Resurrecting a desi epic

October 30, 2022

Hamza Ali Abbasi as Noori Natt must have trained hard to create the character of a tortured psychotic villain with the fitness of a Goliath

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f Hamza Ali Abbasi had spent the last four years thinking about what God wanted him to do with his life, here’s the verdict: God probably wanted him to act in Kamran Lashari’s film and do it with his hair in a man bun.

Why else would Hamza Ali Abbasi be outshining every other actor in the film The Legend of Maula Jatt and doing so three years into his post-retirement retirement?

Speaking of which, I wonder what was going through Lashari’s mind when he decided to take an iconic vendetta film from the ’70s and re-create it for the modern-day sensibilities. The original story of Maula Jatt is a rural revenge saga about the character of Maula Jatt, an intimidating vengeance-seeking rabble-rouser, who first appeared in a short story, Gandaasa, by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and was later immortalised by Sultan Rahi through a series of Jatt films in three decades of Pakistani cinema.

I wonder if the decision to remake the film was influenced by the unprecedented commercial success of a revenge-obsessed, proudly-violent hero who amassed widespread appeal among the local audiences back in the ’70s. Or was the idea to harness the immense screen power of the often-underutilised Pakistani actors and give them carefully crafted roles in a stunningly visual film with a riveting plotline, just to see what happens next?

What happens next is magic. The Legend of Maula Jatt is not a perfect film, but it is worth every second of the two hour twenty minutes spent in the cinema. It has no nationalistic agenda, but it evokes patriotic passions in the hearts of expatriate Pakistanis. It has international and cross-cultural appeal and despite its at-times deplorable Punjabi dialect, gory murder scenes and bad acting by a prominent cast member,The Legend of Maula Jatt is a superb film that deserves to be watched again and again.

Lashari has arguably extracted the story of Maula Jatt from the hegemonic masculinity norms of the ’70sand placed it firmly in the 21st Century. It is the story of Maula Jatt, played by Fawad Khan, and his journey from being a traumatised child to being the saviour of the masses, propelled by a long-suppressed rage and a colossal physical strength. The female leads Humaima Malik as Daaro, Mahira Khan as Mukho and Raheela Agha as Maula Jatt's adopted mother, do not exist solely to prove the manliness of their male counterparts;they are refreshingly autonomous and capable of fighting their own battles, both literal and metaphorical. We don’t know where the story is set, and we don’t care.

It is a utopian rural setting with gargantuan architecture, beautifully captured in long shots; and idyllic gondolas that hang precariously under star-studded skies. It is also a dystopian hell where gangsters slit throats on whim and burn villages without any fear of the law. It is a story of bad wigs and good villains where gandasas, not guns, rule the day; and where men and women drink alcohol in medieval looking bars under the glow of blazing fire torches. The cinematography of this fantasy setting is executed flawlessly and the long shots fully capture the carefully curated artistic elements in the miseen scène.

Mahira Khan as Fawad Khan’s love interest, Mukho, glams up the screen just by being Mahira Khan; validating the director’s choice to cast her in a lead role for her unadulterated star power. But does this star power exempt us from the truth that the entire Pakistani nation knows and chooses to ignore for the sake of our collective adoration for Mahira Khan? That Mahira Khan can’t act to save her life and she isn’t saving any lives in this film either. One would think that in a film starring Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan’s as lovers, sparks would be flying and cinema screens would be smouldering in real time, but here Gohar Rasheed’s pot has more chemistry than what these two are doing on screen.

In medium shots, they both look bored, and reluctant to get too close for some undisclosed reason. But if you love these two and want to live in denial about their dead screen presence, then blame it on the wigs. I don’t know what the hair director was going for by making Mahira Khan look like Captain Jack Sparrow and Fawad Khan, Eleven from Stranger Things; but we are lucky that both these actors are independently beautiful, and the wigs are just a minor blip on what otherwise can be categorised as serious eye candy. Even Ali Azmat as Gogi would have looked better bald than with the pesky wig he was made to wear.

Despite the character of Maula Jatt being at the centre of The Legend of Maula Jatt, the film belongs to Noori Natt, his arch enemy, and his sister Daaro way more than it belongs to Maula Jatt and Mukho (How’s that for the caste group hegemony discourse?). Hamza Ali Abbasi as NooriNatt must have trained hard to create the character of a tortured psychotic villain with the fitness of a Goliath and it shows in his body language, his physique, the alignment of his limbs in fight sequences, the tenor of his throaty intonation and the range of emotions in his kohl-lined eyes.

Fawad Khan by comparison is elusive as a character. We don’t know who he is and what he wants. Hamza Ali Abbasi, we know, is a caged animal with deep psychological dilemmas, and a softer feminist side paradoxically deepened by his fits of rage. He doesn’t seek authority, aspires to be tortured to feel pain and takes pleasure in finding an equal rival even in a death battle. His sister Daaro, played by Humaima Malik, is a convincing deuteragonist who mirrors the violent traits of her male counterparts through her masculine body posturing and her murderous ferocity. The fact that she looks feminine and sensual while executing these traits goes to her credit and adds substantially to the aesthetic appeal of the film. Fawad Khan and Humaima Malik’s chemistry is phenomenal, rivalled only by the hatred between Jut land Noori as mutually condemning archrivals.

The release of The Legend of Maula Jatt worldwide is a developing story.It is galvanising the sense of pride in Pakistani cinema among expatriate Pakistanis. The unifying patriotic element is facilitated by multiplicity of screens in accessible parts of metropolis, making it easier to gather friends and to “show” them what a Pakistani film looks like.

I watched the film in Edmonton, Canada, sitting in a posh Cineplex with reclining chairs and enough leg space to roast a lamb. Usually, to watch a Pakistani film in a cinema, I have to drive 23 kilometers in the middle of the week to a cinema notorious for bed bugs and shady corners. And if I wait for the weekend, the film is often gone before I can reshuffle my schedule.

So, to whoever is overseeing The Legend of Maula Jatt's distribution in Canada, I want to say, thank you.

The writer is from Lahore who works and lives in Edmonton.

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