The third film from the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ offered another change of direction. Saturday Afternoon is written, directed and produced by the Bangladeshi auteur Mostofa Sarwar Farooki in a co-production with Indian and German companies. Farooki has had success with several films in major festivals such as Busan and for this film he had a $500,000 budget and international stars and crew. The 86 minute feature starts with some street scenes on a quiet Saturday in Dhaka during Ramadan. It cuts to a man washing his hands in the washroom of a restaurant bar and from that point a single take is used to explore the tense drama unfolding in the building in which a small group of terrorists are holding hostage the staff and diners. The screenplay is based on/inspired by a real news story from 2016 in which 5 terrorists held hostages in a bakery shop/café resulting in multiple deaths of hostages and terrorists.
The single take shoot by DoP Aziz Zhambakiev (known for several high profile festival films from Central Asia) is not there as a gimmick and instead it is used mainly to keep up the tension as the camera swings around the action. This is a brutal film with the terrorists, who belong to an unnamed Islamist group, separating foreigners and locals and killing at will. The deaths are not shown in detail but we hear the shots and see the bodies being dragged away. Nobody is safe. The gunmen seek out atheists and non-observant Muslims as targets even if they are Bangladeshis.
Hostage dramas are problematic as film narratives if there is little chance of escape for hostages or even for perpetrators. What expectations do audiences have? When the narrative begins the police are already on their way and Farooki decides to end his film before the final shootout. The audience doesn’t know if anyone will survive. This means it makes most sense to discuss the narrative as a ‘hostage procedural’ – what do the gunmen do, how do they do it and why do they do it? Their aim appears to be to get publicity for their cause. They have a leader who is mostly in the background and may be a foreigner. There are three active men dealing with the hostages. One is generally calm, one much louder but seemingly in control, but the third, who speaks only English (?), is close to losing control and shouts loudly. All are killers but some appear more impetuous than others. The Indian Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay plays Polash, the most controlled of the three. They contact the police by forcing a hostage to call her mother who has a police friend. When they pass on their demands to the police they monitor what happens on the TV news. The script is sharp about the use of mobile phones, though I thought I saw a mistake. As well as the three active terrorists there are others in the building guarding entrances/exits.
The second way to think about the narrative is as a stage drama. The single take turns the restaurant into a theatre stage. We wonder if the terrorist leaders will maintain control and eventually we realise that there is a specific sub-plot about saving a hostage who the terrorists seek to identify and kill. This creates a suspense narrative. Will this character be exposed? In this kind of narrative the audience is also asked to consider attitudes and human emotions. What kind of morality is at play? How can the hostages collectively defeat the terrorists? What makes a person willing to sacrifice themselves to save somebody else? I’m sure there must also be questions about Islam and about how Muslims are supposed to behave in situations like this. Killing people because of religious belief (or the lack of belief) is completely bewildering to me. I note that several reviewers have praised the film for its approach:
Through this approach, by highlighting the tragic ridiculousness of the whole terrorist rhetoric, Farooki manages to highlight the benefits of tolerance and education, but at the same time stresses the fact that in the area, guns and not words or thoughts are the ones in command. (Asian Movie Pulse)
I wonder if the film really does highlight tolerance and education? I don’t think we can definitely say the terrorists are ‘uneducated’. When terrorists are prepared to die for a cause it’s very difficult to argue with them. The best strategy would seem to be to tell them very little, to try to distract them without provoking them. Having said that, foreigners are going to be killed anyway and perhaps only the locals who know enough about Islam to second guess the answers to the terrorists’ interrogation stand much chance. According to Deborah Young in her The Hollywood Reporter review:
Unfortunately, [the film] has been banned in Bangladesh on the grounds it could “damage the country’s reputation” and incite religious hatred. The only thing this Bangladesh-Germany co-prod could do to the country’s reputation is improve it, and its plea for religious tolerance is nothing short of touching.
It seems we will struggle to see how the film goes down in Dhaka itself but international reviewers think it works. I’m not sure I could say that I ‘enjoyed’ Saturday Afternoon, but I was certainly impressed by the filmmaking skills and intelligence on display by the cast and crew. As well as Farooki and Zhambakiev I’d also like to pick out two local actors, Zahid Hasan and Nusrat Imrose Tisha as well as the Palestinian actor Eyad Hourani (Omar, Palestine 2013). I’d like to pick out more but this is a film short on info about cast members.
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: