My morning routine before work includes, like many, checking WhatsApp and responding to messages. Often, the topic of discussion in a group chat with my sisters and close friends, is Pakistani dramas. This morning, the discussion revolved around “Sang E Mah,” a drama written by Mustafa Afridi, directed by Saife Hassan and starring Nauman Ejaz, Sania Saeed, Samiya Mumtaz, Omair Rana, Atif Aslam, Hania Amir, Zaviyaar Nauman Ejaz and others. The story enlightens viewers on the (now rare) Pukhtun tribal practice of “gagh,” which was banned many years ago. My family being Pukhtun, my sister started the discussion with “why am I having such a hard time understanding Sang E Mah? I really can’t focus with these accents. I can’t understand them half the time.” This remark and the subsequent discussion kicked off this article in my mind with one question – are accents necessary when actors are playing “regional” roles?
When we watch Pakistani actors who are not of an ethnic background, there’s a certain suspension of reality at play here. An actor may not look the part and the audience certainly does not expect the actor to speak the language. So when does an accent come into play? When is it appropriate? At the end of the day, the use of an accent should be for authenticity. For example, when we watch Shaista Khanzada in ”Sinf E Aahan,” her accent initially comes across as grating. Why? Because she’s sitting in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, surrounded by Pukhtuns, specifically her family – all of whom speak Pashto. The accent sounds unnatural, because it’s a Pashto-to-Urdu (stereotypical) accent and we have to suspend reality to acknowledge that Shaista IS actually, in “reality,” speaking in Pashto. She could speak in her normal accent and it would be acceptable (if not preferred). However, as the story progresses, we understand the choice to use that accent. When Shaista moves on to PMA, she is now speaking to her fellow trainees and others in Urdu, hence the accent is now “authentic” (again, still overdone and a stereotype, but more acceptable). In this case, the accent is not only acceptable, but it’s also embraced.
What sets “Sang E Mah” apart here is that the entire show takes place in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa where it is assumed that almost all characters, with a few exceptions, are speaking Pashto – though we hear Urdu. Again, since this is requiring a suspension of reality anyway, what is the need for the accent? The accent would only be “authentic” if the characters were speaking Urdu – which they would not do authentically anyway. It’s a difficult choice to make, but what’s interesting to note is that in Sang E Mah’s predecessor, “Sang E Mar Mar,” the entire cast as a unit went a different way, choosing to forgo accents all together. And this worked as a positive for the show, allowing viewers to focus entirely on the show’s content – the story and the performances.
This time, with “Sang E Mah,” it seems the actors received a confused memo – or simply decided to make their own decisions. Sania Saeed, Hassan Noman and Hania Amir have fairly thick accents, which are distracting at times, while Samiya Mumtaz and Zaviyaar Nauman Ejaz have adopted softer accents….while Atif Aslam and Nauman Ejaz have abandoned them altogether. At the end of the day, the accent does not “add” to the story, so why is it necessary? Could our stories be told without adopting regional accents which could (and are) offend those viewers from the area? This is something to think about.