“A Middling Year”
When reflecting on the year that’s past, Anupama Chopra (who happens to be one of my favourite film critics) referred to 2019 as a ‘middling year’ for Bollywood. Across the border, in contrast, the year has been the year of opportunities lost. The first full year where no Bollywood film was to release to Pakistani Cinemas should have ushered in a new era for Pakistani films. Instead, we got the usual bog-standard 20 films, with barely any standouts.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Some films stood out because of just how incredibly awful they were. Heck, there’s one film in particular, that should now be considered the gold standard for horrible filmmaking. Similarly, there was the creation of a new genre, Karachi Noir and more than a few masterclasses in brilliant acting.
While yes, 2019 was an opportunity lost, it was by no means uneventful. To illustrate, here are the best and worst Pakistani films, I had the pleasure/displeasure of watching in 2019.
#1 Best: Laal Kabootar
Laal Kabootar as a film achieves several successes. It is the vehicle that allowed the normally type-cast Ahmed Ali Akbar to deliver a career-best performance. That too, in a beautifully dark, dramatic lead role. Next, it proves that you can make a brilliant, gripping, and engaging film without the shoehorned romantic subplot and unnecessary song sequences. Most of all, it proves that Pakistani filmmakers have incredible talent.
The industry has been for years, working to escape the shadow of the towering, lumbering titan that is Bollywood. That inevitably resulted in Pakistani filmmakers heavily relying on Bollywood’s successes as a template to launch the industry to similar heights. To say that their endeavours have been met with a mixed response, would be a massive understatement. Barring a few, our industry has managed to achieve more cringe than Bollywood’s signature escapism.
An Alternate to Escapism
2018’s Cake proved a movie that lacked the usual masala (elaborate dance numbers and contrived melodrama) can be successful and Laal Kabootar added to that. While not able to rake in the numbers, both films defined a genre, garnered wide-spread praise for their focus on brilliant, human, Pakistani stories and were Pakistan’s official entry for the Oscars.
It’s absolutely criminal that neither was nominated. Kamal Khan and Asim Abbasi will just have to contend with being the crowning jewels of Pakistani filmmaking.
#1 Worst: Chhalawa
If Kamal Khan is the crowning jewel of Pakistani Cinema, Wajahat Rauf is the cautionary tale. Earlier in the year, I made the colossal mistake, to watch Enaya because how often do you get to watch a Pakistani web series. The answer is, not often enough, which is why there was no reference point and we were left clamouring for the remote, so we could click off that train wreck. Honestly, I should have known better than to book a ticket to watch this movie, to sit through another couple of hours of deafening background score drowning out horrendous dialogue and good actors being reduced to wooden caricatures.
I used to believe…
I used to believe that a movie’s worst offence was being boring. With Chhalawa, Wajahat Rauf seemed hell-bent on changing that from the get go. A fellow cinema-goer summed it up really well, as the theatre emptied that night. She exclaimed loudly upon exiting, “kya vahiyat movie thi!” (What a vulgar movie!). I have to say, I whole-heartedly agree. When a movie has no characters that one can relate with of be invested in, heck when none of the characters are likeable, regardless of how undeserved their plight may be, you can only hope that the exit isn’t crowded on the way out.
There’s a lot to pick apart and critique in Chhalawa. Enough so that even the most patient among us would find their endurance diminishing. I had even written a full review but I was left so exhausted, that publishing it felt like a Herculean task. That may never see the light of day, and neither should this movie. Ever.
#2 Best: Superstar
Before I continue, I need to say a few things as to preserve my integrity in your eyes. Reason being, in a few moments, I shall begin gushing over the reason why I went back to watch Superstar a second time. A third viewing would have been very likely had the derailment of the second half not been so severe.
This movie, almost like a cliche, suffers from the quintessential Pakistani film problem, a horrible and incoherent second half. Particularly with regards to the story. It’s as if screenwriter Azaan Sami Khan suddenly gained confidence in himself after a great first act that he pursued the rest with reckless abandon. Azaan did a much better job with the songs though.
Now, if the film has such a glaring flaw, how is it the second-best film one seen this year? The answer to this, and a lot of other questions with regards to me is the same. Mahira Khan. If you thought she was a brilliant actress already, watch Superstar and behold her prowess once she unapologetically embodies a role.
Noori is her career-best performance!
And I don’t mean the song.
Yes, I agree there’s a chance that my admiration for the actor may be clouding my judgment. However, seldom have I seen such progression in one character over the course of a film. Superstar follows Noori through various stages of her career, from struggling thespian to established superstar. During that time, struggles of the heart take centre stage and Mahira expertly captures the nuances and variations of how a slightly older Noori must deal with them at different stages of her life.
