This week marks seventy years since India and Pakistan became separate countries, the joy of Independence marred by the trauma of a Partition that turned brother against brother. Millions of lives were displaced and lost in the largest migration in recorded history; ‘An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind’, Gandhi warned, yet was assassinated soon afterwards for advocating interreligious and international tolerance. Today the two nuclear powers share a contested, hastily-drawn border that still separates families. In this context comes Rahm (Mercy), a remarkable award-winning Pakistani reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure.
In Urdu with English subtitles, the moving adaptation is directed by Ahmed Jamal and written and produced by Mahmood Jamal. The team aptly states that the film and story are right for our time and our global challenges. The latter feels it captures “tensions between extremists and moderates, forgiveness; violence. Never have I seen a Shakespeare play like a direct fit in […] developing countries with the rise of nationalism, diversity, identity.” Haunting Sufi songs and aphorisms float above the winding brick city walls of Lahore ‘in an imaginary time’ as they underscore the director’s vision that Shakespeare’s wisdom fits perfectly with the message of love and tolerance: “Probably the first time Shakespeare is set in the Islamic world in a film? […] On every page of the Quran there’s mercy.”
The film is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s play, in which a young religious woman pleads for her brother’s life with an equally puritanical official who then requests her chastity in exchange, setting up the core dilemma of attributing sin and appropriating punishment. Yet Rahm adds twists that enhance these delicate tensions in balancing mercy with inhumanity, while capturing the beauty and idiosyncrasies of Lahore. Isabella/Sameena (Sanam Saeed) is a wide-eyed, upright, devout maiden whose headscarf stays on until Pompey/Lucio (Nayyar Ejaz) tears it off to reveal long, ‘dark tresses’, which the rosary-bearing Angelo/Qazi Azad (Sunil Shanker) complains, ‘invite me to sin’. The Duke (Sajid Hasan) or Governor is an aging, kindly politician with a familiar convoy of government vehicles and a mansion with a photograph of Jinnah, the father of independent Pakistan. Here he takes ‘medical leave’, enlisting Qazi after regretting his inability to impose order on the lawless, such as the opening scene crowd that batter his convoy over the ongoing issue of the banned Besant spring festival.
The resetting is shockingly effective. Parallels are woven on dreamy, nebulous levels that yet feel more real than Shakespeare’s retelling of Renaissance Vienna. CCTV and text message enhance the claustrophobic cells and offices while providing pervasive surveillance machinery. As law enforcement harshens, Lahore herself is a victim: Kamal mourns, “The city will have no light or fragrance left.” The meaning of mercy in faith is debated by the devout Sameena, who invokes Allah’s mercy in advocating mutual forgiveness, saying she’ll bribe Qazi not with pearls but prayers; Qazi conflates severity with justice, and mixes public law with personal worship, kneeling in his office for prayer even while someone outside is receiving his prescribed forty lashes for bootlegging as the crowd complain against his fate.
Touches of local humor illuminate the unfolding tragedy. When her brother Qasim Mian (Rohail Pirzada) elopes, he loses his wedding papers– ‘Safia and I are married—I can’t marry her again, can I?’ (despite requesting everything in triplicate, the bureaucracy has no copy)–so he is sentenced to death for impregnating his wife ‘outside of marriage.’ Later, as curfew ensues and politician Kamal’s illicit dancing girls are picked up at a surprisingly innocent party complete with rose petals and old gramophone love songs, he bribes the official for their release, stating, “Your inspector has picked up my girls—you know I need their votes!” The brothel madam — a timely hijra (transgender) casting, a social minority which the director explains are “invited in houses for weddings but kept outside the pale of society — we wanted but we couldn’t get a real-life, transvestite actor to play the part” — mines every line for pathos and humor, even complaining about her arthritic hip. In the denouement, preparing to plead for justice, as the Governor is due to return via ‘direct PIA flight from London’ Sameena is admonished to “hurry — these days (in Pakistan), flights come on time!”
Most moving of all are the parallels between brother and brother, sinner and lover. Qasim’s name mirror’s Qazi’s; Sameena points out that ‘unlawful forgiveness’ differs from ‘legitimate mercy’ if his fault is the same desire: “My brother desired Safia Begum, yet you say he should be hanged.” Desire–for God, death, love, lust, dowry, or mercy–is explored through Sufi philosophy: the Governor (disguised as a Fakir) counsels, “Make death your friend, so that life and death become sweeter. Neither peace in youth nor happiness in old age — both useless.” Most importantly, the final dilemma and decision are left to Sameena, who raises her eyes to the Lahore sky and its visible interfaith skyline. As the producer states, “All over the world…[this happens]” and the director sums up: “but God prefers those who are merciful.”
Rahm is next showing in London at Tara Arts on August 17th:
You can see the trailer here:
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.