Rahm (Mercy), is a Pakistani feature film based on William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure. Set in Lahore, this award-winning tale of mercy, justice and compassion amplifies the contemporary importance of a Muslim spiritual and cultural message.
We’ve looked before at some of the independent films coming out of Pakistan’s contemporary film industry. However, this is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to review a full-length feature from Pakistan and interview the director!
Rahm (Mercy) released in 2016, is based on William Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play, Measure for Measure. Written by pioneer of multicultural TV in Britain, Mahmood Jamal, and directed and produced by his brother Ahmed Jamal, this award-winning film puts poetic Shakespearean justice in a Pakistani setting for a Muslim audience. The Islamic sensibility of Rahm amplifies spirituality and adds a unique cultural message to this timeless tale of mercy, justice and compassion.
Although Mahmood Jamal passed away in 2021, he was a trailblazer in representing Muslims and South Asians in British culture. He notably contributed to diversifying literature by translating the depth and richness of Urdu poetry into English, while Ahmed Jamal was creating an impressive filmography including the BBC’s 1991 film, The Dancing Girls of Lahore. The duo have dedicated themselves to overturning misconceptions of
In 2017 Rahm won the Best Adapted Screenplay award at the London Film Festival and multiple Pakistani media awards. The film masterfully offers a Sufi inspired interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale of promiscuity, hypocrisy and corruption in Vienna. Set in Lahore, the award-winning actress Sanam Saeed takes centre stage as the gentle and pious Sameena who lives with her naive brother Qasim (played by Rohail Pirzada). When the Governor of Lahore (played by Sajid Hasan) suffers from a heart attack, the corrupt and hypocritical Qazi Ahad assumes the position of the Governor and wreaks cruelty and injustice in Lahore. Sameena’s brother is unfairly arrested by Qazi who then requests that the chaste Sameena trade her honour to save her brother from execution.
“O, it is excellent To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant (Isabella)”
— WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, MEASURE FOR MEASURE
As a faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘most spiritual’ play, Rahm does take a few creative liberties. As the film targets a modern Muslim audience, the screenplay is straightforward, yet lyrical as Shakespeare’s whimsical quotes are translated into Urdu. Mahmood Jamal’s decision to adapt Shakespeare for a modern audience finely balances style and spirituality allowing Rahm to be accessible to a global audience. The emotive performances by each cast member are compelling and Saeed’s innocent and anxious performance as Sameena stands out when her religious agency is challenged by powerful men. The Jamal brothers are daring when show-casing Lahore as a vibrant cultural capital, religious centre and multi-layered city. They successfully emphasise the difficulty in delivering justice and serving humanity in such a complex realm and this is underscored by the fact that much of the film is set in Lahore’s Red Light District.
The themes of Rahm are incredibly relatable to a global audience in 2021. They explore the harsh realities of sexual harassment, corruption and hypocrisy in Muslim communities whilst consistently uplifting the constant and true Islamic values of mercy and justice. That justice must be tempered by mercy is the core message of Rahm and this a stark reminder to the Islamic world today. Rahm’s ability to present the underlying importance of traditional Islamic moral values, in a realm ridden with corruption and hatred, misogyny and judgement is perhaps he film’s greatest strength. A delight for the eyes yet a lesson for the heart.
As part of this review I had the pleasure of a long interview with director and producer, Ahmed Jamal. Our discussion ranged over creative liberties, the lessons taught by Rahm and Jamal’s future plans.
There are a lot of popular Shakespeare plays such as Hamlet or Macbeth that focus on deception and treachery. Why did you decide to adapt Measure for Measure based in Pakistan for a Muslim audience?
The idea for adapting Measure for Measure was not mine. My brother Mahmood Jamal who unfortunately passed away from COVID-19, was the writer, . It was his project for a long time and he worked on it for eight years. He had this idea that of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this one could be taken from Elizabethan England to a country like Pakistan without much change and that is what attracted him to it – the kind of greatness of Shakespeare.
Mahmood was a poet and he was influenced by Sufism. He thought Measure for Measure was one of Shakespeare’s most poetic plays and felt it brought out Shakespeare’s broad mindedness, tolerance and the notion that justice should be tempered with mercy. Mahmood had this in his head and he did a lot of work on Islam, Islamic poetry and mystical poetry. He’s translated Faiz [Ahmed] and was working on [Muhammad] Iqbal.
At the time Shakespeare was writing, the Puritan movement was in full swing in England and Shakespeare was writing against that. Those very extreme views on religion and how people should behave, intolerance… all these things, Mahmood felt, fitted in with what is going on in many parts of the world, including Pakistan.
The play is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays which are plays characterised by their complex and ambiguous tone,. I got involved in making the film when we decided to shoot it in Lahore. I had worked in Lahore before. I did a film for the BBC called The Dancing Girls of Lahore. I knew the area, I had stayed there so when there was an opportunity to make the film in Lahore, I jumped at it.
What key themes did you want audiences to take away after watching the movie?
Well the main thing is the idea of justice being tempered with mercy which is a recurring theme when you examine the textual manuscript in the Quran. It says ‘you can do this but God prefers mercy’. Mercy is something that is so universal and that is such an important part of our faith, of our belief in Islam, the all-encompassing nature of Islam. Not the one being foisted on us for the last 50 years.
The life of Prophet (pbuh) himself is one of kindness and forgiveness. He forgave people who tortured him, people who killed his uncle… all sorts of things. He was trying to find a way to not incite punishment. In our societies at the moment, when they say ‘Islamicise the country or bring the country to Sharia’, the first thing they do is bring punishments to frighten people. Whippings, imprisonment of women, taking women’s rights… That sort of thing. So for us, it was a way of using Shakespeare, using great literature and being able to give a message. Also, we felt the solution to the problems we have are within Islam itself.
I noticed a lot of the more feminine characters wore brighter colours. Was this an artistic choice?
If you go to Pakistan, one thing that strikes you is the clothes that women wear. It’s colourful. We had a costume designer, a young fellow. He was dressing them and was showing me what they wear. Except for a couple of scenes, the others were quite stark and plain with browns and whites. We were careful with what we chose and we tried to match the clothes with the kind of clothes that the person would really wear.
What audience were you targeting when you developed and produced this film?
We were very keen to have the film shown in Pakistan. Unfortunately the distributor didn’t tell us that the film didn’t get censorship clearance in federal areas. This is where a lot of well-off people, middle-class people go to cinemas in Pakistan so they couldn’t go and see it at the cinema. Also, the role of the transsexual was reduced by the distributor. I re-edited it but there are a few scenes I wish we had played more because it was an example of different ways of life. Islamic societies have had that tolerance for a long time.
We have Asian and Muslim audiences but also a wider global audience, saying ‘within Islamic societies, you can resolve these differences’. There’s not just the one strict interpretation of Islam that gets all the press. It’s a contemporary exception to the norm throughout history – the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, Muslims in Andalusia, – we have always lived in societies that have been very tolerant. We’re trying to show the western world that living in an Islamic country does not equal fascism.
In the film, there are billboards of women advertising makeup, but the female characters are severely chastised by men. Was the juxtaposition of agency coming from men but women being chastised by men intentional?
Well, the area itself is a red light area. I was born in Lucknow when my home was the centre of Islamic learning but the next lane was were the dancing girls were. So Lahore is like that. The makeup and hair, those were actually there in Lahore when we were filming.
At the end of the film, the Governor calls Sameena aside to talk to her privately. The film then cuts to Sameena walking down a street but she looks distressed. What was the significance of this scene?
At the end of Shakespeare’s plays, he resolves everything. He doesn’t leave loose ends. Everything is tied up. In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna assumes that he will marry Isabella. He takes her hand as the reception is going on and he says ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine’. He takes her hand and they walk together.
I had a big argument with Mahmood about that. He wanted to stick to Shakespeare but I felt that Sajid Hasan [the character of the Governor] looked much older than Sanam’s character of Sameena. There’s an earlier scene where the Governor tries to molest Sameena and she runs out and walks as the Qawwali starts. I wanted to parallel that scene. I felt that it would be crazy to end when there is still this man in power who has proposed to her but she doesn’t know him. I argued that we should leave it ambiguous. That she’s thinking about it. We are saying that the decision to marry or not marry would be hers. I had difficulty explaining to Sanam but she understood. There’s a sadness in there because the character Sameena does want to get married. A lot of women in Pakistan do want to get married to a man like the Governor but when she’s walking and she’s thinking, ‘I’ve been through this awful thing with a man in power’, is the marriage something that she will do? It’s sad that a woman on her own has to get married. I didn’t want to do it.
Another thing is that a brother and sister living on their own in Lahore is unusual in Pakistan. That is social commentary Shakespeare used in England but it relates here because a lot of young professionals come and live in Pakistani cities and Karachi is full of them. So I wanted to show that Sameena was actually living on her own and her brother was married. You don’t see brother and sister sharing a house in Pakistan. There’s always a joint family behind them. I think a lot of people who have seen the film, Shakespeare academics and women in particular, like that. It’s a different spin on Shakespeare. It’s the only liberty we’ve really taken. In the context of the times, it was difficult to see her (Sameena) go off with him (the Governor).
Do you have any future plans or new projects?
I have a few things I’m working on. It is not easy to raise money for films. I’ve had some development money for a series on the BFI. Apart from that, I work as a director and producer. I have a film that I’m pitching to Netflix about a family of Qawwals based in Lahore.
PLEASE NOTE: Rahm is available for viewing on Alchemiya in the following areas only: Australia, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.