I was looking for a foreign language film and this Pakistani film looked like it would fit the bill. I was surprised to discover that half the dialogue is actually in English (impeccable English as taught in the best schools in the country) and half in Urdu – not subtitled. All the recent Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in UK multiplexes have been subtitled in English and Waar seemed like a throwback to an earlier era. In terms of the technical quality of the production however this is a very modern film.
I went into the screening knowing only that the film was an action thriller based on ‘actual events’ involving the fight against terrorism in Pakistan. It was only afterwards that I learned that it had the biggest budget of any Pakistani film so far and that it was a box office smash in its domestic market after an Eid release in October 2013. I also read about the controversy generated by its seeming propaganda message about terrorism coming out of India.
The narrative of Waar has a familiar structure found in action thrillers from most film cultures. A ‘super agent’ Major Mujtaba (Shaan Shahid) comes out of retirement to take on a job that may well be ‘patriotic’ – to stop an international terrorist whose mission appears to be to cause havoc in Pakistan – but is also in some way ‘personal’. Was the terrorist also responsible for an attack on Mujtaba’s family? The ex-army Mujtaba is asked to join two younger agents from a special police squad, a brother (Hamza Ali Abbasi) and sister (she’s the IT expert and is played by Ayesha Khan). The terrorist ‘Ramal’ is played by Shamoon Abbasi and his ‘fixer’ (named ‘Laxmi’) by Meesha Shafi. I can’t really comment on the script by Hassan Waqas Rana since I couldn’t follow the scenes in Urdu. I should explain that all the military and police operational dialogue is in English (as is the conversation between the terrorist and his fixer) but all other dialogue is in Urdu and not subtitled. I’m at a loss as to what went on between the ‘commissioner’ of the terrorists attacks (who is hinted to be Indian) and a group of Islamist fighters up on the North West Frontier. Since the Taliban and the Indian armed forces are Pakistan’s two main potential enemies the connection makes sense but it would be good to know how the liaison is supposed to work.
The credits announce that a digital intermediate was processed by Technicolor in Bangkok and reports suggest a high number of VFX. IMDB states that a Red ONE camera was used and that the ratio was 2.35:1 – I thought that the presentation in Bradford was more like 1.85:1 (though the trailer below is 2.35:1). There is a colossal amount of weaponry on show and this seems to have been provided by the Pakistani military – fuelling the claims that the film is a propaganda statement. The young director Bilal Lashari trained at a film school in San Francisco and before this feature had mainly worked on music videos. The direction is accomplished in a technical sense but for me was portentous in terms of low and high angles with fast cutting matched to a heavy rock soundtrack (which was not to my taste at all). Lashari has said that he rarely watches Bollywood and that he is much more influenced by Hollywood. I can see that in his direction and I did feel that James Bond/Jason Bourne etc. were major influences – the film’s climax takes place on the roof of the convention centre in Islamabad. However, I felt that several of the actors, especially Shamoon Abbasi, could easily have fitted into a similarly-themed Hindi action thriller. Ironically the cinema played the trailer for Jai Ho with Salman Khan in the intermission and there was a distinct resemblance to Abbasi. Waar also features a musical interlude in which Ramal and Laxmi dance together – to a track with an English vocal.
Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed the film but certain elements are distinctly impressive in terms of the choreography of the action (and the originality of the actions), including the sequence involving an audacious attack on a police academy (based on events at the Lahore Police Academy in 2009?). The central performances are good but I got bored with the explosions and almost fetishistic handling of weaponry. The lack of subtitles was annoying and I note that the director and producers have spoken about the decision to shoot half the film in English, suggesting that this was a mistake. I don’t really understand why the whole film isn’t in Urdu with just occasional English – a convention in many similar language cinemas – and English subtitles. A sequel has already been announced so perhaps a different policy will be adopted the second time around. Waar has been seen as reviving a Pakistani film industry in decline. A country of 180 million people with a rich cultural tradition needs a functioning film industry so that must be a good thing. I just hope that the industry will be able to make a variety of films in future.
Here’s the official trailer:
Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.
Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.
The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father, Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?
This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.
Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.
In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.
Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:
And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:
The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK.