(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)
Rahm (Mercy) is an impressive independent British-Pakistani film that was well received by the few critics who gave it attention, but it did not perform well at the box office, probably due to problems with distribution and publicity. It was the producers’ first film to be released in Pakistan and has been on wider release – notably in Britain and France – but deserves a much wider audience. It’s a clever, compelling adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but I want to stress that you neither need to know the play nor be a Shakespeare lover to enjoy it. It tells the story of a wise but overly lenient Duke who falls ill and puts his zealous, puritanical deputy in temporary charge. The young deputy imposes new draconian punishments for immorality and condemns a man to death for fornication, to be spared only if his devout sister submits to him sexually. The tale has been transposed to an imaginary modern-day Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, ruled by a governor who has allowed vice in the form of brothels and corruption to run riot. The central characters are impressively played by accomplished Pakistani actors. Sajid Hasan brings the right degree of kindly gravitas to the role of governor (Duke), Sunil Shanker captures the sinister charisma of Qazi (Angelo), Rohail Pirzada the human weakness of the condemned brother Qasim (Claudio) and Sanam Saeed the pious passion and dignified self-control of his sister Sameena (Isabella).
It’s a play I’m very familiar with, having studied and taught it at college level. Though fascinating in terms of themes and characters, it is categorised in Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a ‘problem play’. It is rarely staged these days, because of its mix of tones and genre elements that are hard for a contemporary western audience to take. But I found it actually worked far better in a Pakistani Islamic setting, because of the close parallels with the Elizabethan world of Puritan hypocrisy, corruption of power and sexual honour. Perhaps its most powerful theme is the struggle between mercy and justice: in the film governor and deputy perfectly embody the tension between homegrown Sufi traditions of tolerance and compassion, and the increasing infiltration into Pakistan of an extreme punitive Saudi Islamic ideology.
A key problem for western audiences has traditionally been sympathising with the pious sister (a nun in the original play) determined to preserve her chastity, even at the cost of her brother’s life. The recent London Donmar Warehouse stage production succeeded by putting her story into the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement of women standing up to the abuse of power by males. In the film, her stance is even more credible not just because she’s defending her honour as a Muslim woman, but also like many younger, educated Muslim women these days, asserting a new knowledge of her rights within Islam. I was intrigued by the very closing shots, which created a subtler and less problematic ending for her than in the play, and gave me much food for thought. The play’s plot, though gripping, can also seem implausible at times and strains credibility in the second half with the infamous ‘bed trick’. In the film though, it’s far more convincing and easier to suspend our disbelief because the women’s faces are veiled. The few changes to the original made complete sense to me – for example, rather than couples being engaged, here they are Islamically married but missing documentary proof. And inevitably, to get past Pakistani censors, the script had to ignore many of the ‘low life’ characters’ obscure, obscene jokes from the original, which barely translate well even into modern English, the humour usually being lost on a modern audience. However, veteran Pakistani TV actor Nayyar Ejaz, as Qasim’s dissipated friend (Lucio in the play) still manages to capture his character’s comic irreverence and he gets his come-uppance through a visually entertaining gag. What’s more, replacing the play’s clownish pimp Pompey with the scene-stealing hijra (transsexual) character Gulzar provides more interesting, subversive comic relief.
I saw the film at Square Chapel, Halifax, as part of a short festival of independent Pakistani film. We were lucky enough to have a Q&A afterwards with the creators, British-based director Ahmed Jamal and his brother, producer/writer Mahmood. They are devotees of both Shakespeare and Sufi culture, and the film is clearly a labour of love: it took 8 years to make, was shot on a very limited budget in just 27 days, and it was a tough fight to get distribution in Pakistan, through HKC Entertainment. Thankfully, their dedication paid off eventually and the film is also due to be screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD. Mahmood, a poet who has written and translated a great deal of Urdu poetry into English, stated that he wanted to keep his English-subtitled Urdu script faithful to the poetry and spirit of the original. And he succeeds admirably, with many echoes, paraphrases and even direct translations of Shakespeare’s lines that work remarkably well in Urdu. Not surprising then that Rahm won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 London Film Festival, as well as other Pakistani awards.
Some online reviews have complained of a lack of depth to the characters. I understand why they would say that, but in my view, the script portrays their essential qualities economically. And as with other new Pakistani independent films, the roles are played convincingly by quality performers, many from their highly acclaimed TV dramas. A few other reviews have suggested Rahm is more of a TV than a cinema film. True, it’s not cinematically adventurous, and there are a few clichéd shots (one in the trailer below, unfortunately), but the new wave of independent Pakistani directors are still struggling with tiny budgets and access to technical expertise. Above all though, the Jamal brothers have wisely focused on clear, intelligent storytelling. Like Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Josh (2011) – the other film in the Halifax season – Rahm’s central character is a strong heroine fighting for justice against abusive, powerful men, but the film style is more restrained. The focus on story makes for gripping viewing, and the film works for those who know the play well or those new to it. The audience I saw it with was about 50-50 white/Asian – all levels of Shakespearean knowledge and none – and judging from the spontaneous ringing applause at the end, everyone seemed to love it. In fact, it was all the better for the brothers’ decision not to go down the arthouse route, but instead to create a quality commercial film with dual international/Indian subcontinental appeal.
