What did you learn at the movies today? It is with this cryptic question that A O Scott, the respected film critic of The New York Times, begins his latest write-up. I found it interesting that it is published in the issue of Friday, June 24 – the very day on which ‘Bol’, Shoaib Mansoor’s spectacular follow-up to ‘Khuda Kay Liye’, was released across Pakistan after glittering premieres in Karachi and Lahore for invited audiences.
Now, Scott’s lengthy piece relates to another world where movie-going is a popular cultural experience, particularly in summertime “when hot weather and idle hours drive young scholars into the multiplexes”. And he raises the question whether “popular commercial movies are, or should be, intellectually undemanding, easily digestible, requiring no special knowledge and offering none in return”.
In Pakistan, of course, going to the movies is not something you do on a regular basis. Besides, going to see a Pakistani movie would hardly be the choice for a discerning and cultured audience. In this environment, a Pakistani production that rises to international standards is sure to become an event in our social life. There was ‘Khuda Key Liye’. And now we have ‘Bol’.
To take a cue from the film critic of the NYT, I have this question: what does ‘Bol’ speak to you? Is it a scream that rages through your consciousness or a mere whisper that leaves you uncertain about its meaning? After the premiere in Karachi last Sunday, a number of my friends were visibly surprised as well as enthralled by the film’s artistic treatment of an entire range of issues that have festered in our society.
I have been wondering if the paying audience, its expectations boosted by the buzz that the film has created, will have the same reaction. In that sense, it will be interesting to study the response of the viewers, across the spectrum of our society, to what ‘Bol’ has to say.
At another level, ‘Bol’ may also serve as a measure of its viewers’ capacity to come to terms with some harsh and somewhat unspeakable realities of our existence. It is likely to set some alarm bells ringing because truth sometimes is so intolerable that denial becomes our defence mechanism.
My intention here is not to review the film or to tell its story. I would also not like to be distracted by conversations or criticisms that relate to the cinematic values of ‘Bol’. That it is an exceptional and thematically ambitious presentation is already well-established. It is also widely recognised that ‘Bol’ has brought together some flaming issues, weaving them together in an engaging narrative.
Even though it was a special occasion with distinguished guests and the leading actors of the film, the showing at Atrium essentially projected the magic of going to the cinema. Watching the film on the big screen in a darkened hall with so many other viewers is essentially a communal activity. In spite of the new media and the facility of watching a film on DVD in the comfort of your home, multiplexes, with their high prices, are flourishing everywhere. This is so because going to the cinema – or theatre, for that matter – is socially and culturally an uplifting experience. It is a pleasure that reinforces your sense of belonging to your community.
I am fond of telling my younger acquaintances that in the sixties, when the population of Karachi may have been less than one fourth of what it is now, there were over one hundred cinema houses in the city.
Yes, more than one hundred. I would say that I was almost brought up on Hollywood movies. To return to the first sentence of this column, there was surely a lot to learn from those movies. Also, to dream. Look what has happened to the city now and I am sure one symptom of this devastation is the dearth of such cultural activities as going to the cinema. Pakistan’s own film industry is a waste land and another measure of the drift of the Pakistani society that we find afflicted with violence, intolerance, bigotry and cultural decadence.
Incidentally, these are some of the themes that have been tackled in ‘Bol’. This is one reason why making it, with those obligatory cinematic embellishments, was an act of courage. There is always this danger of someone nasty getting very annoyed.
But ‘Bol’ has come with some good luck. It is the timing. After the events of May and some other emotionally unsettling episodes, Pakistan has gone into a contemplative mode. Serious thinking on not just our national sense of direction but also on the glaring brutalisation of our society is the need of the hour.
‘Bol’, then, is at hand to contribute to that national assignment. Take the case of that unarmed young man who was killed by a group of Rangers in Karachi or the merciless ambush of foreigners, including three women, one of them in an advanced stage of pregnancy, in Kharotabad in Balochistan. In both cases, concrete evidence is recorded by the camera.
The point I am making is that reality itself is so shattering that a fictional depiction of the taboos and injustices of society demands prudence and creativity. After all, cinema, even when it dabbles in social realism, should give you some relief and excite your sense of wonder. ‘Bol’ has these elements. There is that huge magnet for the youth in the person of Atif Aslam, though his is not a central role.
I hope that Atif and Humaima and Iman and Mahira will attract a young audience and it will be patient enough to engage in the story that is carried by characters played by Manzar Sehbai and Shafqat Cheema on their strong shoulders. In addition, ‘Bol’ deserves to be seen by the kind of people, particularly the young women who live in the prison of orthodoxy and bigotry, who are featured in the story as fictional characters.
However, the regret is that one excellent movie does not make a summer. We are desperately in need of a cultural and intellectual revival. It calls for a revolution that must begin in the minds of our youth. This is very possible while they continue to sing their songs with the likes of Atif Aslam.
To conclude, let me refer to what I had learnt from an old Hollywood movie, ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’. Its central character, Marlon Brando, began with these words: “Pain makes a man think. Thought makes a man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable”. There are some dialogues in ‘Bol’ that its young viewers may fondly recall many, many years hence.
The writer is a staff member