Her performance not only anchors the film, but allows other actors to act off it and deliver stronger performances. Case in point: Bilal Ashraf. The stoic, baritone actor also manages to deliver a career-best. Well, now it looks like a third viewing is more likely than ever.
2. Worst: Project Ghazi
If any movie in 2019, can personify opportunity lost, its Project Ghazi. This ill-fated film had a tumultuous journey, just to make it to Cinema houses. Back in 2017, the release of the film was cancelled mid-premiere, due to several issues in the final cut that reportedly rendered the film unwatchable. People who were fortunate enough to watch both theatrical cuts of the film noted the improvements that had been made. I unfortunately, only watched the newer version. To say I was disappointed, was an understatement.
A Shot in the Dark
Project Ghazi was meant to be Pakistan’s first foray into the unexplored superhero genre. Instead, it serves as yet another example that without a coherent story, any movie is incomplete. Here you have the added benefit of bad acting, bad dialogue and horrible editing. The result is a collection of haplessly put-together scenes, so disengaging that even escapism is beyond reach. The only saving grace, is the film’s beautiful production design and impeccable cinematography.
It should be noted that Project Ghazi was a direct result of writer and producer Syed Mohammad Ali Raza and director Nadir Shah’s passion for the genre. They believed in the film and stuck with it till the end. Yes, it didn’t pay off but that shouldn’t be a deterrent to trying again. Pakistan has the potential and the passion. We’ll get there eventually.
#3 Best: Baaji
Similar to Superstar, Baaji doesn’t make it on to this list because of its story. With that regard, it too suffers from the curse of the intermission. That break in the story-telling not only breaks the flow for viewers also also allows enough time for the narrative to unravel into a collection of loose strings. No, Baaji is here for one reason only.
The Meera Ji.
While yes, Amna Ilyaas was a fantastic supporting act, there is no question that this film belongs to Meera Ji. That could be down to the fact that she was only allowed to play herself on the screen (to an extent) but to glorious effect. Her presence grounds the film and anchors the audience’s internet that would have otherwise gone to the wind thanks to the convoluted plot.
I’d actually be happy to watch a few more films that put Meera at centre stage. A few, no need to go overboard. We don’t need anymore Bollywood-esque type-casting.
#3 Worst: Parey Hut Love
It’s a wonder what a few great songs can do for a horrible film. Azaan Sami Khan worked his magic on PHL’s soundtrack and it propelled this incredibly frustrating mess to become the second-highest grossing film of the year. In director Asim Raza’s defence, the film is beautiful to look at. Each frame is meticulously crafted with intricate and elaborate set pieces and forgoes sweeping shots of Karachi and Hunza. Unfortunately, PHL is the type of movie that I would mute and just look at, unmuting only when Zara Noor Abbas, Ahmed Ali Butt and Mahira Khan are on screen.
Oh and during the songs too.
However, I could just as easily watch the songs on YouTube. I don’t need to pay full price to watch them, with the gaps filled with the most ludicrously bad film imaginable. I get that the story isn’t original, given that this is a remake of a Hollywood movie, but why are the characters unlikable and shallow? Why do the leafs have such horrible dialogue and why are the best actors of the film delegated to poor comic relief. Granted, I loved Zara Noor Abbas and Ahmed Ali Butt’s chemistry but I would rather watch a movie centring on the two of them. I am not prepared to brave the entire movie just for that.
Heck, if I would, I’ll only watch the last 15 minutes or so. For some very obvious reasons.
A New Year, A New Hope.
I’d like to end, reminding everyone of the subjectivity of this list. Like you, reading this now on your phones at the office while you’re supposed to be working, I am human too. Like all humans, I too, fall prey to subjectivity, like all other critics. Thus, if I’ve trashed on your favourites, please forgive me. And if we have favourites in common, do let me know.
While 2019 was certainly a sparse year for Pakistani films , 2020 is poised to be prolific. There are a massive 43 films confirmed for release this year, starting with Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha on January 24th, 2020 (See note). Bilal Lashari’s long awaited The Legend of Maula Jatt will also (hopefully) make it to cinema screens this year. There seems to be a nice mix of escapism and social messaging in the offering and I for one, can’t wait!
And you should rest assured, I’ll be writing about them all too! Or as many as I can manage.
Note: At the time of writing this, Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha was slated to release at the stated date. Since then, due to a slew of unfortunate events, the film is likely to be delayed. I want it known that I vehemently condemn the death threats and harassment lavished onto the filmmaker and will oppose any further censorship levied on the film.