It seems that purgatory is finally over and Pakistani cinema has won over its audience’s hearts and wallets once again. After a string of films that bored and disappointed in equal measure and the embarrassment of one near-release that could be seen but not heard, the future of our floundering film industry looked bleak. But suddenly the sun is shining again as two firm hits have made this September profitable: Nabeel Qureshi’s cheeky boyz-to-men comedy Na Maloom Afraad 2 and Nadeem Baig’s sweeping social romance, Punjab Nahin Jaungi.
Both films have reportedly crossed the Rs100 million mark at the Eid box-office and continue to pull in the punters. Even more promising, they are convincingly varied in genre, boasting distinctive filming styles and approaches to storytelling. And despite the inclusion of a dance choreographer and singers from across the border, the humour and situations are appealingly Pakistani. Happy days are here again!
With NMA 2’s pithy storyline, the conversation in terms of film-making has focused on PNJ. Qureshi’s offering may be slicker and visually more dynamic, but it lacks one thing PNJ has aplenty: heart. While NMA 2 is more about male camaraderie in a foreign location, PNJ is a dreamy tale traversing our own land that tugs at the heartstrings.
Fawad Khagga (Humayun Saeed in a return to form) is a feudal peacock trying to court modern Karachi girl Amal (Mehvish Hayat) who laughs off his advances. I have rarely seen such a blemished hero written for South Asian cinema; so, top marks to scriptwriter Khalilur Rehman. Fawad’s journey is conflicted and real. He is endearing but deeply manipulative, confused and moody as he holds on to the moral codes of the past while his energetic urban wife builds a future for the dairy farm and earns the respect of his feudal family.
Fawad’s flawed notions of masculinity should sound familiar to Pakistani audiences. It’s not too difficult to spot men like him who look for daily homage from a coterie of admiring male friends in Punjab’s feudal backwaters. But Pakistan is changing and so are young Pakistani women who will no longer play second fiddle to heavy-handed husbands. Isn’t it time Fawad Khagga changes too? Perhaps, but it’s likely that he will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the finish line.
The multiple issues that PNJ brings up within a commercial construct will either delight you or trouble you depending on how well you manage to read the film’s finer meanings or how convincingly it has been able to drive its points home. PNJ’s success invites debate and, most certainly, some of it will be contentious, even fiery. Because a film about a lazy feudal and an independent-minded woman finding love in Pakistan was never going to be an easy ride.
In the past few days, I have encountered many friends who have argued about the representation of women in the film. The major bone of contention: a slap that Fawad places firmly across Amal’s face in an argument over his infidelities. A few reviews on major platforms also take offence. Clearly this slap (supposedly the reason Mahira Khan refused the film) has not gone down well. So why, I ask myself as a feminist and long-time proponent of women’s rights, am I not equally nettled?
Let’s address the issue head-on: within the logic of the film, does the slap seem a credible ingredient in the story? I think that it is inessential but not inconsistent. Fawad is a pampered feudal man. In his small world, previous generations have slapped around their wives so he feels he can too. But does the film’s narrative condone this way of thinking?
I speak to Nadeem Baig PNJ’s director, who insists it doesn’t: “The disapproval from the family is palpable. They all side with Amal. There is no space for this sort of behaviour now even in that feudal setting”. He argues that Amal walks out on her husband in response to the slap and her anger is discernible.
In my view, the film does send out a linear message against domestic violence – though it can be argued that it needed to be more clearly underlined in a country where a UN study estimates that up to 50 percent of Pakistani women encounter it regularly. But, equally, should we be demanding that directors convey their messages as manifestos writ large? Should not the way they tell their story rest with them?
Some are evenly outraged that Amal forgives her husband. Here again I don’t get the sense that she concedes unconditionally. She continues to hold on to the talaq nama, hinting it would be utilised it if he errs again – which he well might since navigating a marriage of opposites is a lifelong struggle. Material perhaps for a PNJ part two? But the point here is that Fawad is finally learning how to live with a woman who won’t shut up and put up.
More has also been made about Amal falling in love with Fawad so quickly over a few murabbas of land. I think that is an inaccurate reading of her character: what Amal wants is a man who will ostensibly put her first. She tends to fall for grand gestures. That she forgives Fawad because of his public self-flagellation is consistent with this.
Is this demeaning all women? I don’t think so. Individual characters can have their own defects as long as they aren’t presented as gender-based. Independent-minded women too can nurse romanticised notions. Is this negating Amal as a feminist icon? To be honest, it makes her more real. But I do feel the falling-in-love process should not have been balanced on a singular hook. It leads to misconceptions of materialism and appears rushed.
“I really appreciate when people bring up these points,” says Nadeem Baig. “I’m still a student of cinema. Maybe we didn’t underline the domestic violence theme as effectively as I thought we did. It’s a learning curve. We will improve.”
This is where I think Pakistani cinema has more scope. It is not as limited a medium as television where Pakistani serials are narrow-mindedly written to the specifications of cooking oil advertisers. That PNJ has such strong and varied female characters (Urwa Hocane as a conniving dilettante is a superb foil to Amal) is promising. The fact that female ambition and determination is unequivocally praised, that a woman’s career is projected as a significant part of her life are all positives that we rarely see on the small screen. In balance and context, PNJ is doing more for feminism in films than we have given it credit for.
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon