stoic when Vedant meets her, but as the story unravels and their relationship develops, she starts unbottling herself. Sometimes it’s an internal process, a tiny smile, a hopeful look at the free sky and sometimes it’s not. She has violent episodes where she cries it out and screams away her frustration. Her trauma never leaves her and it has changed her from a dreamy poetess to a skeptic woman who even questions Vedant’s motives time and again.
Dia Mirza seems to have poured her heart and soul into this complex character and this earnest effort has resulted in fostering a connection with the viewers, not because she is a victim, but because she is real and flawed. She is fearful, entitled, stubborn, and even frustratingly annoying at times. This ensures that the script is not over banking on the projection of the victim complex on the audience, which is refreshing. You feel for Kainaaz only empathy and not pity. It’s not essential for you to like her in order to feel her pain or to revolt mentally against the injustice meted out to her.
Mohit Raina, as Vedant, has landed a dream role tailor-made for him. His prowess in wordless expression of emotions is one of the most important highlights of the show. Vedant is no doubt an extremely appealing character- he is good-looking, has a sense of humor, is humble and sensitive, but he has his demons. These demons don’t come out in violent episodes like they do with Kainaaz. They live inside him like his soul is their permanent home. That’s where Mohit’s acting amplifies the way this character wins over you. His fervor and desperation when he is forcing Kainaaz to tell him the complete story because he knows his part in her fate brings out his vulnerability, juxtaposed against a restraint he displays all through the show. His calmness, even in face of most trying circumstances, and his patience with the red tape, would have looked totally innocuous if not for the subtlety the actor is capable of. There are several gem scenes, the most important being when his father confesses his bitterness. It’s one of the rare times when Vedant is overwhelmed and his features go from soft to a tearful grimace in seconds before he excuses himself.
He has a natural chemistry with everyone on screen. From a jovial equation with Rafiq to an endearing one with Kainaaz’s daughter, he plays multiple roles without losing the essence of Vedant. He is a doting son to his mother, but a dutiful one to his father. Whether it’s his respectful relationship with his brother or a developing love for Kainaaz, the appeal of it all lies in his subtlety.
Kaafir makes for a beautiful watch altogether, even though it deals with a tragic theme. There are small moments of hope and victory strewn everywhere, whether it’s the courtroom scene where Vedant delivers a winning closing statement a la Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill or the scene where contrite youth are repainting the walls of Kainaaz’s home after their frenzied vandalism.
There are a few episodes where the narrative seems dragged and the pace slows down even further, but the actors more than makeup for it. The story could have done as well even without the angle of romance, as Vedant’s motives are always clearly defined, but well, it’s an opportunity for a season two maybe, who knows? All said and done, Kaafir delivers a universal message through a personal story- that of humanity, and it does that successfully, thanks to a good ensemble of storytelling and acting that totally works.