Anyone who enjoyed the 21st century Indian film adaptations of Shakespeare such as Omkara (Othello), Haider (Hamlet) and Maqbool (Macbeth) should definitely check out Rahm. I’ve seen them all and this is far superior: not only is it much more faithful but it avoids their masala elements, instead weaving in more authentic Sufi qawwali music and traditional dance of Lahore courtesans. Ahmed Jamal is clearly familiar with the shady charm of old Lahore, its winding streets, colonial and Moghul architecture and the red light area of Hira Mandi – all beautifully shot by cinematographer Jono Smith. Jamal celebrates the old city in Rahm almost as a character in its own right, revisiting places he first captured on screen in his 1991 TV documentary The Dancing Girls of Lahore. I enjoyed watching it many years ago, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover he had shot
Mahmood Jamal calls the film a ‘plea for tolerance from the heart of the Muslim world’, and one that should have much wider resonance in a world where some societies are increasingly drifting towards authoritarianism. Rahm makes a significant contribution to the recent Pakistani/diaspora film revival, but also works as a compelling human drama that anyone can enjoy.
Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog
I’m posting this as part of the current focus on Indian Partition in August 1947.
Sometime in the early 1980s I remember watching an extraordinary film, Blood of Hussain (Pakistan-UK 1980), in the Brixton Ritzy. When I heard that the same director, Jamil Dehlavi had made a biopic about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader who is alleged to have forced the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan, I immediately wanted to see the film. Unfortunately, although the film had a successful festival run it was never properly released in the UK and I’m not sure how it was released in Pakistan in the midst of controversy. A DVD appeared in India in 2004 and the film has now been seen and seemingly enjoyed by many Pakistanis. In 2015 Jamil Dehlavi seems to have re-asserted his copyright and a dual format Blu-ray/DVD is now available from Eureka in the UK.
For me it has certainly been worth it to wait for this release. I think this is an excellent film with an unusual take on the biopic and it was interesting to watch it for the first time a few days after seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (UK 2017). Jamil Dehlavi is based mainly in Europe and for this important historical drama he decided to use mostly British actors and crew and to attempt to shoot in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are no ‘extras’ on the Blu-ray/DVD release and little material available online, so it is difficult to work out what was planned originally and what had to be changed when Pakistani support was later withdrawn. IMDb simply lists Karachi and London as locations. The resulting film is quite unlike either mainstream South Asian popular cinema or indeed like Anglo-American or ‘international cinema’. So it doesn’t look like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (or Chadha’s more recent Viceroy’s House) despite covering many of the same events. It seemed to me to be visually like some Indian parallel cinema films (partly because of some of the casting decisions) or like British independent films of the 1980s. I’m thinking here of the more experimental films shown on Channel 4, though the acting performances here are much better. The odd visual style is partly because the budget perhaps didn’t always allow for crowd scenes with any depth and the few ‘generic’ locations had to stand in for official residencies, courts, libraries etc. I think also that locations might have had to be changed at the last minute. There is therefore a feel of a more abstract presentation.
Jinnah created the situation which forced the British to consider and then implement the partition of India as a prerequisite for their withdrawal. He did so by steadfastly maintaining that Muslims in an independent India would be fearful of domination by Hindus and that the only secure means of progress was the creation of Pakistan as a new state in which Muslims would be safe. The film narrative depicts the historical events in such a way as to consider them from the perspective of Jinnah himself and not as an objective account. (I don’t mean to criticise the film, simply to point out that it isn’t a straightforward ‘historical’ account.) Dehlavi and his co-scriptwriter Akbar Ahmed constructed the narrative around the familiar, but still unusual, device of giving us a dying Jinnah in November 1948 who meets a ‘recording angel’. The ‘angel’ explains that the bureaucracy of heaven has failed and he must take Jinnah through the key points in his life, ‘dropping in’ to specific scenes and a couple of occasions interacting with his younger self. These fantasy sequences extend the narrative forward in time, so, for example, Jinnah is told that Mountbatten will be killed by the IRA. Heaven has become computerised and that’s why things are not working. The implication is that the ‘evidence’ that they find will determine how Jinnah will be treated in the afterlife, what will happen to his reputation and how he will come to terms with himself.
There are only three bona fide ‘film stars’ in the cast, headed by Christopher Lee who is excellent and by Shashi Kapoor, equally good as the ‘recording angel’. Kapoor has appeared in over 150 films, mostly in Hindi but several in English. He married Jennifer Kendal and appeared with her several times in parallel films in India. He and Lee make an excellent pairing. Louis Mountbatten, the ‘last Viceroy’ is played by James Fox, again perfect casting (except that Fox was older at the time of shooting than Mountbatten had been in 1947). The rest of the main cast comprises actors mainly known for work in British television and they are also uniformly good. In particular, Richard Lintern, who I must have seen many times on TV without noting his performances, succeeds as a believable younger Jinnah whom we first meet during the First World War and then follow up to the 1930s. British Asians or Asians based in the UK play other roles including the historical figures such as Gandhi and Nehru. I think that because Gandhi is in one sense a very recognisable figure because of his dress and mannerisms, we easily accept an ‘impersonation’ and don’t look or listen very carefully. But we aren’t distracted by wondering if this is really Gandhi. With Nehru, I think it’s more difficult. We expect to see intelligence and sophistication but we aren’t really sure what else. IMDB informs me that ‘Robert Ashby’ was born as Rashid Suhrawardy, the son of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, so he has a head start. Jamil Dehlavi did, however, decide to include the alleged liaison between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten (Maria Aitken) and I wasn’t completely convinced by the representation of lover and statesman. This isn’t a failing by the actor and overall everything hangs together very well with Dehlavi’s direction supported by his crew. Nic Knowland the DoP is a veteran with a long list of film and TV credits and I note that he shot the last two Peter Strickland films, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, two notable achievements.
The question for most viewers will be, “What kind of man was Jinnah?” with the corollary being “Is this biopic a hagiography?”. I would say that it can’t be a hagiography since the angel shows Jinnah what he has done and what the consequences (not all good!) have been. On the other hand, the narrative sets out to show that Jinnah was a man of honour and principle and that he did what he thought was the ‘right thing’ in the circumstances. I didn’t have an axe to grind when I started watching, though I was aware that in most British and Indian versions of the story Jinnah feels like the bad guy. After watching the film, I felt that I had learned a few things (about what happened after partition) and that I had a clearer picture of the man himself. You can’t really ask more of a biopic except that it is also entertaining – and I felt that was the case. The film is almost entirely presented in English. Most of the characters would have used English on a regular basis. Jinnah himself had Gujarati as his native tongue but was fluent in English as a barrister who practised law in London.
The extent to which Jinnah is a genuine biopic is debatable. The furthest back we go is to 1916 when Jinnah was 39 years old and meeting the 16 year-old woman who would later become his wife. One of the functions of the 1916 sequence is to reveal the hypocrisy in Jinnah’s approach to ‘mixed marriage’. He wants to marry a Parsee girl but will later forbid his daughter to marry a Parsee. The film is quite prepared to present Jinnah as a complex individual. One of the interesting shifts that I don’t think I’d registered in other films is the way that for the British, Jinnah went from ‘favoured’ status (he was never imprisoned like Nehru or Gandhi) to someone who posed the problem of partition. What might have been explained a little more in the biopic was the way in which Jinnah, who was initially a Congress Party member, decided to withdraw and focus on the Muslim League (he was initially in both organisations).
The Eureka package is widely available at reasonable prices and apart from the lack of extras, I think this is a ‘must have’ for anyone interested in South Asian cinema, the history of India or indeed the performances of Christopher Lee.
This is the trailer from Eureka:
The British Raj over India ended with partition and the creation of two independent states on August 14th/15th 1947. Independence Day is on the 14th in Pakistan and the 15th in India.
Since 1947, the various Indian film industries operating in different languages have collectively become the most productive filmmaking facility in the world with as many as 1,000 films made annually. Pakistan and (after 1971) Bangladesh have been less productive, but still important. On this blog we’ve tried to cover these industries where possible, although the availability of subtitled prints in the UK is still limited outside the Hindi mainstream. The 70th birthday celebrations offer opportunities to see a wider range of South Asian films from various sources.
BFI: India on Film
The British Film Institute has been celebrating Indian Cinema(s) since April in a season that extends to December this year – see the poster above and http://www.bfi.org.uk/india-on-film. Most events and screenings have been in London, but there are also online offerings via BFI Player and on YouTube:
In addition, the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) has put together a collection of film prints (DCPs and Blu-ray/DVD) that can be hired by cinemas. India on Film on Tour includes all kinds of Indian films and at least some should appear at cinemas in every part of the UK. One new Indian film, Hotel Salvation (India 2016) is due for release to selected cinemas in the next few weeks. We’ve seen it and would recommend it highly, especially since the director Shubhashish Bhutiani will be present for a Q&A at some cinemas. It will definitely be playing at HOME in Manchester from 25 August. The BFI FAN Hubs (Film Audience Network) have also awarded funds to certain cinemas to encourage them to show Indian films.
Also coming to HOME is a season entitled Not Just Bollywood, curated by our colleague Omar Ahmed, which runs from 14th to 30th September with a range of films from different Indian film industry contexts and a number of Q&As, discussions and introductions.
There are resources on this blog and on our sister blog globalfilmstudies.com referring to different aspects of Indian film industries and film culture. Over the next few weeks we’ll be referencing some of those blog posts and also adding a few more, so watch this space.
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.