Substance or the lack thereof

December 29, 2019

Reviewing the good, the bad and the new of Pakistani cinema

The year 2019 has been bittersweet in very many ways — politically, socially, and for the performing arts as well. A lot emerged from the recent wave of digital content. Notable production houses have ventured into subsidiaries which focus on producing web-series for local audiences who had not been previously targeted. Despite experimentation on celluloid with an array of genres; there is also a fair share of conventional – if not entirely problematic storylines, which have found their ways to various mediums and were consumed, regardless.

A metamorphosis of sorts took place for writers, where ‘taboo’ subjects were shed light upon, in unprecedented ways. Pakistani cinema saw its rebirth at the dawn of this decade, most prominently with Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011), which dealt with a range of social constructs, the position of women particularly daughters in a family, the transgender community and music. Yet, there has been some deterioration as ’90s fusion cinema was also resurrected. Independent cinema, however, has also slowly but surely found its place, which has led to the local scene finding its way to the global arena.

The year opened with the theatrical release of the action-thriller Gumm: In the Middle of Nowhere, which had toured international film festivals earlier, selected in eight across India, USA, UK and Canada, bagging seven awards with fifteen nominations. However, locally the film received rather lukewarm response as technical glitches seemed to overpower the plot. In terms of its impact on the industry, there wasn’t much one could credit it for.

Debutant filmmaker, Kamal Khan’s Laal Kabootar left a lasting impression - the film is a raw, edgy with a say-it-all look into the crime scene of Karachi, yet as it progresses, comes across simply as a humane journey of its two protagonists, one who’s lost her husband in a brutal target killing and the other, a cab driver drowning in his own misery. The pace is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s brand of cinema, which starts off on a grand-scale, narrows down on personal grief; and stays with you. Apart from being Pakistan’s official submission to the 92nd Academy Awards, it’s done well at the festival circuit; bagging accolades at Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival and DC South Asian Film Festival amongst others.

What Laal Kabootar does, in the larger scheme of things, is encourage investors to finance off-beat, parallel cinema considering it recovered its budget and made a reasonable amount of profit. It also gives hope to aspiring filmmakers to tell stories, being true to themselves. 2018 saw the release of Cake and Motorcycle Girl, both female-driven, meaningful stories. Laal Kabootar takes forward the idea. There’s a sense of hope that each of these films instilled among artists and viewers alike.

What’s extremely fascinating is that the year also saw films that found a middle ground between being indie, yet commercial, much like Zoya Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali from across the border. Saqib Malik’s Baaji came across as a flashy exposé of the entertainment industry following a fading superstar, but in reality it was a harsh yet dreamy ode to the once-larger-than-life Lollywood. The choppy editing, the over-the-top acting, even the absurd climax, all contributed to the film being shockingly unfiltered and authentic, yet presented with an air of fantasy; serving as a bridge to celebrate how far movies have come.

A scene in the film where Meera looks into the mirror and seeks validation from her protégée, played by Amna Ilyas, reminds one of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth where the protagonist and yesteryear starlet, Alexandra Del Lago finds comfort in intoxication and a man she feeds only to keep as eye-candy. Mahira Khan’s Superstar, which is also the year’s highest grossing release, is a romance to be remembered for the times to come. The characters are vulnerable and insecure, they falter, which is unlike a commercial movie. The dialogues and arc, spoke volumes to how high-budget movies with big stars can be more than brainless entertainers.

On the short films’ front, Saim Sadiq’s gutsy romance-drama, Darling revolved around a missing sacrificial goat, a trans-woman aiming for the stars and a naive boy falling in love — all when a new show is introduced at an erotic dance theatre in Lahore. After having done the rounds worldwide, Darling majorly screened at Toronto Film Festival and is now being shown locally. Darling is a prime example of how bold, unapologetic and absolutely mad ideas are being harnessed, and there’s more acceptance for them than ever has been. Two-time Academy Award winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s animated short, Sitara takes one on a journey of a fourteen-year old dreaming of becoming a pilot; a daring, aspirational film for teenage girls.

Digitally this year, web series haven’t done much in establishing a loyal audience for the medium. Most web-series, throughout their running, were aesthetically pleasing yet remained on-the-surface, never really taking off. Nonetheless it was a year full of announcements for content of much higher quality, expected to come out in 2020 — Rafay Rashdi’s independent production, Badshah Begum with Faysal Quraishi and Iman Ali, dealing with familial power struggle whilst Mehreen Jabbar has already filmed a coming-of-age drama and is looking for the right platform to release it on.

Television remained its tedious, exaggerated self. In an interview with The News earlier this year, veteran actor-writer, Bushra Ansari commented on how TV has evolved over the five-decades she’s been in the fraternity, “I’m sorry to say this, but now, most of the trash is mostly written by women with limited vision. Today, we don’t value quality; with some of the recent work I’ve done, I’ve truly felt like I’m committing some crime. On a larger scale though, I think people with basic sensibility are now in minority. We’re being run by people we’re scared of,” she said of the sub-par quality being produced to feed mediocrity.

There have been a few exceptions of course. Sohai Ali Abro and Osman Khalid Butt’s crime-drama serial, Surkh Chandni narrated the journey of an acid-attack survivor. Unlike previous pieces on the subject, Surkh Chandni specifically spoke of support and how survivors must be treated by the people around them and to rehabilitated following such a tragedy. Ishq Zahe-Naseeb featuring Zahid Ahmed and Sonya Hussyn was also a disturbing, yet intriguing watch that revolved around a man suffering from bipolar disorder as well as the long-lasting impression of child abuse.

If nothing else 2019 has been a year of creativity as well as stereotypical, run-off-the-mill offerings. Globally, whilst the lines between what’s considered parallel and mainstream have been blurred with A-List Hollywood stars working for the web-space and on the small-screen. They include the likes of Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon producing Big Little Lies’ seasons and even bigwigs like Martin Scorsese coming out with The Irishman straight-to-Netflix. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a start for Pakistan and hopefully, a good one at that.

Bittersweet 2019 for Pakistani showbiz: Substance or the lack thereof